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The Long Life and Sudden Death of the Edmund Astroscan Telescope

Few telescopes in this world are as….distinct as the Edmund Astroscan, I mean, _look_ at it:

astroscan

The Astroscan may hold a record for the longest running mass-produced telescope on the market, possibly only beat out by some of the classic Cassegrain models. It is also was one of the most controversial telescopes made (at least that wasn’t an outright scam or waste of people’s money). A simple search for the Astroscan in Astronomy forums reveals that the little red telescope has many detractors, and many defenders:

“I’ve never seen one that was in collimation”

“I love it! It is so easy to use!”

“Its an old design that should have been put to rest a long time ago, there are much better models in that size and price range!”

etc…

The back and forth actually reminds me more than a little bit of of the old Mac vs. PC wars on newsgroups, where PC advocates objected to people buying things that might not have been as  powerful or economic as what they used and Mac advocates vehemently defended their choices with rabidity and dared to be a fraction of the marketplace. Of course, in this case the scale was much smaller.

So what was the story behind this little telescope? Why was it so different than other telescopes? What happened to it? Why was it so loathed and loved? I shall try to answer these questions with my limited experience of having worked for Edmund Scientific for the last couple of years that the Edmund family owned the Scientifics division (The Edmund family still owns the Industrial Optics portion of the company).

In The Beginning

In 1976 the Edmund Scientific company started developing a telescope that would be its flagship model. The idea was to make something that was easy to use, easy to transport, and wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970’s Living Room. Given that in that era almost all commerically sold telescopes were tripod mounted things that took up a lot of real estate when set-up this was bit of a sea change. The optical system was developed so that the customer would not have to do any maintenance (or collimation) that reflectors often required. It was also designed with an optical window so that dust and other debris entering the tube would be minimized. The body was developed out of ABS plastic to be as durable as possible, and was smooth enough so that it would ‘roll’ on its base without being so slippery as to move with a hard breath.

Some decisions were made for its contruction. It initially did not have any aiming mechanism as it being a rich field telescope was assumed to be good enough to along (it wasn’t). The problem was mostly aesthetics: Any aiming mechanism would spoil the clean lines fo the Astroscan’s body. Eventually a sheet metal aiming deveice was developed that helped. Later models, as shown in the above picture, had a red-dot finder added for aiming.

The Astroscan was aimied squarely at novice users and this was both a help and hinderance. Hardcore amnatuer astronomers were grumpy that so much effort was put into a telescope that wasn’t aimed at their needs, and didn’t address what they felt was ideal in a beginner telescope. The validity of their arguments continues to be debated to this day.

A harder barrier for the Astroscan to overcome was its low-power. Being a rich field telescope with only 1 eyepiece included it had what seemed like an anemic 16x magnification. This was in an age where retail department store telescopes were sick with ludicrious claims of unattainable magnification (640x!!!!). Edmund had hoped to have their new telescope sold by wholesale as well as through their famous catalog, and seeing this stylish but-low-powered telescope next to the fake claims of cheaper telescopes was a hinderance to those long-term wholesale plans.

Other features of the Astroscan were controversial: To reduce costs the focuser used a rubber wheel (as opposed to a rack and pinion system) that would press against the eyepiece’s base and move when the focuser knob was turned. But this wheel would develop ‘flats’ that made for a bumpy focusing experience, and in very cold weather it could shrink and not ‘grab’ the eyepiece properly. That said, some people loved it, including the founder of Orion Telescopes, Tim Geisler.

Other features of the Astroscan would be introduced later, mostly as accessories: A threadable solar projection system, a moon hook that would allow the Astroscan to be mounted to classic Equatorial mounts, a camera-style tripod that was designed especially to allow the Astroscan’s base to thread onto it, an image inverter, and a few more items were developed.

The Astroscan did well as telescopes sales go. The exact numbers are unclear but in its lifetime it is assumed to have sold around 90,000 units, making for around 2400 units per year, which is good numbers for a company that does not exclusivelty sell telescopes.

