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A Look at the Future of Amateur Telescope Makers


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A Look at the Future of Amateur Telescope Makers

 

By Zane Landers

 

Telescope making in particular is one of the facets of amateur astronomy that for so long has begun to drastically shrink in size and to perhaps seem due to disappear entirely. After all, with the availability of the omnipresent Chinese-made telescopes that have all but cornered today’s market, there’s little economic incentive to build your own scope - even at the largest apertures like 20 inches, mass manufacturing has begun to eat away at the surface-level basic cost advantages in doing it yourself.

 

Without growing up in a time where making your own scope was commonplace - perhaps the only option to get your own at a reasonable cost - or perhaps at least witnessing the rise of the Dobsonian in the ‘80s and ‘90s - it seemed to me, and perhaps to almost everyone, that the grand tradition of telescope making - a craft that traces its roots to Foucault, Herschel, and Galileo himself among so many others - had pretty much no attraction to newcomers. When I picked up my first mirror blank in the summer of 2017 at the age of 14, I was the first teenager in a long time to have done so seriously - or at least, to have been particularly vocal about it. But I won’t be the last. I’m proud to say I think I’m far from it, actually.

 

If you’re reading this, the thing you’re probably wondering about now is - what’s causing the newfound rise and perhaps rebirth in interest in telescope making and astronomy as a whole? I can think of several factors.

 

The biggest draw, in my opinion, is probably the renewal of the general public’s interest in astronomy and space exploration. You can thank myriad events for that. SpaceX has succeeded in landing and re-using rockets, building one of the most powerful launch vehicles ever (only trailing the Saturn V used for the Apollo program, the Soviet N-1 and Energia, and NASA’s upcoming SLS), and is now set to return American astronauts to space from American soil alongside Boeing this spring/summer, for the first time since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.

 

NASA’s Artemis program - utilizing the massive SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, and commercial vehicles - will fly its first, unmanned SLS flight next year and could put people back on the Moon in under five years from now. A variety of new robotic missions from several different countries will be on their way to Mars in just a few months.

 

COSMOS is on air again soon, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We’ve had two well-publicized lunar eclipses and Mercury transits in the past half-decade visible from the US. The James Webb Space Telescope is almost ready to launch. Hubble is still in operation. Kepler (and now TESS) have shown us that maybe we aren’t so alone after all, and that the Solar System is less unique than we thought. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 inspired countless people to get started in astronomy. Films like Interstellar, The Martian, and Gravity have made space cool and trendy in pop culture.

 

 I would argue that if nothing else, overall public interest in astronomy and space is the highest it’s been in the last thirty years, and will soon beat out the hype around Hale-Bopp, Halley and perhaps eventually Sputnik and Apollo.

 

However, other things are at play too. Among them:

 

Real-time, high-speed Internet communication. I showed my friend Jordanne how to disassemble a C8 step-by-step over FaceTime. And without websites like Cloudy Nights, Reddit, and Instagram I would be limited to the knowledge of people in my local astronomy clubs - of the five I’m active in, there are two ATMs total across all of them. I don’t think I or any of my peers would have anywhere near the level of access to equipment, knowledge and other people to help us were it not for the fact that Cloudy Nights gives us the ability to talk to literally thousands of other amateur astronomers and telescope makers of almost all levels of age and experience.

 

Increased interest in DIY in general. You can thank hipsters for this, as well as the “maker” movement and the general buzz on social media about DIY stuff. It’s cool to make things. It’s easier than ever to make things, even if the past two or three generations haven’t tended to grow up in households with a shop or handy person of some kind the way a lot of Baby Boomers did.

 

Freely available information and discussion on Cloudy Nights and other websites. You don’t have to do everything by the books out of fear of messing up anymore. Ideas and inspiration are only a Google search or a post away.

