Telescope: 14.5" Starmaster "Hybrid" w/GOTO
Primary Mirror: Carl Zambuto
Focal Length: 1584mm
Focal Length w/Paracorr: 1822mm
I live a suburb of Phoenix, AZ and returned to amateur astronomy a little over
5 years ago after a long hiatus. For 3 of the 5 years, I owned an 8" SCT,
and currently own the 14.5" being reviewed here, as well as a William Optics
80mm Megrez refractor, which I use as a wide-field complement to the Starmaster.
I've had the Starmaster for almost 18 months now, and feel that I have sufficiently
run it through its paces to make some comments about it here. I'll spare everyone
the details of how the scope arrived & was packaged. Suffice it to say that
Rick takes much care to insure all the parts arrive unharmed & in good working
order. I have enough bubble wrap to last many lifetimes to come! Also the scope
went together in under an hour, and I'll skip these details too as the whole
process with Rick's instructions was very intuitive & I had no problems
getting the scope up & running.
It's difficult to pick which area to start, but I should begin with the mechanics
of the telescope. My particular unit is "loaded" with the Sky Commander
DSC's & the "GOTO then Track" system. I upgraded to the Feathertouch
focuser, which I think is a must for a scope of this caliber. I also have the
secondary dew heater. The only thing I didn't get was the set of transport handles,
because my storage and observing situations precludes their use. The whole outfit
was $7200.00. Yes it is expensive, and this must be heavily considered for most
of us before taking the plunge, however I'll say right here that the scope is
worth every cent.
The motions of the Starmaster are silky smooth. Rick uses a combination of
Ebony Star on one altitude bearing & industrial grade Velcro on the other
(not the fuzzy strip), which makes for a perfect amount of "stiction".
The azimuth bearing on my scope is covered with FRP. Now since I have the GOTO,
I don't usually worry about any of that, however, I sometimes de-clutch the
drives & manually slew to locate objects just to keep my star-hopping skills
from becoming rusty. The scope stays put wherever I stop the slew, even with
the focuser loaded with the 31mm "Termi-Nagler" & a Paracorr.
Also, tracking the planets by hand at over 500x is not a problem. A small amount
of pressure gets it moving again with no backlash whatsoever in either of the
As I said before the Feathertouch focuser is a must, and the extra $200 is
well spent. The fine focus is a 10:1 ratio & allows for buttery-smooth precision
focusing with any eyepiece. It has a generous amount of travel for a low profile
focuser & all my eyepieces come to focus. It's machined to very tight tolerances
& and there is no "slop" in the eyepiece. The unit on my scope
is a bit different from my friend's earlier version on his 16", in that
the focus knobs are "offset 45*, so that they are easier to reach &
move, especially if you need to wear gloves during the winter. Being from Arizona,
I don't have that problem, but it's still easier to use.
The combination of the Sky Commander DSC's & the GOTO system, makes for
the most accurate object location system I've ever used, and I've never had
an object land outside the field of a 22mm Nagler, which is just under a 1*
True FOV with the Paracorr. Most of the time objects fall within the field of
a 9mm Nagler, which is 202x & a 0.40 degree true FOV with the Paracorr.
As for the accuracy of the tracking - well I've tested lunar, planetary &
sidereal tracking capabilities & many times I've left for as much as two
hours, only to come back with the object still dead-center. A nice feature is
that I can disengage the drives, move to another object manually, then return
to where I was before, because the Sky Commander DSC's don't lose their place
as long as the unit remains on. Another nice aspect is that the drives are soooooo
quiet. No coffee grinders here! Rick programmed a chime when the system reaches
the correct altitude & azimuth coordinates so you know when the object has
been located. When the tracking kicks in, the drives are silent. I've had my
ear right next to the drives in tracking mode & can't hear them.
