A New Kind of Grab-and-Go Mount -- The Mini Hitch
Reviewer: Will Petty
I have a confession to make: I love optics as much as astronomy. Sure, I treasure those nights under dark skies with a big light bucket, searing through the hearts of globular clusters, but I also love the way a fine refractor can compose a landscape into an unforgettable visual image, and the discoveries that can be made by sitting patiently and scanning the world around me. Though I'm not a birdwatcher or anything with so official a name, I'll spend hours watching birds, bears, deer, snakes and even beetles with my scope when I have the chance. That's why as I've matured in this hobby, I've become more and more attached to my little 80mm refractor. The bigger scopes are great for special occasions, but the little 80mm is for every day, all 24 hours of it.
But until this week something was missing. I never had a mount that felt right for the casual way I've always wanted to use my little scope. In the beginning, I started out with the Takahashi P2Z "Eclipse Chaser", a small, green and beautifully built equatorial mount. It's great fun under the stars (on one of those special occasions) but don't try to watch a beetle with it: you'll go crazy. So I stepped up in simplicity, and got a Lapides-modified Teegul mount, also from Takahashi. This is a simple but beefy alt-azimuth mount with two wide circular bearing surfaces, one in altitude and another in azimuth. The wide bearings make it extremely rigid as a platform for smaller scopes, and it has served me well. If you're an eyepiece queen and radically change the balance of your scope at 20-second intervals, you probably need a mount like this. (I think the DiscMount is a good one in this category, too.)
Now I admit I can be an eyepiece queen--sometimes. But in this case, I was looking for something different. I wanted simplicity and freedom, and that meant turning to a lightweight mount that relied more on a fine sense of balance than on brute force and raw gripping power. So I then looked at the Televue Telepod, and though I came to understand the attraction of it, I realized that it represented a less sophisticated version of simplicity than I was looking for. I couldn't get it to balance consistently with large eyepieces, and I just didn't want to tighten and untighten a clamping knob whenever I wanted to point somewhere new.
Then a couple of months ago, I heard that Charles Riddel of Half-Hitch Telescope was introducing a new mount called the Mini Hitch. Designed to fit on a high-quality photo tripod and weighing less than three pounds, It was billed as the ultimate grab-and-go mount for small refractors up to 90mm. Though I've never owned a mount from Half-Hitch Telescope, I'd been a lurker on the Half-Hitch users group for quite a while and had become impressed with Charles' evident dedication to his calling and extreme sense of perfectionism. I've also noticed that some of the pickiest and most knowledgable members of the astronomy forums own Half Hitch mounts. Finally, there was this thing Charles talked about called "two-axis balancing," which seemed like a good idea since I'd never run into any mount that balanced very well as I moved the scope around.
Here's what two-axis balancing actually means: Let's say you have a little scope like my APM 80/480. It's about 20 inches long (for those of us who can only do millimeters with apertures and eyepieces). Now as a thought experiment, imagine putting into that scope a new Ethos 5.5mm SDFX (Super Duper FX) eyepieces with a 142 degree field of view. This eyepieces weighs four pounds and pops up 11 inches out of the scope diagonal. At this point, if the scope is perfectly horizontal, with the eyepiece projecting from the diagonal and pointing straight up at the sky, I can slide it well forward in the clamshell ring and find a point at which the whole thing balances. But if the scope then pivots at the clamshell, and I start to point it up towards the sky, the moment arm of that huge black & green eyepiece really starts to make itself felt. The balance shifts, and the eyepiece wants to pull the eyepiece end of the scope down. I'm left holding the diagonal and eyepiece with one hand to keep them from crashing into the tripod, while feeling around in the dark with the other hand to find a knob or something I can turn to ratchet up the clamping power.
Why does the balance shift when you point the scope up? It's because the center of balance of the whole "system"--the scope, plus the fat black eyepiece--doesn't lie on the centerline of the scope tube; it actually lies above it, somewhere between the scope centerline and that massively protuberant occular . And if you want your scope to remain balanced, you need to pivot the whole system on this overall center of balance. Though I used a bit of exaggeration in this thought experiment to make it easy to visualize the problem, any eyepiece that projects up from a diagonal will raise the balance point of the system to one degree or another, and this is especially true with small scopes, where the weight of a large protruding eyepiece can be a significant fraction of the weight of the scope. What two-axis balancing does is allow you to balance--and pivot--your scope on the true center of balance of the whole system, and not just on the best approximation you can find along the centerline of the scope tube. And since not even the Japanese still use their scopes "Japanese-style" (that is sitting on the ground; straight through with no diagonal), it seems two-axis balancing should be for everyone these days.