 

New technologies. In the optical testing world alone there’s Bath interferometry, computerized Ronchi simulations, and Foucault analysis software. Being stuck with Couder masks makes mirror making a heck of a lot more daunting, and in my opinion much harder to get a really good idea of the overall quality without sticking it in the scope and star testing. 3D printing and CNCs have also made it drastically easier to design and manufacture precision, high-spec parts.

 

Reasons to strive for homebuilt quality. Pretty much all the cheap Dobs on the market use particle board bases and Nylon bearing pads or rollers. While I’ve got nothing wrong with anyone buying an XT8 or Z8, the fact is that for just a little more money you can build a scope that’s lighter, probably provides sharper images and is easier to move around the sky. I’d argue that it’s far better to spend money on a well-built 8” than a barebones 10”. There’s also, of course, the massive mass/bulk advantages with DIY versus commercial big Dobs (mainly at above 10” of aperture) and the possibility of faster focal ratios, thinner blanks, and meniscus mirrors.

 

For a long time, however, I thought I was just perhaps one of the last teenagers involved in telescope making, and might perhaps, one day, be the last person at all. That is, until about a year and a half ago when I was introduced to Logan Nicholson, now 15. Logan - who lives in Melbourne, Australia -  just happened to get the same urge to grind a mirror and make a telescope shortly after I did. And unlike me, Logan didn’t have nearly as much experience with visual astronomy. Before he built his first Dob, Logan mostly just took astrophotos. He’d hardly ever looked through a scope before, let alone become accustomed to it.

 

While two people on opposite sides of the planet both deciding to make their own telescopes is more of a coincidence than a trend, just the fact that somebody else my age had decided to grind a mirror and build a scope with it was encouraging. Logan’s shown that not only can anybody make a good mirror on their first try, but that you can do more ambitious projects even with relatively simple skills and a low budget. Logan’s first mirror was a 10” f/5, his second a 6” f/3 - both far more difficult tasks for a beginner than a humble 6” f/5 or f/8. He built a mirror grinding machine out of random junk for almost nothing. And he’s got his own Bath interferometer. Logan’s so good at making mirrors that people pay him to test and refigure them! I personally commissioned him to make a 10” f/3.2 for me, which I’m still finalizing the scope for.

 

Logan recently refigured his 10” f/5 and put it into a truss scope, and he’s uploaded a nice video of it which you can find here:
fhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ta5GCJMH85o&t=31s

 

Logan’s mirrors, machines, and relatively proletarian scope builds are a testament to the kinds of things anybody, even a teenager on a budget, can achieve with enough effort and willpower. He’s now got a 16” f/3 in the works, albeit temporarily on pause due to some of the issues with the slump of the 0.75” thick meniscus mirror blank. Soon he’ll either finish that or make a conventional 16” or 18” mirror.

 

Logan’s…… model, if you will, has become quite popular. Take for instance Aaron Tragle. Aaron, 17, is a bit less of a stranger to visual astronomy than Logan was. In fact, he mostly turned to astrophotography because of (thankfully, somewhat temporary) physical impairments he suffered in an unfortunate accident a few years ago. However, I think that if you told Aaron a year ago that he’d be grinding a 6” f/3 mirror and have virtually duplicated Logan’s drill-powered grinding machine, he probably would’ve called you crazy. I suspect I would have too! But Aaron’s now grinding 6” f/3 and f/5 mirrors for use in dual astrographs, and he has plans for using the 6” f/3 for visual observing as well - and perhaps to build a larger 8” or 10” sub-f/3 Newtonian. Aaron also has been experimenting with 3D-printing most of his OTAs, along with chemistry involving anodizing and electroplating his own telescope parts. He plans on using the 6” scopes for both casual imaging and for supernova hunting as part of the ASASSN project (he’s already confirmed 3 candidates with his 90mm refractor).

 


Aaron and his fixed-post grinding machine in action.

