The Nova Hitch Alt-Az Mount for Your Grab and Go Pleasure
by Kelsey Golden
I just received my Nova Hitch from Half Hitch Telescopes. Well, not exactly... you know the story, get new astro-gear and then keep your umbrella handy for the next few weeks. I actually received it a few weeks ago and have now had a couple of clear nights to use it on two different scopes, a TEC 140 (belonging to a friend) and a William Optics 110 FLT (mine). Using these two scopes, I believe I have gathered the kind of information that anyone considering an alt-az or otherwise visual/grab and go mount might want to know.
First a little blurb about what I wanted to accomplish with this mount and a little background.I am primarily an astrophotographer with very little in the way of visual observing equipment. I have a skyshed-pod in my backyard so I've been able to expand my equipment and setup to what would take several hours to set up were I to take my show on the road. But I'm also a social guy. I like drinking a few beers and hanging out with fellow astronomers every once in a while - and a great outlet for me to do that has always been the informal meetups of the "Austin Dam Astronomers" in Austin, TX - no dues, no rules, very informal. But I rarely brought my own equipment out there because I hate setup and teardown - which is why I own an observatory.
But I did miss having my own equipment available, comparing my own scope with others on the same object and all that goes along with a typical star party. So ever since I bought my observatory, I've had this thought in the back of my mind that I should put together a real "grab and go" setup.
So the first question I had to answer was "what do I mean by a good 'grab and go' setup." Or more importantly, what annoys me about what I consider 'not grab and go.' Well let me tell you, owning a permanent setup has refined what I consider "grab and go" compared to those that exclusively "grab and go." For me, it's made up of a few of things, all centering around speed and ease of use. First, minimized weight and number of items I need to carry to my car. Second, it's time from my car's trunk to observing actual things I want to look at. Third, no crazy spiderweb of wires, no marine batteries, none of that which is probably where I differ from many grab and goers.
But then there's the quality factor. If Grab and Go means "less", does that mean quality and/or ease of use have to suffer? I tried another mount in my quest for a grab and go setup. Namely, the Televue Gibraltar. You can read reviews about that mount by itself, but needless to say, I found it lacking mainly because of its stiffness. It also wasn't all that easy to attach or remove a dovetail bound scope. The wooden tripod on the other hand, is now a part of my Nova setup... albiet on the lighter end of what is even remotely suitable if you want to use a large scope (my fellow Dam Astronomer's TEC 140, for example) without vibration... let's just say "not" to use a gibraltar tripod if you plan on fully taking advantage of the Nova's capacity. (Fortunately, that's not the case for me because I was only borrowing a TEC 140 for my tests and the tripod is tolerable with my William Optics 110).
A friend of mine at the dam had an earlier "Half Hitch" mount which I and many others who have seen it have always thought was a fully functional and impressive work of art. Beautiful, shiny machined parts, encoders, built-in sky commander computer, and a pretty nifty combination of "push to" and slow motion controls. Setup time? ~ 5 minutes.
But my idea of a grab and go scope was a 110mm William Optics FLT which was on the upper end of what the half-hitch could handle. And indeed, the balance sensitivity of the half hitch when changing eyepieces was not ideal, even with a nifty adjustable weight mechanism that mount came with - which could sometimes throw the scope off target while re-balancing. Then again - the Televue Gibraltar seemed to solve the "varrying balance" problem by just making the mount very stiff... not ideal either.
But after grinding on the decision of whether to buy a different "high quality/hand made" alt-az, I finally saw the Nova Hitch which is the latest version of Charles Riddel's series of mounts. This was advertised as a mount that could handle larger scopes while still maintaining the portability of previous designs. I placed my order in June 2012 while the mount was still in the design phase and the mount was delivered in March 2013.
Charles hand delivered my mount since I'm local and in exchange, he wanted some early adopter feedback before finalizing his other more remote orders. I was obviously happy to oblige since I was already excited about getting my hands on this mount. I also happened to know somebody who just got a TEC 140 and everyone wanted to see how that would work out on the Nova.
So how did it meet my criteria for a good "grab and go?"
Storage to trunk time
The mount is one piece and attaches to any tripod that accepts a 3/8"x16 bolt. It also fits in a relatively small box not that much larger than a typical foam eyepiece case. With the nova setup, my equipment carrying is reduced to about 4 items, carried two at a time, for a total of two trips from storage to car. (Scope, Mount, Eyepiece/Accessory case, tripod)
Trunk to observing time
Under 5 minutes = good. Just to give you an idea, here's the routine:
- Set up gibraltar tripod
- Attach Nova with 3/8" bolt to tripod via an adapter a friend of mine machined for me
- Attach dovetail with rings attached
- Put scope in rings
- horizontally balance scope fore and aft in the rings (every time but can be shortcutted with some marks if you want)
- vertically balance scope using a mechanism built into the mount. (you only need to do this once if you use the same equipment, but will need to do it again if you use multiple scopes).
