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Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro (First Impressions)

|Equipment|13 Comments

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to receive a very large package in the mail, the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro. Some people get excited about the arrival of flowers or perhaps a new book from Amazon at their door.

Me? I prefer over 100 pounds of deep-sky astrophotography equipment.

The brand new EQ8-R Pro is an observatory-class equatorial telescope mount capable of handing advanced astrophotography equipment, and one of the heaviest objects I have ever attempted to lift on my own. I’d like to think that deadlifting the heaviest of astronomy equipment is something I’ll always be able to do, but that is sadly not true.

astrophotography images using the EQ8-R Pro mount

The images I’ve captured using the EQ8-R Pro thus far.

I believe that most folks interested in an equatorial mount with this level of competence will be installing it in a permanent backyard observatory. As many of you know, I continue to haul all of my astrophotography in and out of the garage each and every time I set up.

Before I share any more down-to-earth amateur astrophotographer problems with you, I feel that it is important to let you know exactly how and why an unreleased Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro computerized GoTo mount was delivered to me.

Why I Do I Have One?

The team at Sky-Watcher wanted someone to review the EQ8-R Pro mount in a “real world” situation, and my light-polluted backyard in the city fit the bill quite nicely. To be quite honest, I did not have a need for a computerized GoTo telescope mount this large, but I am always happy to try out new equipment to better understand this hobby overall.

I have developed a great relationship with Sky-Watcher USA over the past year, and feel very comfortable demoing new products on my YouTube channel and website. This would not be the case if there were strict guidelines about what I can, or can’t say about the equipment, and I am happy to report, that there aren’t!

Despite what others have said in the forums, I have not “sold out” (a recent Cloudy Nights forum thread attacked my integrity), and earning my income by convincing someone to purchase a product or service I don’t believe in is exactly the type of scenario I removed from my life the moment I took on AstroBackyard full-time. 

Sky-Watcher

Sorry for the mini-rant, but I felt that this was important to mention moving forward. There’s bound to be skeptics in all disciplines, but the cost and potential frustrations involved with astrophotography gear can either bring out the best, or worst of us. 

To make things even more interesting, I’ve mounted a Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 Apochromatic Refractor and Starlight Xpress monochrome camera to the EQ8-R Pro. Sky-Watcher offers this imaging configuration as a package, and I believe you could call this one a “backyard astrophotographers dream”. I think now is great time to remind you that my time with this setup is limited.

As with all of the equipment I review on AstroBackyard and on YouTube, I was not paid to endorse this product, and it will be returned to the company after my review. While this “dream setup” is available to me, you can bet your biscuit I am going to spend every second of clear sky collecting photons with it. 

equatorial telescope mount

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R EQ can handle 110-pounds of equipment.  

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro 

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro (and Rh versions) officially launched on October 18th, 2019, almost exactly a year after I received my EQ6-R Pro (this mounts younger sibling). This robust equatorial telescope mount boasts an impressive 50 Kg (110-pound) maximum payload capacity, a belt-drive system on both axes, an integrated cable management system, and more. Despite these useful traits and advanced features, I like to think of the EQ8-R Pro as a big, black EQ6-R Pro, and that’s a good thing. 

After nearly a year of use and countless astrophotography images later, I reviewed the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro. I had a wonderful experience with this mount, and judging from the comments I received on this blog and social media, others did too. 

I am a big fan of the Sky-Watcher SynScan system, as I regularly still use and enjoy the hand controller on my astrophotography mounts. I’ve used the Celestron NexStar and iOptron Go2Nova hand controllers in the past, but I am most comfortable with Sky-Watcher mounts thanks to over 5 years of experience using them (starting with the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 in 2014).

hand controller

The Auto Slew Home command appears when you turn the EQ8-R Pro on. 

First Impressions

It was refreshingly simple and straight forward to get the EQ8-R Pro aligned and tracking my desired astrophotography subjects. With a careful polar alignment using the QHY PoleMaster, a 1-star alignment was all I needed to center my target using a telescope with a 1000mm+ focal length. Astonishingly, I’ve actually kept and stacked every single exposure taken on the EQ8-R Pro mount since it’s been in the backyard.

