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MoonLite NiteCrawler Focuser
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MoonLite NiteCrawler Focuser
High-Precision Motorized Focuser with Rotator and 3rd Axis Motor Driver
MSRP Approximately US$2,400-2,900 from MoonLite Telescope Accessories
For astrophotographers, we often struggle with maintaining focus while changing filters, the seeing condition changing during the session, expansion and contraction of the OTA during an image capture, and so forth. It’s enough to make one pull their hair out at times! On top of that, rotation of the camera to grab the entire image within the CCD chip’s field of view can be another hassle that requires the imager to be at the scope, whether in a fixed observatory or not. This can make life difficult for those of us who want to use a truly remote observatory and site.
I have been using telescopes for film and limited CCD use for well over 20 years, and because of extensive business travel coupled with a spouse who cannot access the observatory due to disability, I needed a product that would be solid, reliable, allow for remote precise FOV rotation, temperature compensation, no requirement to find a zero-point and reinitialize the position of the drive motors, and easily adaptable to various optical tubes. As an engineer and former aircraft mechanic, I demand a great deal out of the build quality of anything that I own as well.
This review will be focused (no pun intended) on the build quality, software setup, system compatibility, and out of the box operation and impressions. For the purposes of context, the mount is a Losmandy Titan 50, with a Mallincam 12” carbon truss RC optical tube assembly. Because I didn’t have any use for the stock focuser, I have been waiting for this focuser to arrive. The stock focuser was basically useless when having to carry approximately nine pounds of gear on it; too much slip and flexure of the optical train to be useful. The original configuration is shown below.
The optical train carried by this focuser consists of a Foresight Innovations ONAG-XT on-axis guider, QSI683WS CCD imaging camera with eight-position filter wheel, and a Fishcamp guider on the rear.
Personal testimony: I have known Ron Newman, the owner of MoonLite Telescope Accessories, since around 2010 when I needed a focuser for a 5” Meade refractor OTA, and while I had bought a focuser used online, Ron was very helpful with my needs and questions, and since then I have owned five of his focusers as a result of the customer service experience. He offers many other items as well and all are quality items made in his shop. I once sent an OTA to him that had a non-standard thread on the tube, and he fabricated a custom mounting flange in two days and had me up and running. All items sold by him are fabricated in his shop in Pennsylvania. When I contacted him about a focuser with a rotator for the RCT and the remote observatory, he told me to take a look at the new NiteCrawler, which I did. Since Ron was developing and building it, I felt that it would be solid and dependable.
The focuser arrived in its box well-packed with all contents wrapped in heavy layers of bubble-wrap and tape, all nested within the usual green Styrofoam peanuts.
Nestled within the box were the following contents:
1. NiteCrawler focuser with GSO 12” RCT flange pre-assembled, mounted, and collimated
2. Universal power supply with various adapters for use worldwide
3. 68mm to T-thread locking adapter
4. 68mm to 48mm filter thread locking adapter
5. 2” 3-way locking adapter for 2” camera or other nosepiece
6. Standard USB cable
7. Thermocouple for temperature compensation
Upon removal of the bubble wrap around the focuser, the first impression is, “Whoa.” The second impression is, “This is a beast!” The build quality of the focuser is immediately apparent. I shook it around for rattle and there was only silence. I pushed around on the focuser barrel and rotator and it didn’t move – not even a few thousandths of an inch as far as I could tell. The driven barrel inside the body is as solid as you could wish for. Please see the initial images.
Note the support rails and bearings supporting the drawtube. Smooth operation and very robust. Bearings ride against the stainless-steel support rails and not the drawtube, which is a marked improvement over many aftermarket focuser mechanical designs. The white spots are just Styrofoam bead packing remnants. Note the fine engraved rotator graduated markings. The drawtube is also slightly baffled and matte-finished to eliminate stray light reflections.
Note that the barrel is internally threaded for the installation of focal reducers using a reducer carrier module that can be seen on the MoonLite website. The purpose of this carrier is to eliminate all slop and flex from every aspect of the imaging train and maintain the correct position of the reducer at all times.
Note also that there is a swing away display module that also controls the step of the worm drive focuser and rotator as controlled through the “focuser” knobs on the side for manual use. 1X, 10X, 50X, 100X, 200X, and 500X steps are available, a step being .001 degree of the worm rotation..
Finally, this focuser is heavy. Medium to large refractor owners might be able to get rid of that ugly counterweight on the rear of the OTA.
Moving on to the build review, I used the 2” 3-way compression fitting and threaded it into the body of the focuser. Wow, this is a solid fit. I removed the stock focuser from the 12” OTA and threaded the NiteCrawler body onto the OTA flange. It went together very smoothly and tightened snugly without any snags or slop in the threads. See below.
I then attached the optical train to the NiteCrawler and did a fit test. I also flexed the optical train, knowing that the ONAG XT guider assembly is extremely rigid. I could detect no motion or flex in the focusing barrel clamped into the massive support bearings supporting the focusing drawtube. A downside is that there is almost no finger clearance to tighten the 2” adapter compression bands with the drawtube fully retracted. It’s best to tighten these when the focuser is extended a little bit.
Before moving on, note that the NiteCrawler emphasizes the use of worm gear drives and absolute encoders to not only control the rotator and drawtube with extreme accuracy, but to always remember its position even if the power is lost. This was very important to me in remote, robotic imaging use.
After downloading and installing the USB and ASCOM drivers required, as well as the NiteCrawler stand-alone software, it was time to power up and test it.
I would like to say that the software installation was seamless. However, I had a few issues because I failed to follow the directions. Imagine that…
All in all, though, I was able to tie in the focuser into my ASCOM suite quickly. Once setup, I will report performance back here using FocusMax.
MoonLite has also included a stand-alone control set that provides extremely robust and precise operation of the system without a planetarium program required. Initially, I could not get the non-ASCOM driver to work. However, it was because ASCOM 6.2’s focuser platform was running at the same time in the background. Ron advised me on this and I’ve since loaded and operated it in non-ASCOM mode without any issues. Stand-alone page in operation shown below.
There is also a SkyX Pro module that will be available soon in the daily build to drop the NiteCrawler into the planetarium software and run it in all aspects available. I could operate just the focuser in ASCOM via SkyX Pro. However, I would need the new module for full integration into SkyX Pro and have all functions available.
Looking at the swing-down readout, you can see this info on the focuser as well. Note that in my setup and using an ONAG, it places the imaging camera in an unusual position and while playing with the rotator, I crashed the camera into the display module while homing the focuser. My own stupid fault, as I had not set up any rotator limits. However, the focuser did not move from the readout position and the rotator pushed on through, rotating my QSI body in the process. In the future, I will get a 2” extension tube or two from MoonLite and install it prior to the ONAG body – this is probably needed anyway to correctly place the focal plane for the QSI imager.
This unit operates exceptionally smoothly and it is almost silent. No “rabid badger” noises… I had to stare at it intently to see if it was even moving because the control is so fine!
- Absolutely solid build top to bottom
- Appears to be no flex in the optical train whatsoever
- 25 pound instrument capacity
- An absolute must for remote or robotic imaging in my opinion
- Has a lot of potential, especially with the focuser that will be designed for off-axis guiding on the third axis sometime in the near future.
- Being from MoonLite, the support will be there when you need it.
- Usable for almost all scopes – the ones that may present some difficulty are small 70mm refractors and the like.
- Heavy. Your rig needs to be solid.
- It is expensive, but for my application it is well worth the money.
Solid, if expensive, product that will help you achieve your imaging goals be removing some critical imaging hassles.
I have included the MoonLite products page from the web with permission because I might misstate a feature or specification.