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The Orion StarBlast: Silly Little Telescopes Need Love Too

Posted by Rod Mollise   07/07/2004 12:00AM

The Orion StarBlast: Silly Little Telescopes Need Love Too
StarBlast. StarBlast? What a silly name for a telescope. And, in truth, the Orion StarBlast, a tiny 4.5 inch f/4 dobsonian reflector, looks like a silly little telescope with its metal-flake-green tube perched on its miniature single-arm dobsonian mount. We’ve seen plenty of kids’ scopes like this - and that is how Orion is promoting the StarBlast - come and go over the years, and none has been of much interest to rank and file amateurs. This one seemed different, though. I began hearing that the StarBlast was not just a kids’ scope, but a handy, portable instrument of surprising power. Over on the Talking Telescopes Yahoogroup, Phil Harrington and Geoff Gaherty, two observers whose opinions I respect highly, weren’t just recommending the little thing, they were enthusing about it.

Did I need one? That was difficult to answer. Who really needs an eleventh or twelfth scope in the house? Still, I could see how one might be useful. I’d been looking for a grab'n go scope (don’t tell me you’re sick of that cliché) to replace my four year old 80mm f/5 Short Tube 80. The ST80 does a nice job in that role, but I had been keeping my eye out for a quick-look telescope that could give me somewhat better views of the Moon and planets than the 80, which gets “colorful” at much over 100X. Even so, I didn’t really set out to buy a StarBlast. It just happened.

Thanks to the good folks at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird, I found myself in possession of a fifty-dollar gift certificate. OK, OK, not just “in possession of.” It was burning a hole in my pocket. What to buy, what to buy? That was the question. Then my friend and observing buddy, Pat Rochford, reminded me that I’d been mumbling about the StarBlast off and on for a while, and that Anacortes is an Orion dealer. Why not? Combining the gift certificate with the StarBlast’s already low price meant I just couldn’t lose if the scope performed half as well as I’d been hearing it did.

The StarBlast was out of stock when I ordered, but it arrived in a surprisingly short time, a testament to Anacortes’ always-good service. It was waiting for me on my doorstep when I arrived home one cloudy Friday afternoon. And what’s better than a weekend and a new scope to play with? Maybe a clear weekend on which to play with that new telescope. Whether I could use it or not, though, at least I could look at it, and I was soon tearing into the StarBlast’s packaging.

I was surprised at the size of the box, which is necessitated by the fact that the telescope is shipped fully assembled. All I had to do was open the box, pull the telescope out, remove the OTA from its simple tube ring via a single bolt (which is, unfortunately, not a captive one), peel-off the tube’s protective paper wrap, replace the scope on its mount, attach the finder, and the new toy was basically ready to go.

Initial impressions? Sure, the StarBlast has got its share of plastic, including the focuser and tube end rings, but what do you expect for its miniscule price? The little scope is sturdy where it counts, and it’s got a decent primary cell (collimatable via nice, big push-pull bolt pairs) and a real, adjustable spider/secondary support.

The 1.25 inch rack and pinion focuser, while plastic, works better than what’s been seen on some of Synta’s earlier less expensive telescopes (the StarBlast, like most of Orion’s current offerings is manufactured by Synta on the Chinese Mainland). This rack and pinion job is most assuredly far better than the cheesy rubber-roller focuser of the Edmund Astroscan. Yes, it does have a liberal dollop of that infamous Chinese “glue grease” (somebody please tell me this stuff ain’t really made from ground-up weasels), but, despite that, it works smoothly and supports an eyepiece as heavy as a TeleVue 22mm Panoptic without complaint.

How well did the scope move? That’s always the question with a dob, isn’t it? Why give up an equatorial mount and drives except for the buttery motions of the perfect dobsonian? The StarBlast’s altitude motion is elegantly smooth thanks to a bearing-race. In addition to the ball bearings, the altitude axis also sports a tension-adjustment knob that virtually eliminates balance problems, and is far more effective than the spring arrangements found on some of the older, larger Synta dobsonians. This system makes the single-arm dob mount we’ve seen unsuccessfully implemented on several small scopes in recent years workable and practical. How about the StarBlast’s azimuth motion? Not so hotsky. Smooth enough, but far too stiff. It was immediately obvious that it would have to be seen-to if the scope were to be used for serious observing.