 

Sub-f/4 mirrors and big Dobs aren’t the only reason some of us make our own telescopes and mirrors, however. It sure wasn’t what I was thinking when I started with my 6”, and it’s surely not what Anton Grankin, 16, is thinking either. He’s already got a 10” commercial scope, but Anton wants something smaller he could bring on a plane for vacations, or on crowded family road trips - and a project for the school science fair was a nice bonus. Thus, he’s grinding a 6” f/5 and putting it in a compactable travel tube.

 

Funny enough, the blank Anton is using is actually one I attempted to grind my first mirror with and abandoned when I chipped the edges (long story). The two big chips, however, are almost exactly 120 degrees apart and thus will be invisible under the retaining clips in the scope’s mirror cell.

 




Anton grinding his 6” f/5 mirror.

 

Lance ~~~~, 17, has been working on his 12” f/5 plate glass mirror for some time now, and likes to point out that he’s done 100% of the work on a machine, and when completed it’ll be the largest mirror ever ground by a teenager (until Logan finally finishes up his 16” f/3, at least). Lance already has the shroud, mirror cell and several other components nearly ready to go for the scope - once he’s got the mirror polished out and has the exact focal length determined, he’ll be starting construction. It’ll be one heck of an upgrade from his abysmal PowerSeeker 127EQ and the 20x80 binoculars he has now.

 


Lance with his 12” mirror.

 

Another friend of ours, Hunter (17), has just ordered a 6” mirror kit to make an f/8. It will not only be his first homemade scope, but his first scope, period, like homemade 6” f/8s used to be for countless beginners.

 

And who says you’ve got to make your own mirror to be a telescope maker? I’ve only ground one mirror, myself. Jordanne Brisby (17), Winslow Barnwood (15), and Hasan Khalil (18) are building 11” f/7, 8” f/6 and 6” f/5s respectively with pre-made mirrors. Jordanne wants a big planet killer to complement her ED80 astrograph and C8, Winslow wants a grab n’ go scope he can use while imaging with his 70mm quadruplet or 8” Newtonian, and Hasan wants a travel/rich-field scope that can be potentially converted to an astrograph to complement his C9.25. Hasan’s scope has a fiberglassed Sonotube tube, Winslow’s is solid wood, and Jordanne’s is (thankfully) a truss. All three scopes are in the early stages of fabrication at this time. Winslow’s primary mirror was taken from a commercial Dob, while Hasan and Jordanne’s mirrors are homemade ones that I acquired from friends.

 

 


Winslow with his tube.

 


Hasan with his current telescope and work-in-progress 6” OTA and mirror.

 




Jordanne with her 11” primary mirror, and her current progress on her scope’s lower tube assembly.

 

There may only be nine of us right now, but I know of at least a few of our other friends who are at least considering grinding a mirror or building a scope. Additionally, there are literally dozens of (by my counts, maybe even close to a hundred) teenagers doing some form of amateur astronomy and astrophotography - and tons of folks in their 20s and 30s who are interested in telescope making as well. And I hope that our posts and this article serve as encouragement for even more.

 

            At least three of the US-based folks I’ve mentioned here (not to mention myself) are going to be entering scopes in the competition atop Breezy Hill at Stellafane this year - potentially even six - from all across the East Coast - and Logan is flying in from Australia with a scope or two as well. And we’re not the only ones. My hope is that this article, the excellent new Sky & Telescope ATM articles by Jerry Oltion, and our other ongoing efforts will inspire scores of people, young and old, to get out there and make something and look at the universe with an instrument you’ve crafted yourself. The legacy of Porter, Dobson and the great innovators and educators who came before us lives on.

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


  • PhilH, paul, BarabinoSr and 27 others like this


28 Comments

Great Article Augustus.

 

One problem I see with adults is the amount of spare time that we have seems to dwindling.

My Dad, and his "buddies" all worked about 40 minutes away and were strict 40 hr men.

Now the work week has expanded, and comutes are longer.  I would love to grind my own

mirror, but no way do I have the time.  I am waiting for my "golden" years to try my hand at it.

