- Review of Explore Scientific First Light 8
- Rebuilding my CGE Pro
- COUNTING SUNSPOTS WITH A $10 OPTICAL TUBE ASSEMBLY
- Hubble Optics 14 inch Dobsonian - Part 2: The SiTech GoTo system
- iStar Optical’s Phantom FCL 140-6.5 review
- Who’s Afraid of a Phantom: Istar Phantom 140mm F/6.5, that is?
- SHARPSTAR 94EDPH APOCHROMATIC REFRACTOR
- My Losmandy G11T review
- FIELD TEST: THE NOH CT-20 ALT-AZ MOUNT
- SkyTee-2 Alt/Az Mount Review
- SharpStar Askar ACL200 200-mm f/4 astrographic telephoto lens
- A review of the Unistellar EVscope
- Astrotrac 360 tracking platform – first impression
- FIELD TEST: CARL ZEISS APOCHROMATIC & SHARPEST (CZAS) BINOVIEWER
- Omegon 32mm 70º SWA eyepiece review
CNers have asked about a donation box for Cloudy Nights over the years, so here you go. Donation is not required by any means, so please enjoy your stay.
Universal Astronomics Millenium Mount
I like observing the sky with binoculars. I also like late nights out under the stars. What I don't like is
the way these two activities usually interact, namely, long-term binocular viewing leads to considerable fatigue,
inducing jitters and shakes which make the whole event less pleasant and productive than it could be and significantly
reduces observing time. Over the years I've owned a variety of telescope mounts, including a Meade LX200 computerized
system, a Mountain Instruments MI-250 german equatorial mount, and the usual array of alt-az and simple equatorial
mounts, none of which is particularly appropriate for quick set-up and fluid binocular viewing. So a while back
I set out to find an observing mount that would adequately satisfy my binocular observing needs. Several conditions
I decided were essential to any satisfactory mount were as follows:
· The mount had to allow viewing at or at least near the zenith. For me, a large part of the pleasure of binocular observing lies in the binocular's ability to quickly canvas any portion of the visible sky which I see fit.
· The mount had to be capable of supporting large binoculars. Minimally 100mm "ordinary" binoculars (12lbs or so), preferably binoculars of considerably more weight (up to 30lbs or so).
· The mount had to be adaptable to a variety of different optical instruments (e.g., small refractors).
· The mount had to be able to be shared with others. My partner is non-trivially shorter than myself, and her ability to view with me was of utmost importance in mount selection.
· The mount had to be able to be very quickly set up and taken down.
· The mount had to be reasonably robust, in the sense that I didn't want to have to worry about it self-destructing if tossed in the back of a car for the ride out to a dark observing site.
· The mount had to be complete and ready to use. I'm willing to tinker a bit to make things just right, but not significantly so; in such cases, I just want my money back and to begin the process of forgetting I'd ever bought such an item.
With these criteria in mind I started canvassing the available options. One option I immediately cast out was binoculars mounted in an alt-az configuration on top of an ordinary or surveyor's tripod. Several years ago I'd owned some very large 100mm binoculars which mounted on a supplied surveyor's tripod in such a configuration, and the two obvious drawbacks were simply so large as to be downright unpleasant: (i) in such a configuration, the user has to signficantly alter their stance to view at different altitudes, and (ii) near zenith viewing was simply impossible. Hook-arm configurations I rejected as too complex and unlikely to be able to loft 25+lbs of optics. I also rejected a commercially available binocular mount that involves viewing downwards through a mirrored surface, both because I want to be able to point the binoculars in the direction I'm viewing to aid in locating objects, and because I didn't understand at least one of the design aspects of this mount (nor could the manufacturer explain it to me). What appeared to be left was the much venerated parallelogram binocular mount, in which a counterweighted parallelogram is used to hold the binoculars aloft; the parallelogram allows the binoculars to be moved vertically without losing the object being viewed. Most all of the commercially available parallelogram mounts satisfy the criteria of allowing zenith viewing, being adaptable to a variety of instruments, easy to share with others, and quick setup and take down. Several well-known commercially available mounts were rejected as too lightweight, unable to loft even 15lbs let alone 30+lbs of optics. Others were cast out due to having overly complex mounting schemes for attaching large binoculars to them. The last thing in the world I need is for a pair of $1.5k+ binoculars to tumble to the ground because some flimsy strap didn't get snugged tightly enough. And so on. When all the dust had settled, it looked like I had two options: the Millenium Unimount by Universal Astronomics or no mount at all.
After much indecision and several decision changes on my part (through which UA was very patient and helpful) I ordered the mount ($500) with the optional very heavy duty surveyor's tripod ($180) and carrying bag ($60) as well as a few other items.
· The system arrived with the following components:
1. Millenium Unimount parallelogram assembly and mounting brackets
2. heavy duty surveyor's tripod
3. rubber coated counterweights capable of balancing up to around 30lbs of optics
4. 1/4"-20 mounting adapter for a small refractor
5. custom mounting plate for the large binoculars with which I would be primarily using the unimount.
6. video detailing the setup and operation of the mount
and shortly after the arrival of the mount, I also received:
7. custom zippered compartmentalized carrying bag made of a waterproof material for the mount, tripod, and brackets.
After exchanging a salvo of preparatory questions with UA via email and phone, I watched the video and found out that half of my questions would have been answered by simply watching the tape. Furthermore, the video contains a few tips concerning the assembly and use of the mount which I wouldn't have necessarily discovered on my own, so I recommend watching the video before asking too many questions and making a nuisance of yourself like I did. In any case, throughout all of this UA was very helpful and understanding while answering my questions and addressing my concerns; UA's customer service is top-notch, and they clearly are interested in letting the customer know precisely what to expect from their products as well as ensuring that things go well with the system once it arrives. Armed with this information, I started to put the whole assembly together. The machining on the custom mounting plate was impeccable, holes precisely aligned, and mounting it to the binoculars was a snap. (Incidentally, to give some idea of what the unimount was facing, the binoculars I was testing it with weigh in around 25lbs, and that's before counting the weight of the eyepieces or finder. See myI.T.E. LABT-100 review for more information on this topic.) Setting up the unimount is trivial. You simply place the tripod firmly into the ground, place the parallelogram assembly onto the modified tripod head and then secure it there using three thumbscrews. What you do next depends upon what sort of optics you'll be mounting; in my case, I next slip an "L" shaped bracket onto the end of the mount to provide a horizontal platform on which to affix the large binoculars as well as several supplied "steering" handles (see photo 4 below). Finally, the counterweights are placed on the counterweight shaft and secured using a large bolt, and the counterweight shaft is extended to the proper length to insure balance of the whole assembly; it's worth noting here that the counterweight assembly is an integral part of the parallelogram unit instead of a separate attachment, thereby minimizing the number of separate components to be kept track of during setup. Here are a few photos of what the assembly looks like when properly set up.
Some comments are in order. Let's see... The appearance of the mount is rather striking. Aside from the tripod,
the entire assembly is machined aluminum, stainless steel hardware, bronze (the bushings on the parallelogram pivot
points; actually "bronze oil impregnated"), and teflon. The surface of the aluminum has been evenly "roughed"
in to give a nice anodized appearance. The parallelogram pivots very smoothly, so the "real" balance
point is easy to find by just making sure the parallelogram yields equally when shoved in both the upwards and
downwards direction. The counterweight shaft extends very smoothly during balancing, giving the initial impression
that if pushed out vigorously before being locked down it might be able to slide out. This is illusory, however;
in none of my sessions using the mount has the weight shaft slipped during balancing. UA also points out that the
design of the weight shaft retaining ways is such so as to disallow a complete disengagement of the weight shaft
from the parallelogram itself. Of course, once balance is found, the whole assembly locks securely in place using
another thumbscrew. I would have liked to have seen the mount use captive thumbscrews to minimize the chances of
losing these screws late at night, but so far it hasn't been a problem; only the three thumbscrews attaching the
mount to the tripod need to be loosened enough to give rise to this concern.
On the topic of balance, it is well worth noting that the t-slot assemblies employed in the construction of the mounting hardware for the unimount affords the user very fine control over the balancing of his instrument. The optics may be balanced not only for their weight (using the counterweight shaft), but also vertically using the vertical component of the "L" shaped bracket (see photos 3 and 4) as well as front-to-back along the optical axis of the instrument by using a t-slot adjuster running along this axis as well (see photo 3 under the binoculars and photo 4 there as well). Once proper balance is found, it can be locked in using the thumb screws associated with these t-slot assemblies. This ease of balance in all salient axes sets the Millenium unimount apart from its competitors, and should be considered essential for someone looking to loft very heavy binoculars on their mount.
The surveyor's tripod is quite sturdy, but it is worth noting that as supplied, it is only intended for non-cement use; the feet need to be pushed into the ground, as the tripod has no provisions to keep the legs from splaying apart if this isn't done. UA recommends the use of astroturf (no pun intended) or carpeting for setup on cement.
If necessary, the parallelogram length can be changed by simply repositioning two bolts along the horizontal lengths of the parallelogram bars before attaching the parallelogram to the tripod. The changeover takes about a minute, and allows a variety of different payload sizes and weights without requiring any changes in the counterweighting setup.