I used Astro Photography Tool to automate my imaging sequence with the Starlight Xpress SX42 camera and utilized the autoguiding port on the EQ8-R Pro for accurate 5-minute exposures. The Starlight Xpress filter wheel contained 6nm Astronomik narrowband filters, Ha, OIII, and SII. I am certainly not used to capturing images at a focal length of 1000mm, so I couldn’t help but get a closer look at some of the nebulae I’ve had a hard time reaching with my wide-field setups. 

Here is an image of the Bubble Nebula captured using the Esprit 150 refractor of the EQ8-R Pro:

Bubble Nebula

The mount slews and tracks very quietly. In fact, the EQ8R-Pro is as quiet (if not quieter) than the EQ6-R Pro. Compare this to the notoriously loud Celestron CGX-L. This is certainly not a primary reason to invest in a mount, but you’d be surprised at how much this aspect matters to you when switching targets at 2am on a weeknight. 

PHD2 Guiding Graph

The judge of an astrophotography mounts tracking performance is often in the PHD2 guiding graph. I feel that it is very important to mention that the total RMS error should not be viewed as the be-all-end-all judge of the mounts tracking abilities. There are many variables that come into play here, including the settings you are using in PHD2, seeing conditions, and a lot more.

With that being said, here is a recent look at the graph I was seeing with the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro during a night of imaging. This was using the On-Camera guiding setting on the Lodestar X2. I would expect pulse guiding through a direct connection between the mount and PC to be even better. 

PHD2 Guiding Graph

Practicality

The mount is extremely heavy, the EQ mount head itself (56 pounds), and especially the matching pier tripod (64 pounds). It is impossible to safely lift the tripod and equatorial mount together as a single unit. Seriously, don’t even try.

This weight makes for a rather lengthy setup routine if you are carrying the EQ8-R Pro to and from the house or garage to your yard. The tripod is not only heavy, but awkward to manage over large areas. If you have a bad back, investing in a permanent setup or buggy-style transportation device is your only option. 

Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro Telescope Mount

The built-in heavy-duty handles on the mount make transporting the mount head to the tripod much easier, and they actually make carrying the EQ8-R a bit easier than some of the lighter, yet more awkward mounts. In contrast, the CGX-L has a single handle, that puts your one-arm strength to the test. 

The built-in power, auxiliary, and USB 3.0 ports are extremely useful when running advanced astrophotography setups that include multiple cables running down the mount. Setups that include a cooled astronomy camera, motorized focuser, filter wheel, and guide camera will appreciate this feature the most. 

cable management

Integrated Cable Management System.

Polar Alignment

One major difference between this mount and the smaller EQ6-R is the lack of a built-in polar scope. To polar align the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro you must mount the optional polar scope and l-bracket, or use an electronic polarscope as I did.

I mounted the QHY PoleMaster to the front of the telescope dovetail. This is how I polar aligned the Celestron CGX-L and 8″ RASA, so thankfully I already had the ADM PoleMaster adapter handy. 

For this method to work, you’ll want to make sure that the telescope is in the home position on both axes. On the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro, it simply means using the homing sensors to find this position when you turn the mount on. After setting the home position on the hand controller, the mount will run through a series of small movements to identify true “home”. 

polar alignment

The QHY PoleMaster is a great solution for polar aligning the EQ8-R Pro. 

Adjusting the EQ8-R Pro to your latitude is done via the heavy-duty crossbar style bolt (I’d love to know the technical description for this style of bolt in the comments), which is smooth and solid. The big green knobs on either side of the mount head base allow for precise azimuth control. Everything feels extremely solid and secure, which is exactly what you would expect on a telescope mount of this caliber.

Tracking Accuracy

An astrophotography setup that includes a 32-pound apochromatic refractor telescope at 1040mm focal length demands a robust tracking platform. With two 26-pound counterweights attached to the other end, balancing this precious cargo was rather easy. More importantly, the load was secure thanks to the 3 massive locking bolts on the dovetail saddle. 

The RA and DEC axes feature a unique design I have not seen before. Each axis rotates on a massive, silver disc stating “Warning, Do Not Apply Pressure” (shown below). The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro features a belt drive system in each axis to minimize backlash and reduce periodic error. The onboard computer includes a PPEC training program for those that want to maximize the precision of the mount in a permanent setting. 

RA and DEC axis

The massive silver disc design of the RA and DEC axes. 

