Why Use a Small Refractor?

Yerkes 40 Inch Refractor

Ok, maybe you shouldn’t get a refractor, you’ll never get one the size of the great Yerkes Observatory 40 Inch Refractor shown above. But I’d have to say you should consider getting one, albeit a much smaller one. Let me tell you my experience with refractors to help you see why.

I’ve had a few interactions with refractors in my 5 decades of astronomical interest. I never owned one when I started, back in grade school and high school. I was intensely interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember. I read every book on the subject when in grade school (yup, both of em). But except for a couple of more or less toy telescopes, I never had a telescope of consequence until high school, and it wasn’t a refractor.

Starting Out, No Refractor For Me

Not that I didn’t want one. I wore out the pages on my Sky & Telescope issues, primarily trying to figure out which Unitron telescope to purchase. After every day-dreaming session, I’d always end up with the same dilemma — I could only afford their 2.4 inch Altazimuth model. The trouble was, all of the books and articles I’d read said that I needed at least a 3 inch telescope for any serious viewing. Who doesn’t want to be serious, right?

So my next option was to make my own telescope. I dug though every issue of each new Edmund Scientifics catalog, looking for objective lenses, aluminum tubes, focusers, and finders. It was always tempting to spring for all those parts, but once I added them up, I was again always running into a budget wall.

Even so, I bought many Edmund Scientific publications about telescopes and observing, like their informative Telescopes You Can Build, How To Use Your Telescope, and even Photography With Your Telescope. Amazingly, these small publications are still around, very inexpensive, and still good reads. Like with my magazines, I nearly wore out the pages in these paperbacks, planning and re-planning which telescope I was going to build, and what I’d see with it.

But all through high school I never followed through on any refractor purchase or construction project. Big plans, little time, less money. I did lay my hands on a 6 inch Newtonian kit with my high school Principal’s help, but never on a quality refractor.

First Refractor Experience — A Big One

However, my exposure to refractor telescopes changed when I went to college. I went to what was then a small college, yet sure enough, they had an observatory with what seemed to me a gigantic telescope. It was a 10 inch, long focus refractor built by Lohmann Brothers in the 1930’s. The Lohmann factory built quite a number of similar sized instruments during that era.

Their 10 inch refractor was a smaller version of the great Yerkes observatory 40 inch refractor shown at the article beginning. Though clearly smaller than the 40 inch, the 10 inch at my college was mounted on a large pier, was very long, and the eyepiece height above the floor varied greatly depending upon the elevation of the target. There was a rolling set of steps that also worked as a multiple-height observing seat. I could roll the contraption into position, and climb to the level that got me to the eyepiece.

I managed to get a lot of observing time on that telescope. Mainly because I expressed intense interest in it, and did a lot of begging to the head of the Physics department. I got to operate the telescope on open house nights and for science classes. But I also got to use the telescope for my own clumsy efforts at lunar and planetary photography. It was an experience that I’ll never forget.

Sometimes, I and a friend would just spend a couple of hours observing the intricate details of the moon made available by the behemoth telescope. Even though by my junior year I had a 10 inch home constructed Newtonian telescope that had a used, pre-made mirror, it could not deliver the high contrast and exciting views provided by this great refractor.

My Alma Mater now has a much newer telescope, a modern Cassegrain reflector mounted in its own obsbervatory. But the school had the foresight to keep the old historic refractor in operation. And in a recent contact with a professor at my old college, I learned that on open house nights the big line still forms to see the old classic refractor, and far fewer people line up to see the new instrument. There’s something majestic and mysterious about those early 20th century refractors.

Next Refractor Experience – A Superb One

Still, in that college period, for budgetary reasons all of my own telescopes were homemade Newtonian reflectors, and I still didn’t own a refractor of my own. My next experience with one was during a summer when I got to work as a summer employee at the University of Arizona. There I got to assist in using the Mount Lemmon Observatory 60 inch Cassegrain telescope. Now that’s a telescope.

Okay, the 60 inch isn’t a refractor. But on each side the big reflector was a 6 inch refractor mounted as a finder telescope. Yeah, you got it, 6 inch refractor finder telescopes. With one on each side, one would be within reach no matter where the main instrument was pointed. And on one occasion, when the telescope was between photographic targets, we used one of the refractors to to take a peek at the moon. That was my first view was through one of the 6 inch finders.

It knocked my socks off. One of the best views of the moon I’ve ever seen with a similar sized instrument. It hit me then what all the refractor praise was about from many enthusiastic amateur astronomers. Superior contrast, steady images, it all was there to see. The view through that 6 inch finder was far superior to those of my high school era procured 6 inch Newtonian.

Of course, I was observing then from about 9,000 feet. My old 6 inch reflector never saw through such a thin atmosphere.

Next Refractor Experience — A Little, Big Surprise

A few years after that, a friend and I had our telescopes set up in my back yard. At that time I still had my Aperture Fever driven college era 10 inch Newtonian. My friend had set up a modest 3 inch refractor he’d constructed from surplus optics, similar in appearance and size to the Vixen model shown at left.

When I looked through his refractor, I was stunned. The contrast of the image made Jupiter’s belts stand out much sharper than even my 10 inch Newtonian displayed. Sure, some details were visible through the 10 inch that the 3 inch couldn’t match, but the 3 inch view was more eye catching, steady, and pleasing somehow.