While I'm a firm believer in honing star-hopping skills, I'm also a proponent
for GOTO. Simply stated, with this feature I spend more time observing than
hunting, and these days my time is limited, so it's definitely worth it. While
tracking platforms are nice alternatives, this is a completely on-board system,
which eliminates an extra piece of equipment to haul around. I also feel that
the tracking of the GOTO is more accurate than that of EQ platforms. Also, for
those who balk at the idea of electronic location systems, I make a pointed
effort to look through the Telrad when the computer locates each object, which
allows me to see where the objects are in the sky & their respective star
fields. I can see over twice as many objects in an evening as I did with my
other scopes, or better yet I can spend much more time on each individual object
doing detailed studies without having to worry about manually tracking or losing
time searching. This is especially nice at star parties when people want to
look through your scope. At these events most people want to see an object,
not watch you hunt it down, so it makes sharing the sky that much nicer.
The trusses are 4 A-frame type trusses with two poles each that attach to the
mirror box with two bolts per set. A single bolt attaches the tops to the upper
cage. I think these make for quicker setup times and also lend themselves to
creating a more rigid structure than 8 separate poles. The 14.5" is a hybrid
design that incorporates both the standard truss features as well as the ELT
features, so I can either knock the scope all the way down for compact storage
& transport, or I can leave the trusses & upper cage as one piece for
a very fast setup & for transporting when I have no other passengers. The
design is very slick & simple. Rick has created a platform that the trusses
attach to, rather than attaching them directly to the "lips" in the
mirror box as you must do on the larger models. Obviously the platform has a
hole cut out in the center so the light can pass through to the primary. When
completely disassembling the scope, just remove the UTA, unscrew the eight bolts
that attach the trusses to the platform, & the four corner bolts remain
in the platform leaving it attached to the mirror box. Conversely, if you wish
to leave the scope in the ELT-mode, just unscrew the four corner bolts, &
the platform along with the trusses & upper cage comes away from the mirror
box as one piece. Nice feature!
Finally the whiffle-tree mirror cell is great. The cell is completely removable
from the tailgate, which really lightens the load anyone has to carry when moving
the scope. Rick also provides a separate storage box fro the mirror & cell,
which is extra protection for the optics. The open cell & the 1.6"
thick mirror allows for fast cool-down times and keeps the mirror well ventilated.
It cools much faster than my old 8" SCT. The cell also supports the mirror
much better than some other designs in my opinion. It has an 18-point floatation
system along with two studs that support the mirror underneath as opposed to
a sling. There are short mirror clips that act as safety stops to keep the mirror
from falling out of the cell when pointed near the horizon. With this system
the scope never loses collimation during the night as often happens with sling
supports, and I've never had a problem with pinched optics, or aberrations arising
from tight mirror clips or the mirror sagging under its own weight. These types
of problems simply are not there with this mirror cell design.
Here's what everyone wants to know. The primary mirror, as with all Zambuto-equipped
Starmasters I've seen, is a jaw-dropper. Since quoting data on the mirror is
often misleading and can cause flame wars, I've chosen to leave these out of
this review. What I will say is that the Zambuto mirrors have an extremely smooth
optical surface, with a near-perfect star test. Running through focus, the Fresnel
rings are identical on both sides of focus and evenly illuminated. I can find
no zones, no turned edge, and no astigmatism. There is perhaps a "slight"
under-correction, however it's often not even noticeable to me, which could
indicate that I might have tested while the mirror was still slightly out of
thermal equilibrium. If it is there, it's very, very slight & I couldn't
begin to guess by what fraction of a wave.
However, that smooth surface correlates to what I believe to be the most important
aspect of visual observing, and that is contrast. In a word - exceptional. The
scope shows even the most subtle differences in illumination. There is definitely
an emotional response with Carl's mirrors, an underlying feeling that's hard
to describe, except to say sitting at the eyepiece is more like observing from
space rather than the ground. The extremely fine details seen are amazing, and
sometimes I seem to subconsciously pick up things that I don't notice when looking
through other instruments, only to go back to my scope & find that I wasn't
Jupiter usually shows 10 bands and massive amounts of detail within the belts
& GRS, as well as the festoons & barges. And being able to see this
kind of detail routinely at 400x, and many nights up to 600x is definitely like
looking at a photograph. Polar regions & surface detail are visible on Io.
