Why AstroTrac

There is a long story that goes with the building of my current AstroTrac Astrophotography rig. There have been many issues, including plain bad luck. However, very few of those issues relate to the actual hardware. If you are interested to hear about the adventure of building and testing my setup, read my post titled Going Deeper.

This is a review of the AstroTrac mounting that should be useful for anyone interested in using the same or similar setup. I hope it will save you some time in researching and troubleshooting.

What attracts me to the AstroTrac is its advertised simplicity, lightweight/compact construction, and the seemingly elegant design. It is thin when folded for travel and the design is ideal for fitting into a backpack or equipment case. Simplicity is very important to me. I am just entering the field of astrophotography and it would take too much valuable time for me to setup and calibrate in the dark if equipment is too complex. I am simply not familiar enough with those elaborate designs. For me, a simple setup equals more shooting time.

The AstroTrac is meant to be a wide field stars tracker. It is intended for use with a camera body and short lens. According to the manufacture specifications, it can carry up to 15kgs of load. That means it is possible to use with a telescope lens. I thought of putting a Takahashi FSQ-85 on AstroTrac and following simple math, the total weight plus the camera body is still under the given load capacity. If you ask an expert, as I did, they recommend against using this mount with a telescope lens. I was told (with much condescension) that it simply wasn’t possible.

Of course, there is still the question of stability. It won’t be the most sturdy, but it is worth the try to have a quick and easy setup. In the absolute worst case scenario, you may find you would rather purchase a different mount for your telescope lens and save this for other shooting.

Takahashi FSQ-85 on AstroTrac

So, here is the setup and inventory

AstroTrac AP Rig © Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A. Takahashi Baby-Q FSQ-85 Telescope
B. Dovetail mount for optional guide scope or finder
C. Takahashi Telescope tube holder
D. Hot-shoe phone holder
E. Nikon right-angle view finder
F. Nikon D810A camera body
G. AstroTrac TH3010 Head
H. AstroTrac PS-10 Polar Scope, (this has a tendency to fall easily)
I. Counter weight bar and counterweights
J. AstroTrac TT320X-AG tracking mount
K. AstroTrac TW3100 wedge
L. Manfrotto 338 levelling base with safety payload of 15kg
M. Compass
N. Red LED light for night lighting
O. Anker Astro Pro2 Universal 20,000mAh Battery
P. Stone bag
Q. Gitzo G3542L Tripod
R. Gitzo GS5030VSF Retractable Spiked Feet

S. M4 and M6 Hex screwdriver in a bag

T. Empty partition for the guide scope (if needed, – I already had the guide scope and CCD but planned to use later)

U. Camera cable release with timer and a USB cable for iPad and iPhone charging, (can share the same battery)

V. A box with various difference screw sizes needed (underneath is the phone mount)

W. Takahashi Extension tube with wide-T mount and 1.5x extender

X. A hang-able LED light, I cut a red color gel in front of it to preserve night vision. There is also a headlight behind.

Y. The wedge and counterweights were put into a tripod bag, (not pictured)

My Takahashi FSQ-85, AstroTrac and Accessories in a Pelican Case © Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.
This is what they look like when put into one pelican case

Closer look

I documented almost every single component of the rig as a quick reference for anyone interested in my setup. Here are those images and descriptions:

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

C. Takahashi Telescope tube holder

To attach the Takahashi telescope holder to the AstroTrac TH3010 head, you will need two M6*20 screws (Setscrew A). I would suggest avoiding anything longer or shorter. Moreover, the punch hole on the Takahashi holder is M8 size. So, you will need an M8-M6 adapter. The M4 screws that came in the box (Setscrew B) for attaching the TT320X-AG mount to the wedge seemed too short for my comfort. I changed it to an M4*14 and that size fits well without extending beyond the depth of the punch hole. (I tried an M4*16, but it was too long and touched the polar scope arm)

D. Hot-shoe phone holder

I attached a phone as a finder scope. I am using Star Walk 2 to find stars and it is decent for coarse framing.

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

G. AstroTrac TH3010 Head

I am not impressed by the tension wheel (1) that locks the DEC movement on the TH3010. The grip is too shallow and it is not easy to tighten when there is a heavy payload. I used a screwdriver to tighten it once, but (as you can see) it is now nearly broken. I would hope AstroTrac puts more thought into redesigning this area in future models.

One of the worst features of this hardware is the base (2) that allows the R.A. movement. If you loosen the black lever, there is a chance that the entire payload (telescope lens, counter weight and all), could be lifted out or fall. There is a tiny part on the black lever that I have already lost once. Without that part, the head component falls into two pieces upon unboxing. Be warned and use with caution.