Appearance-wise, the StarBlast is quite attractive, not looking toy-like at all. The rolled-steel tube’s bluegreen paintjob is nicely executed and not as garish as it looks in some of the scope’s catalog pictures. The dob mount is finished with a satin-black laminate of some kind, and appears quite durable. In addition to a convenient metal rack for three eyepieces, the rocker box/arm has a cut-out meant to serve as a carrying handle. Construction quality is high, and though the StarBlast is obviously made of cheap materials, it doesn’t look cheap at all. Everything fits together well, and I believe any child or adult would be proud to own it.

What’s in the box besides the scope and mount? You’ll find a competent if not perfect instruction book. It’s fairly well done as imported scope manuals go, with the only area that needs clarification being the collimation instructions. In the section that concerns primary mirror adjustment, the writer neglects to explain that tightening the mirror locking screws when you’re finished will change the collimation set by the adjustment screws. These lock screws must be tightened carefully and sequentially to maintain collimation. Those of us who have used push-pull cells before won’t be bothered, but a novice/child will be if she attempts collimation. This is really not a huge criticism of Orion, as I have never seen a perfect--or even really good--telescope manual. Ever.

Also lurking in the big box is one of those little collimation “caps”--you know, an inexpensive, plastic Cheshire substitute. Worked fine for tweaking-in the scope’s optical alignment, which was only a little off, and this collimation tool, whose inside surface is coated with a reflective material, is luxurious compared to the 35mm-film-can-with-a-hole-in-it that many novices resort to.

The Chinese scope factories are spitting out eyepieces, decent eyepieces, in ever-increasing torrents. Due to this flood of cheap but good oculars, it’s no longer surprising that the average imported 8 inch reflector comes equipped with not one, but two or even three eyepieces. What a huge change from the early 90s, when you were lucky to get a single 25mm Kellner with any telescope, no matter how expensive. I was still surprised, though, to fish two eyepieces out of the StarBlast’s packaging. How can they afford to do that for this price? Volume, volume, volume, I guess. What I found in the plastic baggie was two Orion “Explorer” eyepieces. Years ago, these were Kellners and Orthoscopics, and they appear to still be Kellners and Orthoscopics, a 17mm and a 6mm, respectively. They work as well as their designs will permit in a fast scope like this f/4 baby, which is likely to be more than acceptable for newbies. You and me? We’ll relegate ‘em to that drawer labeled “The Land of Unloved Eyepieces.”

Even a low power wide-field telescope needs a finder of some kind, and Orion takes care of that for the StarBlast with its zero-power “EZ Finder II,” a red-dot LED “BB gun” style sight, which is affixed to the OTA via a plastic single-stalk mount.

Finally, there’s a CD ROM containing Level I, Version 5 of Software Bisque’s The Sky computer planetarium program. The Sky has enough stars and deep sky objects to be useful, and can print legible star charts. This is a genuinely nice addition to the StarBlast package, as even this basic version of the program will allow novices access to charts that go considerably deeper than the 6th magnitude print atlases many of them mistakenly buy the first time around. The StarBlast is a capable enough scope that it needs something more detailed than Norton’s for fruitful deep sky exploring.

The first order of business in getting this scope ready for its first observing run? Finding a way to mount the scope at a convenient height. You see, even when pointed at the zenith the StarBlast’s eyepiece is all of 22 inches off the ground. Tables and barstools are workable—or at least bearable--solutions, but Orion’s assertion that the scope can be used “on the ground,” just like a full-grown dob, is insanely silly. The tiny mount places the eyepiece too far too low for even a three year old child. Might be nice for GI Joe, but that’s about it.

So, I needed to do something about the azimuth axis and build or buy some kind of a “StarBlast support.” I had plenty of time to think about both subjects, since the arrival of the telescope was immediately followed by weeks of rain. New scope curse? I’m a believer! Before the weather finally cleared-off on one beautiful July evening, I had gone nearly two weeks without being able to try-out my new telescope - what torture!

How did this Silly Little Scope perform under the summer Milky Way? What’s the verdict, cutting-to-the-chase-wise? I won’t keep you in suspense. What Phil, Geoff and most other users have said about this scope is completely true. It's a surprisingly good performer and an extremely good buy.