Half-Hitch mounts are made one small batch at a time, and mine arrived about two months after I ordered it. Upon first unpacking it I was immediately taken with its sense of style, which I think is unique to Half Hitch Mounts. First of all, the mount is made mostly of gray anodized aluminum--and this is a material that surprised me, as I don't think I had ever come across it before, despite the shameful quantities of astro-gear that have passed through my hands. If you look at the pictures of the Mini Hitch, you might think it is made of raw aluminum, but you would be wrong. Up close this material is a very pleasing, smooth, satiny gray--rather like titanium--without any raw aluminum shine. This is complimented by touches of black anodized aluminum and stainless steel, both used with dignity and good sense.
But what I liked most about the style of this mount is that everything is visible, and everything has a reason. When I look at a Takahashi or AP mount, I have no idea what's going on inside it, but the Mini Hitch practically tells a story. I can see how the screws move the slow motion controls; I can tell exactly how the friction adjustments on the two axes clamp down on those axes, and most importantly I can tell how to move the doveplate saddle up and down to create a pivot point for the scope that is above the scope's centerline, thus achieving the two-axis balance I am looking for. The Mini is a perfect example of form following function.
Also, though the mount feels like a rigid, rock-solid piece of engineering, I was startled by the lightness of it. You just don't expect a mount of this quality to weigh less than three pounds. That's less than half as much as my Teegul, which until now has been my preferred grab-and-go mount for the 80mm.
As the "ultimate" grad and go mount, I think the Mini Hitch is really meant to be used with just a few smaller eyepieces, all in a similar weight range. And let's face it, for grab-and-go astronomy or nature watching, this is all most of us need. But I wanted to test the mount to it's absolute limits. So my first setup was with a Panoptic 41, which at 2 lbs. 1oz., is one of my heavier and taller eyepieces, and a real favorite with my 80mm scope for widefield viewing. For my test I used a portable Takahashi tripod which was originally made for their amusingly named "Spaceboy" Mount. I knew this tripod to be extremely stable for its size, and I wanted to eliminate tripod vibration as an issue as I was getting to know how the Mini would behave as a mount.
To balance the Mini Half Hitch for a scope-eyepiece combination, you first put the scope and eyepiece on the mount, with the scope in a horizontal position and the focus set for approximately the distance at which you'll be viewing; then you carefully move the scope back and forth in the scope ring until it balances perfectly. You can also move the dovetail plate back and forth, but I found it easier to just slide the scope in it's clamshell ring. You can play with the friction on the altitude axis while you are doing this, releasing all of the tension so that you can feel the balance very finely.
After you've found the balance with the scope oriented in a horizontal position, it's time to find the balance on the second axis. To do this you gently push down on the eyepiece end of your scope. If that end picks up momentum and wants to keep going down, then you have to lower the position of the Dovetail plate on the mount to bring the 2-axis balance point further above the scope. If, when you push down on the eyepiece end of the scope, it wants to rock back up, this tells you that the Dovetail Plate is set too low; you have to raise it up to bring the 2-axis balance point closer to the centerline of the scope.
To make this adjustment, you remove the scope from the mount, and reset the height of the dovetail saddle using a hex wrench. At first I was discouraged by this and thought it was going to be a lot of work, but read on--my experience turned out not to be so bad.
Anyway, I tried a couple of positions of the dovetail saddle--replacing and testing the scope each time--and voila! the scope was now perfectly balanced. You may not think this is a big deal, but I'm telling you it is. You could spend years and years doing amateur astronomy and THINK you've experienced a perfectly balanced scope, but you probably never have. This was uncanny. I could move the scope anywhere I wanted--up, down, back, forth, sideways--and at the end of each movement, the scope would simply stop to rest in perfect repose. I became aware of the amount of fear and dread that scope movements had so often involved for me in the past, as I would clutch the heavy eyepiece end of the scope with a hand or an arm, and carefully loosen some tensioning knob to make a careful adjustment. There was none of that here--only simple freedom.
The Mini Hitch has slow motion control knobs, but they might as well not exist; you don't need them. To make a small motion with the scope you just give it a gentle nudge, and there you are. There's no excessive sticktion to overcome, and no jerkiness as the scope goes into motion. It just moves--a little or a lot--depending on how hard you push it.
