For anyone starting out in the hobby a GoTo telescope is an attractive proposition. Just set it down, turn it on, and in moments it’s whirring around the sky finding dozens of targets for you! Right?
Sorry, computerized telescopes are rarely that easy to use. I find getting them going usually requires a basic knowledge of where true north is, and the ability to identify the brightest stars, the ones GoTo scopes need to be aimed at and aligned on before they will find targets.
In addition, very low-cost GoTo scopes (those under $450) often suffer from poor construction. Even if they are aligned properly, which can be a chore, they might not find anything accurately. They soon end up on eBay.
By contrast, from my testing of the 130mm (5.1-inch) Newtonian model, I think Orion’s StarSeeker IV series represents a great choice for anyone wanting a GoTo telescope that works well, while still costing under $1,000. At $600 the 130mm model offers a good balance of price vs. aperture, portability and reliability.
GoTo With WiFi
Orion’s StarSeeker telescopes have been around for a while, with the latest Mark IV series adding built-in WiFi as the new feature of note. The series offers one refractor, and several Maksutov and Newtonian reflectors, differing in optics but all on the same mount. The one-armed fork is a variation of a mount made by Synta/Sky-Watcher and sold elsewhere in the world by Sky-Watcher as their Star Discovery series.
The mount and tripod are solid, damping out vibrations in just 1.5 seconds. It is a far cry from the flimsy, wobbly starter scopes all too common in big box chain stores. The StarSeeker 130mm is a beginner scope, but it’s a good one.
The key feature is its GoTo pointing system. While the telescope can be moved manually by pushing it around, it really has to be powered up and aligned to use. The mount can be powered from eight internal AA batteries, which I found lasted two or three nights, or from an external 12-volt battery which will last longer.
When switched on, the telescope creates an ad hoc WiFi network you connect your phone or tablet to. Running the free SynScan Pro app (for iOS or Android) you then connect to the telescope. The connection worked consistently and reliably.
While the app offers several alignment methods to get going, I preferred the North Level option. You level the tube and aim it as close to due north as possible, in the same direction as Polaris. From that known starting position, the scope will then slew itself to two key alignment stars or bright planets that you select from the list the app presents, objects it knows are visible. Other methods require you to direct the scope to the first star.
After centering two alignment objects the mount starts tracking, keeping all subsequent targets nicely centered as the sky turns. I found the GoTo aiming was accurate, always placing targets well within the field of a low-power eyepiece, if not dead center. On my test nights I soon forgot about checking the accuracy and just enjoyed finding and viewing favorite objects.
The StarSeekers feature encoders that allow the mounts to be pushed around manually without spoiling their GoTo alignment. That’s an advanced feature many costly GoTo mounts lack. It worked very well.
The app provides a list of best objects for the night (oddly hidden under the Utility menu), or you can call up all the usual suspects from the Messier, Caldwell and NGC catalogues. In addition to all the planets, the app can download the orbits of current bright comets, something a traditional hand controller cannot do, easily or at all!
Using the WiFi app to run the GoTo system also has the advantage of automatically entering your location and time from your device. Most hand controllers need that information entered manually, which can foul up beginners as they unknowingly enter a longitude or time zone in Asia, only to have their telescope aim at the ground, not sky.
However, the StarSeekers can be purchased with a hand controller as a $50 upgrade option. I’d suggest going for it. In very cold weather your phone might fail, so the hand controller serves as a handy backup. Or some users might find they prefer it over having to look at a bright phone screen to perform all telescope operations. You can use either the hand controller or the app, but not both together.
Optics and Fittings
The 130mm Newtonian uses the same f/5 mirror that has appeared in many entry-level reflectors over the years. It works very well. Images appeared crisp without any serious aberrations or flaws. Despite its fast f/5 focal ratio, the mirror provided good views of planets and double stars, as well as deep-sky objects. My test telescope, purchased from Orion in early 2020, arrived in almost perfect collimation, requiring only a tweak to the main mirror.
The finder is a red dot device, Orion’s EZ Finder II, useful for performing the initial alignment or for a manual aim at the Moon or bright planet. The 1.25-inch rack-and-pinion focuser is nothing fancy, but did the job well.
The supplied 23mm (28x) and 10mm (65x) eyepieces are basic, providing good enough optical quality to get started. As with most beginner scopes, the StarSeekers will benefit from an upgrade to higher-quality Plössl or wide-field eyepieces later, and perhaps a Barlow lens for higher power views.
I was impressed with the 130mm StarSeeker. I think it represents the minimum level you should expect to spend to get a reliable and accurate GoTo system. The 5.1-inch mirror offers enough aperture to reveal lots of deep-sky objects and planetary detail, while remaining portable and affordable.
While the WiFi and app worked well, I suggest having the hand controller as a useful option and backup. It’s much cheaper buying it bundled with the scope than adding it later on.
Plus: Good optics; sturdy mount; versatile GoTo system
Minus: Eyepieces are good to start with but will require an upgrade
MSRP: $600 without hand controller; $650 with hand controller
Website: www.telescope.com (search for StarSeeker 130mm)
Note: An earlier version of this review appeared in the March-April 2020 issue of the Canadian magazine SkyNews, published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. See https://skynews.ca.