Curing Uncle Rod’s Shakes

Posted by Rod Mollise   11/25/2014 08:00AM

Curing Uncle Rod’s Shakes

Well, his telescope’s shakes, anyhow. In some ways, today’s imported telescope tripods are surprisingly good. Particularly the ubiquitous Chinese 2-inch diameter steel legged jobs. Sadly, however, almost all have a weak link. Their spreaders are pitiful. Small plastic or metal deals that don’t do their job. Oh, they hold the legs apart, but they do little to help stabilize the tripod, which should be a major function of a tripod spreader.

They not only don’t help strengthen the tripod, those that are also supposed to serve as accessory trays are too small for that, and some, like Celestron’s SCT tripod spreaders, don’t incorporate accessory trays into their designs at all. I don’t want to put eyepieces on an accessory tray (because of dew), but I do want a place, a shelf, for the mount power supply, the DewBuster dew heater power supply, batteries, the DewBuster controller, and stuff like that.

A couple of years ago, I thought salvation was at hand. Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center) began advertising a larger accessory tray/spreader for the Synta mounts including the EQ6 (Atlas).  At 50 bucks, It seemed a little pricey for something that looked on the cheaply made side, but it resembled the big tripod spreader (no longer available) a buddy of mine bought for his CG5 tripod years ago, which I thought was the feline’s meow.

That spreader enabled his German equatorial mount to handle a C11 tube far better than I would ever have believed possible. I’d been on the lookout for something similar for years, and thought I had found it. I didn't really need to improve my CG5 tripod, since I only put C8s or lighter scopes on it, but my Atlas EQ6 mount was another story.

With the Atlas, the tripod is indeed the weakest link. The mount is inherently sturdy and capable, but its big, heavy GEM head is too much for the tripod, mainly because the small Synta spreader isn’t hefty enough. The tripod’s stability is not crazy bad, but it is bad enough that it doesn't allow the Atlas to live up to its full potential, especially with heavier OTAs. So off to Orion went my credit card number.

Alas, I reckon I didn't read the fine print. When the thing arrived, I found it wasn’t really a spreader at all. It was just a larger accessory tray you bolted onto the original, small spreader that comes with the Synta tripods. It did provide more room for my stuff, and that was nice, but it did nothing to improve stability. It’s been relegated to the CG5 and is nice enough on that mount.

After that, I purty much gave up on the idea of strengthening the Atlas’ tripod. Oh, I occasionally thought about fabricating something from plywood, but y'all know how dangerous I am with a hammer and saw. There things stood till I got an email from Dave Yates, the owner and head honcho of TPI, Telescope Performance Improvements (, who had, he told me, a product that would cure my tripod woes…

The arrival of the TPI spreader and tray on a February afternoon coincided, believe it or not, with a stretch of clear skies. I’d been planning to haul the Atlas out to the dark site that coming weekend for some imaging, including of a supernova that had appeared in galaxy M99, with one of my C8s and my Mallincam Xtreme deep sky video camera. So, I immediately set about getting the TPI spreader and equipment shelf out of their box and onto the Atlas’ tripod.

If there’s a criticism I can level against the TPI gear, it’s just that you might feel funny attaching an Astro-Physics/Takahashi quality piece of kit to your plebeian Synta tripod. But that’s OK. The Atlas really is a quality mount and deserves quality accessories and the TPI stuff sure is that.

The spreader is made of lovely CNC machined aluminum, and the accessory tray is also very beautifully made. There’s a sheaf of instructions, but they are almost unnecessary. Installation consists of bolting the tripod leg clamp rings to the spreader and then clamping each of the three rings to the tripod legs. Everything is precisely made and fastened with stainless steel hardware. I got ‘er done in about 10-minutes.

How much would the spreader help? Only a session under the stars with the Atlas would tell that tale, but when I applied torsional stress to the legs, I could already see the tripod was sturdier. With the spreader extended (it folds to allow you to collapse the tripod as per normal), I attached the accessory shelf, which took all of ten seconds thanks to a nice knob-headed bolt that fastens tray to spreader with a small clamp.

Saturday morning brought with it—naturally—dadgummed clouds despite all the weather services predicting clear skies, and I figured I was skunked. Wouldn’t be the first time. When you live down on the Gulf of Mexico coast, you have to get used to your best-laid astronomy plans being thwarted. Amazingly, though, as sundown approached, the clouds began to disperse: “Well, I’ll be gull-derned. The Clear Sky Clock and Scope Nights got it right for once.”

The trip west to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site, a small country airstrip that shuts down at night, was uneventful. There was heavy traffic on Airport Boulevard as is usual on a Saturday afternoon, but it would almost have been a pleasant drive if I hadn’t suddenly realized I’d forgot a critical piece of gear.