The Mid Life Crisises-es-es

The Astroscan had been planned on being sold below $100.00 and much of the developement issues were based on that cost limit. But this was to cause a few growing pains for the Astroscan. For one, the 70’s were an era of major inflationary pressures and keeping costs down just was not possible. At some point in the 80’s a decision was made to move production to the less expensive Japan. Production began in that nation after many, many, many long meetings and trips by the senior brass from Edmund.

Japan’s production, like most things in the Astroscan’s history, was polarizing. Some considered the Astroscans of that era to the worst ones ever made (even calling them ‘Astroscams’) while others declared Japan’s attention to optical details produced some of the best models made. In any case, production costs in Japan rose steadily over the years to the point where, when combined with the overseas shipping costs, it was no longer economical to produce the Astroscan in Japan. Production was returned to Barrington, NJ in the USA.

By this time, the Astroscan had quite a number of years since its development and was starting to look a little long in the tooth. It hadn’t had much attention paid to its design in years (the last major changes happened when the production was moved to Japan). There were other issues:  The Astroscan screamed 70’s design, but not loudly enough to provoke nostalgia. It’s cost had also risen to over $350 Much higher than optically similar models), the product copy hadn’t even been rewritten in what seemed liked decades (dated-sounding references to ‘Space-Age design’ were still present as of the 1999 catalog).

Other issues were a problem. Edmund had introduced a series of lower-cost beginner telescopes to work as a fleet with the Astroscan as the Flagship, but none of them garnered much success. The wholesale program became a morass as other retailers undercut Edmund’s pricing, or even broke up the telescope into its component parts and sold them individually to get around any Minimum Advertised Price policy Edmund might introduce. The wholesale program also did not account for retail inventory needs, so telescopes were often shipped out to other retailers when Edmund’s own retail telescope sale needs were not fulfilled.

Even worse, the patent on the design was due to run out in 2000 and a slew of imitators came in. The most visible of which was the Bushnell Voyager

voyager

The Voyager was not as sturdy as the Astrscan, having a coated styrofoam body instead of ABS, but it had a cost of $199 vs the Astroscan’s $360. Other imitators soon popped up, such as the Orion Funscope:

funscope

Other, ‘interesting’ Astroscan imitators appear courtesy of Edmund’s Chinese agents. The most internally infamous of which was a model (one never developed for the consumer) which was just straight optical tube shoved into a painted metal ball. It was immensely heavy compared to a traditional astroscan and had just a piece of colored tape to cover the seam between to the tube and the ball. The telescope famously used the rack end of a zip-tie for its focuser rack. Oddly enough the optics in the telescope were not bad!

Still, it seemed like something needed to be done:

The New Astroscan that never was.

In 2000, plans and committees were set up at Edmund to help revitalize the aging Astroscan. Message boards were inquired, costs assessed, ideas explored, et cetera. Among those plans it was decided to do an ‘almost-overhaul’ of the Astroscan. The optics would be changed to more modern and less costly counterparts. A mechanical engineer was sourced to develop and improve the focuser. Sourcing parts from Asia was explored to reduce cost while still keeping the production in the USA. Eyepiece changes were considered and it even variations on the body color (a star pattern on black was considered, not uncommon today but radical for the time) were considered, as well as a possible oversized (6″ mirror) version! The overall plan was to get the Astroscan competitive in the new playing field, to answer as many of its criticisms as we possibly could, and overall revitalize what had become a dusty corner of the world’s telescope offerings. How much would the new Astroscan differ from the old one? We’ll never know.

In 2001 it was announced that Science Kit & Boreal Lab would purchase the Edmund Scientific. All work on the New Astroscan Project ceased. Edmund continued to produce the Astroscan for SK&BL while they consolidated the move to their facility, but eventually they set up production of the Astroscan in China. The quality was a bit more concerning and the classic RKE eyepieces were replaced with generic Plossl eyepieces (partly because the Edmund family still claimed the rights to the RKE eyepieces and sold them in their Industrial Catalog for years afterwards).