My primary imaging camera with this setup is a Starlight Xpress SX-42 and a 7-position filter wheel. This is a monochrome CCD camera with impressive specs. An OAG (Off-axis guider) and Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 monochrome camera handle the autoguiding for this rig, and in my first few runs with this configuration, ran exceptionally well. 

I used the popular PHD2 Guiding software to autoguide with the Esprit 150 on the EQ8-R Pro. Because the Lodestar X2 camera was fitted to the OAG on the filter wheel, I was guiding on a star using a focal length of 1040mm!

For each of the deep-sky objects I chose to photograph, I collected 5-minute exposures using 1.25 Astronomik 6nm filters. The tracking accuracy of the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro was exceptional, with pin-point, round stars in each and every 5-minute exposure. Utilizing the autoguide port on the EQ8-R Pro, I see no problem shooting 10 or even 20-minute exposures with this setup.

Mount Specifications

  • Mount Type: High-capacity motorized equatorial
  • Tripod: Optional heavy-duty pier tripod
  • Power Requirements: DC11-16V, 3 amp
  • Motor Drive: 0.9° hybrid stepper motor
  • Tracking Modes: Equatorial Only
  • Alignment Procedures: 1, 2, 3 star-alignment
  • Hand controller: SynScan, PC Direct
  • Database: Messier, NGC, IC and SAO Catalogs (42,900 total)
  • Cable Management: 4 x USB 3.0, 3 x 2.1mm Power Ports, 3 X Serial Connections
  • Dovetail Compatibility: D-Style
  • Latitude Range: 10° – 65°
  • Mount Weight: 56.8 pounds
  • Tripod Weight: 64.8 pounds
  • Payload Capacity: 110 pounds

Final Thoughts

4 nights with the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro is not enough mileage to write a meaningful review. I will continue to spend time with the mount over the next few months, and see how well it handles the cold Canadian winter. In the brief (clear) windows of opportunity I had, I managed to collect some impressive images using the monochrome CCD camera and filter wheel on this mount. 

Here is an image of IC 410 (The Tadpoles Nebula) captured in the Hubble palette (SII=RED, Ha=GREEN, OIII=BLUE). I captured roughly 1.5 hours worth of exposure time through each Astronomik 6nm filter and mapped the monochrome images to color channels in Adobe Photoshop. 

Tadpoles Nebula

The Tadpoles Nebula. Esprit 150 on the EQ8-R Pro Mount. 

I understand that the leap in progress (as far as image quality) is primarily due to upgrading to a monochrome CCD camera from a one-shot-color CMOS rather than the mount itself. However, this was a very demanding optical system that requires reliable tracking and operation. 

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the simple and reliable performance of the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro. It made the transition from a medium-sized mount to an “observatory-class” monster a smooth transition. Personally, I have a soft spot for Sky-Watcher mounts based on my own history with the brand. 

For those looking to upgrade their iOptron, or Celestron mount to something with a greater payload capacity, you may prefer to stick to what you’re used to. Based on my early successes with this mount, and my preference to the SynScan system, I think that the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R is a top contender in this category. 

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Summer in the AstroBackyard

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This is one summer that I will never forget.  The addition of my new telescope, the growth of AstroBackyard and the explosion of my YouTube channel has given me an astronomical boost in motivation and passion for astrophotography.  This has not come without hard work, it has been extremely busy in terms of both astrophotography and my day job.  The common sacrifice between the two has been sleep, of course.  The battle between day and night is a struggle astrophotographers know all too well.  I take comfort in the fact that the winter season will have many cloudy nights that will force me to catch up on my sleep, and maintain a healthier lifestyle balance.

How hard did you go this summer? Did you opt for sleep instead of imaging time?  Let me know on Facebook

Astrophotographers are not normal!

I recently created a short “trailer” for the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel:


 

AstroBackyard on YouTube

 
We have a burning desire to capture the wonders of the night sky each and every night.  We check the weather constantly and plan most social activities during the full moon, or during stretches of bad weather.  A stretch of clear nights surrounding the new moon means getting less than 4 hours of sleep during the week. For me, my health takes priority over all, so this is an issue that I am still trying to properly address. A more permanent deep-sky equipment setup and a dedicated observatory will help me optimize my setup time. These dreams are on my radar, and will become a reality in the not so distant future.  Which leads me to my next point;

The social following from this blog and my youtube channel have added another level of pressure to regularly produce quality astronomical images. This is a huge motivator for me, and a challenge I am honored to have in my life.  The AstroBackyard following has already grown much faster than I anticipated. I have big plans for the future of this venture.  

