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An Astro-Tech AT-130 Hybrid Telescope for the Ages

by Max Corneau This consumer review considers a modified Astro-Tech AT-130, 130mm apochromatic f/6 triplet, refractor. The modification to the telescope was performed by Starlight Instruments. Starlight designed an adaptor and three-inch focuser that replace the hardware shown below in Figure 3. Besides doing astronomical outreach as a JPL Solar System Ambassador, my primary astronomical interest is astrophotography. Besides using a lightweight German equatorial mount at my home, I operate from a SkyShed POD (Astronomy Technology Today Jan-Feb 2009 cover story) from a fixed site. To summarize the review, this particular AT-130 hybrid is one for the ages from my perspective. The scope has excellent optics and its fit and finish are nothing short of luxurious. The Starlight Instruments rack & pinion focuser is a work of mechanical art. Several example images are provided at the end of this article to demonstrate the telescopes performance. Regarding one of the images, noted astronomer, author and lecturer, Bob Berman said, This is a gorgeous photo. Stunning. I think it's my favoriteever view of the Leo galaxies. Smooth, lovely, real-to-life colors, a true knockout. What a job your refractor does, and what perfect guiding. It rivals 40" images. . The Road to AT-130 The AT-130 prototype telescope was publicly introduced at the 2009 NEAF and was later tested by Bob McCourt after NEAF 2009. Of the prototype, McCourt said, the scope produced fantastic images using both a modified canon 40D as well as my QHY8 CCD camera. MCCourt said the AT-130 he tested contained optics that are on par with both the TMB130SS he owned as well as the venerable TOA-130 he owned several years ago. The AT-130 is an addition to the Astro-Tech line of affordable, innovative, high quality astronomical instruments. In my equipment supply, the AT-130 replaces another unique telescope, a native f/6.3, 10-inch Meade LX-200 UHTC. Since 2004, the LX200 served as my imaging workhorse. The LX200 underwent a continuous evolution that ended when I installed a Moonlight CR-2 Crayford focuser to eliminate mirror-flop and enable precision focus. Unfortunately, even the heavy-duty Moonlight crayford focuser occasionally slipped focus with a camera installed when the scope pointed above about 65-degrees. I vowed that any replacement would be able to pull double duty at home and in my observatory and be able to hold the weight of my QSI-583 WSG/DSI camera pair. Here is a suggestion for fellow ATT readers (astronomy gearheads): Be aware that installation of expensive aftermarket improvements to your telescope will only fractionally increase its value. Much like a home, you will never see an equivalent return on the investment you made in your telescope so improving your equipment should create an improvement that pleases you.

About two years ago, I began thinking about what kind of telescope I wanted to buy to replace my SCT. I decided a large, fast, apochromatic refractor was in my future. I have operated an ED-80 f/7.5 refractor since 2006 and really enjoy the simplicity and image quality rendered by this class of telescope but like many of you, I wanted more. Instead of 80mm I wanted about 130mm and instead of two lenses, I wanted three lenses that would produce truly apochromatic images. Before moving any further, its appropriate to mention a little bit about light and apochromatism. Bottom line, there is much disinformation regarding what makes a (false) color free or an Apo telescope but if the optics bring three wavelengths of light (Red, Green and Blue) to focus at the same point, the optical unit is said to be apochromatic. Because light exits a positively curved lens in order of blue, green and red, it is not possible to obtain a single focus of all three wavelengths with a single lens. Using a positve, biconcave and plano-convex lens sets the conditions for focusing all three wavelengths at a common point. There are even 4-element refractors such as those made by Televue. Most complex, multi-element optical systems are separated by air but some are separated by optical quality oil. Optically speaking it is easier to produce a longer focal length color corrected telescope than a short (fast) focal length system. The challenge presented by a short focal length results from the light cone being much steeper in a short focal ratio telescope than a longer such system. In an f/6 system, bringing all wavelengths to a common focus without considerable field curvature is an idealized challenge that the AT106 accomplishes with aplomb. Requirements Based Telescope Acquisition My work as a systems engineer compelled me to try quantifying any new telescope purchase in terms of Requirements. The requirements development process I applied to this purchase was based on being able to operate an f/6 f/6.5 telescope in my observatory (length limited to about 36 inches) and at home (weight limited by Orion Sirius mount - 20 pounds). Beyond these screening criteria, everything was negotiable. Early in the search, I located the AT-130 on Cloudy Nights for $2,800 and stopped searching so the table never got completed. This telescope was an immediate, hands-down winner based on size, weight, optics, performance and price. Figure one, reflects requirements used to measure contender telescopes. This approach removes the emotional attachment or unrecognized bias from astronomy equipment purchases. Before making a significant purchase, I encourage the buyer to write down what they want the telescope to do (capability) and the degree to which they want the telescope to perform (requirements). Any non-negotiables become screening criteria.
Contender Televue 127 (IS) SkyWatcher Pro ED-120 Astro-Tech AT-130 Williams Optics FLT-132 Explore Scientific ED-127 TMB 130 AP 130 Length (In) Weight (LB) Aperture (mm) Focuser 127 crayford 130 Feathertouch RP 30 132 Feathertouch RP Optics F/ratio Price $ 4,500(U) 2,300(U) 6 2,800(U)

triplet-Air 6.3 7,500(U)

