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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

 

Astronomy Tips #17 – Salvaging an old telescope

We hear this story quite often:
“I was going through my old room at my parents house and I found my old telescope! I hadn’t seen it since I was twelve! I wonder if it still works?”

“My father passed away, and I found this old telescope in his belongings, I never knew he had one. Can it work?”

” I was at a flea market and I picked up this telescope for just $20. Its missing a few parts, I think, but I wonder if I can get it working?”

” We bought a house and while cleaning it out we found this telescope. I wonder how good it is and if it will work?”

“I bought a lapse storage unit in an auction and one of the things inside was this telescope. How much is it worth if I clean it up?”

It isn’t a daily event here at the store, but it sure does happen a lot. People find/refind/salvage an old telescope and they want to know if it is a)valuable or b)can be made to work again.

The short answers to those questions are a) Probably not and b) maybe, but is it worthwhile?

Here’s the facts: almost 90% of the telesco0pe we see brought in to the store are small refractors. They are usually older versions of something like this Orion Observer 60.

Small refractors make up a huge portion of telescope sales today, especially for beginners, and it was no different 10,20, 30, or 40 years ago. They are usually the least expensive models available and were sold in camera shops during the holidays – larger telescope you usually had to send away as mail-order. These small refractors had company names that often are not around anymore: Jason, Telestar, Bauch & Lomb, and so on. Now you may notice from the link above that the Observer 60 has a price of just under $100. Remember that number because as your telescope get repaired it is going to cost money – and at a certain point you might think that maybe getting a new telescope is more economical than repairing an old one.

Still, let’s break this down into different categories of problems:

Unsalvageable – At one astronomy club’s star party I once saw a visitor who had brought his old telescope for the club members. When he tilted the end to the ground the lens fell out – followed by a pint of rust flakes. This was a pretty cut and dry case, but in some cases it might not be so obvious what is unsalvageable.

1) Bakelite telescope bodies – I’d be amazed any telescope with this kind of body survived as long as it did.

2) Plastic telescope bodies – These can vary a lot. Some are actually decent or even ABS plastic. But the models with cheap colorful plastic aimed for very little kids are usually not worth saving.

3) Damaged Tripod legs – The shift in low-cost telescopes from wood legs to aluminum legs only took place about 12 years ago, so most old telescope often have wood tripod legs. Wood is fin but it can warp from moisture or splinter from pressure. If there is damage to the legs or the bracket on the tripod legs odds are it is not worth repairing.

4) Missing main lenses or mirror, missing eyepieces are one thing (see below), but if you telescope is missing the main lens/mirror it will not be worth saving.

5) Bends in the tube. Dents are one thing, a telescope with bent tube simply is not going to work.

6) Rust – usually only happens with reflectors, but rust inside the tube is big trouble. Outside is no so big a deal.

Needs Parts – Most old telescopes are physically just fine but are just missing a few things. Telescopes often have lost the little things that came with it, such as the eyepieces. This is a problem as the eyepieces are need for the telescope to work. The good news is that you can often buy these parts – but it might get harder to do so in the future.

1) Eyepieces – second only to missing diagonals, eyepieces are usually what most found telescopes are lacking. This is not too much of an issue as you can usually buy new eyepieces. Trouble is, when they run $20-30 per eyepiece you use up a lot of that ‘$100’ figure we mentioned earlier.

Another issue with eyepieces is the size. Times were most low-cost telescopes were made in Japan and used eyepieces that had a .965″ (25mm) barrel diameter. The US standard was 1.25″. As time went on and manufacture of low-cost telescopes was moved to Taiwan and then Chine the US standard was used more frequently. This is good as people buying a new telescope  have a better design, but it also means that there is less reason to make the smaller lenses. 10 years ago the major telescope suppliers made decent design .965″ eyepieces. But the need for them dried up with the old Japanese models so they stopped making them. If you cannot find .965″ eyepieces you may need to use and adapter and US standard eyepieces.

2) Diagonals are probably lost more often than the eyepeices. They have the same sizing issues and unfortunately can be harder to find than eyepieces in the .965″ standard.  Some telescopes can still come to focus without their diagonal, but some cannot.

3) Finder Scope – While lacking a finder scope does not make the telescope useless, it does make it much, much, much harder to use. Usually most old telescopes had a cheap, plastic 5x finder that are difficult to adjust. A LED reflex finder is a much better option, although you may have to buy it and a bracket to attach it.

4) Dust caps – Without dust covers your optics will likely accumulate dust and grime. If these are missing you might want to improvise something as they will be hard to replace. A clean cloth held on by a rubber band can work for short term storage of a telescope.

Mechanics – Things fall apart, but they can often be repaired.

1) Small dents and dings – these usually won’t affect much. Even the most severe dent a tube can take before bending is not likely to block the light path.

2) Tripod parts go missing. Some of these can be lethal to the telescope’s recovery. Brackets that are attached to wood tripod legs can bend or break and are not worth repairing or replacing. On the other hand, often what gets lost are thumbscrew and bolt systems that attach the tripod leg to the accessory tray that keeps the legs properly sturdy. These can usually be replaced at a local hardware store for a small amount.

3) Stick legs. Wood swells. Sometimes it bends but often what happens is that the center portion of the tripod leg swells up and can’t be adjusted. You may need to use some strength to get it loose again and it may require some sanding or grease. No cost to fix this, however. If the swelling results in bent or broken legs, however, you are back into the unsalvageable category.

Optics Cleaning – Unless your telescope was sealed in a box it is likely to have some dust on its optics, or worse.

1) Dust.  This can be blown off with a rubber ‘blower bulb’. It is important to clear the lens or mirror of dust if it needs more cleaning in any case.

2) Grime, etc. Lenses can be cleaned with the proper lens cleaning fluid. Look for optics cleaning fluid that is suitable for optical coatings. Don’t use window cleaner.  Be sure to use optics cleaning tissues as well as using household tissues and paper towels can damage the lens and coatings.

3) Mirrors with grime. These need to be cleaned, and here are some instructions on how to do so.

This list is by no means comprehensive – the number of things that can be wrong with an old telescope is enormous. But it does give you a sense of what the costs and efforts would be for salvaging an old telescope.

www.spectrum-scientifics.com