Saturn shows the Crepe ring every night, as well as the Encke minima without
fail.. Despite the short focal length it is a killer planetary scope. When Mars
was last at opposition before the dust storms, picking out surface details was
as easy as looking at our moon. In addition both polar caps were easily seen.
Phobos & Deimos were also seen. On the planets I rarely use filters, so
most of the views described above were natural.
No matter the conditions, the Trapezium easily breaks into 6 components, even
at very low magnifications. The detail level seen in M42/43 is far better than
any photo I've ever seen, from low-power views that show the entire nebula,
to using a binoviewer at 500x on the Trapezium vicinity that reveals details
in the nebula, which are reminiscent of the structure seen in cumulo-nimbus
With globular clusters, "resolved" takes on a new meaning & the
scope provides "in your face" visual observing! Obviously M13 &
Omega are completely resolved. One of my favorite globulars is M92 because of
the super-dense core that seems to go on forever. One night I decided to push
the scope to what our group likes to call "silly power" & view
M92 at 700x. WOW - the core showed a tremendous amount of resolution, but again
it's so dense I couldn't quite get it to go all the way. M13 at this power was
like looking right through it to the other side. And I can't forget the extra-galactic
clusters, G1 & G2 in M31. G1 actually started show resolution at about 500x.
Another extra-galactic object is NGC 604, the giant HII region in M33, about
2.5 MLY away. At 700x I can see much structure & filaments within the nebula.
Seeing that in real time is spectacular.
Most galaxies within the local group show quite a bit of structure, knotting,
& dust lanes. Those more distant objects do reveal detail well above being
mere smudges. Many Virgo galaxies show spiraling. Every component of Stephan's
Quintet is always visible, and much easier to see than in many other scopes
of similar aperture I've used. NGC 7331 is stunning. Closer neighbors like M51,
M31, M33, M81/82, M104, NGC 4565 & NGC 891 take on photographic qualities
in the eyepiece. I've been able to determine the rotational direction of a galaxy
that NSOG stated was over 500 MLY distant. The scope is also quite capable of
hunting the faint Abell planetary nebulae & galaxy clusters, and with an
H-Beta filter, the Horsehead is a snap with direct vision. These are just a
few of my experiences at the eyepiece. In short, once the mirror has reached
thermal equilibrium, it's like having a 14.5" f/4.3 APO. Tight, pinpoint
stars sharp across the FOV, and a nice "snap" to focus - there's no
mistaking it. The low f/ratio provides a nice wide field, at least for a scope
of this size. I can get 1.4* with the 31 Nagler & using the Paracorr which
boosts the focal length from 1584mm to 1822mm. (1.6* without it) Not a bad FOV
for a 14.5" mirror.
Hopefully by this point the reader will understand that the 14.5" Starmaster
is a world-class visual instrument. I really can't think of any complaints about
it, because it continually stuns me every time I use it. If I had to name anything
at all, it would be that I'd prefer the AstroSystems secondary to have small
knobs on the collimation screws, rather than having to use an Allen Wrench.
AstroSystems does provide these, but not until the minor axis reaches 3.1",
which is used on the 16" scope. The 14.5" uses a 2.6" secondary.
The combination of Rick's engineering & Carl's mirror makes for an incredible
instrument that simply "gets out of the way" of the observer &
allows one to concentrate on the views at the eyepiece rather than all the other
aspects usually associated with using a telescope. The only modifications I've
made to the scope were to line the upper cage with Protostar flocking paper,
and make a removable light baffle for the upper cage. I really don't need it
at dark sites, but if I ever setup in my backyard, it does help to reduce any
glare from nearby streetlights or neighbors' porch lights. Even in my yard,
after midnight these aspects are no longer an issue.
In conclusion, the 14.5" Starmaster is the finest scope I've ever used.
It is more than easily manageable by one person, but still delivers amazing
deep-sky & planetary performance. In my opinion it consistently outperforms
other instruments of similar aperture. Rick has done a superb job in designing
& redesigning his scopes to insure that his customers have the best, and
he's continually looking for ways to improve the little things that make all
the difference in an observer's experience. Thanks for reading.