Under SK&BL or one of the other administrating companies the Astroscan continued to be sold until 2013, when disaster struck.

What’s in a Mold?

Its not clear what happened, but somewhere someone dropped something shouldn’t have, or something wore out, or …well anything. The mold used to produce the Astroscan body broke. That is all we know at this point. It could have been wear & tear, having been used to produce at least 90,000 telescope bodies.

Molds are costly, and while developing a new model could have been done it would have required new machining, new engineer work, and a host of other aspects. ScientificsOnline decided to not produce a new mold. Instead they introduced the Astroscan Millenium, a mini Dobsonian with similar optical characterisics.

astroscanmill

Oddly enough, this ‘new’ design solved all the issues that critics had complained about with the Astroscan: it had different eyepieces, you could now collimate it, etc. Of course it lost its classic design and character in the process, and if that design looks a bit familiar it is because other companies have been producing for over a decade:

009

It essentially a red version of the Orion Starblast Mini-Dob. The irony here is that the StarBlast was designed to match the optical features of the Astroscan. Welcome to your closed circle.

The Aftermath

Although not as rage-inducing as the PC/Mac wars, there definitely was an element of form vs function with the Astroscan. Yes, they did go out of collimation despite the claims, and it was very hard to get them back. That said, I have seen ones bought in 2nd hand stores on the cheap that were perfectly collimated – everything else was messed up, however.

The simple fact is that Edmund Scientific was not really poised to become a full manufacturer of telescopes like Meade, Celestron, or Orion. They had a great contender with the Astroscan, but all of their other models were not as able to support their costs of development. While some of the telescopes  Edmund made in the 60’s were classics, they would not be able to compete in the modern market.  Edmund did not develop an import line of telescopes the way other major telescope brands did. This is not a surprise as the Edmund company found there was more money to be made developing industrial optics than there was in the telescope market.

The Spirit of the Astroscan is not gone forever, either, Astronomer Norm Sperling, who actually worked on the original Astroscan design ran a Kickstarter Program to develop an Astroscan inspired telescope.  In fact, it is essentially the Astroscan made by more modern methods and suppliers. The kickstarter has ended, however, and it is unknown if production will continue.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

Updated Repost: So you got a new telescope for the holidays – A Quick Primer for new telescope users.

This is an updated repost of our popular new telescope owner Primer. We’ve added a few bits concnering new attitudes on computerized telescopes and a few other minor tweaks. Be sure ot pay attention when you first use your telescope. Locally, most folks probably haven’t since I don’t think we’ve had a clear night since the 25th.  Anyway, read-on and learn!

So you got a new telescope for the holidays: A Quick Primer for new telescope users.

Be it X-mas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Solstice or Giftmas this is the season for getting telescopes as gifts. Sadly, many of these scopes might be rushed into usage and some critical steps might be 016skipped. This can result in a frustrating experience for a budding young astronomer who may give up their new hobby prematurely. This can be avoided if you only take the time and a few precautions to make certain you get the baby steps out of the way without too much tripping and falling.

1) Do as much as you can during daytime first!

I can’t stress this too much. Many folks assume they can assemble their telescope right out of the box at their chosen viewing spot – in the dark. Suffice it to say this is not a good idea. Assembling out of the box at the viewing site might be an extreme example but you should certainly try working your scope and getting the ‘feel’ for it during the daytime as much as possible. Take your telescope outside during the daytime and point it at a nearby tree or other object (the object should be at least 1/4 mile away). Use this object to align the finder scope (see below) as well as test how the eyepiece focuses. Try changing your eyepieces between the low and high powered ones to see how that works as well. Move the telescope in large movements as well as using the slow motion controls as well. When you do these things in the daylight you can get a much better feel for how they should work than if you try them at night. Also if you drop an eyepiece or loosen a screw you have a decent chance to find it. Get your mistakes out of the way when the sun is up.

