A golden age is upon us. The wish for popularity has been granted. That long slow fuse of public awareness has finally reached the keg of technology. The resultant explosion has ignited a firestorm of curiosity and demand. It will never be the same again. And it all began with motors, encoders, and a guy named Mel Bartels.
Biographical commentary by The Belmont Society:
(photo from his website)
Allow us to introduce you to someone you should know about. You may not have heard of him before, but if you spend any time at all browsing the annals of contemporary amateur astronomy, you will find him at the forefront of development and evolution of computerized telescopes. In fact, he is considered by many to be the "Godfather of GO-TO".
Born in 1954, Mel Bartels works as a Systems Manager and Senior Analyst/Programmer in the Eugene, Oregon area. He says that his hobby is "Writing real-time control-code for computerized motor driven telescopes". Some hobby! It's because of his ideas, his enthusiasm, and his work that many of us enjoy OUR hobby so much today. It is because of Mel Bartels that we (as a collective society-at-large of amateur astronomers) have telescopes that can easily find any known celestial objects of our choosing. The road of achievement however, was not a very smooth one.
In the early days of his enthusiasm, while touting the virtues of computerized telescopes, he was met by a wall of critics and doubters (whom we affectionately refer to as traditional-die-hards and Grinch-types). Can you imagine that there was a time when he was either banned, or asked several times to set up his telescope on the outer perimeter at star parties? Lesser folks might have caved-in under such a repressive strain. But through perseverance and a single-minded determination, he fostered his innovative brainchild into a virtual epiphany of astounding logic and artificial intelligence. The result is what we call "GO-TO", and it enables even the most casual part-time amateur astronomer, without so much as a sliver of celestial knowledge, to cruise the sky and find things. Things that were once entrusted to only the elite, the accomplished, and the fortunate.
Published author, and guest speaker at many astronomy functions and Society gatherings, Mel is well equipped to address or lecture on various subjects.
In 1992 the International Astronomical Union honored him for his contributions to amateur astronomy by naming an asteroid after him – "17823 Bartels".
How difficult can it be for the average newcomer to find a distant celestial object with a new telescope? Simply put, if it lies beyond naked-eye and binocular visibility, and if you aren't familiar with the night sky, it can be VERY difficult. The sky is extremely vast. It is all but impossible to find an object you're searching for by "hunting it down". Hopes of "bumping into" an object by nudging the tube around are futile. Finding a celestial object (in even just a PORTION of the sky) without knowing precisely where it is, can be analogous to locating a pencil-dot on a brick wall by looking for it through a soda straw.
Not too long ago, if you wanted to see a distant object in the eyepiece, you had only two options: #1: You had to "star-hop" to it with the assistance of a chart, or with your knowledge of constellations and the evening sky. #2: You looked up its coordinates and utilized "setting circles" – a system of pointers and rotating scales on the Right Ascension and Declination axes of an equatorial mount. Each can be a time-consuming and frustrating process if you aren't familiar or acclimated with things, or if you're a newcomer. We often hear that many amateurs spend more time looking FOR objects than AT them! Sometimes this is so discouraging to a newcomer that they become disinterested, and give up, claiming that "It's just too hard to find stuff!". Some conventional observers (the few traditional die-hards and Grinch-types) will argue that this is a tragedy of laziness. After all, setting circles and knowledge of the sky have been the hallmarks of traditional astronomy for centuries. But busy people with a casual or early interest in astronomy need both encouragement and convenience to foster enthusiasm. Tradition or not, the hallmarks needed upgrading.
Today there are inexpensive motor-drives available for most popular telescopes. A motor-drive system keeps a celestial object centered in the eyepiece as the sky "moves" through the night in Right Ascension. Hands-free observing - you don't have to tweak knobs, or poke-and-nudge the Dob tube to keep the object in the field of view. You will notice that even the venerable die-hards and traditional codgers use motor-drives.
A single-axis motor kit can be purchased for $50 to $70. But even with a motor-drive to track the object, you first have to locate it, and as we mentioned, just FINDING those fuzzy deep-denizens can be a daunting and arduous task. But wait. Things have recently changed a bit. Much to the chagrin of traditional codgers and Grinch-types, knowledge of constellations and the night sky is no longer required. Even with only a casual interest you can find just about anything, thanks to "GO-TO".
All major manufacturers (and many suppliers) now offer some form of electronic system to help your telescope FIND countless objects of your choice – automatically, with just the touch of a button. Some of them go so far as to include a database of almost every known object that is "seeable" with ground based telescopes. Others are abbreviated to reduce cost, but still offer an astounding number of objects in their memories. Still others offer you some "user-programmable" space for adding a handful of favorite objects that are not included. And yet others will allow you unlimited user-space to add as many objects as you wish, and to permanently save them in memory. It's become extremely easy indeed, to find what you're looking for. And at a price that suits you.
