Build a Dobsonian equatorial platform

Convert your altaz Dobsonian telescope into a sky-tracking lightbucket.

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The finished platform will enable your altaz Dob to follow the motion of the stars
Credit: Mark Parrish

 

Extra materials to help with this project can be downloaded in a zip folder here.

 

Written by Mark Parrish

 

Dobsonian telescopes are popular instruments. They provide large apertures for a reasonable price and as such are suited to observing faint, deep-sky objects.

Their wide optics can also cope with high magnifications, but it can be tricky to keep celestial targets centred in the field of view in this situation, especially if – as is most common – your Dob has a manually operated altaz mount. 

This two-part project aims to deal with this inconvenience.

We’re going to show you how to build a motorised equatorial platform able to track the sky for an extended period (approximately one hour) before you need to adjust your scope.

 


Tools - Jigsaw, router, hacksaw, drill and bits, plane, spanner, Allen key, screwdriver

Materials - 1,200x600mm sheet of 18mm plywood (this is enough for parts one and two of this project), 1m length of 30x30x2mm aluminium angle, 1m length of 12x2mm aluminium strip, A3 sheet of thin polycarbonate plastic or similar, 600x40x30mm offcut of wood 

Sundries - Eight 608ZZ skateboard/roller blade bearings (22x8x7mm), eight M8x25 socket head screws, eight M8 washers, 16 M8 nuts, woodscrews, wood glue, double-sided tape

Finish - Wood varnish or spray paint


 

Our design makes use of circular bearing segments.

These are the easiest shapes to generate and provide good results for medium-sized scopes – our example project is based on an 8-inch, f/6 Dobsonian.

The principle behind it is quite straightforward: there is a fixed lower base board on which two sets of bearings are mounted, one set to the north and the other set to the south.

The upper, movable platform has two curved segments on its underside, which run in the bearing sets below.

The size and orientation of these segments ensure that the pivot axis of the platform is parallel to the Earth’s axis of rotation; hence we say it is equatorially mounted.

 

Finding balance 

The platform is constructed from 18mm plywood and the bearings are 608ZZ skateboard bearings, which are inexpensive and readily available.

Their internal diameter is 8mm, so they are easy to mount using standard M8 screws.

Rather than have these running directly on the surface of the plywood, we added thin plastic sheets to the undersides of the segments with aluminium strips on the edges, providing tougher, smooth surfaces. 

In order to calculate the size and angle of your segments you must know the latitude where the platform will be used and the height of the telescope’s centre of gravity (including its mount).

The segments are arranged so that this centre of gravity lies on the axis of rotation.

If it is too far above or below, the motor may struggle to drive the platform effectively.

The centre of gravity of the telescope will correspond to the centre of its altitude bearings.

You can find the centre of gravity of the mount box by balancing it on its side, and the combined centre of gravity will lie between the two. Using moments, you can calculate the exact position.

 

Avoiding the maths

There is quite a lot of interesting maths involved in the design, which some readers will enjoy.

If you would rather avoid that, you can download our spreadsheet calculator from the link at the top of this artcile to generate the dimensions you need for the wooden parts after you enter some key values relating to your telescope.

Cutting out the plywood parts is quite straightforward, but the curves do need to be smooth.

It is possible to do a good job by hand, but if you have access to a router then generating accurate profiles is easier.

The bearings are simple to assemble using screws, washers and nuts.

Smaller ‘jacking’ screws make it easy to align the guide bearings, so they run freely without scrubbing, before fully tightening the M8 nuts.

Once you have assembled all your parts you will need to spend a little time adjusting your platform until it runs smoothly and checking that the north bearings make good contact, as these guide the telescope’s movement.

The south bearing assembly can be left to freely move or pivot on the base as it is only supporting the load vertically.

The next stage will be motorising the platform, completing the base board and setting up the mount for observing.

 


 

Step-by-step

 

Step 1 - After separately weighing your telescope and mount/base, balance the base on an offcut of tube to find its centre of gravity. Calculate the combined centre of gravity using the spreadsheet calculator included at the link at the top of this article.

 

Step 2 - Use the calculated values and plans to mark out the segments you need on the plywood. Cut the arcs first with a jigsaw. Don’t cut the segments away from the board until you have finished smoothing the arcs. 

 

Step 3 - If you have a router you can attach it to a radius rod with a pin at the centre. Take multiple shallow cuts until you have reached a smooth curve (allow for the thickness of the aluminium bearing strip). Once satisfied, cut out the segments and remaining parts.

 

Step 4 - Assemble the plywood parts with glue and screws. Sand and paint to suit your tastes. Cut some thin polycarbonate and stick to the undersides of each segment. Cut aluminium bearing strips to length and fix them to segment edges with a small screw at either end.

 

Step 5 - Mark out and cut the aluminium angle sections. Use a smaller pilot drill first and then switch to an 8mm drill for the larger holes. Hold pieces safely in a vice or clamp when drilling. Shape the wooden blocks using a plane or saw set to appropriate angles.

 

Step 6 - Screw the north bearing assembly to remaining plywood, which will become the base board. Ascertain best position for the south bearing and fix it with a central pivot screw. Use packing under blocks as necessary to level the top when centred.