2) Assemble your telescope properly

This should go without saying, but it is amazing how many folks skip a few steps or don’t attach parts, or don’t read the instructions properly. We’ve seen telescopes in for “repairs” just after the holidays that were just put together wrong, or some critical final steps were ignored (slow motion controls not attached, counterweights not placed). Most of the time, there are very few non-critical elements of a telescope’s construction. So be sure to follow the assembly procedure carefully. Allow yourself a couple of hours as well (maybe three hours for certain models of dobsonian telescopes) for the assembly. Don’t assume you can just put it together a 1/2 hour before you plan to head out and view.

3) Align your finder scope. Align your finder scope! ALIGN YOUR FINDER SCOPE!

Get the point? Many folks ignore this step until the last minute and we can tell you that trying to work a telescope without an aligned finger is very,very, very hard. Even the lower 084magnifications on a short focal length telescope only see a little under 1 arc degree of the sky. This is a tiny portion of the sky so hoping to find an object with just the eyepiece is really hard to do. There is a reason why almost all telescopes come with a finder scope. So make sure to align it (During the daytime per suggestion #1) . If your telescope comes with a red-dot finder instead of an optical finder scope, be certain to carefully align that as well during the daytime – and don’t forget to switch it off! A dead battery in a red dot finder is nobody’s friend.

4) Did you get an Equatorial mount? Figure out how it moves!

An equatorial mount has some great advantages over a regular altazimuth (altitude-azimuth) mount. It can track, be motorized, and the larger ones can even be used with setting circles to locate objects in the night sky. But these are only true if you take advantage of the equatorial mount’s features and set it up properly. During the daytime (suggestion #1 again!) try a rudimentary set-up of the equatorial mount. This does not have to be super accurate as some telescope’s instruction manuals may require, just enough to get mostly accurate tracking for a little while. Perhaps more importantly, get a feel for how the telescope moves – you are used to moving things in an up/down left/right fashion. Now you need to get used to moving the telescope in declination and right ascension. Try moving the telescope from one target to another using the mount properly during the daytime to get a better sense of it. One thing to keep in mind is that the counterweight is there for a reason – it shouldn’t be pointing down all the time.

If you have a larger Equatorial mount keep in mind that you can use the setting circles to help find objects in the night sky with the help of a star atlas. But this means you have to learn to use it. Read your instruction manual carefully. You might also consider downloading a Sidereal Time app for you smartphone. You’ll see why once you figure out the details of using your Equatorial mount.

5) Choose your first targets wisely!

Many folks go out with their telescope and just point it at the brightest thing in the sky. This is fine if the brightest object is a planet or the Moon, as there is lots to see. But very often at this time of year the planets might not be out until very late and the brightest thing in the sky is the star Sirius. Problem is, Sirius is just a star and stars appear as just a point of light even when magnified through your telescope. This can be a very boring target and can be disappointing if it is the only bright object. So make certain before you go out for your first night’s viewing that you know what will be up! Most telescopes these days come with some rudimentary planetarium software that can show you what the sky will be like on any night. Failing that there are online websites that do the same thing (sometimes better). Planispheres can also be used, and if you have a Smartphone or pad you should download a planetarium app like Google Sky (its free). Depending on what time of the month it is, the Moon may not be up during evening hours. Since we suggest the Moon as a great first target for your telescope you might want to wait for it. Failing that, try to look for the brighter planets.

 

6) Got a computerized telescope? Take advantage of free smartphone apps to make it much easier to set up!

We’ve been kind of ‘meh’ about computerized telescopes in the past, and are still a bit wary of a telescope where 70% of the cost is in the computer andGoogleSky motors and not the optics. But we have softened a bit since they have become a bit easier to use – and not because they changed, but rather our phones did.

Computerized telescope makers kind of make it seem like a computer means your telescope will magically find things in the night sky. All you need to do is toss it into your yard and enjoy the viewing. But that is not how they work. To set up the telescope’s computer you need to point it at two named stars so it can calculate where everything else in the night sky is located. This used to mean that to set up the telescope you had to have good knowledge of the night sky to find those stars -which kind of defeated the purpose.

