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Goto or Not to Goto - Losmandy G11
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That is the question. At least it was for me in my personal struggle to find a new mount for astrophotography. I had been using my inexpensive Orion Skyview-Pro equatorial mount a couple of years now for visual observing. It’s fine for that purpose, but I was becoming increasingly interested in astrophotography. I asked for advice from members of my local astronomy club who are older and wiser. They told me that the most important item to start with was a solid, good quality equatorial mount, suitable for astrophotography. And so my quest began.
I wanted something that would last me a good long time. I needed something versatile that would allow me to mount my Orion 80ed and 120ed refractors, or whatever else I may want to buy in the future. Initially, I thought I would buy a mount with go-to. It seems like everyone with a high quality mount has go-to. I’m always amazed watching it work. It’s so cool when a mount slews to its target all by itself.
However, I always feel a sense of satisfaction when I find a celestial object myself. A robotic mount would seem to take that away. When I first located M13, for example, I felt a small sense of accomplishment. Even with objects I’ve found before, but have not seen since last year, I feel a sense of rediscovery when I find them again. I enjoy looking through my notes and consulting my star charts to find things in the night sky.
I was truly afraid of becoming spoiled by automation, but I wanted to start taking pictures. The best mounts, I thought, for astrophotography are go-to mounts. Maybe, I thought, my sense of satisfaction is just a novelty that’ll wear off over time. I remember that I used to prefer driving a stick-shift car. But there came a time one day, sitting in stop-and-go traffic, when I decided that I’d had enough with manual transmissions. Now I only drive cars with an automatic transmission. (I rarely even use the shift-tronic feature.) Perhaps I will develop a similar change in attitude with my astronomy gear. At least I’ll still have my old mount and my Dobsonian if I want to locate things manually for visual observations. So I decided to go get a nice go-to equatorial mount for astrophotography.
Now I had to decide on what brand. The one that came most recommended was the Losmandy G11 for its quality, longevity, and price. I also considered the Vixen Sphinx, the Orion Atlas, and the Celestron CGE. The Vixen looked nice but I couldn’t find any good reviews for it. The Atlas is by far the least expensive mount. I really like the Orion Company. However, I already own a lot of equipment with the Orion brand name and felt like trying something different. So I decided not to buy Orion this time. The CGE also looked nice, but I could not find much information about it apart from some customer service issues, so I was a little apprehensive. Finally I decided that Losmandy would be a safe bet and ordered a G11 with the Gemini go-to system.
Anything higher in quality than the G11, it seems, has a dramatically higher price tag. It’s kind of funny. The pricing of these mounts is a little bit like the spacing between the orbits of the planets. The further the distance is from the sun, the greater the spacing is between the orbits. The higher the quality of the mount, the greater the price gap is to the next best one.
Losmandy products, it seems, are almost never in stock. I found out soon after placing my order that I would have to wait three months before my mount would be shipped. So while I was waiting, I thought I would dig deeper into the story of this most celebrated piece of hardware.
Equatorial mount making, apparently, is a small side business to Mr. Losmandy’s main business. His main business is manufacturing hardware for the Hollywood film industry. He also machines parts for the biomedical and aerospace industries. Back in the 1990’s, he manufactured the equatorial mounts for Celestron’s CG11 telescope and mount package. This relationship did not last however, and Losmandy and Celestron went their separate ways. Losmandy continued to manufacture and sell the mount he made for Celestron under the new name of G11.
The G11 had always been a non-go-to mount. It was designed in the days before go-to was widely available. It offered very accurate tracking, portability, and solid construction at a reasonable price. This made it hugely popular with the amateur astrophotography crowd. As go-to ability became more available on the mass market, Losmandy began offering the Gemini go-to system as a retrofit kit to his existing mounts. This was simply a matter of replacing the original stepper motors, control box, and hand control. The mount is also made with the Gemini system pre-installed.
It seems that the Gemini is a bit power hungry (3 amps minimum). Although it’s rated at 12V to 18V, from reading about the experiences of other people, it seems that it is happiest between 15V and 18V. This left me wondering what I should do about a power source. This wasn’t going to be as simple as putting batteries into a flashlight. I started looking at gel-cell marine batteries, battery chargers, and portable power supply / jump start batteries. I read that there’s a right and a wrong way to charge a gel cell battery, and that you shouldn’t use one with too many or too little amp/ hours. Losmandy does make an AC to DC converter box for the Gemini, but that would probably mean that I would have to buy a small generator for going out into the field. I asked others how they deal with this, but could not get a clear, complete answer. Some folks actually had some very Rube Goldberg like solutions with DC step-up voltage converters and other things I’d never heard of. This issue was really getting more complicated and more expensive than I had first anticipated. I don’t have the means or the know how to charge marine batteries, or to control the voltage output of a battery. It was really bugging me and I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed.
So I went back to my original concern. Do I really need this go-to right now? I’m still basically a beginner. It might be a good idea for me to become more skilled at finding celestial objects. I already know how to find at least a few. I’m not operating my telescope remotely. I don’t have any back problems. People got along just fine for years without go-to. I don’t feel the need to impress my friends and family with a telescope that can move by itself.
So, I decided to change my order. I already had my heart set on the G11. So I changed from a G11 with Gemini to the original, plain old, non-go-to G11. This may have been a rash decision, but I can always order the upgrade kit later whenever I want to. This was a relief to me. I simply stripped away an entire layer of complexity. I no longer had to worry about a tricky power supply, or a bunch of computer menus to sort through. I can worry about that later. The original non-go-to G11 still has PEC and TVC. It has sidereal, lunar, solar, and king tracking rates, and it will accept input from auto-guiders. The manual is only 19 pages long including some basic concepts of the celestial sphere as well as polar and drift alignment techniques. The mount draws only half an amp, so all I need is a small 12V, 7ah power supply.
Astronomy is my primary interest. It is a complicated enough subject to learn by itself, without the idiosyncrasies of equipment. At least for now I can start off with a mount that is somewhat simpler to use. I can focus my limited mental resources on learning astronomy, challenging (or frustrating) myself to continue learning the night sky. I can just get started taking pictures of easy to find targets. I can also focus my attention on the other astrophotography hardware and software I need to acquire. I just need to take things slowly, and one step at a time.
I’m currently in possession of the mount. I’ve even had the chance to use it a few times. (Good weather conditions and my schedule don’t always agree.) I’m very satisfied with it. It is very stable, robust and beautifully crafted. This mount has no lock knobs. You simply tighten one clutch knob for each axis the way you like and push the scope to where you want it. It then immediately resumes tracking after you let go. I think that is my favorite feature. It tracks very well, the setting circles are easy to read and fairly accurate, and the controls are smooth and responsive.
Here are a couple of my first attempts at galaxies. M31 I took back in November 2008. It is a stack of six 4min unguided exposures from a Canon Digital Rebel set at ISO 400, with a bit of processing. I used my Orion 120ED refractor. The location was from my backyard in Miami, Florida. The Leo Trio was taken back in April 2009 basically the same way. I know these probably aren’t the greatest pictures you’ve ever seen of these galaxies, but someday, I hope, I’ll get there.
The Leo Trio
My only real complaint with the G11 would be with the polar alignment scope (sold separately). It has illuminated etchings inside that indicate the position of Polaris relative to the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. This is great, but the little red light that comes with it is way too bright. Also, the light is connected to a pair of AA batteries with what look like audio headphone jacks. You then have to put the batteries in this cheap little baby blue, dime store Velcro wallet. I ended up going through the hassle of rigging a small plastic project box for the batteries with a potentiometer (a dimmer) from Radio Shack. This is something I didn’t want to do and it went against my K.I.S.S. (Keep-It-Simple-Stupid) philosophy. But this little thing was unusable otherwise.
I have found that locating things manually isn’t always easy. It can take me a lot of time to find a target. I frequently have to get into some uncomfortable positions, especially while hunting for something when it’s near zenith. This can be even harder when it’s hot and muggy and there’s a mosquito buzzing in my ear. It may take me several attempts before finding what I’m after. But, there are other times I’ll find what I’m looking for right off the bat.
I’m sure I will eventually want to buy the Gemini go-to upgrade kit after I break my back, and when I’m doing really long exposures of more difficult targets requiring several hours and a meridian flip. But I’m nowhere near that point. I can put that off for quite a while. Right now I’m content with star hopping or using the setting circles along with a good star atlas. I’m still doing relatively short exposures of simple targets. I’m in no hurry. I don’t think there’s a single deep sky object that is going anywhere in my lifetime.
– To all you lovers of Shakespeare, the immortal bard, please forgive me for my corny title and opening sentence.