About the AT-130

Figure 1 Telescope Requirements Comparison

A description of the AT-130 on the Astro-Tech website boasts that the AT-130 is similar to the AT-106 reviewed by Sky&Telescope magazine in September 2009. The article (by Alan Dyer) corroborates claims made by others regarding the AT-106s excellent performance and by extension, the AT-130s performance. According to Dyers review of the AT-106: The optics had absolutely first-class color correction. There was no visible chromatic aberration, even on the brightest targets. When defocused, star images presented nary a trace of false color. This is the end of available comparison information as there is no data available on the internet about the AT-130 equipped with a Feathertouch focuser. This review will continue to address the complete system. The Glass FPL-53 ED Glass Triplet According to Mike Bieler, owner of the family business, Astronomy Technologies that produces the AT-130, when asked about the optics of the AT-130 replied, There is no secret sauce [in the triplet element], there are no dual ED or rare Earth elements, just a well designed set of mating elements. Factory supplied AT-130s are fully baffled, come equipped with a two-speed Crayford focuser, retractable dew shield and solid metal dust cover/lens cap. Optically speaking, the AT-130 is a fully apochromatic telescope with no violet color fringing around even the brightest stellar and Solar System objects. The AT-130s air spaced triplet lens is all FPL53 Ohara glass that makes it suited for years of high performance observing and imaging. The AT-130 specifications are listed in Figure 2. The AT-130 does not come equipped with a finder scope which did not matter since I prefer using either a TELRAD or Rigel QuikFinder.

Figure 2 AT-130 Factory Specifications

Because I didnt have access to sophisticated optical test equipment, I did a practical test in my suburban driveway with the scope on the Sirius mount with a modified Philips SNC900 webcam operated by K3CCD Tools. Im a huge fan of Peters K3CCD Tools. Although Im a deep sky imager, this is an excellent practical use of the webcam.

Inside Focus

Outside Focus

The star test image on the left is the inside focus. Note that constructive and destructive interference rings are extremely concentric despite the appearance of being off-center with respect to the red circles. On the right, the Outside Focus image shows more clearly the interference rings on the outer edge as well as the very faint inner rings that are still not quite centered on the red crosshairs.

The factory spec AT-130 is pictured below to provide the reader with context. My AT-130 differs considerably from this factory model.

Figure 3 Factory Spec AT-130

My hybrid AT-130 is the same as the telescope pictured in Fig. 3 from the dust cover to that back of the optical tube itself where the focuser unit attaches. This is where the absolutely artful craftsmanship of the folks at Starlight Instruments comes into play. After a very pleasant discussion with Wayne Schroeder at Starlight Instruments, I now understand how the focuser came to exist. My AT-130 contains a 3.0 Rack/Pinion focuser with a 3.0 inside diameter and 3.5 draw tube travel. According to Wayne, the focuser is able to lift 13-15 pounds without a problem. However, this focuser was tested like every Feathertouch focuser before leaving the factory. In this case, the focuser was tested to lift and hold 18 pounds before being shipped out. Wayne says that they like to play it safe as they rate their focusers at 13-15 pounds. This focuser has a dual speed fine focus capability with a ratio of 10:1. The focuser adapter screws onto the back of the optical tube. Wayne explained in our conversation that the folks at Starlight Instruments designed the adapter especially for this AT-130 and maintains the drawings for later use in their CNC machine shop. Starlight does all of their own machining as well as their own anodizing which allows them to control quality and keep everything in-house.

Figure 4 Starlight Instruments CAD designed focuser adapter made for the telescope in this article Waynes promotion of the Starlight focuser seems to be completely correct. So far, even when pointing to zenith, my QSI 593-Meade DSI camera combination has not even approached a slipping point and the telescope holds focus with absolute perfection. In fact, on the nights of 27 and 28 December 2011 at my SkyShed POD, I imaged M78 and the Leo Triplet past the meridian and the focuser never slipped a micron. Given the steep f/6 light cone, the critical focus zone is very short so nothing short of perfection is acceptable for imaging. From an aesthetic perspective, I feel that the Starlight Instruments adaptor has much more pleasing lines and curves as opposed to the sharp features on the factory AT130.

