6 Common Types of Telescope Mounts, Tripods: Guide

mechanical structure for a telescope

A telescope mount is a part of the telescope setup that supports the Optical Tube Assembly (OTA) of a telescope. Knowing the different types of telescope mounts and tripods allows astronomers to select a design that ensures stability during sessions and optimizes the navigation of celestial objects. 

Telescope mounts are essential for stability because any minor movement or vibration drastically affects the clarity of celestial images. The mount’s function is to provide a steady platform and facilitate controlled movement, allowing the telescope to accurately follow stars, planets, and other celestial objects.

The effectiveness and ease of use of a telescope are influenced by the mount’s design and construction. Typically, mounts are made from strong materials like aluminum or steel, ensuring longevity and durability. Advanced mounts incorporate lighter materials, such as carbon fiber, to combine strength with portability.

Telescope mounts are available in 6 main designs, each with unique characteristics for different stargazing scenarios. The most common types of mounts are given below.

  1. Equatorial
  2. Computerized GoTo 
  3. Altazimuth 
  4. Dobsonian
  5. German Equatorial 
  6. Star Tracker

1. Equatorial Mount

The Equatorial Mount (EQ) is a telescope mount, designed to follow the rotation of the Earth. It works by aligning one of its axes parallel to the Earth’s axis of rotation. This alignment allows the mount to easily track celestial objects as they move across the sky. The mount typically consists of two perpendicular axes: the right ascension (RA) and the declination (Dec). The RA axis is motorized in many models, enabling it to rotate at the same rate as the Earth but in the opposite direction, ensuring that the telescope remains fixed on its target. 

This motorized tracking is especially beneficial for long-exposure astrophotography. To set up the Equatorial Mount, astronomers must align it with the North (or South in the southern hemisphere) celestial pole. While it offers precise tracking, its setup is more complex, and beginners generally find it challenging. However, once the mount is set up, it’s highly effective for both visual observations and photography. The equatorial mount is commonly used due to its versatility, as it is able to be attached to various telescope models.

2. Computerized GoTo Mount

The Computerized GoTo Mount is a technologically advanced system that automatically points and tracks celestial objects. It works by utilizing a computer database containing thousands of celestial coordinates. Once the mount is aligned with a few bright stars, it will accurately locate and track any object in its database. This mount often includes motors on both axes and a hand-held controller. The motors facilitate the auto-tracking feature, ensuring the telescope remains fixed on the target. 

The GoTo Mount is often used due to its ease of locating objects, especially beneficial for beginners or those in light-polluted areas. To set up the GoTo Mount, level the mount and slide the dovetail bar of the telescope into the mount’s saddle. Once the mount is in place, power it on and perform a star alignment by selecting and centering a few bright stars using the mount’s controller. This alignment process calibrates the mount to the night sky, enabling its automated features. The mount is able to be attached to a variety of telescopes, making it a versatile choice.

3. Altazimuth Mount

The Altazimuth Mount (Alt-Az) is a simple and intuitive telescope mount. It operates on two axes: altitude (up and down) and azimuth (left to right). While basic models rely on manual adjustments, more advanced versions are equipped with motors, enabling automatic tracking of celestial objects across the sky. This motor-driven function ensures objects remain centered in the telescope’s view, eliminating the need for continuous manual repositioning.

To utilize the Altazimuth mount, users simply direct the telescope to a desired point in the sky through the mount’s controls, whether manual or motor-driven. The main advantage of this mount is its straightforward design and ease of use. However, without motorized tracking, manual adjustments are needed to keep objects in view.

4. Dobsonian Mount

The Dobsonian Mount is a specific type of Altazimuth Mount, designed for large aperture Newtonian reflector telescopes. Named after its creator, John Dobson, this mount is characterized by its simplicity and stability. It operates on a “rocker-box” design, consisting of a rotating base (for azimuth or horizontal movements) and a pivoting cradle (for altitude or vertical adjustments). The combination of these movements allows for easy and smooth tracking of celestial objects.

The primary advantage of the Dobsonian Mount is its ability to support large telescopes while remaining easy to use. It’s primarily used for visual observations and is favored for its portability and ease of setup. While it doesn’t offer automated tracking, its design allows for smooth manual adjustments. The mount is specifically tailored for Dobsonian telescope, so it’s not universally compatible with all telescope types. However, with appropriate modifications or adapters, the Dobsonian mount is adaptable to other models.

5. German Equatorial Mount

The German Equatorial Mount (GEM) is a type of Equatorial Mount with a distinct T-shape design. One axis points towards the celestial pole, while the other supports the telescope and counterweight. The main advantage of the GEM mount is its stability and precision in tracking celestial objects. It often includes motorized components for auto-tracking. The counterweight ensures balance, especially when heavy equipment like cameras is attached. 

