Outdoors / Buying Guide

Sky-Watcher: Peeking at the Stars

         

When you’re ready to take your astrophotography to new dimensions, you’re likely going to need optical tubes and mounts specifically designed for what you want to accomplish. While other brands, such as Celestron, are household names in the industry, there is a lesser-known brand that specializes in purpose-built gear for astronomers and imagers who require precision equipment: Sky-Watcher.

Mounts

Star Adventurer

Since Sky Watcher is primarily geared toward astrophotographers, it should come as no surprise that the company offers a photo rig. The Star Adventurer photo package is an easy-to-use equatorial mount that offers accurate tracking capabilities for time-lapse and long-exposure wide-field astrophotography. With a simple turn of a dial you can select Lunar, Solar, or Star tracking modes—or four speeds from 0.5x to 12x if the preset modes aren’t exactly right. This isn’t a GoTo mount, so some basic knowledge of astro-navigation is required to use it properly, but this relatively low-cost mount will give you the capability for capturing some great images of both near and deep-sky objects. An integrated Polar Alignment Scope with an included illuminator helps the alignment process in the Northern or Southern hemispheres, and a date dial compensates for star drift over time to extend the usability of the scope.


Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Motorized Mount Photo Package
 

Included with the Star Adventurer is a ball-head adapter with a 3/8"-16 screw to mount a photo ball head to adapt it for use with a DSLR camera. A 2.5mm three-segment jack is integrated into the mount and gives the mount the ability to control a compatible DSLR's shutter release for long-exposure or time-lapse photography. Pre-programmed intervals, based on the tracking mode selected, optimize the exposure times for the subjects selected. The mount features a Vixen-style dovetail saddle for compatible accessories and optical tube assemblies, and it has 3.8"-16 and 1/4"-20 tripod mounts that will fit on most astronomical, photo, or video tripods. Since it is sold as just a mount, you’ll need to provide your own support system.

Virtuoso

Sky-Watcher designed the Virtuoso mount for panorama and time-lapse imaging using a DSLR, point-and-shoot camera, or even a smartphone. The adjustable tracking speeds, definable GoTo positions, and input ports make the image capture functions user friendly yet loaded with enough features to perform a diverse range of tasks. A shutter-release input and included shutter cable for Canon EOS cameras enable automatic triggering by the Virtuoso, with other optional shutter releases for a wide range of camera manufacturers available if you don’t shoot with Canon. The six-pin communication port can further broaden the functionality of the mount by integrating a compatible GoTo hand controller that has a pre-loaded object database.


Sky-Watcher Virtuoso Computerized Multi-Purpose Mount Kit 
 

Dual-axis motor encoders equip the mount’s DC servos for computerized altitude and azimuth control, as well as manual adjustment, while maintaining latitude alignment. A built-in latitude scale allows the operator to align the mount based on their position in either hemisphere and store their latitude position using the mount's internal memory. The included Maksutov-Cassegrain optical tube features a 1250mm f/13.9 lens system and a full complement of accessories; including a 1.25" star diagonal, 5x24 finderscope, two eyepieces, and a full-aperture solar filter. This optical tube and accessory kit supplement the Virtuoso's digital imaging features, making this multi-purpose mount ready for both astronomical observation and astrophotography.

EQ6 GoTo Equatorial Mount

This mount offers you just about everything you’ll need for any astronomical use (except for an OTA), including: dual stepper servo motors, the SynScan computer hand controller, a stainless-steel adjustable tripod, and built-in illuminated polar scope. For precise tracking, as required during long-exposure astrophotography or observation sessions, the EQ6 has the capability for you to program the Periodic Error Correction (PEC) common to all worm gears. With a maximum payload capacity of up to 40 lb, this mount is ideal for most medium to large refractor, reflector, or catadioptric OTAs and it will still be able to handle imaging rigs. The mount features a dual mounting plate that is compatible with Vixen-style dovetail saddles or the larger Losmandy-style.