 


 

Now we'll show you how to complete and motorise the Dobsonian equatorial platform.

We have documented our build with downloadable photographs available from the link at the top of this article so you can replicate the parts, but because your choice of drive motor and power supply could differ according to circumstances and availability you may have to adapt the design a little to suit your kit.

Our spreadsheet calculator (also at the link) once again comes to the rescue when it comes to working out gear ratios so all you need to do is input your values and experiment with the numbers until the ratios match your needs.

 


Tools - Jigsaw, router, hacksaw, drill and bits, plane, spanner, Allen key, screwdriver, hot glue gun, file

Materials - Remainder of 18mm plywood and 30x30x2mm aluminium angle from earlier in the build

Sundries - Modelling clay, worm, wheel, small spur gear, suitable axle (4mm rod), three M8x75 coach bolts with six M8 nuts, motor/gearbox (ours was 12V and 10rpm output speed), DC motor controller, M3 screws and nuts, M6 screw, Nylock nut and washers

Finish - Preservative wood stain or paint


 

Commercial motor drives for telescope mounts are available for projects like this, but they can be expensive.

They use sophisticated stepper motors, which move by very small, predictable increments.

Short pulses are sent to these motors by a special controller to precisely control the motion of the scope.

One of these would be ideal but it is possible to build a cheaper (albeit slightly noisier) alternative.

Our drive is based on a more straightforward DC motor.

When the power is on, these motors turn fairly constantly, but quickly.

We used a home-made gearbox along with the gearbox built into the motor, and an off-the-shelf controller to modify the output speed to suit our needs.

 

Aim for sidereal

The principle behind our motor drive is simple: the telescope’s platform should rotate very slowly at the same rate as the Earth is spinning – the sidereal rate – but in the opposite direction.

In 24 hours this is only slightly more than one full revolution (360°), so in one hour the platform should turn 360/24 = 15°. 

This is both a useful movement for observing and a sensible amount for our design to accommodate. 

Since we know the radius of our north segment (from Part 1) we can work out the length of a 15° section of the circumference.

After measuring the diameter of our output gear, we can work out how many times per minute it must turn to create the required movement.

This is the necessary output speed for our gearbox system. 

To prevent slipping, the output gear drives a toothed section of the north segment.

We created this ‘rack’ by making a mould from modelling clay (rolling the output gear along a strip of clay to create the profile) then filling the mould with glue from a hot glue gun.

If you find this too fiddly, you can buy toothed belts with matching small gears instead. Screw some stops onto the bearing strip to prevent the platform rotating too far either way.

The DC motor you need to buy should come with a built-in gearbox with a published speed of 10rpm or less. 

A controller can also slow this down, so our homemade gearbox will only need to reduce the speed a little.

A worm gear with a wheel (ours has 57 teeth) will do the job nicely and these can be bought online.

 


Properly motorised, the finished base will make your Dobsonian track at the sidereal rate – keeping it aligned with the stars
Credit: Mark Parrish

 

Grab your offcuts

Offcuts of aluminium angle saved from earlier in the project are great for building the gearbox, although careful measuring and some fine tuning may be required before you get it running perfectly.

Once completed, the gearbox is mounted on a pivoting arm. 

A rubber band pulls on this so the output gear presses against the rack and drives the platform.

To reset the platform, simply disengage the pivoting arm.

The controller is connected between the motor and power supply (we used a 12V powertank for our 12V motor).

You can fine-tune the speed during use by observing an object at the eyepiece and making adjustments with the knob.

This may also become necessary if the battery level drops during the night.

To set up, align the baseboard north-south and get it as level as possible.

Place the scope on top and switch the board on. You can fine-tune your alignment using a technique included in the downloadable materials.

 


 

Step-by-step

 

Step 1 - Use the spreadsheet calculator in the downloadable materials to select appropriate gears. If your gearbox motor turns at 10rpm or slower, you will probably only need a worm and wheel. The wheel turns the output shaft, which drives the north segment.

 

Step 2 - Make a gearbox using offcuts of the aluminium angle from Part 1. Mark and drill holes accurately so shafts turn freely and without any play. Use M3 screws and nuts to hold it all together. A small output gear on the outside will drive the segment.

 

Step 3 - Use a strip of modelling clay and the output gear to create a profile for the rack. Put a taller strip of wood either side and fill the gap with hot glue. Once this has cooled, you can wash out the clay to reveal a plastic rack.

 

Step 4 - The gearbox is fixed to a short arm. The arm pivots on a piece of angled bracket, which is screwed to a raised plywood support so that the drive gear can mesh with the rack when engaged. This is a bit fiddly, so spend time refining the position. 

 

Step 5 - Mark around the bearings and arm support to draw a suitable shape for the base. Cut this out with a jigsaw. Make three jacking screws from M8 coach bolts with captive nuts pressed into holes in the underside of the base. Paint to match the platform.

 

Step 6 - Assemble all the parts and check to see everything is moving freely and the gears are engaging. Solder wires to the motor terminals and connect to the controller, which should be protected in a suitable case. Connect the power.

 

Mark Parrish is a consummate craftsman. See more of his work at buttondesign.co.uk

 

 

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