Orion ST80 and Stellarvue Nighthawk
80mm Refractors for Beginner or Expert
Let's take a look at two
telescopes that can be a great first telescope for the beginning astronomer, or
the perfect "grab and go" telescope for the seasoned veteran. Both the Orion ST80 and the Stellarvue
Nighthawk fit this description. Both of these telescopes are 80mm short focal
length refractors. They share the inherent advantages of this design, as well
as it's one major drawback. These telescopes represent what you can expect at
both ends of the cost range for a short tube 80 mm achromat.
First, a bit of information
about this design: The two big advantages this design has over most other types
of telescopes are portability and wide field of view. There are other advantages
to this design, but these are the two that stand out. Portability needs no
further explanation other than to refer you to the lengths and weights in the
table below. Compare these numbers to other designs and you won't need any more
convincing. Wide field of view merits a bit more explanation. Due to the short
(400mm to 480 mm) focal length of this design, the magnification with any given
eyepiece tends to be lower than with other telescopes. This means is that you
see a much wider section of sky than most other telescopes will give you. This
is a big aid to the beginner looking for objects in the sky, and contrary to
what you may be thinking, you won't find yourself short of useful magnifying
power. Now for the disadvantage, 80mm (approx 3 inches) is not a lot of aperture,
and this will limit the amount of detail you can see with this type of
telescope. This can not be avoided, regardless of how good the optics are,
aperture size will be a limiting factor.
While we are on the topic of
optics, a word about achromatic versus apochromatic is in order. Both the Orion
ST80 and the Stellarvue Nighthawk are achromats, which means that they are
subject to chromatic aberration. This means all the wavelengths of visible
light are not focused perfectly to a point. There are other telescopes on the
market similar in design that are apochromatic, and they do a better job of
focusing all the light to a point. The problem is the apochromatic designs are
easily triple the cost of achromats. Whether the extra cost is worthwhile is a
topic for another day. However, you can be sure that the less expensive
achromat will give you a lot of bang for your buck. With this background in
mind, let's look at the features of these two telescopes.
The Orion ST80 and the
Stellarvue Nighthawk are similar, but with some important differences. The
Orion ST80 is the less expensive of the two telescopes, and is Chinese made.
The Orion ST80 is mass produced, and virtually identical models have, and
continue to be sold under different names by other manufacturers. The
Stellarvue Nighthawk is the more expensive of the two telescopes, and it is
assembled in the U.S. with some of the component parts made off shore,
presumably in China. The Stellarvue Nighthawk is decidedly not mass produced as
the optics are hand fitted.
Orion ST80 on Mount
Cutting right to the chase,
when all was said and done, I felt the optical performance of the Orion ST80
was very close to the Stellarvue Nighthawk. I chose the Orion ST80, over the
Stellarvue Nighthawk, and spent the money I saved on an 8" dob. You may judge by different criteria
than I did, so lets look at the differences between these two scopes so you can
decide what fits your needs. First
Fully multi-coated hand fitted
(1) fixed 1/4-20 hole
(3) 1/4-20 holes in adjustable tube ring
1 1/4" rack and pinion
2" rack and pinion
w/oversize knobs, (Crayford focuser available)
Plastic, snap on
Aluminum, thread on
10mm and 26 mm eyepieces,
1 ?" 45 degree diagonal, 6x26 finder
Red dot reflex sight
6x26 correct image
Oversize red dot reflex
Country of Origin
U.S. final assembly,
Optical elements made offshore.
* I have given two prices
for comparison. The first price is for the optical tube assembly. The Orion
ST80 optical tube is packaged with two eyepieces, 45 degree diagonal and 6x26
viewfinder. The Stellarvue Nighthawk optical tube assembly includes only a
red dot finder. The second price represents both scopes outfitted with
similar quality eyepieces, 90 degree diagonal, and similar red dot finders.
It may not be jumping out at you when you look at the numbers, but when you
have these two scopes side by side, one of the first things you notice is
how much heavier the Stellarvue Nighthawk is compared to the Orion ST80. The
construction of the Stellarvue Nighthawk is heavy duty and the weight is the
first indication of this. Telescopes are not intended to be dropped, but if
there is a telescope that could be dropped and still work, the Stellarvue
Nighthawk is it. Everything on the Stellarvue Nighthawk it is overbuilt.
On the Stellarvue Nighthawk, the dew shield is thick aluminum, probably about
3/16" thick, about twice as thick as the same part on the Orion ST80.