How does it work?
Basically, all you do is choose an object, i.e: – M-32. A handpad is keyed to input the object on the LED display. Press the "go-to" button, and the telescope immediately slews to that object so you can see it in the eyepiece. Pulsed stepper or servo-motors operate the dual-axis mechanisms via a signal that contains the required number of pulses to reach the target. It is amazingly accurate!
Depending on what you're willing to spend, there's a go-to system available for your existing telescope, or for the one you're thinking about buying. Whether it's a refractor, Newtonian, Dob or SCT, and regardless of the brand – Meade, Orion, TeleVue, Takahashi or whatever, there's a system that will couple to it, either made by that manufacturer, or by someone else. It doesn't even matter what type of mount it is. Almost every manufacterer of mounts offers a go-to system of their own. Prices range from two hundred dollars to a thousand, or somewhat more.
Here is a brief rundown of the more popular and widely used Go-To systems. They run the gamut in price, from very affordable to open-wallet surgery. Recommendations are based on ease-of-use, bang-for-the-buck, and owner satisfaction. Featured in this section:
Meade was the first of the major manufacturers to be recognized with a bonafide go-to system. They opened the GO-TO market to the average consumer with the AutoStar system. They also currently produce the Autostar II available on select telescopes. It's an excellent performer and very popular. Autostar is available on almost every one of Meade's better scopes including the ETX, LX90, LX200, and LXD Series. It comes with between 12,000 and 145,000 objects in its database (depending on which scope it comes with). The system is sometimes an extra-cost option on their lower-priced models, but is very affordable. Not adaptable to other brands of scopes.
With some Meade scopes, you also get access to Autostar Suite - which controls all telescope functions from your PC. It includes a really cool planetarium program, custom files and a lunar/planetary imager.
The "Gemini" system is available from Losmandy – manufacturers of World Class equatorial mounts. The system replaces Losmandy's GM-8, G-11 and HGM-200 stepper motor drives with high torque servo motors, which can produce a maximum 10-degree-per-second slew rate on the GM-8.
Gemini's database contains over 41,000 objects and it can be adapted or retro-fitted to any Losmandy mount with simple pliers and hex keys. It's well-engineered and very flexible. With a little more do-it-yourself engineering and some know-how it might also be adapted to other mounts. It is compatible with 'TheSky' software. Photo at left demonstrates controlling the scope with a palm PC. Just touch an object on the Palm PC display and slew to it. A real time internal clock allows system shutdown without losing positional data.
We consider the Losmandy GM-8 w/Gemini and G-11 w/Gemini mounts to be the finest equatorials we have used. Any system that enriches their capacity would naturally serve to improve an already excellent product. In use, the Gemini system operates and functions with ease. Set-up and 'alignment' is allowed to get as sophisticated as you wish. Its utilitarian appearance belies the elegance and finesse with which it performs. If you have a Losmandy mount, there should be no question about your choice of go-to control. And if you're equipped with the resources to tackle the conversion of another brand, then we can highly recommend the Gemini system for that as well.
iOptron offers a few very affordable GoTo mount systems to choose from. Their MiniTower, MiniTower Pro, and CubePro Goto Mounts are Alt-Azimuth, and their SmartStar-PR is a more typical German Equatorial Mount.
The iOptron CubePro GoTo AltAzimuth Mount is the ideal portable mount to go with your portable celestial or solar telescope. The CubePro features a SmartStar computerized control system with 130,000 objects and an 8-line backlit LCD screen. A 32 channel internal GPS, easy alignment procedure and accurate GoTo and auto-tracking minimize the setup time.
Born out of the popular iOptron Cube, MiniTower is the ultimate observing solution for people who are searching for a capable and portable GoTo telescope mount to counter light pollution in their backyards and for travel convenience. With a standard payload of 25 lbs, a rock solid 1.5”alloy/stainless steel tripod, metal worm and gear and two dovetail adaptors-- The MiniTower is capable of handling most OTAs.
The MiniTower Pro has all the same, great technologies and features – just beefed up! So, you can still mount two scopes on -- but now with more pay load. You can still track objects-- only now the encoder resolution is six times finer. We’ve also added a two-inch stainless-steel tripod that is much taller for easier viewing with large scopes.
