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Orion XX-14i and the Atomic Equatorial Platform Review
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Orion XX-14i and the Atomic Equatorial Platform Review
by Stan Herman
This is a follow-up on my November 2011 report on my Orion XX-14i truss tube Dobsonian reflector. My initial report was favorable, and I continue to be very pleased with the performance of this telescope. The only thing I really missed was the ability to track an object, especially at the higher powers that this scope is capable of delivering. True, one now can opt for the go-to model, but that was not available at the time of my purchase. Plus, I have other smaller dob telescopes that can fit on this platform, so I now have tracking ability for all of my dobs with just this one mount. I wouldn’t use this particular mount for serious astrophotography (I would use my GEMs and SCTs/refractors for that), but for video displays (i.e.; when I use my Mallincam Jr. video camera), it works well. Lastly, the Atomic platform requires just one 9 volt battery for several hours of operation. This greatly simplifies my power requirements in the field.
Not long after I had written my November 2010 report, I started to read up on equatorial tracking platforms, and I became intrigued with their ability to allow a Dobsonian reflector to track for up to one hour before requiring a reset. Many industrious amateurs have built their own equatorial platforms, and I sincerely commend them for their initiative. If I had more free time, I would have considered that alternative. However, I decided to purchase the mount. Then sticker shock hit! Apparently, these mounts are a bit tricky to manufacture, given the precise geometries and angular cuts required. Mounts with dual axis tracking and advanced control systems added significantly more to the cost. Additionally, the demand for this type of mount seemed to be low, and there were just a handful of manufacturers. I then came across an ad from a company named Atomic Equatorial Platforms, and after reviewing their literature, reading the few available reviews, considering the relatively low price (for a basic single axis tracking platform) and discovering that the company would size the mount for my particular telescope, I took the plunge with Atomic. I’ve used my Atomic Equatorial Platform at least six times now, and it’s time to report on it.
This report will concentrate on my experiences to date using my XX-14i scope with the Atomic Equatorial Platform, and will also provide some thoughts on performance of the Intelliscope system. For more information on my XX-14i, please refer to my previous review.
I do mention a few telescope equipment vendors throughout this report, and I want to state here that I have no affiliation with any of them other than being a satisfied customer.
My Atomic Equatorial Platform is of the initial design, and this design has changed somewhat. However, I believe the current platform design has similar characteristics. Upon ordering, I provided the spacing of my XX-14i baseboard feet, total telescope weight, and distance from the ground board to the center of the trundle bearings, as well as my desired observing latitude (adjustable for a range of about five degrees). I specified a value that allows me to use the platform at both my Northern Virginia and Alton Bay, NH homes. Atomic then configured the platform for my XX-14i and latitude range. To date, I have used the platform in the Northern, VA area only; however, I have verified that the platform can be adjusted to the higher latitude in NH. (Adjustments for latitude are easily done via threaded legs on the north side of the platform.)
Top of platform assembly (with addition of my added positioning washers)
Top surface of bottom board
Underside of top board
The Orion XX-14i is a 14-inch truss Dobsonian reflecting telescope. It has Orion’s Intilliscope digital setting circle system that has been used on its dobs and on its Sky View Pro German equatorial mount (which I also have). The Intelliscope system is very user friendly, relatively simple to use, and provides reasonable accuracy in hunting down objects by manually pushing the scope in the directions and increments shown on the hand-held computer. It requires just one 9 volt battery that provides several hours of operation. What makes the XX-14i a bit unique is that its base structure can be disassembled without tools into a manageable package that can be transported in the trunk of a mid size sedan. All attachment bolts are captive, and assembly/disassembly of the entire scope can be accomplished (by me) in 15 – 20 minutes, going at a comfortable pace. Add another 10 – 15 minutes if using the equatorial platform. The entire system (now including my Atomic equatorial platform) fits into my Honda Accord sedan with room to spare for an additional passenger. Specifications for the XX-14i can be found on Orion’s excellent website, and I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say, my XX14i appears to meet the Orion specifications in all respects to date. And the optical performance remains excellent, once optically aligned (not hard to do), and the collimation is minimally altered after transporting the scope).