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

H. AstroTrac PS-10 Polar Scope

This is my least favorite component of the mount. The polar scope falls all the time. The quality of this piece is no better than a child’s toy. Some Internet reviews have gone on to say the scope is not properly collimated even fresh out of the factory. Since I am not familiar with the collimation process, I will not comment on that aspect. I will say my greatest headache is that the scope falls too easily from its holder. Even the slightest touch makes it fall and it is in the range of the lens rotation, so that cannot be avoided. I have found best practice to be placing it back after finishing polar alignment (but you may still hit it when adjusting the wedge). For now, I have put a clip on the holder. That solution is clearly a short-term fix.

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

K. AstroTrac TW3100 Wedge

The finished wedge looks nice and the knobs are fine. My only complaint is that when you tighten both the Azimuth and Latitude locking knobs, there is a minor shift of position from where you put the polar stars. You have to take that into account when putting the polar star into the marked position. (1) A tiny compass for quick north finding.

L. Manfrotto levelling base

Manfrotto leveling base provides fine tune adjustment of the level and can load up to 15kg. My current load is between 12 and 13kg.

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

M. Another Compass

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

This is a purely decorative item hanging on the tripod, as it is never hard to find coarse north.

N. Red LED light for night vision

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Modify from bike accessories. It just fit the tripod.

O. Anker battery pack

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Anker Astro Pro2 Universal 20,000 mAh Battery with 12V, 16V, and 19V voltage selection is a power supply for the AstroTrac. It can run the AstroTrac for several nights on a single charge. It is labeled “Astro Pro”, but I don’t think it is designed for Astro photography. There is a typical DC cable and the plug on both sides are 4.3* 1.65mm. It can charge a USB device at the same time as powering the AstroTrac. The battery itself can be easily charged with a car adapter. I carry two in the Pelican case – the second I use to power my MacBook Air (tested on16V output). I plan to use the laptop for AutoGuiding in the future and for now it is a backup. The battery is very thin and fits into a bag holding an iPad mini. The white plastic iPad mini sized board is for use as a flat calibration frame.

R. Gitzo GS5030VSF Retractable Spiked Feet

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

I replaced the original rubber feet with retractable rubber plus metal spiked feet because the original was too soft and wobbled.

Z. A comfortable chair

© Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Lee Koon Kuen (My staff)

Summary

Aside from the minor complaints mentioned (especially the polar scope issues), the AstroTrac is still a good piece of equipment. I give it a moderate recommendation. The build quality and design is great. It is not as sturdy as other medium and large size equatorial mounts, but it gets the basic job done without too much effort. This mount is good for beginners aspiring to increase their skills. I like the mobility, including how easy it is to get inside an equipment case or bag. As I mentioned, a quicker setup means more time spent shooting. This combination may be a bit untraditional, but it has been working for me and I am happy for now.

Works with the AstroTrac & FSQ-85, Nikon D810A

Orion M42 Nebula © Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Orion M42 Nebula - Site : Hezhou, Guangxi, China, Date : 08Feb16, Mount : AstroTrac TT320X-AG, Lens : Takahashi FSQ-85, Camera: Nikon D810A, Exposure : 105s x 42, f/5.6, ISO : 2000, Bias x 20, Darks x 20, Flats x 20. Processing : Pixinsight, Photoshop
NGC2024 by Wilson Lee. © Son Gallery® Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Orion NGC2024 - Site : Qingyuan, Guangdong, China, Date : 01Mar16, Mount : AstroTrac TT320X-AG, Lens : Takahashi FSQ-85, Camera: Nikon D810A, Exposure : 130s x 19, f/5.6, ISO : 2000, Bias x 27, Darks x 16, Flats x 23. Processing : Pixinsight, Photoshop

I was only able to manage to take a single sub within 130sec on 450mm without significant tailing issues. I am not sure if it is a problem of tracking accuracy or lack of polar alignment skills. When I have mastered polar alignment a bit more, I may be able to increase the exposure time with this setup.

Update

I have acquired new accessories “TetherTools Case Relay Camera Power System” to add into my Astrophotography system. That includes a camera relay that allows me to power my camera with the AstroPro 2 20,000 mAh battery pack USB port. This gives me 10x more capacity than the original camera battery. I can also change the battery without shutting off camera power. I will do some more tests and share reviews soon.

TetherTools Case Relay Camera Power System Package

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