SmartStar-PR Computerized German Equatorial Mount and Tripod system provides superior performance and stability. Ideally suited for astrophotography the EQ5 is built with precision worm gears and high-caliber bearings for smooth celestial tracking. Our heavy-duty two-inch stainless steel tripod means your telescope and images will not be disturbed by any bump or windy night.
Sky Commander is primarily a "manual" go-to system, in that you key-in an object and then move the telescope (by hand) in the direction it tells you, stopping when the LCD display reads "zero". It's not motor-driven, but it's easy and inexpensive. Paired-up with an inexpensive Right Ascension drive motor, (or an Alt-Az drive for a Dob) the two would make a cool system to find stuff and track it for you. The new Sky Commander XP4 computer allows approx. 30,000 objects to be stored in its memory. It's adaptable to most telescope mounts, and it makes a very good entry-level tool for the beginner. It also works fine for veteran users. It is both user-friendly and sophisticated enough to be the controller we use on our club's 24-inch Newtonian. Highly recommended for the budget-minded amateur.
One of the great features of Sky Commander is the Search and Identify Mode, whereby it continuously searches its database for any object that is close to where the scope is pointing. When an object is found to be within half a degree of the telescope's position, the name of that object appears on the display.
The actual number of objects that can be located with Sky Commander is limitless, because the coordinates of ANY known object can be entered, and the object can then be found by the same method – just move the scope until the display reads "zero".
TeleVue manufactures refractor telescopes of legendary quality. Their computer-control is called "Sky Tour". It's a manual system, tailored to their Gibraltar mount which is unequaled among Alt-Az configurations. It's also available for their Panoramic Alt-Az mount, and can be easily adapted to almost any other type of mount including fork and equatorial (do-it-yourselfers take note!). Sky Tour is similar to Sky Commander, whereby the object is entered to a display, and the scope is moved by hand until the display reads "zero". The Gibraltar is so smooth and glides so positively that manual tracking is utterly effortless (there are no RA and DEC knobs to turn or tweak). One of the system's best features is simplicity. It is extremely easy to set up and use.
Sky Tour's database contains over 2,000 objects with room for 250 user-defined targets. Later versions can interface with TheSky software to enable an astounding database of objects, and utilize a Mac or PC-based planetarium program (the scope's aimpoint is displayed on a star-chart background). Normal system set-up involves lining up two points on the Tele-Pod head, then a simple two-star alignment and you're ready to rock-n-roll. The control-pad has a smooth-scrolling display which shows RA and DEC, and a nice "Identify" mode that lets you inquire about nearby objects. Virtually ANY object viewable with the telescope, and with known RA and DEC can be found.
The price is very good for a very slick system, and we highly recommend it for anyone who likes the casual convenience of an Alt-Az mount, specifically one as smooth as the Gibraltar. We have used this set-up with both the TV-NP101 and TV-85, and each experience was a thrilling enterprise in observational astronomy, as it so closely parallels the whimsical spontaneity of "star-hopping". There is something about a fine refractor on a silky-smooth Alt-Az mount that enables Sky Tour to exploit the "adventurer" in us.
NGC Max is a JMI brand name. When we first began looking at go-to systems back in the late 90's, the NGC MAX kept popping up in our field of view. They offered a workable system for a ton of different scopes and mounts, and at a very reasonable price. Since then they've added more versions to the product line, and their reputation for support and service has grown also.
Their computers are available in microMAX, miniMAX, MAX, superMAX and SGT-MAX. They vary in capability from manual to motorized, and from 245 objects to software dependent (infinite). They will adapt to almost every major telescope brand, model and type. Great for the budget-minded or entry-level do-it-yourselfer's. The systems are designed to work without leveling or polar alignment. They are marketed for 26 brands of telescopes and mounts (including most popular brands). Custom applications are available at extra cost. The JMI website (click on the link) has an extensive list of scopes it adapts to.
"NGC" is JMI's designation for Next Generation Computer. "SGT" is an abbreviation for Software Guided Telescope. The SGT-MAX is essentially engineered to be an extension of your PC and 'TheSky' or many other software programs. The aimpoint of your telescope is represented by a graphics-generated star-chart on the screen of your PC. You type the name or catalog number of an object, and SGT-MAX guides you to it, and shows your progress against the star background on the screen. The real-time link between PC and telescope makes finding an unlimited number of objects fairly simple. Combining it with a compatible Go-To telescope (such as the Meade LX200) and imaging software, will give you a fully automated imaging system. Without a motor-driven telescope, the SGT system is operated manually, but is economical and still extremely useful. The system is both PC and Apple compatible.
Pictured at left: (1): NGC MAX control box; (2): JMI RA motor-drive on an equatorial mount; (3): SGT-MAX interfacing a laptop with a Meade 2045.