To work properly, an equatorial tracking platform, no matter how well designed, requires fairly close adherence to facing true North and being set to the proper latitude angle. A good compass, T-type level and angular declination level (I use a digital one) serves this purpose well. The Atomic equatorial platform includes a built-in compass and levels. I also use my home-made ground board (the black board in the pictures) on which to put everything. This has provided relatively easy positioning (especially leveling) of the platform, no matter how varied the terrain. And everything stays dry and clean. (Note, the declination angle only has to be adjusted once with the platform on a level surface, unless one is travelling more than say 50 – 75 miles north or south, or if the ground surface is very uneven.)
I’ll jump to the bottom line right now, and then go into the details and operating method I use.
Bottom line – the platform works, and works fine! And it is very well constructed and nicely finished in a high gloss coating. I have tracked objects for over 20 minutes at 200x before needing to give the scope a slight nudge to re-center the target. And at lower powers I can go the full cycle (almost one hour) without having to move the scope at all. I also have tracked Jupiter at 412x, centered, for 15+ minutes with no need to move the scope. This has made my public star parties very enjoyable (and tolerable!) for obvious reasons. And all this with just a 9 volt battery that lasts for several nights! The built-in tracking speed control can be used to tweak the tracking accuracy, and it seems to work well. For you folks who live in the southern hemisphere, the platform has a North-South switch to allow usage below the equator.
I normally cannot leave things alone, and have “improved” almost all of my telescopes and mounts. This also applies to my Atomic Platform; however, minimally. As I discuss the platform, I’ll identify the two mods that I have made.
Now for the gory details:
The Orion Intelliscope system used with its Dobsonian reflectors requires that the telescope tube be “vertical” before making any alignments or “push-tos.” When I initially had set up the new telescope (on a level floor at home), I followed the instructions to adjust the telescope base “stop button” to provide a perfectly vertical tube when pointing straight up. This only had to be set once. In practice, the tube does not have to be pointing vertically when aligning in the field; rather it only has to be set hard against the pre-set stop button (i.e., tube normal to the base). If the ground is sloping, it makes no difference to Mr. Intelliscope as long as the tube is contacting that stop button. And it is because of this feature that the XX-14i Intelliscope will work with an equatorial tracking platform (i.e., when the equatorial platform is at its “start” position, it is actually inclined 7.5 degrees to the horizontal in the east-west direction).
Most equatorial platforms operate similarly in that one pulls the platform upper board all the way to one side (the “start” position), moves the telescope to the desired object, turns on the tracking motor, and lets the platform run until it reaches the stop (about 15 degrees of rotation total, or about one-hour of tracking). At this point, the Atomic Platform tracking motor automatically shuts off, the platform upper board is pulled back to the start position, the scope is repositioned to center the target (if it is desired to stay on the same target), and the tracking motor is turned back on.
In order to use the tracking platform with the Orion Dobsonian Intelliscope system, the platform upper board is pulled all the way to the “start” position, tracking motor is off, telescope tube is set hard against its vertical stop button, and the alignment stars are selected and centered normally (tracking platform remains at the “start” position and tracking motor is “off” throughout this alignment process). When it is time to push to a desired target, the target is selected with the Intelliscope hand controller, centered by pushing the scope to it (platform still at the “start” position), and then the tracking motor is turned on. The platform will keep the target in the eyepiece field for up to one hour, depending on how well one initially has set up the platform. When it’s time to go to another object, the tracking motor is shut off, the platform upper board is pulled back to the “start” position, the scope is “pushed-to” and centered on the new object, and the tracking motor is turned on, etc. That’s all there is to it! Just remember to reposition the tracking table to the start position prior to selecting (and pushing to) the new target.
In my opinion, the Atomic Platform has a plus and a minus here. The plus is that one can reposition the upper board without having to lift it off the drive shaft. The minus is that there is very little friction between the drive shaft and the upper board driven surface. This can result in inadvertent movement of the upper board when aligning and pushing to a target. That confuses Mr. Intelliscope, and he really does not like that! I solved this with my first “improvement.” I fashioned a small piece of 2 x 4 to wedge between the upper board and my home-made ground board, thus “locking” the upper board in the start position while aligning and pushing to selected targets. Then I just remove the wedge and turn on the tracking motor. I place the wedge near the tracking motor so I won’t inadvertently turn the motor back on before removing the wedge. I don’t think anything would get damaged, since the friction is relatively low, but why stress the motor needlessly? A piece of smooth Velcro on top of the wedge prevents any scratching of the upper board’s underside. Problem solved!