The Stellarvue Nighthawk mounting holes are in a heavy duty cast aluminum
ring which can be adjusted and moved to balance the scope on the mount. On
the Orion ST80, the mounting hole is in a small aluminum plate that is fixed
to the tube. The Stellarvue Nighthawk has nice easy to grip rubber oversize
focuser knobs, where the Orion ST80 has smaller plastic knobs. The snap on
plastic lens cover of the Orion ST80 is fine, but it does not really compare
to the solid aluminum thread on lens cover of the Stellarvue Nighthawk. This
is not to say that the Orion ST80 is poorly constructed, the materials used
in the Orion ST80 are quite satisfactory, it is just that the Stellarvue Nighthawk
is so overbuilt, that you can not help but notice the difference in the construction.
Once set up and in use, I immediately noticed the beautifully smooth action
of the Stellarvue Nighthawk focuser. The unit I had has a rack and pinion
focuser, which is being phased out and replaced with a Crayford type focuser.
The rack and pinion focuser is superb. With a rack and pinion focuser as smooth
as the one on this telescope, I see no need for a Crayford focuser. The action
on this focuser was outstanding; you never move the scope off your target
while focusing. The action on the Orion ST80 focus is o.k., and that is about
all I would say about it. It also has a rack and pinion focuser, but it is
a little coarse, and you occasionally move off your target while focusing.
The extra heft of the Stellarvue Nighthawk is not across the board good news.
The extra weight of the Stellarvue Nighthawk made it just a tad much for the
tripod I was using. I tested both of these scopes on a Bausch and Lomb model
68-4020 tripod with a Scopestuff binocular fork #BINA. The tripod is a heavy
duty camera/video tripod and teamed with the binocular fork this is the poor
man's version of the Televue Telepod. The extra weight of the Nighthawk was
not welcome on this mount, although it could handle it if attention was paid
to properly balancing the scope by moving it in its mounting ring. This adjustable
feature of the mounting ring is nice; however, it prevents the collapsible
dew shield from closing all the way.
Of course, the thing we really care about in a telescope is the optics. What
is the view like? I made a side by side comparison of the telescopes on the
same mount, on the same targets, on the same night, with the same eyepieces.
Since the Stellarvue Nighthawk has a focal length that is 20% longer than
the Orion ST80's, this means that testing with the same eyepiece will yield
20% greater magnification in the Stellarvue Nighthawk than in the Orion ST80.
I tested with several eyepieces: a Paul Rini 35 mm modified Plossl, a 20 mm
Celestron Silver top Plossl, 9.5mm and 5.1mm Orion ED, and finally, I added
in a Celstron Ultima 2x apochromatic Barlow lens. These are what I consider
medium quality/cost eyepieces, and are decent performers for the money.
My observing spot was a relatively light polluted suburban sky, and the moon
came up making things even lighter. Here is what I saw:
Mars was in good view over head, so that was where I started. I used the 9.5
mm eyepiece and got a decent view of the salmon colored disk at 42x magnification
(ST80) and 50x (Nighthawk) respectively. Not a lot of detail in either scope,
but my experience at a star party looking through some very high end scopes
was that you don't see a lot of detail on Mars, at least not in 2005. I kicked
things up to 78x/94x magnification and I could faintly see some of the dark
markings that are the great canyon on Mars. I put in an orange Wratten #21
filter, which teased out a hint more detail. So far, so good. Now I was going
to go all the way, and I put the Barlow in with the 5.1mm eyepiece for maximum
magnification with the eyepieces I had. My maximum magnification showed less
detail than I got at 78x/94x. In fact, at maximum magnification there was
no detail at all. This had me concerned since I had assumed the Stellarvue
Nighthawk would show more planetary detail than the lower cost Orion ST-80.
I knew that magnification this high might push the limits of what an 80 mm
scope could handle, but I though the more expensive telescope might take it.
Not being sure what to make of the fact that the Stellarvue Nighthawk was
showing no more detail than the Orion ST-80, I turned to Alberio.
In case you are not acquainted with it, Alberio is a fairly bright double
star that is located in the summer triangle. When you look at it through a
telescope, you can see that one of the stars is yellow, and the other is blue,
which makes it particularly striking. I took a look at it at various magnifications,
going all the way to the maximum my eyepieces allowed. Needless to say, the
highest magnification was not the best view due to dimming of the stars caused
by the high magnification. I might also noted that the field of view gets
small at this magnification, so even a slight bump of the scope means you
lose your target. In fact, at 100x or higher, an equatorial mount would probably
be the better choice. Alberio looked beautiful as it always does, but I really
did not find one scope had an advantage over the other. One of the previously
mentioned bumps accidentally brought me over by Vega, and the nearby double-double.
The double double is, you guessed it, two double stars (4 total). However,
to me, it had only been a double, because I could never resolve the two pair.