After ten minutes or so of scanning the landscape, I realized that something new was beginning to happen for me. As we all know, when you look through a refractor using a diagonal, you see the image reversed from left to right. In my years of pointing scopes on heavier high-friction mounts, often using slow motion controls, I have to admit that I had never gotten completely used to this left right reversal. As I wanted to move the scope to a different part of the landscape, there was always a moment of confusion as I figured out which way I needed to move the scope and how to make that happen. On the Mini Half Hitch, I found that since controlling the scope was so direct and intuitive, I very quickly developed a clear sense of exactly what I was looking at in the landscape, and exactly how to move the scope to any other area I wanted to observe, despite the classic left-right reversal. This was a qualitatively new experience for me, and made me feel that I was more able to experience the landscape as a whole, and not just as a series of vignettes in the eyepiece.
Now let me talk about vibration. I hate it. I won't tolerate any significant amount of it in a mount. If a mount is going to bounce around on me, then forget it. I'll go play cards instead. Well I'm happy to report that, loaded up with a solid 80mm APO, a heavy AP Maxbright diagonal, and a whopper of a 41 panoptic, this mount was nice and steady, and I had no issues with it. Like any mount, it'll vibrate if you hit it, but it damps down fast--I'd estimate less than half a second even in this relatively heavy and asymetric configuration.
After the 41 Panoptic, I thought I'd try an even heavier and taller eyepiece, the 21 Ethos. Again great results. I moved the scope in the scope ring a bit to get the balance right, but I didn't have to move the dovetail saddle up or down. I won't tell you about every eyepiece I tried, but needless to say, I queened around quite a lot--with the hand grenades, with the mid-sized Ethoses, Deloses and XWs, and with the smaller 24 Panoptics on down to tiny Zeiss Planetaries. After balancing for each eyepiece, each one worked just as smoothly as the 41 Panoptic had.
In all this, I discovered something reassuring. Though initially I had dreaded making the up-down dovetail saddle adjustment for each eyepiece (because this adjustment involves removing the scope and using a hex wrench), I found that this adjustment wasn't that sensitive, and I could use the same up-down setting within broad categories of eyepieces. For smaller eyepieces, one adjustment. For the medium eyepieces, another. And for the hand grenades, another. This simplifies the use of the mount a lot, as long as you are content to remain within one eyepiece category for your viewing session. And let's face it, this is an extreme grab and go mount--all about simplicity. Would you really want to use an Ethos 21 and a ZAO 4 within one birdwatching session. Probably not.
Finally, I decided to really push the limits, and try things out with a binoviewer and 24 Panoptics--a classic viewing combination, but a very lopsided one on a little 80mm scope. I moved the dovetail saddle all the way down to it's lowest position, then balanced the scope and binoviewer combination in the scope ring. And it worked! I have to admit that the dovetail saddle did not go quite low enough to perfectly balance this combination, so I had to add a little extra friction in the altitude axis to hold the scope in all positions. However, only a little extra friction was required and the result was very pleasing. Vibration also remained within acceptable bounds. I would have no hesitation using this configuration often on this mount.
So far, I've communicated my genuine enthusiasm for the Mini Hitch, but I did feel there were a couple of minor negatives. First, I thought the handle was awkwardly designed, and though I've shown it in the picture with this review, I will probably remove mine. With some heavy eyepiece combinations, my focus knob hit the handle and I had to rotate the scope a bit to avoid a conflict. It may be unfair on my part to make this judgement, since the mount was obviously designed for lighter and simpler eyepiece combinations than the aggressive ones I was testing it with, but hey, the thing just works so dang well with the heavier eyepieces that it's a shame to see the handle sometimes getting in the way. The good news is that the handle comes off with two simple hex screws, and the mount moves so smoothly you can push your telescope just as easily without it.
Second, I thought the slow motion controls were unnecessary. The motions of the mount were so smooth that I just never used these controls, no matter which eyepiece I was using. I would not have minded seeing them removed for the sake of greater elegance and perhaps a lower price.
In summary, though the Mini Hitch is designed as the ultimate grab-and-go mount, my testing showed that it is much more--behaving nearly as well as mounts twice its weight, and with the trademark smoothness and balance of Half Hitch Telescope mounts. For me, it's a keeper, and has already become my most used mount.
The author, Will Petty, has been an amateur astronomer for ten years. He has eight scopes, mostly APs and Starmasters, observing observe near homes in Dorset, England and Southeast Utah. He has never met Charles Riddel of Half Hitch Telescope and has no connection with the company aside from being a customer.