Stop Wedge between Upper Board and Home-made Ground board
I did have a concern about the XX-14i’s base feet slipping on the upper board, even though Atomic provides a high friction surface in the contact areas. In all honesty, there hasn’t been a hint of slippage, but I tend to be paranoid about my astro toys, so I came up with a very simple solution to ease my worries. A few carriage bolt washers placed where the two “north” telescope ground board feet go, do the trick. The washers also make it very easy to properly position the telescope ground board feet on the platform. No guessing where to place those feet. The washers are shown in the mount assembly picture above.
Total cost of my two mods was about 50 cents. (I had the wood and the screws; I just needed to buy the two-inch diameter washers!)
How about overall stability with the platform? Well, I do notice a bit less rigidity at higher powers now; but, as long as the wind isn’t blowing, I have no problems focusing and viewing at fairly high powers (300x+). And at lower powers (below 175x or so) I see little or no difference.
Here’s my quick summary of the plusses and minuses for my Atomic Equatorial Platform. I consider the plusses to far outweigh the minuses, and the minuses to be of relatively small consequence:
- One hour of accurate tracking with adjustable speed in R/A.
- Very solid construction with excellent woodworking craftsmanship.
- Relative lightweight and easy, one-hand transporting, all in one piece, with carrying handle permanently attached on one end. A custom bolt to secure the two pieces for transport is included.
- Uncomplicated setup, especially if on flat ground.
- Just one 9-volt battery is needed, and it lasts for several hours.
- Can carry loads up to about 140 lbs.
- Can be designed/ordered for a wide range of latitudes, with an adjustable range of approximately five degrees (even greater range on the newer design, I believe).
- Easy to reset; just turn off the tracking motor, pull on the attached handle to return the platform table to the start position, rotate the scope to center the target, turn on the tracking motor, and you are good to go for another hour of tracking.
- No need to lift upper table off the motor drive shaft when repositioning.
- Raises the telescope about five inches. This requires me (6’ tall) to use a small step stool or ladder when viewing objects at higher altitudes (about 70 degrees up).
- Reduces overall rigidity slightly, but in calm winds it’s not a big problem at high powers. Never a problem at lower powers.
- Can take up to 15 minutes more to set up (orient to north, and level), depending on terrain. (Although, I have done it in under three minutes on relatively flat ground.)
- Tracking motor controls are on the lower platform board, and this requires me to squat down whenever adjustments are needed. A wired remote would be nice. But that would add to the cost. Perhaps this could be offered as an option for either initial or later purchase. I certainly would not mind paying for such an option. I have this feature on my smaller Roundtable platform, and I love it.
- Low friction between the motor drive shaft and upper table driven surface can result in inadvertent movement when aligning and/or pushing to a new target. This, I believe, is by design, to make it easier in resetting the platform. However, it can result in Intelliscope errors. (I solved this by using my simple wedge.)
For normal viewing, and especially at group viewing sessions, I will rarely use my XX-14i without the equatorial platform. I’m just too spoiled with the ease of viewing, especially at higher powers. In my opinion, for the money, the Atomic Equatorial Platform was well worth my modest investment of around $400 plus shipping, and I highly recommend it for those who want to have tracking ability for their Dobsonian scopes.
One last comment with respect to the Intelliscope system: My system continues to work flawlessly. For those familiar with the Intelliscope “Warp Factors,” I consistently get values below 0.3, and at times I have achieved 0.0. I periodically check the tightness of the bolt that couples the telescope’s base board to its ground board. The fastening nut needs to be secure. It did loosen after my first night out, and this did impact the accuracy of the Intelliscope, significantly. However, after tightening the nut well, it has not loosened in over a year. (One tip – When transporting the ground-base board assembly, take care not to stress the pivot bolt connection. Try to carry the assembly by gripping the ground board with the base board resting on top. I carry the assembly in its shipping box for maximum protection, and then lift it out of the box by gripping the ground board, etc.) Also, I have had great success in accuracy if I choose my first alignment star well below zenith, more towards the south, and my second alignment star as Polaris. I use a cross-hair eyepiece to accurately center the alignment stars, and I do the process relatively quickly. Choosing Polaris as the second alignment star helps me in speeding up this process. Taking too much time aligning can have an adverse effect on push-to accuracy.
Thanks for reading my article, and good seeing.
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