New Photo: The Trifid Nebula

Deep-Sky Nebula in Sagittarius

Tridi Nebula - DSLR astrophotography

M20 – The Trifid Nebula

Messier 20 is one of my all-time very deep-sky objects.  I remember one of the very first times I saw an image of the Trifid Nebula in a book called: The Practical Astronomer by Will Gater.  The dynamic color combination of blues and pinks had me looking into astrophotography equipment so I could capture it for myself.  I realized that dream in April of 2013, and have continued to soak camera time on it ever since.  The image above was achieved by shooting over 3 separate nights in early August.  Complete photo details below:

M20 – The Trifid Nebula

Photographed on: August 2, 3, 8, 2016

Total Exposure Time: 2 Hours, 54 Minutes (58 x 3 Minute Subs @ ISO 1600)
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 Pro
Camera: Stock Canon Xsi
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF

Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

 

Autoguiding telescope package

I documented my night under the stars for my third and final installment on the Trifid Nebula in video form.  The video discusses the specifications of my new Explore Scientific ED 102 CF, the Field-Flattener I use, and some simple tips for backyard astrophotography.  Thank you to the (now over) 1000 subscribers to the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel!


New Photo: The Summer Triangle

Wide-Field Image with Tracking and Autoguiding

Milky way stars from backyard

The Milky Way including stars in the “Summer Triangle”

This was a very exciting experiment was finally actualized the night of August 2nd, 2016.  I have always loved wide field camera lens astrophotography. Whether it’s a constellation full of stars with hints of nebulosity through a 14mm lens, or a complete portrait of the North America Nebula shot with a 200mm; camera lens astrophotography is responsible for some of the greatest images ever taken.

I mainly shoot deep-sky astrophotography through my 102mm Apo Refractor, with a focal length of 702mm. This is a great distance to photograph many deep-sky objects. It fits the entire object in the frame, yet is close enough to reveal some solid detail.  However, this is far too “deep” for a number of large nebulous regions and star clusters.  In instances like this, a camera lens anywhere from 50mm – 300mm will execute your plan better than any telescope.  That’s great news for anyone who already owns a lens or two!

Here’s the catch. You need 2 things to produce long exposure astrophotography images with no star trails:

1. A tracking mount

A German equatorial mount will allow you to capture a much longer exposure without star trails. Your camera can then pick up deep-sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies.

2. External camera control

You will need to take exposures longer than the 30-second maximum your DSLR will take on its own. (Without holding the shutter button down!) A camera remote or laptop comtrol will allow you to choose exposure length, and automate the process.  Autoguiding will create an even better image.  However, you may be able to get away with 1-2 minute exposures without it – depending on your mount.

An astrotrac or iOptron sky tracker was meant for moments like this. Not only to they simplify the polar alignment process and accurately track the sky, but they are MUCH lighter and more transportable than a full-blown GEM. If I ever plan on diving into travel astrophotography (I do!) I will certainly invest in one of these ingenious devices.

Back to my Experiment…

Mounting a Canon DSLR to a telescope with a Gorilla Pod

I have everything needed to execute a coveted wide field camera lens astrophoto, but I rarely opt for this method over shooting deep-sky through the telescope. Not to mention I must find a way to securely fasten my DSLR and lens to my astrophotography rig while maintaining a proper balance, and a functioning auto guiding system.  I used a small gorilla pod meant for a GoPro and wrapped it around my telescope.  This kept my existing alignment and guiding from an earlier deep-sky session.

 

The bendable legs of this sturdy little tripod firmly grapple onto my scope, so much so that I can leave the camera running in this position for hours with confidence.  I should mention, that this photo was acquired during the night of new moon. I can count on one hand the number of clear new moon nights I have experienced. I have had many clear nights leading up to and following my favorite day of the month, but to bask in the glory of our night sky on a summer new moon? That’s the stuff I live for.