As I was tooling along listening to the Tammy Wynette Channel on the cotton-picking Sirius XM radio, it came to me that I’d left my little Orion StarShoot digital video recorder sitting on the dining room table. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to record any of my video and would have nothing to show for the evening’s imaging.  Go back home and get it? I was already halfway to the site and had no desire to turn around and re-navigate the traffic that was filling Airport Boulevard as more and more Possum Swampers began to flock to the restaurants, clubs, and Mall on Saturday P.M.

So, what would I do? What would I do? If I got M99’s supernova on the monitor, I could snap a screenshot with my iPhone. It wouldn’t be great, but it might be OK. I’d devote the evening to just looking with the video camera and testing the TPI spreader. Feeling a little better, I continued onward to the dark site to the accompaniment of Miss Kitty Wells and “God Didn’t Make Honky Tonk Angels.”

I learned my lesson, y’all. Running the gear load-out by a checklist has meant I haven’t forgotten anything major for a star party trip in a long time. Then and there, I pledged to start using the same checklist for my local observing runs.

At the site, I was not surprised to be all by my lonesome—I wasn’t even visited by the airstrip’s friendly tomcat. There was a bright gibbous Moon flying high and most of my PSAS compadres probably didn't think it would be a very deep sky friendly night. Actually, it was probably a good thing I was alone anyway.

I was put out about having forgotten the DVR, and it felt like the cold I was coming down with was getting worse. I tried to film a little video of the TPI setup with my iPhone, but that was scotched by the first of many coughing fits. To put it succinctly, your old Unk was in a MOOD, and was best left all by his lonesome.

Despite that, set up went smoothly; the TPI spreader didn't cause any heartburn at all. Push down on the spreader to open the tripod, position the shelf, fiddle with its clamp for a minute, and I was done. On the tripod went the Atlas GEM head, the counterweight, and the Edge 800 Schmidt Cassegrain, and I was done save for mounting the camera, cabling everything up, and doing the Atlas’ goto alignment.

How was I feeling when I was finished? Not so hotsky, but at least I was warm enough in a sweater and a light nylon jacket—maybe too warm. There was little doubt in my formerly military mind I was getting sick and would have stayed home if’n I’d had any sense. “Oh, well, good thing I don’t have any sense.”

Alrighty, then. Target One. I mashed the buttons on the hand control to send the mount to Lepus’ little globular cluster, M79, and away we went. When the goto slew was done, the little glob was dang near dead center on the screen and looking OK, if not great. I had forgotten how bright the Moon will make the sky background in Mallincam images, but a little playing with gamma and gain settings reduced it to a bearable level. With a surprisingly good-looking glob on the monitor, it was time to evaluate the TPI spreader’s effectiveness.

As I was focusing up on M79’s teeny-tiny stars, I noted a distinct absence of The Shakes in 2-second exposures. The Atlas and the relatively light C8 are quite steady even without the TPI, but I can always generate star trails by tweaking focus. With the TPI in place? No Shakes. Just round stars as I focused. OK, Mr. Smarty Pants. Let’s see how you like this. I fetched the scope a good whack on her rear cell. Hated to do it, but this was SCIENCE. The result? Amazingly, still no star trails. Folks, I don’t want to overdo it, but if you own an Atlas, you want the TPI spreader. It just makes a difference.

You probably want the TPI accessory tray, too. Even if, unlike Unk, you don’t feel the need for a place to stash stuff, I believe loading it down with your jump-start batteries like I did on this night also adds to the steadiness of the set up. Sorta like the old trick we used to do with too light mounts and tripods: hang a water-filled milk jug from the tripod head.

That is the extent of the “good” concerning Unk’s video run, however. Not long after I finished admiring M79 on the monitor, the pilot light on the Atlas began blinking, which is a sure sign the battery is getting low. Way low. I thought I’d charged that dang thing last week—which is what I got for thinking. Not wanting to run the battery all the way down to ground zero and potentially damage it, I threw the big switch and began packing everything back in the truck.

On the way home, I was in something of a snit over my much-abbreviated observing run. Back at Chaos Manor South sitting in front of the television set with a tumbler of Kentucky’s best bourbon whiskey, Rebel Yell, however, I began to warm up, my throat stopped feeling so scratchy, and I was able to be philosophical about my misbegotten evening. At the price of worsening my lousy cold, I had verified that I had improved the Atlas’ stability.

If you fancy mounting a larger OTA on your Atlas (or your CG5 or your VX—TPI has spreaders for those and other mounts too), I won’t hesitate to point you at the TPI setup. Like me, you will probably be amazed at how much a simple thing like a tripod spreader can do to reduce those dadblasted shakes. It helped with the C8 and will be an even bigger deal for my C11.

I am now old and decrepit enough that I have a hard time convincing myself to set up my fork mount NexStar 11 SCT. I love the telescope and want to use it, but it’s too much. It’s time to get it on an easier to manage GEM mount.  Previously, I figured that would mean a new GEM mount. Given the improvement wrought by the TPI spreader, however, I now believe I can use the mount I have, the Atlas, with the C11 and not have to spend mucho dineros. You can bet that warms the cockles of your parsimonius old Uncle’s withered little heart, muchachos.