 

Also Asian Cheap Labor and amazing machines has turned the economics of telescope building upside down.

I remember 6 inch reflectors being Hundreds of 1970 Dollars.  That was when a starting job paid $2.50 an hour.

Today, I can get a decent 6  inch mirror for $150.00 and starting wages are $10.00.  This does

not apply just to telescopes.  All sorts of manufactured goods can be had for nearly nothing.

 

Another thing changing in our Millieu is shipping.  Over the past couple of decades shipping is becoming

increasingly expensive but also lightning fast.  When I was a kid a stamp was 5 cents and the norm was wait

weeks for delivery.  Now I can have boxes shipped from the West Coast to my home in 2 days, but at a price.

It now costs more to ship a cheap scope than its price to manufacture.  The last scope I bought was $45+

to ship a refractor from Missouri to Illinois.  Almost blew up the deal.

 

Raw materials use is also changing.  The telescopes and appliances of yore were made of metal and wood.

That has been replaced by chip board and plastic. Cheaper to manufacture and ship.   Low on durability.

Remember when a TV was a piece of furniture in a walnut cabinet?

 

The shipping / raw material changes are making me build more of my own mounts, which I find an

interesting challenge too.  I was able to buy a 12 inch collasible dob tube only for a great price.  The mount

was too heavy, and too big and not valuable enough to ship.

    • Ron359, eros312, LarsMalmgren and 2 others like this
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Astrojensen
Feb 26 2020 02:07 PM

It is HIGHLY unlikely, that amateur telescope making will disappear completely. If you do some googling, you'll soon find LOADS of homepages dedicated to it. And there's people out there doing some pretty high-end stuff in addition to the more traditional telescope making. I have a friend, who built his own active optics guider, because his SCT had terrible periodic error and the mount and scope had so much inertia, it couldn't be guided properly the usual way. The commercial units were extremely expensive, so he made his own, on a fraction of the budget. 

 

 

Clear skies!
Thomas, Denmark 

    • wavefront, turtle86, LarsMalmgren and 4 others like this

Since starting off in the hobby only a few years ago, I've been very interested in trying out mirror grinding and building my own scope. There are a few obstacles, like the initial investment of time and money into locating and buying the materials that can't be found in the local hardware, and I'd definitely like to find a mentor to help guide me through the process. Then of course, there's the time and cost of sending off the mirror for coating. Like you said, if I just want a 8" long fl scope, at the end of the day I'm more inclined to spend less time and not a lot more money supporting my small-store retailers (without running the risk of messing up and starting the build over again). 

That being said, I'd still like the learning experience. Is there anything like some kind of kit that supplies you with most materials, including a secondary and spider and grinding materials? 

    • Augustus and Space Ant like this

Jim of JMI says on his website there is still the possibility of another John Dobson. Who knows what tricks there are to re-revolutionize our hobby.

Any takers out there?

    • Augustus likes this

Just wait until every household has a 3-D printer. And every adult has learned how to use it in high school.    There's hope!  waytogo.gif

    • MDB, Augustus and lemonade like this

Augustus, thanks for writing this article. Even first-attempt mirrors can be of very fine quality and significantly out-perform the usual commercial mirrors. I suspect that most users haven't ever looked through a well-made scope and don't know what they are missing. And you're absolutely right about the run-of-the mill chipboard Dobsonian mounts--they really aren't that great. Sure, they're better than the department store disasters we all rag on, but they often fall way short of the potential of the elegant Dobsonian design.

 

Keep on building!

    • Augustus likes this

Just wait until even household has a 3-D printer. And every adult has learned how to use it in high school.    There's hope!  waytogo.gif

Aaron has some pretty cool looking parts printed so far. Hopefully he posts them in his thread soon.