But now smartphones are ubiquitous these days and there are plenty of planetarium apps out there for free that will help you identify those stars. Smartphone planetarium apps are not super-accurate (they can be off by as much as an hour)  but they will help you spot and identify bright stars that you need to aim your telescope at to orient the computer.  This makes the computer orientation much easier to do than trying to learn to use a planisphere or star map on the fly.

 

7) Learn, learn learn!

There’s a host of information for astronomy newbies on the internet and in books. Amateur astronomers are very keen on sharing their knowledge and experience with you. Check out the major magazines online websites such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy. There are a zillion astronomy websites with forums as well you might wish to peruse. Even on this blog we have a collection of Telescope Tips you should check out for helpful advice. Also consider joining or at least contacting your local astronomy club – you can find all kinds of help from them, as well as many other benefits from membership (such as loaner equipment).

If your first night with your telescope is a good one, then you’ll have a much better time with the hobby. But always remember a little planning goes a long way!

Happy New Year!

Interested in buying telescopes?

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

 

Nope, Pluto is still a Dwarf Planet

Back in early October there were a bunch of poorly titled articles in the news proclaiming that ‘Pluto is a Planet again’ along with other pluto1misleading titles.  At the time we were busy prepping for the holiday season and could not address this issue. Now that we can, we have this to say:

Don’t bet on it.

Most of these titles stem from the results of a debate at Harvard which kind of smacks of ‘fixed results’ and was widely reported as if this were the final word the subject.

But this isn’t a popularity contest. This isn’t a subject decided by debate and thus far those wanting Pluto to be a planet again haven’t us any answer beyond sentimentality, and slight variations on ‘awww, c’mon!!’.

We’ve already cover the why of Pluto’s change from Planet to Dwarf Planet. Long story short is that the International Astronomer’s Union bent over backwards at first to try and keep Pluto as a planet that the would have accidentally admitted several asteroids and at least 5 Kuiper Belt objects into the category of “Planet” (with doubtless more coming in the future).

Suddenly a solar system with 15 planets with the possibility of another 3-5 in the near future – not counting anything else we found in the Kuiper belt – didn’t seem so keen.

The astronomer’s union then adapted a new set of rules with regret, but with the satisfaction that they had an effective definition of “Planet”. The regret of course was that Pluto was no longer the planet we knew. This sort of thing had happened before, when the definition of ‘asteroid’ was defined in the 19th century and Ceres was demoted from planet-hood after being classified as a planet for half a century.

This year, on July 14th, the New Horizons Probe will reach and explore dwarf planet Pluto. Oddly enough, when New Horizons was launched (2006) Pluto was still classified as a planet. But these days we don’t just send space probes to the big planets any more. We’ve got space probes visiting asteroids, landing on comets, with more to come. It doesn’t matter what you call Pluto, we’re still going to study it.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

 

 

 

The Art of Surviving an Astronomy Session

So you got yourself a new telescope and it is a clear night out. Time to grab the new telescope and bring it outside, right? Hold on there; as many new astronomers have discovered, an observing session isn’t as simple as when you go outside in the winter/early spring to put out the trash. There are several things you should probably prepare before you go out for a night of observing.

DRESSING FOR THE NIGHT WEATHER

Far, far too many folks dress for the daytime weather. This can be a problem for you if the daytime was a happy 78 degrees and then drops as the sun goes down into the 60’s.  Many an observing session has been ended prematurely because the astronomer forgot to wear a sweater.

For colder weather, it is 670px-Dress-for-the-Cold-Step-1-Version-2wise to dress in layers.  This way you can adjust your level of warmth as the night goes on. The only trouble with dressing in layers is that you need to get dressed indoors where it is warm and putting on multiple layers is a bit more complex than just tossing on a jacket. I have had sessions where I dressed for warmth and then had something delay my exiting the house, the result being me sweating up a storm before I got outside.