Also worth noting are the "steering" handles that come with the unimount (see photos 3 and 4 below). These make it very easy to guide the the binoculars to the desired orientation. On the topic of binocular orientation, the Millenium mount boasts another design feature that sets it apart from some of its competitors. Like any parallelogram mount, it can be oriented in altitude and raised or lowered to the eye level of the user, and it can be oriented in azimuth by simply walking around the mount, but the unimount design allows the user to also "swing out" the binoculars in azimuth without walking around the mount thanks to a clever hinge just outside of the main paralleogram verticle bar (see photo 4 for this). Each of the pivot points on the mount operates smoothly but firmly, moving to the desired location readily but staying there when not being directed about
So how does this actually work? Very well, in fact. I formed my impressions for this review based on at least
six long-ish nights of observing (none less than four hours, some up to six hours long). My first night out I had
expected to waste getting used to the personality of the unimount, but as it turns out the motion of the mount
is sufficiently fluid that after only a few minutes I was paying more attention to the sky than I was to the mount.
This is significant. I was able to hop from object to object very fluidly, even viewing "past" zenith
at times (that is, through zenith and behind myself). The mount appeared to be quite stable, well more stable than
I'd anticipated for such heavy binoculars. It is a real treat to be able to position a pair of 25+lb binoculars
near zenith and then let go and have them stay precisely where I put them, all while standing up (or sitting!)
in a comfortable position. I did experiment some with different configurations, and my impression is that if the
mount can be used with the tripod legs not fully extended, then it will be significantly more stable than if they
are so extended. For those users who intend to sit while viewing, this will never be an issue, and for those who
stand, I recommend indulging in the heaviest duty tripods that Universal Astronomics offers. But do keep in mind
that I was testing this mount with more than 50+lbs of ballast (scope,EPs,counterweights) on it. Also, users over
6' tall who intend to stand may find that, depending upon the length of their optical assembly, viewing at zenith
straight up may be a problem. For those users with longish optical tube assemblies and tall bodies, Universal Astronomics
offers a tripod with extra-long legs.
As a test, one night I decided to do a mini-Messier marathon, one or two hour's worth of skipping from item to item, all at around 25x magnification (occasionally slipping in the EPs for 40x viewing for galaxies). It was a real pleasure. I viewed 23 objects in an hour and half of skipping from item to item, and was even able to make out the more western galaxy triple in Leo, not only that they were there but their orientations as well. While this speaks loads about the binoculars, it also gives a sense of how stable the mount is even with such a massive payload.
The parallelogram design actually does preserve sighting when being raised or lowered along the vertical axis. To test this, I cajolled my partner into joining me on another night, and for each interesting object I found, I lowered it to her eyesight height and lo!, the object remained perfectly centered in the field of view. She also enjoyed the fluid motion of the system, enough so that for the first time ever in our observing sessions she asked for some time alone with it to just pan around the sky and make her own discoveries! And this is how it should be.
I wanted to see how stable the mount really was. Of course, at 40x magnification any mount that can keep such a large payload steady is already doing well, but I figured I'd push it a bit. I slipped in EPs giving 64x magnification and was still able to comfortably manuever the binocs from object to object, although finding the objects was increasingly difficult in such a narrow field of view. I capped off that evening by binoviewing at 91x magnification and was surprised to find that it was possible. When gusts of wind would come along, I found that putting a hand alongside the binocs helped steady them, but I was able to binoview even at this magnification. I don't have the appropriate eyepiece pairs for binoviewing at higher
magnifications than this, but I did barlow one half of the binoscope and kick the magnification up to 127x and the mount held the binoscope sufficiently steady to give me some surprisingly detailed views of jupiter through one half of the scope. Surprisingly, the mount supports magnifications at well over 100x! The great red spot appeared, well, great, not particularly red, and definitely a spot. In binoculars! Other banding was also evident. And this with 50-something lbs of payload. At this point, I knew the unimount had earned it's keep.
After each of these nights, the unimount disassembled quickly and painlessly. Add a minute or two more than
setup time when figuring breakdown time due to the fact that it's all happening in the dark and perhaps with some
dew having formed on the system, no big deal. Everything gets tossed into the carrying bag, shoved in a corner
indoors, and forgotten about until the next clear night. This last point shouldn't be downplayed; the system is
remarkably compact for such a versatile mount.
By way of recap:
Ease of setup, including assembly and balancing.
Massive and wide payload capacity.
Total control over balance along all salient axes.
Swing out feature allows access to large swaths of sky without requiring a repositioning of user.
Adjustable parallelogram length for varying payloads.
Fluid motion makes mount use rather transparent.
Allows comfortable use while either standing or sitting.
Stable enough to allow greater than 100x magnifications with heavy payloads.
Non-corrosive finish minimizes concerns over dew and the like.
Minimal number of components and compact footprint when not in use.
Excellent customer support.
Non-captive hardware employed, could get lost late at night.
Surveyor's tripod can't be used on cement without additional material into which to sink the leg spikes.
Tripod less than rock solid when tripod legs are fully extended.
Do I recommend the Universal Astronomics Millenium Unimount? Absolutely. I am far more impressed with this product than I had planned on being. As far as I know, it's the only commercially available product enabling smooth binocular observing with large payloads and easy setup, and it does this task with aplomb. If you're in the market for such a mount, I recommend you give UA a call and investigate the mount further for yourself.