    • Simcal likes this

Since starting off in the hobby only a few years ago, I've been very interested in trying out mirror grinding and building my own scope. There are a few obstacles, like the initial investment of time and money into locating and buying the materials that can't be found in the local hardware, and I'd definitely like to find a mentor to help guide me through the process. Then of course, there's the time and cost of sending off the mirror for coating. Like you said, if I just want a 8" long fl scope, at the end of the day I'm more inclined to spend less time and not a lot more money supporting my small-store retailers (without running the risk of messing up and starting the build over again). 

That being said, I'd still like the learning experience. Is there anything like some kind of kit that supplies you with most materials, including a secondary and spider and grinding materials? 

I would recommend looking for a spider/secondary used somewhere. Destiny sells new spiders and GSO sells new secondaries but they are kind of expensive.

 

For grinding kits check out Firsthand Discovery, though you could probably obtain a blank used on here for cheaper.

    • zakry3323 and Simcal like this

Its wonderful to see young people getting into ATM, and astronomy generally.I have followed Logan,s mirror builds since he first posted, and he has been an inspiration to so many younger people . He was an inspiration to me too, and last year I completed a 10in f3.7 mirror, and an 8in f2.65 mirror - with the help of oversight from Danny on C/N ( Pinbout ). I made my only other mirror in 1962, so there was a long gestation before moving into the short f numbers.Provided you build a bit of simple test gear, fast mirrors are a fun ( frustrating ) challenge, and it seems to be the way of modern ATM, " pushing the boundaries". Go for it Guys and Gals , great to see, and best wishes to you all from a "Great Grandad" in NZ. Macleod

    • Knasal likes this

I would recommend looking for a spider/secondary used somewhere. Destiny sells new spiders and GSO sells new secondaries but they are kind of expensive.

 

For grinding kits check out Firsthand Discovery, though you could probably obtain a blank used on here for cheaper.

Thanks Augustus!

good to see young blood getting into ATM field

for a while I thought it would fade away with aging space age baby boomers

 

note: economic pressure on grinding your own mirror began once commercial

scopes hit market back in the 60's 

i have ground a few small mirrors and lenses but just for oddball stuff like 

herchelian off axis or extra long focal length lenses that are hard to find 

 

note: there is another aspect to atm'ing  and that is the component build

  example : my D SHG (spectroheligraph) is built from ready made components

such as slits and holographic gratings and then designing and building body around those items

 

good article and good news - hats off to you Zane

    • Augustus likes this
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NinePlanets
Mar 01 2020 09:41 AM

Excellent! Thank you!

For decades I have assumed the ATM community was dying off with the Boomers. I'm glad to see there is a legacy - and one who can write, too!  ;)

    • ChristopherK, Augustus and Space Ant like this

In 1970 $75.00 would buy a second-rate Japanese 60mm.  Today, $500.00 (equivalent dollars) will buy a lot, LOT more scope.  But, housing costs a lot more, and the percentage of income going to "services" and electronics is much higher than 1970.  So, if all you buy for your hermit cave is a telescope, things are much better.  On the opposite end, DIY, the stuff needed to grind a 6" mirror probably costs as much as entire six inch scope.  In addition, millenials watch Youtube videos...on how to change a tire and spend 80% of their time on phones and prefer "experiences" to material goods.  I don't see telescope building as a hobby with much of a future, and in-fact, few hobbies attract the attention of anyone under 50.

In addition, millenials watch Youtube videos...on how to change a tire and spend 80% of their time on phones and prefer "experiences" to material goods.  I don't see telescope building as a hobby with much of a future, and in-fact, few hobbies attract the attention of anyone under 50.

Telescope making is an experience and this article is not about millenials. Additionally I think it is a bit broad to paint an entire generation as lazy, ignorant and addicted to devices.

    • eros312 and pwang99 like this

I'm glad to see that there are still young people who are interested in mirror making.