PREPPING THE AREA AROUND THE TELESCOPEfoldingtable

Even if you only have the eyepieces that came with your telescope and a star chart it might not be a bad idea to have somewhere to put these items down. A simply folding aluminum table can help a lot without being too much of a burden. You might also consider some kind of carrying case for the eyepieces. Keeping them in your pocket can be hard on the glass and coatings in the long run.

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO VIEW IN ADVANCE…OR DON’T

2241largeWell before you go out, you should decide what you would like to observe that night, or if you just want to aim the telescope around and see what you can find. The latter can be lots of fun, but it can also get old pretty fast if you don’t find anything of interest. The former does require some planning, so be sure to check your planisphere, planetarium program or other astronomical assistant before going out.

HAVE FUN!

Far too many folks turn hobbies into chores – Astronomy is by no means unique in this regard. Doing some work in any hobby to get the most out of it is to be expected, but turning it into a huge burden can make you burn out on astronomy.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Saturn Viewing!

May is going to be an excellent month for viewing planets – Mars is still quite prominent, Jupiter will show up nicely in the Western sky as the sun sets, Mercury makes one of its rare viewable times on the 25th of this month, and Venus will continue to greet early risers. But the big star….err…planet of the month is Saturn.

 

saturn

(more…)

That star you’ve been seeing in the morning? – It is Venus.

Two and a half weeks ago the United States painfully forwarded their clocks in accordance with Daylight Savings Time. While DST has been observed for decades this is only the 8th time DST has been observed in its ‘extended’ format (which was signed into law by then President Bush and first observed in 2007).

PlanetariumPic

Screenshot from Neave Planetarium

The result is that many folks have found themselves getting up to do chores, go to work, etc. in complete darkness. This will continue until our days lengthen enough that early risers awake with the dawn, not darkness.

This year, however, there has been a bit of astronomical coincidence with the change to DST. Namely that the planet Venus has been staring people in the face for the first time.

Several people have asked us ‘what is that bright star in the sky this morning? It was in the South East, and it was BRIGHT!’. We’ve told folks that it was Venus, but oddly enough we aren’t sure everyone believed us.

Well it certainly is Venus, and it is still there. Venus is not called the “Morning Star” for nothing (in fairness it is also called the “Evening Star” when it shows up after sunset).  Venus is the 3rd brightest object in the night sky after the Sun and Moon and is bright enough that at times it can be spotted in daytime (you do have to look very hard, however).

In the past, DST came later in the year so early risers would not encounter as much darkness upon rising. For the past few years that we have been observing the extended DST Venus was not in a position to make its morning appearance.  So this is probably the first time many folks have seen Venus in its ‘Morning Star’ mode. Enjoy the view!

www.spectrum-scientifics.com

Just Some Cool Videos Of Awesome Classroom Science Stuff

Yeah, we could be called lazy today, but these are some great videos of some classroom products that we carry. Have a look:

The Orbiter. Either non-illuminated, or illuminated the Earth-Sun Orbiter models demonstrate how the Earth orbits our Sun, and how the tilt of the Earth’s axis causes the seasons:

The Economy Stream table is used in Earth Science classes to demonstrate how streams erode the land around them, causing them to make new paths and changing the landscape:

A big step up from the Economy Stream Table is the Hydro-Geology Stream Table. Much more versatile and able to demonstrate more erosion concepts.

The Teaching Tornado Model is an excellent way to demonstrate how these destructive weather forces form. Here it is in action:

The Celestial Star Globe is an excellent visual aid for showing how the Earth sits in space. The transparent globe shows the position of the Moon and the stars in space.

The always popular Orrery is a mechanical demonstration of how the planets orbit in out solar system. Students can get a real feel for how the outer planets ‘take their time’ in circling the Sun.

Oh hey, another Orrery video!

Teaching anything about human anatomy? You probably should get a Torso Model.

Are you interested in great science products for your classroom? We’ve got a wide variety!

www.spectrum-scientifics.com