Travel Scopes

I'm excited; I'm going to California next week on astronomy business. My main job is giving a talk at the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference, but while in Southern CA, I'll also visit the three major observatories: Griffith, Mount Wilson, and Mount Palomar. I'm particularly thrilled by the last; to anyone of my generation, Palomar was THE telescope. For most of my formative years, it was by far the biggest telescope in the world.

And while I'm in California, of course I'll try to take advantage of the southerly latitude and the famously clear skies to look at a bunch of celestial objects from Centaurus through Lupus and Scorpius that aren't really visible here in Massachusetts. Which, as usual, raises the question of what telescope to bring. Taking full camping gear and full astronomy gear on an airplane isn't easy!

In extreme cases, as when I went to India a couple of years ago, I have brought only hand-holdable binoculars, no telescope. But binoculars won't resolve stars in Omega Centauri.

Tony Flanders
As long as I'm carrying a photo tripod anyway — which I am on my California trip — there's little extra burden to carrying my lightest telescope, which is shown at right. It's a refractor from Borg — roughly a 65-mm f/6.5 — that I bought secondhand quite a while ago. Borg specializes in portable equipment, but they've backed off from building telescopes entirely out of plastic, like this one. Mind you, I'm no anti-plastic snob, like some telescope users. On the contrary, plastic is a wonderful material with unrivaled strength-to-weight ratio for certain purposes. However, building a telescope entirely out of plastic was, in retrospect, not an altogether successful plan. The problem is the focuser. Yes, it works, and it even accepts 2-inch eyepieces. But a good focuser is rigid yet smooth, and this is neither. I strongly suspect that this scope has excellent optics, but I've never been able to focus it accurately enough to tell for sure.

Still, considering that it weighs less than two pounds, including a built-in diagonal, it's a pretty attractive travel scope. It works just fine for deep-sky observing at 60×, and it's so light that it works well on any photo tripod.

As it happens, I've arranged a far better alternative in this case — I'll be borrowing a scope in California from one of my internet friends. But not everyone has friends with spare telescopes at every port of call. Too bad you can't just rent a telescope at the airport, the way you can rent a car. Wouldn't it be cool to fly with only carry-on luggage, and then drive away from the airport with your telescope of choice in your trunk?

I suppose the problem — aside from the market being far too small — is that telescope users' needs or desires are too different. Basically, all cars are identical, with minor variations. Some are 25% smaller, some 25% bigger, some a little faster, and so on. But those are trivial compared to the differences between (say) a 66-mm APO, a 16-inch Dob, and an 8-inch photo-capable SCT with Go To. If you reserve a compact car and get a standard, it's no big deal. But if you reserved an APO on a high-quality equatorial mount to do astrophotography, and ended up with a Dob instead, it would blow the whole purpose of your astro-vacation.

9 thoughts on “Travel Scopes

  1. Chris

    Back in 1986, my wife and I went on a Sky and Tel tour to Australia for Southern sky and comet Halley observing. As a deep sky observer, I wanted to maximize my aperture and picked a 10″ Dobsonian style telescope to transport via airplane/bus/whatever. (I had originally taken the OTA in 1977 to Greece with nebulous “build there” mount plans. I had also experimented with bean bag chair mount ideas with this OTA.) There were the standard 20kg weight restrictions on each piece of checked luggage. We did a quick and dirty modification of the tube and Alt-Az mount so that the tube was collapsible, and the mount and associated hardware fit entirely inside the collapsed tube. Wherever possible we removed material to hold down weight and I would hand carry the full thickness objective mirror in a carry on (which was not weighed). The collapsed tube and mount went in a padded box as checked luggage. I would assemble and disassemble the scope at our various observing destinations. It was work but it was well worth it. I have since taken the scope to various other closer destinations and the fact that ordinarily 5′ long tube can be compacted to about half that length makes it much easier to transport on boats/planes/cars/donkeys/etc. I’m often tempted by the compactness of a folded OTA, but the simplicity of this design has lasted for over 30 years. Foreign customs inspectors, however, are another story.

  2. Wally

    Last year it was a 90s C-90 – the G-3 version – to China for the total solar eclipse. Plus 15lbs of other photo gear.

    This year to Australia, I’ll carry a SV70ED Raptor and a Flashpoint tripod plus one lightweight camera body and zoom lens.

    However, I’ll try to borrow a GOTO mount while there – as well as visit a friends observatory in Back of Beyond in the Flinders Range.

    Strategy – always carry a lightweight scope that can go on a tripod you’ll carry anyway. Anything above that is GRAVY!

  3. Bob

    One seldom hears of Questar 3.5″ any more in the periodicals. Granted, they don´t advertise like the more popular and less exopensive brands these days but they are a great travel scope. Any comments appreciated.

  4. Luca

    My travel scope is the William Optics Megrez II, 80mm short tube refractor, which I carry in a backpack with all required accessories. The mount is a UA Microstar Deluxe for silky smooth alt-az movement on a Manfrotto tripod. The mount and tripod are always in checked luggage, with no problems. This setup has been to Egypt for a TSE and to the top of Haleakala in Maui. Setup and observing are a breeze.

  5. Ed Vais

    Not to mention being the lucky soul to draw the TSA goon who asks, “Is that some sort of a ray gun?” :)

  6. skunkworks

    I used to travel with my Questar 3.5, but haven’t since 9/11. I’ve taken that scope to Honduras, Switzerland, Mexico, Hawaii and all over the US mainland–everywhere I traveled I brought it along. I now try to minimize my luggage, and the telescope was a significant piece of carry-on, as well as a magnet for the attention of various uniformed officials (“No, it’s a telescope…here, let me show you, it works like this…oh! please don’t touch the meniscus”, etc.) I know it will come with me when I visit a site with a really dark sky, but the hassle of carrying any fine equipment on an airplane has to be taken into consideration.

  7. george swarthout

    Mr Flanders, I will let you guess my age,my dad took me to the observatory from 1956 till the early 70s before star wars ruined it. I can still here in my mind dr. c.h. cleminshaw give his lectures in the zeiss projector autitorium, but with todays technology has renderes it a display. I remember dick nelson telescope maker out in the san fernando vally, made 16inch cassagrains on trailers or joe hickox who workes at mt wilson in the early 50s early astronomy was fun, and more stars visible at griffith and less techno cars…george swarthout..ges505@yahoo.com…ps any other old people out there?

  8. george swarthout

    Mr Flanders, I will let you guess my age,my dad took me to the observatory from 1956 till the early 70s before star wars ruined it. I can still here in my mind dr. c.h. cleminshaw give his lectures in the zeiss projector autitorium, but with todays technology has renderes it a display. I remember dick nelson telescope maker out in the san fernando vally, made 16inch cassagrains on trailers or joe hickox who workes at mt wilson in the early 50s early astronomy was fun, and more stars visible at griffith and less techno cars…george swarthout..ges505@yahoo.com…ps any other old people out there?

  9. Glenn A. Reish, Jr.

    Mr. Flanders,

    I live in Stroudsburg Pennsylvania,(The Pocono Mountians).

    Last fall I took the astro 1 course at East Stroudsburg University.

    Now I would like to know how to find out what is in the night sky here in Stroudsburg on any given night ?

    I have a telescope and love to search the night sky.

    Sincerely,

    Glenn A. Reish, Jr.

    garjr@verizon.net

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