 

One thing to consider, it's virtually impossible to find mirrors that have specific focal lengths or f-ratios in the consumer market.  Most everything is made in a few "standard" sizes. So, about the only way you're going to find an f/8 four inch Newtonian primary is if you grind one yourself. [I know, Vixen and a few other manufacturers use to make 4-inch Newtonians at f/8, but those are getting increasingly hard to find on the used market).

 

Why f/8 and four inches in diameter? Well, that just happens to be the focal length that is needed to frame the entire disk of the moon on a sensor like Sony's IMX183. It's also the correct f-ratio to deliver an essentially coma free field over that same sensor and as the numbers predict at f/8 and with the IMX183 sensor you are pretty close to the critical sampling for that sensor's pixel size (perhaps when given a little help with a drizzle integration and a red filter).

 

Thus, the "perfect" small scope to do good quality, full disk lunar imaging in a single frame.

 

To the OP, keep up the good work.

    • Augustus likes this

After a 60mm refractor, the next biggest scope I first had the chance to view through was the one I built in 1974! A 6 inch f/8. I ground and polished the mirror and made a turn-on-thread equatorial pipe mount for it. It still is the biggest scope I have and I still use it.

 

Having made your own scope you are the manufacturer and the service technician and warranty. If some part wears out or is damaged it goes back to the factory - your workshop and is fixed for free. Upgrades, addons and modifications are free too, often made from materials lying around the workshop. No packaging and posting costs nor weeks waiting time other than your own schedule.

    • Augustus likes this
Excellent,while I do not think amateur telescope making will completely die out it is good to see some young ATM's out there. With the Virus in China I have a feeling production of telescopes from China is going to decline for awhile. Nate Goodman (Nato).
    • Augustus likes this

Excellent,while I do not think amateur telescope making will completely die out it is good to see some young ATM's out there. With the Virus in China I have a feeling production of telescopes from China is going to decline for awhile. Nate Goodman (Nato).


Don’t forget the possible tariffs. Very good point!
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msmithmitsky
Mar 03 2020 06:25 PM

Thanks for the inspiring article.  I much enjoyed the upbeat tone. 

    • Augustus and zakry3323 like this

Zane,

 

Outstanding article! It warms my heart to hear about you guys and gals making telescopes by hand. I have always thought it was amazing that someone could grind a mirror by hand and make it work with optical precision. Someday I will try it myself!

 

-David Easley

    • Augustus likes this
Interesting read and well written, glad the hobby has some young go-getters that’ll move it forward one day!
    • Augustus likes this

Listen to the latest episode of the Observers Notebook with Zane Landers!

 

https://soundcloud.c...th-zane-landers

    • Augustus likes this

Enjoyed your article, Zane, and hearing of someone your age being into ATM’ing is rare indeed.

 

While I was in my 30’s when making my first telescope it was not the first I had used; in fact the very first Mars view I had, besides looking up at it while lying in my front yard, was in the 40” Yerkes Clarke back n 1948.  It’s a is long story, but when I was eight my father took me to Kenosha, Wisconsin with him to a lithographers school so my mother could take a break from us kids when he was away during WWII.   After that I peered off and on in telescopes now and then until in 1973 when my wife bought me a 60mm Tasco to see comet Kohoutek. Then Mars interest took over and a chance meeting with Don Parker and Chick Capen, both well known Mars observers. Parker had been making telescopes since 1956, so we fit in right away. 

 

My first ATM was small reflector kit from Jaegers Optical.  My next project was a 12.5” f/30 Classical Cassegrain!  That was in the mid-1970’s and was only the first among many.  Also, I have been with ALPO since then as well.  My ATM’ing and observing are over now due to lack of interest and age.  But, it is interesting to read about it all.  Thanks for the article.

    • eros312, Cometman and Augustus like this

Very inspiring article for all.

Thank you Zane.

    • Augustus likes this
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scorpion777
Mar 18 2020 11:43 PM

has anyone built a sct mirror or richie



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