I wanted one.

But years went by before I ever sprang for a refractor. When I did spring, I went for what I thought was a bargain: a Meade 90 mm f/10 refractor on an equatorial mount. How could I go wrong — it was a big brand name. But alas, what I had bought was an imported telescope, made in China before China made high quality optics. I should have realized that the price was so low for a reason.

As an example of its low quality, I tried on many occasions to see the Cassini Division of Saturn’s rings with it. It wouldn’t reveal the division. I since have obtained and still own a Meade ETX 90. I’ve used it on Saturn may times, and it has always easily revealed the Cassini Division, so the 90mm refractor just wasn’t up to it even though the ETX 90 routinely resolved the Cassini Division with no aperture advantage.

While I can’t complain about the mount that came with the 90 mm refractor, the views through the instrument were much less than I’d hoped. Not at all comparable to my friend’s 3 inch that was made from surplus optics. So I figured right then that I still couldn’t afford a quality refractor, and still wasn’t interested in building my own.

Bringing It Home At Last

Then some years later I joined a little astronomy egroup on the web. The group was dedicated to small refractors, 60 mm (2.4 inch) being their favorite. I read entertaining and almost unbelievable member reports of views though various 60 mm telescopes.

It left me scratching my head. What about the sacrosanct 3 inch rule asked the group what they recommended that I try to obtain.

They listed primarily old brands, often of Japanese make, most of which were no longer produced. Such telescopes though were readily available at garage sales and Ebay. The general sense was that in the 60’s and 70’s era, 60 mm refractors were not made to be toys, but serious introductory instruments. They were telescopes with good optics and solid construction. I looked on Ebay, and sure enough some were available. But not as cheap as I’d hoped.

One club member dug through their orphaned telescope collection and donated a telescope to me. It was a 60 mm Monolux of Japanese design, likely decades old. It was basically in good shape, but needed some tender loving care. I reviewed my experiences bringing this orphan back to life here.

Once I’d waded through the problems, like discovering that one objective lens was in backwards, and solving an astigmatism issue, I found this telescope to perform far better than I’d ever expected. From my first views through my college’s 10 inch to my more recent views through a quality 60 mm, I was impressed. Having a long focus refractor of quality seemed to serve up very pleasing images almost regardless of size. More details in bigger telescopes, of course. But pleasing views, always.

Tycho Crater with 60mm Telescope

So here in my old age I find that the 2.4 inch (60 mm) Unitron that I’d almost bought many times in my teens would have thrilled me. I’d have probably worn it out and been on my 3rd one by now. Since refurbishing the Monolux 60 mm, I finally rolled up my sleeves and constructed an even longer focus Carton objective 60mm Telescope. Above you see an example of what it can do.

So at this point, having exposed my sparse but varied past with refactor telescopes, I strongly suggest that you don’t let telescope snobbery keep you out of the game. If you’re just getting started, or know someone who is, don’t be afraid of getting a 60 mm to 90 mm refractor, something like the Vixen Optics Mini Porta Mount and A70LF Telescope. What you’ll have is a telescope that can deliver high contrast steady views, is small enough to be easily portable, and requires very little maintenance for all that. Just get one with solid construction and a steady mount.

How do I know? I have a 50mm, couple of 60mm telescopes, and I purchased and reviewed one of the Vixen telescopes at the Vixen 70mm Refractor web page. I purchased mine minus the tripod, as I still have and use a Pipe Fitting Tripod. The tripod serves all of my small refractors, including a 50mm, two 60mm’s, and a 70mm.

It’s hard to go wrong with these long focus types. The long focal ratios reduce the refractor color fringing characteristic to a very tolerable level. Just don’t count on that being true if you buy an inexpensive short focus refractor. If you want to go inexpensive — go long.

So what if you’re more into wide field observing? Wouldn’t it be handy to have a telescope about 18 inches long for star observing, perhaps some 60mm to 80mm in diameter? Light weight, portable, wide field, low maintenance — is it possible?

Yes, it is possible. But for precise, color corrected images, the price goes up a bit. To get good color correction and sharp images out of a short focus refractor, you can’t get away with classic crown and flint glass achromats. You have to go to the ED optics design, which use more exotic glass compounds that minimize color dispersion (translate to color fringing).

If the short focus, wide field, portable telescope is what you want, a good and popular version would be like the Orion ED80 80mm f/7.5 Apochromatic Refractor Telescope. Short, wide field, 80mm star pulling aperture, and yes — higher price. But compared to many other 80mm ED refractors out there, the Orion is a bargain.

If you’re satisfied with low power and a bit of color distortion, you can even try a classic achromat short focus instrument like the Orion Observer 80ST 80mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope, which comes it at less than $200. You’ll still get pleasing wide field images, but may see a bit of color fringing on the brightest objects, and may find less clarity at high magnification. It will be handy for casual star observing, not so much for high resolution work like planets.

The bottom line is, there is something about quality refractor images that is hard to beat. It is still true, of course, that going refractor much above 90mm or 3.5 inches in diameter is a more expensive proposition compared to going reflector. But refractors of 60mm to 90mm deliver a lot in precise and pleasing views, portability, and low maintenance. I suggest you consider adding such a telescope to your collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *