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Telescope: 14.5" Starmaster "Hybrid" w/GOTO
Primary Mirror: Carl Zambuto
Focal Length: 1584mm
Focal Length w/Paracorr: 1822mm
I live a suburb of Phoenix, AZ and returned to amateur astronomy a little over 5 years ago after a long hiatus. For 3 of the 5 years, I owned an 8" SCT, and currently own the 14.5" being reviewed here, as well as a William Optics 80mm Megrez refractor, which I use as a wide-field complement to the Starmaster.
I've had the Starmaster for almost 18 months now, and feel that I have sufficiently run it through its paces to make some comments about it here. I'll spare everyone the details of how the scope arrived & was packaged. Suffice it to say that Rick takes much care to insure all the parts arrive unharmed & in good working order. I have enough bubble wrap to last many lifetimes to come! Also the scope went together in under an hour, and I'll skip these details too as the whole process with Rick's instructions was very intuitive & I had no problems getting the scope up & running.
It's difficult to pick which area to start, but I should begin with the mechanics of the telescope. My particular unit is "loaded" with the Sky Commander DSC's & the "GOTO then Track" system. I upgraded to the Feathertouch focuser, which I think is a must for a scope of this caliber. I also have the secondary dew heater. The only thing I didn't get was the set of transport handles, because my storage and observing situations precludes their use. The whole outfit was $7200.00. Yes it is expensive, and this must be heavily considered for most of us before taking the plunge, however I'll say right here that the scope is worth every cent.
The motions of the Starmaster are silky smooth. Rick uses a combination of Ebony Star on one altitude bearing & industrial grade Velcro on the other (not the fuzzy strip), which makes for a perfect amount of "stiction". The azimuth bearing on my scope is covered with FRP. Now since I have the GOTO, I don't usually worry about any of that, however, I sometimes de-clutch the drives & manually slew to locate objects just to keep my star-hopping skills from becoming rusty. The scope stays put wherever I stop the slew, even with the focuser loaded with the 31mm "Termi-Nagler" & a Paracorr. Also, tracking the planets by hand at over 500x is not a problem. A small amount of pressure gets it moving again with no backlash whatsoever in either of the axes.
As I said before the Feathertouch focuser is a must, and the extra $200 is well spent. The fine focus is a 10:1 ratio & allows for buttery-smooth precision focusing with any eyepiece. It has a generous amount of travel for a low profile focuser & all my eyepieces come to focus. It's machined to very tight tolerances & and there is no "slop" in the eyepiece. The unit on my scope is a bit different from my friend's earlier version on his 16", in that the focus knobs are "offset 45*, so that they are easier to reach & move, especially if you need to wear gloves during the winter. Being from Arizona, I don't have that problem, but it's still easier to use.
The combination of the Sky Commander DSC's & the GOTO system, makes for the most accurate object location system I've ever used, and I've never had an object land outside the field of a 22mm Nagler, which is just under a 1* True FOV with the Paracorr. Most of the time objects fall within the field of a 9mm Nagler, which is 202x & a 0.40 degree true FOV with the Paracorr. As for the accuracy of the tracking - well I've tested lunar, planetary & sidereal tracking capabilities & many times I've left for as much as two hours, only to come back with the object still dead-center. A nice feature is that I can disengage the drives, move to another object manually, then return to where I was before, because the Sky Commander DSC's don't lose their place as long as the unit remains on. Another nice aspect is that the drives are soooooo quiet. No coffee grinders here! Rick programmed a chime when the system reaches the correct altitude & azimuth coordinates so you know when the object has been located. When the tracking kicks in, the drives are silent. I've had my ear right next to the drives in tracking mode & can't hear them.
While I'm a firm believer in honing star-hopping skills, I'm also a proponent for GOTO. Simply stated, with this feature I spend more time observing than hunting, and these days my time is limited, so it's definitely worth it. While tracking platforms are nice alternatives, this is a completely on-board system, which eliminates an extra piece of equipment to haul around. I also feel that the tracking of the GOTO is more accurate than that of EQ platforms. Also, for those who balk at the idea of electronic location systems, I make a pointed effort to look through the Telrad when the computer locates each object, which allows me to see where the objects are in the sky & their respective star fields. I can see over twice as many objects in an evening as I did with my other scopes, or better yet I can spend much more time on each individual object doing detailed studies without having to worry about manually tracking or losing time searching. This is especially nice at star parties when people want to look through your scope. At these events most people want to see an object, not watch you hunt it down, so it makes sharing the sky that much nicer.
The trusses are 4 A-frame type trusses with two poles each that attach to the mirror box with two bolts per set. A single bolt attaches the tops to the upper cage. I think these make for quicker setup times and also lend themselves to creating a more rigid structure than 8 separate poles. The 14.5" is a hybrid design that incorporates both the standard truss features as well as the ELT features, so I can either knock the scope all the way down for compact storage & transport, or I can leave the trusses & upper cage as one piece for a very fast setup & for transporting when I have no other passengers. The design is very slick & simple. Rick has created a platform that the trusses attach to, rather than attaching them directly to the "lips" in the mirror box as you must do on the larger models. Obviously the platform has a hole cut out in the center so the light can pass through to the primary. When completely disassembling the scope, just remove the UTA, unscrew the eight bolts that attach the trusses to the platform, & the four corner bolts remain in the platform leaving it attached to the mirror box. Conversely, if you wish to leave the scope in the ELT-mode, just unscrew the four corner bolts, & the platform along with the trusses & upper cage comes away from the mirror box as one piece. Nice feature!
Finally the whiffle-tree mirror cell is great. The cell is completely removable from the tailgate, which really lightens the load anyone has to carry when moving the scope. Rick also provides a separate storage box fro the mirror & cell, which is extra protection for the optics. The open cell & the 1.6" thick mirror allows for fast cool-down times and keeps the mirror well ventilated. It cools much faster than my old 8" SCT. The cell also supports the mirror much better than some other designs in my opinion. It has an 18-point floatation system along with two studs that support the mirror underneath as opposed to a sling. There are short mirror clips that act as safety stops to keep the mirror from falling out of the cell when pointed near the horizon. With this system the scope never loses collimation during the night as often happens with sling supports, and I've never had a problem with pinched optics, or aberrations arising from tight mirror clips or the mirror sagging under its own weight. These types of problems simply are not there with this mirror cell design.
Here's what everyone wants to know. The primary mirror, as with all Zambuto-equipped Starmasters I've seen, is a jaw-dropper. Since quoting data on the mirror is often misleading and can cause flame wars, I've chosen to leave these out of this review. What I will say is that the Zambuto mirrors have an extremely smooth optical surface, with a near-perfect star test. Running through focus, the Fresnel rings are identical on both sides of focus and evenly illuminated. I can find no zones, no turned edge, and no astigmatism. There is perhaps a "slight" under-correction, however it's often not even noticeable to me, which could indicate that I might have tested while the mirror was still slightly out of thermal equilibrium. If it is there, it's very, very slight & I couldn't begin to guess by what fraction of a wave.
However, that smooth surface correlates to what I believe to be the most important aspect of visual observing, and that is contrast. In a word - exceptional. The scope shows even the most subtle differences in illumination. There is definitely an emotional response with Carl's mirrors, an underlying feeling that's hard to describe, except to say sitting at the eyepiece is more like observing from space rather than the ground. The extremely fine details seen are amazing, and sometimes I seem to subconsciously pick up things that I don't notice when looking through other instruments, only to go back to my scope & find that I wasn't dreaming!
Jupiter usually shows 10 bands and massive amounts of detail within the belts & GRS, as well as the festoons & barges. And being able to see this kind of detail routinely at 400x, and many nights up to 600x is definitely like looking at a photograph. Polar regions & surface detail are visible on Io. Saturn shows the Crepe ring every night, as well as the Encke minima without fail.. Despite the short focal length it is a killer planetary scope. When Mars was last at opposition before the dust storms, picking out surface details was as easy as looking at our moon. In addition both polar caps were easily seen. Phobos & Deimos were also seen. On the planets I rarely use filters, so most of the views described above were natural.