The GEM is particularly popular among astrophotographers due to its precise tracking capabilities. Using the GEM requires alignment with the celestial pole, and while its setup is intricate, its performance is especially notable for astrophotography. It is able to be paired with various telescopes, but users must consider the telescope’s weight and balance as this design relies on precise counterbalancing to function optimally.

6. Star Tracker

A Star Tracker is a type of mount primarily designed for astrophotography, especially with DSLR cameras. It’s a motorized mount that compensates for the Earth’s rotation, allowing for long-exposure shots without star trails. The Star Tracker aligns with the celestial pole and then tracks the apparent motion of the stars. This tracking capability is crucial for capturing clear, sharp images of the night sky. 

The primary benefit of the Star Tracker is its portability and ease of use for astrophotography. While it’s primarily designed for cameras, some models support small telescopes. Setting up a Star Tracker involves aligning it with the celestial pole, after which it automatically tracks the night sky.

How Does Equatorial Mount Compare to Altazimuth?

Equatorial mounts track celestial objects by rotating around a single axis aligned with Earth’s rotation, while altazimuth mounts move in both altitude and azimuth.

The Equatorial Mount is specifically designed to counteract the Earth’s rotation, allowing for smooth tracking of celestial objects across the sky. Its primary axis is aligned parallel to the Earth’s axis of rotation. This alignment means that once the telescope is set on a celestial object, it will stay on that object by rotating around this single axis, making tracking stars and other celestial bodies more straightforward, especially for long periods.

On the other hand, the Altazimuth Mount operates on a more intuitive system, moving on two axes: altitude (up and down) and azimuth (left to right). This design resembles the movements of a camera on a tripod. While it’s simpler and more straightforward than the Equatorial Mount, tracking celestial objects requires adjustments on both axes, which is often challenging over extended periods. However, its intuitive design makes it a favorite for beginners or for those who prioritize ease of use over prolonged tracking.

The Equatorial Mount (EQ) stands out for tasks requiring precise tracking over time, such as astrophotography or detailed planetary observations. EQ ensures that once an object is in the telescope’s view, it remains there with minimal adjustments. The Altazimuth, while easier to set up and use, requires more frequent adjustments, especially when observing objects for more extended periods.

Modern advancements in technology have introduced computerized tracking systems, often referred to as “GoTo” systems, to both Equatorial and Altazimuth mounts. These systems automatically locate and track celestial objects, bridging the gap between the manual tracking capabilities of traditional mounts. Using GoTo systems, even an Altazimuth tracks objects with a precision close to that of an Equatorial Mount.

What is the Difference Between GoTo and Tracking Feature?

The primary difference between the GoTo and Tracking features is that GoTo automatically points the telescope to a selected celestial object while Tracking compensates for Earth’s rotation to keep that object in view.

The GoTo feature automatically locates and points the telescope to specific celestial objects in the sky based on inputted coordinates or selected objects from a database. Once the object is located, the Tracking feature takes over, adjusting the telescope’s position to follow the object’s movement across the sky, keeping it in the field of view.

While GoTo is used to find and center a celestial object, Tracking ensures that the object remains in view by compensating for the Earth’s rotation. The best mounts combine both GoTo and Tracking capabilities, as they not only locates objects with precision but also maintain a steady view of them over time.

What Are the Best Telescope Mounts?

The best telescope mounts are determined by several factors, including the intended use, performance, build quality and their standing within the astronomical community.

The best mounts cater to the specific observational or astrophotography needs of the user. For instance, an astrophotographer will prioritize a mount with precise tracking capabilities to capture clear, long-exposure images, while a casual stargazer would value ease of setup and use.

The highest-performing mounts offer smooth movement, precise tracking, and stability, ensuring that the telescope remains steady and the celestial object stays centered in the field of view. This is especially crucial for high-magnification observations or when capturing detailed astrophotographs.

The materials, brand and quality determine the performance of a mount. The best telescope mounts are made from durable materials that are able to endure regular use and varying weather conditions. Mounts that have consistently received positive feedback and have been tried and tested by many often emerge as favorites. Popular brands like Celestron, Sky-Watcher, and Orion, for instance, have garnered acclaim for producing reliable and high-performing mounts.

Is Mount the Most Important Part of a Telescope?

No, the mount is not one of the most important parts of a telescope, but it plays a crucial role in the overall observational experience. The primary purpose of a telescope is to gather and focus light, and this task is primarily accomplished by the telescope’s optics, such as its primary mirror or lens. These optics determine the clarity, resolution, and magnification capabilities of the telescope.

However, the mount is still a necessary part for stable and accurate observation. A stable and accurate mount ensures that the telescope remains steady, preventing vibrations or movements that disrupt observations. For astrophotography, a mount with precise tracking capabilities is essential to capture clear, long-exposure images. Furthermore, the mount facilitates smooth and accurate pointing of the telescope, allowing users to easily locate and track celestial objects.