Astro Works History


 

Astro Works began as a part time business in 1978 while I was employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Northern New Mexico and was centered around my imagination and abilities as an amateur telescope maker of 18 years experience. I had already made a cast aluminum fork and tube assembly for a 4" Cassegrain reflector and 6", 8", 9", 10", 14" Newtonians, Convertible Cassegrains, Dobs, and refractors. My main scope at that time was a 14 1/4" f/5 Newtonian on a large German equatorial steel mount. It had a rotatable upper focuser/secondary drum (done in the mid 70's before they were in vogue). I recall having to purchase then an expensive compact HeNe laser and make a bore sighted collar in order to finally get the rotating drum aligned and stay collimated when rotated.

Having many prior telescopes and liking astrophotography as a hobby, I always wanted a good deep sky astrographic reflector and decided on making a fork mounted 10" f/4 Newtonian with a 2" focuser. I ground and figured the Pyrex mirror and purchased commercial parts from Parks, Novak, etc. I decided on making an aluminum fork from Heli-arc welded 3/8" aluminum plate, but after testing, it proved to be just too flimsy, so I set out to make a wood pattern for a 40 pound cast aluminum fork. As it turned out there were not any foundries in the state that could cast a piece that size and at an affordable price, so a work friend who had previously managed a big foundry helped me make a back yard foundry and my own furnace with dual burners. We sized it to handle up to large 90 lb. per pour crucibles and soon things started happening. The fork(s) came out so well that I decided to cast and sell them as a product at $200 each. Later they were sold fully machined, painted and with ball bearings. Up until that time, I figured that anyone who wanted such a mount would already have his own lathe and mill as I did to finish it, but I was wrong. Not only did customers want their forks machined, they wanted the rest of the mount cast and built.

I figured anyone can buy a fiberglass tube from Willard Parks, cell and spider parts from Novak, a focuser Telescopics, and mirrors from Coulter or others and do their own optical tube assembly. Wrong again. They wanted a completed turnkey telescope. So I geared up for that, buying out the easy parts as well as optics. The other serious amateur telescope businesses such as Optical Craftsmen and Cave Optical were already closed or on the way out by then, leaving just Star-Liner. Criterion and Celestron were heavily into the Schmidt Cassegrain market. Meade was importing small refractors and offering components for up to 8" Newtonian tube assemblies per their S&T ad of 2/78.

 

 

Incidentally, that 10" f/4 Newtonian (above and right) evolved into a fine product that took great 35 mm images of galaxies . This was just before Jack Marling's Lumicon and the age of off-axis guiders/ film hypering added a huge gain to amateur astrophotography. Kodak's grainy 103aF was the hot-setup film to use then and acceptable deepsky color work was reserved for more complex dry ice or Schmidt camera users.

 

 

 

 

In the summer of 79 I left my then 60% time lab job after receiving enough telescope orders. A little later Astro Works was discovered by the government contractors such as Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia Labs, National Bureau of Standards, and NOAA, etc. There was a lot of solar energy research money floating around back then thanks to President Carter. Soon, I had built up a complete machine shop with new machines replacing the old and had a two man aluminum foundry necessary to make up to 24" telescopes and big solar trackers. New wooden patterns were being built monthly. We even made a large cast fork mount for NASA to use to qualify their spacesuits in vacuum chamber testing. The government R&D work was invaluable for growing the business and my pursuit toward building larger and more complex telescopes such as large folded refractors, big Schmidt Cassegrains and later Maksutov Cassegrains. Since it was necessary to use and test everything I built, I was learning at a very fast rate, some good and some not. Opticians were probably the biggest limitation on our ability to deliver product. Some projects spanned over two years in length like the two 24 1/2" f/6.2 SCTs that we built. After 8 years of custom, "you name it, I build it", I got wary of slow dancing with customers while I worked between their dreams and the always slow and late custom opticians. A standard product needed to be found.

 

The Astromak was to be it. In 1983 I was befriended by Mike Simmons then of Tucson AZ while I was still in Northern New Mexico and after a trip to his place decided to purchase his one of a kind 11 1/2" f/5.6 Simak parts project. He had designed and started the sexiest telescope I ever laid my eyes on. It offered tremendous astrographic image quality over a 2 degree plus field. I took on his project and found an specialized optician to finish the system. The optics were null figured (aspherized) and coated. It fit perfectly in our smaller 10" size fork mount shown below. By then I was making cast aluminum fork mounts for up to 17 1/2" Newtonians and also large German equatorial mounts. The astrophoto work with this prototype Simak required moving up to 120 roll film backs and later developing a custom 4X5 back with matched vacuum film holders, integral off-axis guider and field flattener lens. Everything clicked and the prototype images were a sensation since prime focus 8 &14 inch Schmidt cameras were the only other game in town then. Based on this success, I contracted Mike to design a faster, larger system with more back focus and tooled up to make a quantity of these using new patterns for castings, glass moldings etc. I was put in contact with the optical house that did Questar optics and they agreed to make the Astromak optics. Later, we moved up to Cloudcroft, New Mexico (elev. 8800 feet) to allow me to better exploit the Astromak's imaging potential which followed with years of magazine quality deep sky images on 4X5 film. After making 17 of the 12" f/5 Astromaks over a 7 year period I closed shop. About 12 years ago, I got my first taste of CCD imaging with the Astromak when Sena Sajadi of Astrolink brought out one of his costly Cryocams and computer with frame grabber. I was astounded by where astro-imaging was going, but still kept my darkroom since CCD cameras and computer technology were outside amateur astronomy for me.