 

I used BackyardEOS to automate my imaging session:

 

Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Mode: Bulb
ISO: 800
Exposure: 120 seconds
Dithering: Enabled

I ended up taking about 15 x 120-second exposures at ISO 800.  I also shot a few dark frames after my session, so I could stack the images into Deep Sky Stacker for a better SNR (Signal to noise ratio)


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I often tweet during my imaging sessions:

AstroBackyard on Twitter

Results from the 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower

The weather was a bit iffy the week of the Perseid Meteor Shower (August 8-12).  The skies were clear the night before the peak (August 10th) so I took a shot at capturing some decent meteors on that night.  When thundershowers are in the forecast, I am weary of setting up my astrophotography equipment, even if the conditions are currently clear!

I piggybacked my Canon 7D onto my telescope using a gorilla pod as per my previous session so that I could have a wide-field eye on the sky.  I pointed my wide-angle camera lens (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L) towards the constellation Perseus over my house.  This arrangement worked extremely well.  I was able to capture sharp images that revealed an impressive amount of detail of this area of the sky by taking 2-minute exposures.

 

Perseid meteor photo from my backyard

Perseid Meteor photographed from my backyard the Night of August 10th-11th

 

What’s Next?

I have realized that my current DSLR camera is holding back my astrophotography.  Despite the fact that my Canon Rebel Xsi is modified for astrophotography, I think I would be better off with a newer unmodified, stock Canon camera.  I have my eye on a used Canon T3i camera.  This will give me much better noise performance, increased ISO capabilities, and a higher resolution than my ancient 450D’s 12.2 megapixels.  Yes, a full-frame Canon 6D would really take my images to the next level, but that is a much bigger investment than the reasonable cost of a used Canon T3i DSLR.  (Under $500!)  I can then modify this camera for astrophotography myself using the tutorial by Gary Honis. 


I would like to thank you all for the continued support of this blog for the AstroBackyard YouTube channel.  Please follow me on Facebook for the latest news about my on-going astrophotography journey.  I wish you all the best in your own efforts and hope that I have inspired you to keep going.

AstroBackyard on Facebook

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Cocoon Nebula with an 80mm Telescope

|Nebulae|0 Comments

IC 5164 – The Cocoon Nebula

Imaged with an 80mm Refractor

We have had a stretch of clear nights this summer, and I have been taking full advantage! This year I decided to spend some time in the sweet spot of the sky, Cygnus the Swan. This area of the night sky rises high overhead throughout the night, free from the Earths atmosphere.

My first target was IC 5164, The Cocoon Nebula. I have never attempted this object before because I heard it was quite difficult to image, and to be honest, I just didn’t like the look of it!

Cocoon Nebula 80mm

The Cocoon Nebula – Imaged with an 80mm Refractor Telescope

That all changed once I stacked my first night’s worth of images into DeepSkyStacker and saw the beautiful pink nebulosity and dust lanes start to appear. I became obsessed with adding as much time to this deep sky object as possible. I imaged the Cocoon Nebula for 3 consecutive nights, June 30, July 1 and July 2.

Photography Details

Total Exposure Time: 5 Hours (60 x 5 Minute Subs)

Telescope Mount: Skywatcher HEQ-5 Pro Synscan
Camera and Telescope: Canon Xsi (stock) Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet Apo
Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

NGC 6960 – The Western Veil Nebula

Western Veil Nebula

NGC 6960 – Western Veil Nebula

Next up is the gorgeous “Witch’s Broom” Nebula, or more specifically, NGC 6960 – The Western Veil Nebula in the constellation Cynus.  I haven’t shot this object since 2012, with lackluster results back then.  This time however,  I photographed it under darker skies, with better guiding and focus.

Photography Details:

Total Exposure Time: 4 Hours, 41 Minutes (61 Frames)
Camera and Telescope: Canon Xsi (stock) – Explore Scientific ED80 Triplet Apo
Telescope Mount: Skywatcher HEQ-5 Pro Synscan
Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

Canon Rebel Xsi: Now Modified

Now with a “Naked-Sensor” for better Astrophotography

I have some exciting news about the advancements in my astrophotography!  My next post will talk about my recent modification to my Canon Xsi to remove the IR Cut Filter. Stay tuned for a full post and description of this process!  I’ll give you a hint, I used the How to modify your Canon DSLR for Astrophotography tutorial video.

80mm Refractor Telescope

My astrophotography rig at dawn

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