Figure 5 The author standing beside his AT-130 in his SkyShed POD: Note Feathertouch focuser (photo courtesy of Terry Belia)

Getting to Know the AT-130 The AT-130 I received from owner #1 required some collimation based on a webcam test of in-focus and out-focus. The optical error in this case was coma, revealed by the little comet-shaped stars. Admittedly, I fumbled a bit on collimation and had a rough go at first. However, after using a neat little trick I read about on the Internet I determined where to

adjust the lens cell. By setting up the tube on my workbench with a laser inserted and centered, I rotated the tube through 360-degrees and noted how the dot moved at each 90degree interval. By doing this it was easy to spot which screw set to adjust in order to center the laser dot. Collimating a refractor merely means aligning the lens cell to make the light path parallel to the optical axis of the tube. I like the idea of having control of the collimation because its just one more thing that can be tweaked. During the first few sessions with the AT-130 I did not appreciate the feel of the scope. Stubbornly I continued to learn focus actions for the various filters and adaptors. After considerable use, I have found that my favorite configuration for this instrument and the one that seems to maximize its capabilities is with my QSI-583 WSG and an Astro-Tech 2inch Field Flattener at f/6. I seek simplicity in my astrophoto setup. This is why I particularly enjoy the QSI WSG with a DSI guide camera mounted on top, picking off the photons before they are cut down by the various filters. Astronomy is a hobby that must be practiced to be appreciated, not just discussed at meetings. Therefore, Ill present a few of the images I have taken with my AT-130 since it saw first light at my home in north Texas on 17 October, 2011. It has been said that the best telescope is the one that is used most frequently. From my perspective, the AT-130 is a telescope for the ages and I hope to continue using it as frequently as possible. Here is a brief discussion of the earliest sample images I have taken with this telescope. This discussion includes hyperlinks that support internet viewing.

M42 Orion Nebula imaged from my SkyShed POD on 17 Dec 2011 from my SkyShed POD under dark skies at f/4 using QSI583 WSG and AstroDon Gen 2, I series LRGB Filters all mounted on a SkyWatcher Pro EQ-6 mount and guided by DSI through PHD. Image data: L95/R30/G30/B40 min for total time 3hrs 15min Captured, calibrated aligned and combined in MaxIM DL post-processed in Photoshop CS2. Copyright 2011 Max Corneau. The full-sized image can be found here

The Horsehead region in Orion imaged in Narrowband from 28 November, 2011 through 16 December, 2011. Telescope used for this image was the Astro-Tech AT-130 on an Orion Sirius mount through QSI-583WSG at f/4 through AstroDon 5nm Sii, Ha, Oiii filters guided by DSI. Image data and channel mixing as follows: R(Ha)120min, G(S2)80min, B(O3) 120min exposures, total image time, 8.6 hrs. Acquired, calibrated, aligned, combined , DDP in MaxIm DL, post-processed in Photoshop CS2 (c)2011Max Corneau. The complete image can be found here

The three galaxies in this image are known as the Leo triplet. Image taken from my SkyShed POD on the 28 December, 2011. This image ended up being my "late target" for the night and it was quite a worthy pursuit. This is one of my favorite targets in the night sky for the extreme multidimensionality it gives up to the Earthbound observer or imager. This is the favorite image described at the beginning of the article by Bob Berman as one of his favorite renditions of the Leo Trio. My plan is to obtain at least ten more hours of data on this field so that I can capture the galactic halo around M66, the lower right galaxy. The telescope used for this image was the Astro-Tech AT-130 on SkyWatcher EQ-6 Pro mount using QSI 583-WSG and Astro-Tech 2" field flattener at f/6 with AstroDon Gen 2 I-series filters. Total time on this image equaled three hours. The subexposures were captured, calibrated, aligned and combined in MaxIm DL with post-processing in Photoshop CS2. Copyright 2011 Max Corneau To see the slightly cropped image go here: Although the image was cropped, the galaxies have not been reduced in size.

M78 imaged from my SkyShed POD from 27-28 Dec 2011. Telescope used was an Astro-Tech AT-130 on SkyWatcher EQ-6 Pro mount using QSI 583-WSG and Astro-Tech 2" field flattener at f/6 with AstroDon Gen 2 I-series time 6.8 hours Images captured, calibrated, aligned and combined in MaxIm DL with post-processing in Photoshop CS2. Copyright 2011 Max Corneau Full size image here: