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A Perfectly Diabolical Telescopic Combination: SkyWatcher Pro ED-80 and SkyWatcher EQ-6 Pro Mount

Posted by Max Corneau   01/02/2007 08:03PM

A Perfectly Diabolical Telescopic Combination:  SkyWatcher Pro ED-80 and SkyWatcher EQ-6 Pro Mount
Some people collect shells, I appear to be assembling a telescope collection that, believe it or not, is getting on my wife’s nerves. My astronomical needs (yes they are in fact needs) range from pure Dobsonian visual observing in instructional and public observing settings, to high-end deep sky astrophotography with an SBIG camera. This review concerns a seemingly mismatched package I put together that has proven to be a huge success.

The Plan:

My diabolical plan, after being mobilized by the military and moved to our nation’s capitol (away from dark Texas skies and my 10” LX200 on the wedge) was to sell my trusted and Supercharged (thanks Dr. Clay) ETX-125 to finance a new equipment project. This project was to be a small (80mm) apochromatic refractor on a heavy duty German equatorial mount. The refractor was going to be primarily used for astrophotography with the intended purpose of the mount to support the refractor as well as my 10” Newtonian reflector that is currently configured on a Dobsonian mount. I intend to make this a “convertible” OTA that can be used as a Dobsonian or with the addition of some tube rings and a dovetail plate, placed on the new mount.

After much searching and price/value/performance comparison, I selected to purchase a SkyWatcher ED-80 Pro refractor along with a SkyWatcher EQ-6 Pro German equatorial mount from Naturewatch Telescopes in Canada. The owner Lloyd was understanding about my unusual equipment request and did a fine job assembling just what I wanted and later of battling incompetent UPS shippers and customs agents.

The ED-80 Pro Telescope:

Out of the box, I realized this was a nicely made optical instrument. The OTA was well packaged and fit perfectly inside the silver carrying case. Fit and finish of the OTA are in a word, elegant. The overall gold finish is nicely outlined in white detail. The first thing most owners do to their new refractor is to gently test the focuser action. A smile crossed my face as I moved the “racing wheel” style Crayford focuser through its full range of travel. The smooth focuser moved seamlessly from end to end. Having been advised to upgrade the visual back, I had already purchased a Mercury Systems visual back and merely unscrewed the stock appendage and attaching the Mercury back with compression ring. Not to be overly critical, the stock unit would have sufficed for purely visual observing, but I demanded more and was aware of this design state. One unnecessary concern was over whether the smooth focuser could handle the weight of my SBIG camera and color filter wheel. Although the stock focuser won’t handle the weight at angles above 50 degrees, my solution was to add as many “tensioner bands” as needed to counteract the weight pulling on the focuser. The “tensioner bands” are stored on the barrel of the finder scope and when needed, are affixed to the base of the Mercury visual back on the outboard end and the focuser tension knob on the OTA end. In terms of full disclosure, these are actually the rubber bands that hold a bundle of asparagus. The bands are robust and come in a variety of colors and provide a free, uncomplicated solution to a potentially show-stopping problem. To me, this embodies the “elegant solution.”

First light with the new scope was memorable. My apartment was about a mile from historic Fort Meyer and Arlington National Cemetery so I headed out to the post and set up on historic Sumerall Parade Field where the Wright brothers have flown and dignitaries retired from service to the nation. That night, June 3d 2006 I made the webcam image of Jupiter.

Without any fancy focus tools or exotic equipment, I think this image pretty much speaks for itself. The scope is a true performer even at f/35 thanks to my 5x Televue Powermate. The great red spot and storms are detailed as is the equatorial bands and one of the Gallilean moons. The OTA itself is an f/7.5, 80mm diameter aperture instrument with a 600mm focal length. Generous baffling helps sharpen the image while mitigating stray light rays. The OTA sports a fully multi-coated doublet objective Lens made of single FPL-53 ED fluorite glass. The white tube rings and dovetail that came with the scope are perfectly matched. The finder is equally matched and worked great, exactly the same as the Orion finders. The simplicity of the two-screw adjustment is an excellent design feature.

The EQ-6 Pro Mount:

If planetary views provide the ultimate challenge to a refractor, then long-duration deep sky imaging is the truest test of a mount’s performance. After carefully polar aligning the scope, not even drift aligning, I took the following image of the Orion and Running Man Nebulae. Maximum individual exposure time of this image was 30 minutes in the self-guided SBIG imaging mode. The stars are round after 30-minute exposure time. This mount passed the test using the 80mm refractor.

The mount offers the same fit and finish as the OTA and makes for a perfect aesthetic match. There are some very positive and a few negative things about the mount. One of the most positive attributes of this mount is ease of polar alignment. Although one can use the setting circles to precisely determine local sidereal time and offset, my preferred method is as follows. First, one must download the free program, Polar Finderscope by Jason Dale and set it to local time. Next, follow the instructions to align the illuminated polar finderscope. Align this scope as precisely as possible. Just before you begin your run, even before powering up the scope, run the polar align program and rotate the mount to match the picture on the polar align program with what you see in the mount’s polar finder scope. Center Polaris in the outer circle as carefully as possible and you should have a pretty darn good polar alignment. Generally, I get no star drift until around 5 minutes after performing this alignment procedure. The retractable counterweight shaft is also a nice feature that speeds assembly and setup. More on the counterweight system later. The mount has a nicely placed bubble level that also eases the setup and leveling process. I just hope this bubble doesn’t leak and have to be replaced, as it appears to be a permanent fixture. Pointing accuracy is excellent as is tracking with this mount. In practical terms, after a 2-star alignment using an illuminated 12mm reticle, all targets were placed in the inner 1/3 radius of the reticle eyepiece. The whole thing was nicely packaged and came with a pair of matched pancake counterweights (11 pounds each). This head weighs a stout 51.7 pounds sans counterweights and tripod so be prepared to lug it.

A few adverse attributes of the mount exist, but they can be worked around or do not significantly degrade performance. The user’s manual is, either poorly written, or badly translated from Chinese. However, there are numerous Yahoo groups to support the new user so the lack of coherent reference material is easily overcome. The tripod seems under-rated for such a robust mount advertised at handling OTA loads of up to 40 pounds. Although my 5.7 pound ED-80 refractor does not even begin to approach the weight limits of this system, it just appears that the mount should have a stauncher tripod. Digging even deeper into the tripod, why in the world would the legs have a sharp point on the end? I tend to set up on improved concrete pads at our club’s site, or in my driveway. I have had to resort to placing the legs on wooden planks to avoid unnecessary vibration. Perhaps the manufacturer wants the new EQ-6 user to purchase anti-vibration cups for the legs. The 1.8cm counterweight shaft is too short to support heavier applications. Although only one pancake is needed to achieve balance with the 80mm refractor and the SBIG camera. In order to achieve balance with my 10” Newtonian, I would need four of the large pancake counterweights stacked on the short shaft. My workaround to the short shaft was to order a shaft extension from Ken Dauzat. This item is due to arrive in a few days and I’m eagerly awaiting using the f/4.7 10” Newt on this mount. Although I understand it’s astrophotographic use may be limited to extremely calm nights, it’s worth having a mount that can support a variety of telescopes. That was and remains my diabolical plan. The mount emulates a Celestron NexStar 5. My first night with the SBIG self-guiding camera, I connected the mount to the camera and communicated without a hitch.

The SynScan Hand Controller:

The brains behind this go to system is the SynScan hand controller. Out of the box I was disappointed with the controller because the LCD display was actually offset from center so badly that I could not read the last display digit. I took the controller apart and fixed it but this should not have passed the quality control folks. Unfortunately, my purchase included the version 2 SynScan controller which is performing adequately but lacks features such as PEC memory and synch functionality. The greatest downfall of this version controller is that its firmware cannot be upgraded. The good news for those contemplating a SynScan purchase is that the version 3 and above controllers solve all these problems and are upgradeable. In terms of two-star versus three-star alignment, I believe the only major difference is that three-star alignments account for cone error. My cone error is very slight so I do a two-star alignment. Alignment is intuitive, so long as you know your alignment stars because they are presented in alphabetical order rather than best alignment order. This is a criticism.

In summary:

This system satisfies all of my needs and exceeds expectations. In practical terms of price/performance it is less expensive than the same system carrying the Orion label but comes from the same factory. The only difference between the Orion label and the Sky
Watcher Pro products appears to be lower price and better fit and finish on the SkyWatcher Pro.