When thinking of a telescope, a long tube on a tripod immediately comes to mind.
It’s a given that a tripod is needed for amateur astronomy.
However, you likely didn’t give it that much thought that there are other components involved.
Is it an alt-azimuth or an equatorial mount that you need?
Is one easier to align than the other?
To give you an idea of the type of mounts available to you as a first-time buyer, check out what you will come across before you buy.
It could be the difference between getting the right mount the first time or having to buy a new type and starting from scratch.
Why do you Need a Telescope Mount?
Since all telescopes can see astronomical objects, it’s up to the mount to get you there. The mount is what allows you to move the tube to see an object. It seems easy at first – just point and look, right? Wrong.
The sky is limitless, and simply pointing in the rough direction of a star you want to observe means having to align your telescope with the mount first. Did you know that you needed to align it all? Because the sky is vast, you need to be able to narrow it down precisely to get that itty-bitty star within the center of your field of view.
If you have a good mount and you can understand how it works, you can get there. You won’t be one of the ones saying you can’t see a darn thing.
There are plenty of different types of mounts that are compatible with telescopes. However, there are only a small handful that are commonly used on amateur telescopes.
We will be discussing these popular types so that you can get a good idea of what you should start with, if you’re ready to upgrade, or if the one you want fits your budget.
This is just a word about tripods that are used most of the time with various types of mounts. Standard field and photographic tripods are often good enough for most purposes. Most users are satisfied with its performance as long as it’s adjustable to comfortable heights and has enough heft to support the mount and telescope.
But, there are some upgrades that can be used to support its performance.
- Vibration pads – reduce vibrations and tremors when focusing or aligning the scope.
- Wheeley bars – improve portability and transport.
- Extensions – to get lift out of your telescope setup.
- New knobs – replace cheap knobs with knurled and metal parts for improved performance.
The list can go on. There are many tripod accessories that can help beef up a light-duty tripod to do the job of more expensive ones.
It’s much easier to say alt-azimuth, alt-az, or even just AZ – we will pick up what you’re putting down. These types of mounts provide altitude movement in up/down motions and azimuth movement in left/right motions. This type of movement is perpendicular and parallel to the horizon, so it’s excellent for terrestrial observation and very intuitive to point, aim, and observe.
Alt-az mounts typically have a ball and socket system where a ball end rotates within a socket to provide dual-axis movement. Because of their inability to move in an arc-like motion, they cannot counter rotate for field rotation. This means it cannot accurately track an object without interruption to provide mount adjustments. Hence, they are not suitable for astrophotography especially long exposures. These types of scopes are seen in the entry-level market and some high-quality builds are seen in the mid-range market.
- Easy to use
- Can’t track accurately
- Can be difficult to view near Zenith
Fork mounts are becoming very popular. They’re often seen with Cassegrain telescopes and are known for their ease of use and versatility. They’re almost always equipped with computerized tracking. Fork mounts provide altitude-azimuth movement. As they are, they provide limited tracking of astronomical objects.
However, fork mounts can be manipulated with an equatorial wedge to essentially provide the same tracking benefits as an equatorial mount. The compromise is stability as true German Equatorial Mounts (GEM) should not have flexure or vibrations. But, fork mounts should be cheaper.
However, there is a caveat to that. Fork mounts are not typically available alone since the telescope and fork arms comprise of one component. This makes them very heavy to haul out and setup. Since they are not designed to be separated, they are available as telescope packages. OTA quality must be considered when buying a fork mount.
- Easy to use
- Easy to setup
- Fast to setup
- Alt-Az to EQ
- Track along the meridian
- Includes telescope OTA
- Requires wedge for EQ alignment
- Forks and OTA are usually one component
- Can be heavy
- Telescopes larger than 10” may require 2-person setups
Dobsonians are essentially Newtonian OTAs on a rocker-style box mount with alt-azimuth movement. There are some optical changes in a Newtonian that is classed as a Dobsonian, but nothing significant that implies it must be categorized differently.
The OTA is mounted inside a plywood “box” of sorts that is covered in laminate. The base has a swiveling design that provides azimuth motion. Where the OTA connects to the sideboards are usually Teflon strips/bearings that provides altitude motion.
Because this type of mount is usually heavy and large in and of itself, the OTAs can be made with very large primary mirrors to support the weight. Even though they’re big, reflectors offer more value per inch in aperture versus refractors.
There are also tabletop designs that comprise of much smaller and scaled down versions that sit on top of a platform such as a table. These are not usually called tabletop Dobsonians but just tabletop telescopes. Small apertures and low price points puts them in the entry-level market.
- Smooth movement
- Easy to use
- Simple to setup
- Large apertures
- Can build your own
- Limited to alt-az
- Limited to Newtonian OTAs
Equatorial mounts provide up/down in North/South directions along the Declination axis. They provide left/right motion in East/West directions along the Right Ascension axis.
The equatorial mount is just like an alt-az mount but with a tilt. The Right Ascension axis is tilted to allow an equatorial mount to be aligned to the Earth’s rotational axis. This counteracts for field rotation, so you can track and follow targets in the sky without it ever leaving your field of view. This movement is achieved with its arc-like motion as it tracks the object. Due to this design, equatorial mounts always need counterweights to support telescope balance.
Most EQ mounts incorporate setting circles on the mount to show celestial coordinates (RA and Dec.) to locate objects. EQ mounts are also compatible to be upgraded with motor drives to continuously track a star.