No matter the conditions, the Trapezium easily breaks into 6 components, even at very low magnifications. The detail level seen in M42/43 is far better than any photo I've ever seen, from low-power views that show the entire nebula, to using a binoviewer at 500x on the Trapezium vicinity that reveals details in the nebula, which are reminiscent of the structure seen in cumulo-nimbus clouds.
With globular clusters, "resolved" takes on a new meaning & the scope provides "in your face" visual observing! Obviously M13 & Omega are completely resolved. One of my favorite globulars is M92 because of the super-dense core that seems to go on forever. One night I decided to push the scope to what our group likes to call "silly power" & view M92 at 700x. WOW - the core showed a tremendous amount of resolution, but again it's so dense I couldn't quite get it to go all the way. M13 at this power was like looking right through it to the other side. And I can't forget the extra-galactic clusters, G1 & G2 in M31. G1 actually started show resolution at about 500x.
Another extra-galactic object is NGC 604, the giant HII region in M33, about 2.5 MLY away. At 700x I can see much structure & filaments within the nebula. Seeing that in real time is spectacular.
Most galaxies within the local group show quite a bit of structure, knotting, & dust lanes. Those more distant objects do reveal detail well above being mere smudges. Many Virgo galaxies show spiraling. Every component of Stephan's Quintet is always visible, and much easier to see than in many other scopes of similar aperture I've used. NGC 7331 is stunning. Closer neighbors like M51, M31, M33, M81/82, M104, NGC 4565 & NGC 891 take on photographic qualities in the eyepiece. I've been able to determine the rotational direction of a galaxy that NSOG stated was over 500 MLY distant. The scope is also quite capable of hunting the faint Abell planetary nebulae & galaxy clusters, and with an H-Beta filter, the Horsehead is a snap with direct vision. These are just a few of my experiences at the eyepiece. In short, once the mirror has reached thermal equilibrium, it's like having a 14.5" f/4.3 APO. Tight, pinpoint stars sharp across the FOV, and a nice "snap" to focus - there's no mistaking it. The low f/ratio provides a nice wide field, at least for a scope of this size. I can get 1.4* with the 31 Nagler & using the Paracorr which boosts the focal length from 1584mm to 1822mm. (1.6* without it) Not a bad FOV for a 14.5" mirror.
Hopefully by this point the reader will understand that the 14.5" Starmaster is a world-class visual instrument. I really can't think of any complaints about it, because it continually stuns me every time I use it. If I had to name anything at all, it would be that I'd prefer the AstroSystems secondary to have small knobs on the collimation screws, rather than having to use an Allen Wrench. AstroSystems does provide these, but not until the minor axis reaches 3.1", which is used on the 16" scope. The 14.5" uses a 2.6" secondary.
The combination of Rick's engineering & Carl's mirror makes for an incredible instrument that simply "gets out of the way" of the observer & allows one to concentrate on the views at the eyepiece rather than all the other aspects usually associated with using a telescope. The only modifications I've made to the scope were to line the upper cage with Protostar flocking paper, and make a removable light baffle for the upper cage. I really don't need it at dark sites, but if I ever setup in my backyard, it does help to reduce any glare from nearby streetlights or neighbors' porch lights. Even in my yard, after midnight these aspects are no longer an issue.
In conclusion, the 14.5" Starmaster is the finest scope I've ever used. It is more than easily manageable by one person, but still delivers amazing deep-sky & planetary performance. In my opinion it consistently outperforms other instruments of similar aperture. Rick has done a superb job in designing & redesigning his scopes to insure that his customers have the best, and he's continually looking for ways to improve the little things that make all the difference in an observer's experience. Thanks for reading.