Rather than taking First Light in my heavily light-polluted urban backyard, I lugged the scope over to Pat Rochford's house across Mobile Bay in the wilds of Fairhope, Alabama. Not only are there fewer streetlights there by a large margin (the Milky Way can still be seen on a good night), I wanted Pat to give the scope the once-over. Heck, I ain't exactly a dob guy, as most of y’all know.

Pat was rather impressed by the scope, but, just as I had, he thought the azimuth “wasn’t right.” Disassembling the mount by removing the pivot bolt’s locknut revealed that the base needed a little more shimming at the pivot bolt. Pat added an additional washer he cut from heavy paper and, voila! What a difference. The scope immediately displayed the easy and wonderfully smooth motion so desired by dobsonian fanciers. The altitude axis on this scope is, as I said, very well thought out, and it would have taken only little more work and one thin washer to make the scope's motions close to perfect. Why didn't Synta/Orion take this tiny last step? Go figure.

I’d been thinking about supports I could build for the StarBlast, but I’m all thumbs and liable to lose those thumbs to the hammer any time I look cross-eyed at a piece of lumber, so I was happy to take Pat up on his offer to build me a “StarBlast Stand.” In three hours, he had put together a scope platform that's not just effective, but also attractive. It resembles a speaker's podium, but with a flat triangular "top" with three shallow, partially drilled holes to accept the telescope’s "footsies" (see the photo). In addition to the expenditure of Pat's time and talent, the stand only cost 20 dollars (for a 2 x 4 foot piece of birch-veneer plywood and a 6 foot length of 1 x 3 inch lumber). The StarBlast Stand is very light and rides nicely in the backseat of my Toyota Camry.

Work done, we hauled the little scope down to Pat's observatory and waited for dark. Just at twilight, I noticed Jupiter about to sink below an obstacle, and sent the StarBlast over that way in a hurry. I was genuinely pleased with what the little guy did at 150X. Though collimation was not dead-on and seeing not great, I could see more detail than is usually easily visible in the Short Tube 80. Old Jove was for sure much better than I’ve seen him in most Edmund Astroscans. Much better. Based on Jupiter’s appearance and what I could make out from a star test on this evening of fairly poor seeing, the StarBlast’s parabolic f/4 primary is well-figured.

Vega was now visible in the east, so I put it in the field, aligned the red dot finder, and fine-tuned the primary mirror adjustment screws by observing the appearance of the star’s diffraction rings when I threw it slightly out of focus. Didn’t take much twiddling, but I wanted the scope’s optical alignment to be as close to perfect as I could get it. Precise collimation is critical for good image quality in an f/4 Newtonian if you intend to use magnifications much over 100X.

Astronomical Twilight finally arrived, and there was no time to waste. We'd have little more than an hour before a fat Moon rose. Eyepieces? I mostly used inexpensive Chinese wide-fields, those made by Synta and sold by Orion and Adorama. These “Ultra Wides” seemed in keeping with the fun, inexpensive spirit of the scope, and most of my top-of-the-line oculars are either 2 inchers or, like the 12mm Nagler, a wee bit heavy for the StarBlast, anyway.

I couldn't resist trying my 22mm Panoptic in the little scope, but the results were not encouraging. Pat and I noted that star images started becoming comatic when they were little more than 50% of the way to the edge of the eyepiece’s field. We'd noticed the same effect before with 22mm and 19mm Pans in Pat's own home-brew 4.25 inch f/4 scope (a work of art). Apparently, Panoptics don't deal well with a high-speed optical system without a coma corrector. Naglers? We did use the new 13 and...well...more on that later.

In addition to wanting a grab 'n go that would do a bit better on the planets than the ST80 refractor, I also wanted one that would be capable of at least partially resolving the brighter globular star clusters from decent skies. With the exceptions of M22 and Omega Centauri, the 80 f/5 has a hard time with these objects. At high power, M13 looks grainy, as if it "wants" to resolve, but that is it. Now, admittedly, despite its fame, M13 is not an easy nut to crack for a small scope, so I was curious to see what the StarBlast would do with it. At 65X with the 6mm Ultra Wide, it displayed that same grainy almost-resolved look as in the 80. Boosting the magnification to 130X with a barlow, however, put me in grab 'n go heaven. No, M13 was not resolved to the core, but there were plenty of stars visible around the edges.