Maintaining Balance while changing eyepieces
Remember, I have the Televue Gibraltar and the Half-Hitch mount to compare this to. Whereas the half-hitch managed changes in balance with an adjustable counterweight, the televue managed the same by a static tension that made the scope difficult to move even when you wanted it to, resulting in sort of jerky and cumbersome movement.
The Nova uses an adjustable tension via clutches on both axes. Additionally, it has a cam-lock brake on each axis to completely halt movement when needed on all accept the slow motion controls. In most balancing cases, you simply increase the tension on the clutch and the scope will not move when an eyepiece of different weight is used. You can also balance for the eyepiece you use to "find things" and simply throw on the brake when you reach your target, using the slow motion knobs to make further adjustments.
The advantage compared to the half-hitch is there's no weight to adjust which is good because you won't have to worry about the scope pointing somewhere else when changing powers. Compared to the Gibraltar, the tension is adjustable and manageable, allowing you to move the scope freely when you need to and go slow-mo when your target is in the eyepiece.
Performance of the TEC 140 with the nova
For those with high end large refractors looking for a grab and go mount, the Nova is definitely a good choice as it handled the TEC quite well. One look at this mount shows that any vibration is more from an inferior tripod rather than the mount itself. So word of advice: if you get the Nova for a heavy refractor, get a good tripod to go with it. Charles Riddel is currently talking about making one such tripod but as I write this, it is on the drawing board right now. There are others out there and it may pay to ask on the half-hitch yahoo group to find out what tripod is ideal. This mount is so well built, I'm pretty sure the tripod will always be the weakest link which is a good thing.
I will say that despite my Televue Gibraltar tripod being too light for the Nova/Tec 140, we were still able to comfortably view Jupiter at 300x and were I the owner of a TEC 140, I'd probably be "ok" with continued use of the Gibraltar tripod for a while since I already happened to own one. Were I starting from scratch however, I'd spring for a heavier duty tripod.
I already knew what to expect regarding quality. Charles Riddel is a perfectionist in every way. He does take his time plotting out every detail of his mounts as the 9 months I waited for mine can attest (and some bought in before I did, I'm sure). Even little details that wouldn't matter to most (or not be noticed), seemed to keep him at the drawing board, further improving his design. The result is a beautifully hand crafted mount that looks, feels and functions like nothing else on the market. I am certain that as this mount is shipped out to more people, Charles will be at work improving even more of those little details.
But enough about Charles and his labor of love. More about why I think the Nova's realization proves everything I just said about its maker.
The first thing I noticed was its smoothness. On both axes, the scope just sort of glides. There's no jerkiness, uneven tension, or uncertainty of whether or not the scope is actually balanced as with my Orion Atlas (probably not fair to compare a hand made mount to a mass produced one, I know).
Second was the slow motion controls. You see, once you "push" your scope to its target, you can make fine tuned adjustments either to track the object or further center it using some 900:1, smooth slow motion knobs. Alternatively, if you bought the trainable tracking option that's available, you won't have to do much adjusting at all.
The other details including the Nova's innovative clutching and brake system, its vertical and horizontal balance controls, and simply the beauty of this highly polished, machined mount were also factors in my assessment of quality.
Because I bought in early, I got a much lower price than the mounts are selling for now. But I also bought in before Charles made his many tweaks and improvements to his already mocked up design at the time. What he ended up producing probably cost him a lot more than I paid. But he honored the original price nonetheless and I couldn't be happier about that. The base price at the time I write this review is now $1795. It goes up from there, depending on if you want encoders, skycommander, or even a "trainable" tracking option.
I don't need to mention what the various alt-az mass produced mounts are going for but remember, this mount is not mass produced. It is CNC machined and then put together by hand by Charles himself. There's also mounts like the T-REX which aren't mass produced either but more expensive to compare (I haven't used or seen a T-REX in person so don't take that as a criticism). But back to the Nova's price - personally, I think even the current price is a steal for something with so many machined parts and attention to quality. Just think about some of the Astro Items that aren't even hand built but merely "hand verified" and how much they cost. A lot more than Charles is selling the Nova for.
But remember also that this being a hand made and machined mount, it will probably have a waiting list and may take several months from ordering to receive it. That shouldn't stop you if you're in the market and can wait - because believe me, it's worth waiting for.
Too long, didn't read
To sum this up, I think you can tell that I am a raving fan of the Nova Hitch and I think many of those in line to get theirs will soon agree with me. That being said, I really did try to write this review as fair as I could following CN's guidelines despite this but honestly, I'm at a loss to really tell you anything I find wrong with this thing. As far as alt-az mounts go, I believe the Nova is simply the best you can buy - and certainly one of the only ones capable of handling a huge refractor like my friend's TEC 140. So if you're in the market for a high end alt az mount that is easy to set up and use, I don't think you'll regret choosing the Nova.