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The Skywatcher 120mm Refracting Telescope

The Skywatcher, (which incidentally have now replaced the entire Helios range), was a slightly different purchase to normal, in that I went to the then UK importer and distributor, Scopes Direct to buy it. Scopes Direct was a subsidiary of Orion Optics at Crewe, Cheshire. As I already had a ’spare’ EQ3-2 tripod and head, the Helios having being mounted on an Orion Optics pedestal mount, I bought the optical body only. However, it came complete with the tube rings, a dovetail plate, two super plossl lenses, a 6x30 finder scope, dew shield, star diagonal instruction manual.

Once I arrived home it was a matter of minutes to have the ready for ’first light’ as the tripod and equatorial head were already set up. All I had to do was attach the tube rings, the optical body and balance it all. The refractor is considerably lighter than the Helios reflector and so the EQ3-2 mount encountered no difficulties in accepting the scope and providing a stable viewing platform — even with the legs fully extended.

The overall build quality is impressive — especially as the tube body and its accessories cost only £170, a very small cost for a large refractor. The tube is made of steel and doesn’t feel thin or ’tinny’. Internally the tube is finished in a matt black to prevent stray light from degrading the view at the lens. Well positioned internal baffles also assist in this cause. The rack and pinion focuser is smooth and easy to use, allowing quite precise focusing, even at higher magnifications. The focusing assembly accepts both the standard 1.25 inch lens and accessories and 2 inch versions. This helps make the Skywatcher a versatile unit. A more unique feature, in particular for a refracting telescope, is that the main lens can be adjusted for collimation. Normally a refractors lens is set at the factory and sealed for life, meaning that should you be unlucky enough to buy one which isn’t perfectly collimated then the only solution is to return the scope. With the Skywatcher, as with any Newtonian reflecting telescope, you can re-collimate it yourself — not that, I hasten to add, mine required any collimation when I bought it.

The first night that I was able to use scope I conducted, as usual, a star test. The collimation was as near perfect as anything I had seen. Because I seem to be in the habit of buying new telescopes between November and February, my usual initial observing list of the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter and the Orion nebula were visible at various points during the night, (I actually purchased the Skywatcher in January a couple of years ago). I started with one of the supplied super plossl lens, in this case a 20mm lens, and wasn’t disappointed. Saturn sprang into view, clear and crisp with virtually no hint of colour fringing — a problem which can affect refractors in varying degrees and which causes objects to show false colour, especially a bluish fringe on brighter stars and planets. Although I would have expected some colour error with the Skywatcher, to my eyes anyway, it is virtually non existent, even though I assumed that there would be colour error, particularly on a standard achromatic refractor. The view was as good as that I had experienced through the larger Helios Newtonian telescope, and in some ways better. The ring divisions were visible, as was some hint of yellowish colour and the cloud system. But to my mind the view was sharper, more crisp and better defined than the reflectors — and the image of Saturn in the Helios is spectacular ! Jupiter was just as impressive, with both the main cloud belts and some of the finer detail visible. The Moon appeared that bright in the lens that, as with the Helios, a moon filter was needed. Craters and mountain ranges leaped up at me, providing a stunning vista. Objects such as the Orion nebula had far better definition than the smaller scopes, and showed a good level of detail. Double stars, even those considered to be test of how good your optics are, were easily split and using lower magnifications on objects such as the Pleiades and other such clusters produced superb results. In the denser, more compact, globular clusters individual stars could be discerned. In short, I was extremely impressed with Skywatchers capabilities.

The 10 and 20mm super plossl lenses supplied with the scope are of better quality and performance than any others that I had so far come across; well, in respect of lenses supplied with a scope. The super plossls are edge blackened, multi coated push fit 1.25 inch lenses complete with fold back rubber eye cups, and are threaded to take filters. With a field of view of 52º they afford good views of the night sky. I found that the lenses gave a good contrasty view, which is sharp more or less from edge to edge.

The 6x30 finder scope is well constructed, being of steel rather than plastic as is commonly found at the cheaper end of the market. Although no focusing of the finder scope is possible, I found that there was no requirement for this as the finder scope was perfectly set. As result the view was crisp and sharp, and with the well defined cross hairs locating and centering your target was easy. The finder scope mount is also impressive, having one spring loaded locator and two screw type adjustors. This means that once the finder scope is aligned with the main scope it is difficult to lose the setting. Again, this is shows the level and attention to detail that has gone into the Skywatcher telescope.

The Skywatcher can accommodate both 1.25 inch and 2 inch lenses and accessories. Designed for 2 inch accessories it comes with an adaptor which allows the use of 1.25 inch items. As can be seen in the picture to left and below, the 2 inch opening on the end of the focusing tube is stepped down by inserting the adaptor, as shown to thee right.

The EQ3-2 mount handles the 120mm refractor with ease. Provided you take care balancing the mount and scope properly you will find that you have a stable platform from which to view the heavens. The slow motion controls are smooth and precise in operation, allowing for easy tracking of objects across the night sky. Despite initially looking complicated, the EQ3-2 is surprisingly simple to set up and use. The Skywatcher range now comes with other types of tripods and mounts, so there should be one to suit every need and pocket. One worth while addition to the EQ3-2 mount is the motorised RA, (right ascension), drive. With this, because it runs at the same speed that the stars appear to move across the sky, you can hold an object in the centre of the lens, making only small and occasional tracking corrections via the handbox. Using the motorised drive has increased my enjoyment of the scope and made viewing sessions even simpler than they were before.

Overall I have to give ten out of ten to the Skywatcher 120. I have tried to find fault with it, but have failed. To my mind, having used this scope for nearly two years, it represents good quality, simplicity of use and excellent value for money. Certainly you can go out and buy better refracting telescopes, but you will have to pay many times more than the price of the Skywatcher. But if, as in common with a lot of amateur astronomers, you are looking for a good, basic refractor that gives clear views of the night sky, a good level of supplied accessories and can’t afford to spend thousands of pounds, then take a look at the Skywatcher range. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.