What next? Serpens’ globular, M5. Zoomed the little feller over that way, and there it was in the 15mm Ultra Wide. I'm not a huge fan of red-dot finders like the EZ Finder II - unlike the Telrad, they don’t seem very precise to me. But the EZ Finder was highly effective when coupled with a wide field scope at low power. Of course, with its huge low power fields, just getting the StarBlast in the general area of the target was usually enough for a seasoned star-hopper (and I guess I am still that, despite a couple of years of gotoing) to hit almost any object with ease. These big fields make main-eyepiece-hopping trivial, too. Anyhoo, yes, M5 was spectacular, showing considerably more resolution than M13. From there, I visited as many old faves as I could think of. "Minimalist astronomy" like this has always appealed to me, and I was shortly havin' a ball.

M10 and M12. These supposed "twin" globs in Ophiuchus (which look nothing alike), were excellent, both showing nice resolution at 130X.

M107. It was there, but not much more.

M56. Same, same. 'Bout what I'd expect from this loose, subdued globular. It cries out for 10 - 12 inches of aperture under any sky conditions.

M51. Surprised myself by getting it smack in the field center on the first try. The cores of both galaxies were quite easy, with some obvious haze surrounding M51's center. A novice would have had a hard time deciding what she was looking at, though.

M8. Beautiful, with the "lagoon" dark lane and plenty of nebulosity on view. The involved (via our line of sight) open cluster was impressive.

M71. This odd globular (?) cluster was visible with ease and there were some stars winking in and out when I resorted to averted vision. Didn't look bad, and I've seen it worse with larger scopes from slightly poorer skies (we were now seeing the Milky Way with fair ease).

M27. This planetary, the Dumbbell Nebula, looks good in any scope, and, while it did not look like it does in my C11, it was attractive in the StarBlast, with the Dumbbell shape easy to make-out.

M22. This monstrous globular was now peeping over the trees, so it was next-up. Despite being low, it was fine and significantly improved over its appearance in the 80mm under similar conditions, with plenty of stars resolved across its highly elongated globe.

M17. How do you make this look bad in any scope? You can't. It was very good in the StarBlast, showing off its swan-shape easily. I tried an OIII filter, and, while that did bring out more nebulosity (in the 6mm Synta), I thought the view was more attractive "without."

M11. Like the Swan, how do you make the Wild Duck look anything less than spectacular? This flock of tiny, tiny stars was beautiful in the 9mm Ultra Wide.

M7. Remember me mentioning the 13mm Nagler? Well, it looks like I'll be buying one. Or wanting to, anyway. When I had M7 in the field, Pat suggested that we see what the 13mm would do for this big open cluster. MAN alive! Pinpoint star almost to the extreme edge of the field! What a surprise that was, considering how relatively poorly the Panoptics had performed.

M29. This ain't the most spectacular Messier, but the Gamma Cygni area makes for a lovely view. M29's little dipper asterism was set in an incredibly rich field.

At this point, Pat and I decided to take a quick break to cool off (the temperature down here will often remain in the mid 80s long after dark), get something to drink, and escape the mosquitoes for a few minutes. After a little while I crowed, "Let's go get the Veil!"

Alas, ‘twas not to be. We stepped out into the backyard and---what was that in the trees to the southeast? "Dang...forgot about that old Moon!" No Veil tonight. We finished-off the evening with looks at Albireo, which is just as beautiful set against a gray background as against a black one.

Final thoughts on the StarBlast? After curing its azimuth problem, it worked great mechanically and optically. Just got out of the way and let me view the deep sky. The focuser is not perfect, but after I adjusted to the experience of focusing an f/4 Newt--quite different from focusing an f/10 SCT--it was fine. The little eyepiece rack on the side of the scope is a nice thought, and it was very convenient, but our dew problems will make it useless on most nights. The StarBlast is slightly heavier than it looks, but it should be easily manageable by adults and older children.

Great night. Wish y'all had been there!

Click here for more about the Orion StarBlast Astro Telescope. -Ed.