Telescope mounts: astronomers’ Helping Hand

Paul Money discusses how the development of telescope mounts has helped astronomers over the years.

The Sky-Watcher SynScan V4 hand controller that comes with the AZ-EQ5GT mount has a database of over 42,900 objects including the Messier, NGC and IC catalogues, variable stars, double stars, planets and named stars. Credit:

Ahh, I remember the good ol’ days when you just set up your telescope and mount, roughly line-of-sight polar aligned, then used manual slow-motion controls to keep your target in the view of the eyepiece.


Such were the days.

Then along came motor drives – firstly on the RA axis, then on the Dec axis – and we thought we were in heaven. Astrophotography became a lot easier.

But we always want more, right? The next innovation came in the form of a hand controller.

My first hand controller was little more than a variable frequency oscillator that could speed up or slow down the RA, motor and it also featured four little buttons, two for each axis for that amazing feeling of control over where to move the mount to next.

I felt I had been spoiled, but technical innovation doesn’t stop there, and so the first crude, computerised hand controllers began to appear with, lo and behold, a database of a few-deep sky targets, a small selection of bright stars, along with the planets and Moon.

With something called an ‘alignment routine’ you could sight on up to three stars and, incredibly, you could actually ‘go to’ a target.

Now I have to admit that I was not a fan; I was old school you see and this fancy new idea of GoTo telescopes seemed to take the fun out of enjoying the hard-won slog of locating things by yourself.

That is until I was asked to review a mount with GoTo ability and a handset that offered several thousand targets and, in an instant, I was a convert.

Handsets have continued to evolve with some such as Vixen developing a graphical user interface with starmaps (a nice touch).

Others either go for a couple of lines of display or up to eight lines of info, but backed up with a huge database; often with over 40,000 targets (although most are stars!).

The computerisation of handsets is amazing, considering what they can now do, but the times are a changing.

The way we connect to our all powerful, all singing and dancing computerised mounts has gone through a revolution and now many amateur astronomers prefer to connect via a laptop and use planetarium software to control, guide and even take images with their system.

And in the last few years the next step has begun with smart phone/tablet WiFi control linking up to either a WiFi dongle or even built-in WiFi for control by increasingly sophisticated apps.

These recent developments are now making the fancy hand controllers of just a few years ago look redundant, so my guess is that it won’t be too long before we see hand controllers only in a museum!


I wonder how long it will be before your mount can make you a cuppa…