That was before I went to a star party and someone with an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain
let me take a look at it. Through the 8" telescope, it was possible,
albeit just barely, to see that there were four stars. For some reason, I
thought this would be a good test, so I put in the Barlow and went to highest
magnification with the Stellarvue Nighthawk. I saw….two stars. I could not
resolve the double double. Using the Orion ST80, my results were repeated.
With either scope it is a double, not a double double. At lower magnifications,
I was getting some nice sharp views out of both scopes, and the double double
looked like a pair of car headlights up in the sky. By this point, the moon
was high, and I turned my attention to it.
There is a lot to be seen on the moon, and it was big and bright. I started
making my climb going from low magnification to high. The moon is bright,
really bright, so I had to put in a variable polarizing filter to stop from
temporarily blinding myself. When I went to my maximum magnification with
a 2x Barlow and a 5.1 mm eyepiece with the Stellarvue Nighthawk, much to
my surprise, I did not loose any detail. There was a bright violet halo at
the edge of the moon, and a tiny hint of fuzziness, but I was seeing major
detail on craters. I mean detail I had never seen before. I was excited, but
puzzled given my earlier experience at this magnification with Mars. I decided
to try this with the Orion ST80. Wow, I could see a lot of detail! The image
was a bit soft, and there was a walloping large violet halo at the edge of
the moon, but I had a useable image! This was really shocking to me, as I
had never had any success with the Orion ST80 at anything over 80x magnification,
and at times 80x seemed to be a stretch. I took a look at a few more objects
and decided to think about what I had seen.
I had not seen any detail through the Stellarvue Nighthawk that I could not
see through the Orion ST80. The Stellarvue Nighthawk, having a focal length
20% longer than the Orion ST80 was at 20% higher magnification with any given
eyepiece, so the images were more magnified, but they weren't any sharper
or more detailed than the Orion ST80 images. This was a little hard for me
to accept, as I had planned to keep the Stellarvue Nighthawk, and had made
this side by side comparison sort of as a due diligence exercise rather than
really expecting the Orion ST80 could compete. The Orion ST80 images had always
been decent, but I had expected the hand fitted lens of the higher cost Stellarvue
Nighthawk to blow the lowly Orion ST80 away. After all, the Stellarvue Nighthawk
is twice the price. Well, I had seen it with my own eyes, and despite my prior
expectations, the view in the Orion ST80 was really just as good.
Now I had to give some though to the other features. The Stellarvue Nighthawk
had a vastly superior focuser. Butter smooth, clearly superior to the somewhat
stiff focuser on the Orion ST80. The Nighthawk focuser could handle a 2" diagonal and 2" eyepieces, which the Orion ST80 could not. However with
the 35 mm Paul Rini 1 1/4" eyepiece I was down to 12x magnification,
so it seemed to me that this was a feature I would not need. The Stellarvue
Nighthawk had heavy duty construction, but also extra heft…..which made it
harder to handle on the tripod I had. I had no desire to get a heavier tripod
and give up portability. The Stellarvue Nighthawk was U.S. assembled, and
I had received a response to my e-mail questions from the owner of Stellarvue
himself. That is the type of service that I was never going to get with the
Orion ST80. But when all was said and done, what was going to be the right
scope for me? And how come neither scope would work at high magnification
on Mars, but they would do it on the Moon?
Some consultation with astronomy friends confirmed my suspicion. At high
magnification, the 80mm objective lens does not capture sufficient light to
resolve fine detail. Because the moon is so bright, the telescopes revealed
detail at high magnification on the moon, but not on Mars. No telescope this
size would be able to resolve minute detail at high magnification, no matter
how good the optics. This settled my decision. The Stellarvue Nighthawk went
back, and I kept the Orion ST80, and put the difference in cost toward an
This is my solution: The Orion ST80 on a camera tripod is a great grab and
go scope, and lets me see quite a bit. When the opportunity arises to go to
a star party, I will bring the 8" dob and take advantage of the greater
light grasp. Would someone be crazy to spend the extra money on the Stellarvue
Nighthawk? No, I don't think so, but their priorities would be a little different
than mine. If you want personalized service, a truly fine instrument, are
willing to go with a little bit heavier tripod, plus spend the extra $225
over the cost of the Orion ST80, then the Stellarvue Nighthawk makes sense.
It really could provide a lifetime of enjoyment. However, for me, a two scope
solution made sense, and I spent my money accordingly. There are details in
faint objects that no 80mm scope can reveal, and I want to be able to see
that detail. However, I still like the option of being able to have a grab
a scope for a quick look at something from my yard, or to have something compact
that I can take with me on vacation. The Orion ST80's low cost allowed me
to have two scopes, and the Orion ST80 really is a good little scope, so that
is what I chose, and I am happy with my choice.