This obviously proves that a GEM mount is the best type of mount for imaging. However, not all are appropriate for imaging. EQ mounts offered in both the entry-level and mid-range market are light-duty mounts. This means they have lightweight payload capacities and do not provide the type of steady or extreme precision and accuracy needed for imaging. What are they good for then? They’re good for providing a beginner with the ability to track objects and possibly start with short sub-exposures for beginner imaging.
- Polar alignment
- Harder to learn
- Awkward eyepiece position
GoTo mounts aren’t a type of mount in and of itself, but it is its own type of category. What makes a GoTo mount is motorization. A motor drive is incorporated into the mount design to provide motorized slewing. The motor drive takes its demands from either firmware or software that is provided by the manufacturer or an app that is used by the telescope user to sync with the mount.
In cheaper models, the mount comes with a hand controller that has a built-in database of celestial objects, commands, and features to run the motorized mount. Both alt-az and eq mounts can be used with a motor drive to run both axes. However, alt-az GoTo is still limited to the limitations of alt-az mounts. GEMs are better suited to astrophotography.
More expensive GoTo mounts will have features such as WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and the ability to use your smartphone or laptop as the primary controller to command the mount.
With GoTo, the computer provides the coordinates needed to slew to an object. It can also “watch” or follow that object as it moves in the night sky. This makes GoTo very desirable to astrophotographers who want to image an object or take long exposures. The trick is ensuring the motorized mount can keep up with the object without error or backlash at high accuracy and precision needed to perform as expected. As such, it’s not just the computer that makes the difference. Worm gears, bearings, and overall mount and tripod quality all have their roles.
Quality mounts can cost more than the telescope itself. GEM mounts are very expensive, but the good ones can perform with extreme precision as seen in the high-end market.
- Automatic tracking
- Automatic slewing
- Multiple features
- Must have GEM w/GoTo for imaging
Which Type of Mount is Right for You?
Each type of mount has its own benefits and drawbacks. Most mounts come included with the telescope tube which helps you save some money if you’re just getting started. Standalone tubes will require you to do your homework on the type of mount you will want to pair it with. This is no easy task as you must be specific and determine if it will suit your needs.
Here are some examples of the type of situation you could be in and what type of mount could be the most appropriate choice.
Small Scope for the Kids
You may be wondering what the best type of mount is for a kid. Well, it depends on their age, level of interest, and skill level. An EQ may be appropriate if they are studying the movement of stars for a science project.
If you’re implying that young children will be using the scope for recreational use, you need to determine a few other things.
If camping trips, wildlife observation, and stargazing is in your future, a refracting telescope with an alt-az mount is the obvious choice.
If you already know a thing or two about telescopes, perhaps you already own a Newtonian, then you can collimate a Newtonian on a tabletop mount. They’re lightweight, affordable, and provide a larger aperture per inch versus a refractor for the money.
There’s no need to go big and fancy here. A simple, manual alt-azimuth mount is the way to go. Up, down, left and right, there’s no right or wrong. You can also track objects along the meridian. However, you don’t want to go too cheap or you will be compromising the quality of your view with vibrations and shaking every time you align or focus the scope. This can be extremely annoying, but it’s the trade-off for a lower price. Spend a little bit more in a quality alt-az mount and you’ll have a solid platform for your recreational observations.
Visual Only with Terrestrial Observation
This is a situation that calls for two things: an alt-azimuth mount and a refracting telescope. The refracting telescope with a prism can allow for terrestrial observation with image correct orientation. The alt-az mount with its simple up/down, left/right movement can accurately track land-based targets such as animals and birds.
Visual Only with Tracking
You’re not imaging but you do want the ability to track an object as it moves across the night sky. You will want a manual EQ mount. The EQ that is polar aligned will track an object. This type of mount will likely offer slow-motion controls that allows fine adjustments along the RA axis to follow it as rotation takes its course.
Visual Only with Large Newtonian
Large Newtonians can be mounted to alt-az and EQ mounts, but if you’re not imaging with it, it’s best if you opt for a Dobsonian. The Dobsonian is the very definition of a large Newtonian that provides visual-only benefits. They’re often set at very affordable price points where you can find a 12” for under $1000.
More expensive Dobsonians can feature modifications such as GoTo, cooling fans, collapsible tubes, and truss rods.
Visual Only with GoTo
You’re not vested to imaging just yet, but you want more help with star hopping and finding objects. Inexpensive GoTo will be an appropriate pairing for you. The mount and hand controller will clue you in to how GoTo works. You’ll soon see how much precision it requires to get right on target and stay on that target.
Inexpensive models will suffer from issues, but because it’s cheaper, you will know what you must look for next time. The idea is to get you to your target without you having to find it yourself. Usually, you can dabble with photography, but short exposures will be all you can do before stars start to show trails.
Many telescopes can allow astrophotography, but if it’s any good depends on the type of telescope you choose. The number one factor that will determine success worth sharing and improving upon is the mount.
What you need is a computerized GEM mount. It can track targets, take long exposures, and good mounts will be able to compensate and correct for errors like backlash, periodic error, and other things. All this can be done and more while you have a cup of coffee or take a nap.
What does a Mount Say to a Telescope?
A mount alone and a telescope alone are useless to you. You must have the pair to get observing.
Most mounts can be used interchangeably with telescope tubes with the exception of fork mounts. You will want to look to the dovetail system to determine if it’s compatible. With this in mind, it’s never a waste if you end up with a collection of mounts or telescopes. You can switch out between them to find the right setup, upgrade your setup, or make a setup for a friend you’ve brought along for the ride.
As expressed throughout this article, the mount can definitely be the make-it-or-break-it accessory to your telescope setup. The saying about telescopes proves true here, you get what you pay for.