Sky-Watcher EQ6 GoTo Equatorial Mount
 

The SynScan hand controller system has an internal database of 42,900 celestial objects including the complete Messier, NGC, and IC catalogs plus 25 user-defined objects. To keep it current, its firmware is updatable through the built-in serial port via updates downloaded through the Internet. Using the same computer connection, the SynScan can be controlled with many popular astronomy software systems for additional versatility. With multiple alignment options, ten slew speeds, and automatic tracking capabilities, finding and keeping objects centered in the field of view is easy, whether you're viewing the fast-moving Moon or much slower deep-space subjects.

The heavy-duty tripod has a center stabilizer bar that allows users to lock the accessory tray into the legs to provide additional stabilization and vibration reduction; while spiked feet give the tripod a sure-footing in rough, uneven, and soft ground. With a total weight of 77 lb, including the two 11-lb counterweights, this mount and tripod provide a strong and sturdy platform for most of your astronomical observation and imaging needs.

Optical Tube Assemblies

Refractors

Sky Watcher offers a broad range of OTAs to match your interests. First, let’s look at the company’s ProED line of refractors and give you a brief overview of their similarities. These Apochromatic OTAs all feature extra low-dispersion glass so the images will have high contrast and improved color fidelity with almost no fringing or distortion. As I explain in my comprehensive Telescope Buying Guide, Refractors offer the best option for astrophotography, optically speaking, and Sky Watcher has apertures from 80mm up to 120mm. All of them can be bought as just the OTA for use with other mounts, or you can pick up a bundle with the 80mm OTA and All-View mount. These OTAs might seem a bit “slow” between f/7.5 and f/9 but, with a precision mount, you’ll be able to use long exposures easily, and since the Moon and planets are bright (relative to deep sky objects), you’ll still be able to draw in a lot of light. Depending on the model, you’ll get either a 2" rack-and-pinion or Crayford focusers.


Sky-Watcher Pro80ED 80mm f/7.5 Apochromatic Refractor Telescope with AllView Mount
 

Newtonian Reflectors

Keeping with a more compact form factor are the Quattro Newtonian reflectors. This line has been specifically designed and engineered for imaging with super-fast focal ratios set right at f/3.9, so light makes a quick trip from mirror to sensor for maximum capture without much time to be dispersed. Currently sold just with the OTA, the Quattro are offered in three aperture sizes: 8, 10, and 12"—they come with dual-speed Crayford focusers for precision focusing ability. The eight- and ten-inch models have 2" drawtubes, while the 12-inch has a massive 3" tube that won’t cause vignetting when using gear with larger image sensors. Mounting tube rings allow you to adjust the position of the OTA relative to the mounting plate to enable better eyepiece placement and balancing when using photo or imaging rigs.


Sky-Watcher 12" f/3.93 Quattro Imaging Newtonian Telescope (OTA Only)
 

Maksutov-Cassegrains

Similar to their more well-known Schmidt cousins, the Maksutov-Cassegrain OTA configuration exchanges the Schmidt’s front corrector plate with a convex meniscus lens, which not only eliminates the need for periodic collimation, but the nature of the lens requires a smaller secondary mirror, which limits obstruction and increases contrast. The Mak-Cass optical path results in a slower focal ratio and narrower field of view versus a similar Schmidt-Cass, but the optical benefits make this OTA style an ideal scope for planetary and double-star observation and imaging—especially if you’re planning on carrying it any kind of distance where size and weight need to be a consideration. The compact nature of the OTA allows for long focal lengths and large apertures in highly portable packages. Sky-Watcher’s line of Mak-Cass’ start at a 90mm (3.5") f/13.8 and go up to large 180mm (7") f/15 powerhouses. Smaller models come with the ubiquitous 1.25" eyepiece holder and star diagonal, while the larger versions sport 2" holders and diagonals to support equipment with larger sensors. With their eyepieces set in the back of the OTA, they focus not by moving a draw tube, but by adjusting the primary mirror through the use of a screw system. When using heavy gear, be mindful of this delicate focusing mechanism and try not to overload it with excessive or extraneous add-ons – keep it to the essentials.


Sky-Watcher 5" f/12.1 Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope (OTA Only)
 

Maksutov-Newtonian

Sky-Watcher offers just one version of this OTA style. The 7.5" f/5.3 model features a hybrid optical path that combines the parabolic mirror of a Newtonian with the front corrector plate of a Maksutov to create an optic that corrects for spherical and chromatic aberrations and comas across the entire field of view. An added benefit of the front corrector plate is that the secondary mirror can be attached to it, removing the struts and supports found in traditional Newtonians and eliminating the diffraction spikes they cause, which can degrade the image. The resulting views through the scope are bright and clear with virtually no distortion across the entire field of view, with true color rendition. The scope is equipped with a 2" Crayford-style focuser and allows the use of larger eyepieces and accessories.


Sky-Watcher 7.5" f/5.3 Maksutov-Newtonian Telescope (OTA Only)
 

While there is no mount included, a cradle-ring assembly is provided. It clamps over the optical tube and lets the user adjust the orientation and position of the scope relative to the mount to optimize viewing comfort and balancing, while avoiding interference with other equipment. A stainless steel Vixen-style dovetail plate makes it compatible with any alt-az or equatorial mount with a Vixen-style saddle, and a 1/4"-20 stud on the top of the cradle ring assembly enables a camera to be piggybacked onto the scope for wide-field photography.

Dobsonians

Dobsonian telescopes are, at their core, really large reflectors. How large, you might ask? A typical Dob mount sits on the ground and an average-sized person can view the eyepiece while standing comfortably. Sky-Watcher has many offerings in styles and sizes of Dobs—it just depends on what you’re looking for. A common question that arises is, “Why would you want a Dob?” The answer is simple—the basic bare-bones design allows for a large dollar-to-aperture ratio, so going with a Dob will give you more light-gathering ability for the money you spend.

Traditional Dobsonians

Offered in three apertures—6" f/8, 8" f/5.9, and 10" f/4.7—the traditional Dob line has respectable focal ratios and sizes while staying within many budgets. The 6" model comes with a mount, two eyepieces, and a finderscope; while the 10" is still affordable—also with finderscope and eyepieces, and an upgraded 2" Crayford focuser. You’ll notice the respectable focal ratios; they all have the same 1200mm focal length, so the larger apertures have noticeably faster ratios, which still make them more than adequate for imaging, but the big thing to consider is the available apertures. With these large apertures, you’ll be able to see deep-sky objects that many smaller scopes simply can’t resolve. The models in the traditional line all come with ground-based alt-az mounts that are fully manual, but since this type of OTA tends to be a bit weighty, they will move smoothly on their bearings, so tracking slower-moving deep sky objects won’t be difficult with a bit of practice.


Sky-Watcher 10" f/4.7 Traditional Dobsonian Telescope
 

Collapsible Dobsonians

Ranging from 8" f/5.9 to massive 16" f/4.4 models, they all boast fast focal ratios, making them ideal for observation and imaging tasks, 2" Crayford focusers, and manual alt-az ground-based mounts. But these aren’t the features that make the collapsible Dobsonian line stand out—it’s that Sky Watcher employs a proprietary truss support system that allows the optical tube’s front and back tubes to collapse together, aligning on the truss support rods, and locking down for secure transport. This one piece, low-hassle OTA design is mechanically simple and results in a large-aperture telescope that can be reasonably handled and transported by one individual. This innovative design gives users a tremendous functional ease-of-use—especially when coupled with a high-performance Teflon bearing system in both axes, and tension adjusters in the altitude that assure smooth manual movement.


Sky-Watcher 14" f/4.9 Collapsible GoTo Dobsonian Telescope
 

Collapsible GoTo Dobsonians

Virtually identical to the ones about which we just wrote, this version of the collapsible Dob integrates dual DC servo motors into the mount and adds the SynScan hand controller we discussed up in the section about the EQ6 GoTo mount. Combining the ease of use of the collapsible design, with the large light-gathering abilities offered by the large apertures available, on top of a motorized computer-controlled mount, make this the pinnacle of imaging and observing deep-space objects.


Sky-Watcher 14" f/4.9 Collapsible GoTo Dobsonian Telescope
 

Conclusion

The Sky-Watcher brand might not have the depth of offerings some other brands may manufacture, but what it does offer is well thought-out and executed to match the needs of experienced and demanding astronomers and astrophotographers. Whatever you want to see and image, whether it’s the Moon or a distant galaxy, Sky-Watcher has an optical tube assembly and mount with the ability to make your dreams a reality.