The Astromak produced a 3 1/3 degree field equaling a 3.3 inch diameter circle on the negative. Image left is 90 minutes on 2415 Techpan. A 10x enlargement print had a 3 foot wide image. November 1986 image from Cloudcroft, N.M.Toward the end of the Astromaks production I had developed a good relationship with Alan Hale of Celestron working as a consultant on new product development and also optimizing current products for that company. The original f/6.3 Reducer Corrector and Radial Guider for SCTs were my first big products for them and after about 8 years culminated with the Fastar series convertible prime focus telescope and the PixCel 237 CCD camera in its conception through marketing. During my period with Celestron we had moved Astro Works from the southern New Mexico mountains to Scottsdale, Arizona to allow for an easier fly-in commute. The Fastar 14 was a most gratifying project and a great place to end that relationship.

Business wise, nothing happened for a couple of years except consulting and working on an awesome 50" at Kitt Peak and consulting for another telescope company.During this time my CCD imaging results were "topping out" using my Fastar 14. I wanted to see it evolve further than using the little PixCel 237 it was limited to and obtain a larger field of view with more image scale from self guiding ST-8 imager. As Mike Simmons had taught me, I sat down considering all things and listed my goals and thought of all the telescopes I had owned and used. Both my Lichtenknecker FFC Flat Field Camera, a modified form of concentric Schmidt Cassegrain and the Takahashi Epsilon , a hyperbolic Newtonian I had used were at the front of the performance list, but too small and costly to scale up further for optimal deep sky CCD use.

My best Fastar 14 CCD image of M51. Looks great if you just don't enlarge it. This image quality still easily beats the film image above done 20 years earlier.

 

Previous work on the 50" made me realize just how much great technology was available for total rethink of a new telescope. A prime focus 18" f/2.8 was decided upon and done. The prototype was success except for a flawed mirror blank due to stresses in machining away half the weight from a solid Pyrex disk rather that paying the high initial tooling cost required to make more stable molded light weight blanks (which was later done for all the production Centurions).Even with this flawed mirror, the resulting new images (left) were breaking ground in amateur CCD imaging. Now, after learning from the 18", developing it into a product, and optimizing it to its current level, my desire is to build a 28" f/3.1 version Centurion. For many people, bigger is not always better in telescopes. Already the 18's are usually seeing limited at their customer's locations most nights. A 28" would have to be especially well sited for optimal performance.

 

As a side note, I later had my personal Centurion prototype mirror reworked back to 100% once it had produced enough CCD images for the website. See recent image to left.

I have been asked where I gained the experience needed to build these telescopes. My university of life started with a father who was a mechanical engineer and taught me how to design and make the things I wanted that I couldn't find or afford to pay for. Hence, I was into amateur telescope making and Sky & Telescope magazine since 12 years old. Besides my father there were a few other men that served as telescope building mentors helping me to build various telescopes during my school years. After some college and Navy time I worked as a surveying instrument repairman for Kueffel and Esser and learned that craft quickly, progressing to arc second reading engineering theodolite, auto level, and optical metrology/tooling repair and calibration. Working on maintaining and optimizing the performance of fine Swiss and German instrumentation focused my perfectionist tendency. Later I worked at Brunson Instrument Company doing similar instrument repair work. My big break came when I was shown an ad from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory seeking mechanical technicians to work on laser fusion projects. I interviewed and once they found out I had a lathe and mill in my garage I was in. Livermore was great for learning in terms of designing and building experimental equipment and performing the experiments. Evening college courses in optics and laser electro-optics helped advancement in skills. My main hobby, astronomy, wasn't that fulfilling observationally from the San Francisco Bay Area. My 10" f/6 Cave Astrola dream scope and later 14 1/4" f/5 never worked well from there despite new levels of tweaking and tuning. I learned of a transfer opportunity with advancement to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. They even had 5 weeks instead of Livermore's 3 weeks paid vacation, not to mention dark sky at a 6600 ft. locale! That was an easy decision, again working on laser fusion projects. Within 2 years after moving there, my astronomical interests again flourished and Astro Works was started on the side. This work at the National Labs had shown me that with an approach through experimentation, it is possible to learn how to solve technical problems in new frontiers. I apply this technical philosophy to the Centurion telescopes as well as my personal projects.

24 1/2 f/6.2 SCT modernized in 2004

12 years later, after building the 24 1/2" SCTs, many Astromaks, tons of you name it instrumentation, the lights of both Santa Fe and distant Albuquerque and finally, 6 newly lit ball fields a few miles away rendered our acreage in northern N.M. unsatisfactory for astrophotography, my passion. I began searching for a new homesite and decided to concentrate on the Cloudcroft area about 300 miles south. At that time there were no other amateurs up there and Sunspot observatory was only doing solar work. I was able to find a site survey done many years prior for an Air Force 48" secret telescope. I learned that the seeing could be very good at times. After working through topo and land use maps I located a private mountain top near by the 48" site at 8800 foot elevation. I had a realtor locate the owner who was willing to sell at a fair price and within a year we were on the mountain top. Building a 400 foot rise/mile long road and moving a machine shop worth of equipment up the mountain was an experience. Winters were long and spring /fall were about a week duration if that. Summers were short with rain, but when it was clear, it was outstanding and worth it. I got some of the best AstroMak images ever from that mountain top. We lasted 4 years up there and then moved for a better high school system for our daughter, an easier consulting commute for me, and to milder winters and some civilization for my wife .

Astro Work's credit also needs to be given to my wife of 30 years, Janet, who has been very supportive by working with me to operate and grow our business. In many ways it is still a home business since I now have an ideal commute of about 100 feet. Using a Centurion 18 under dark sky any clear night is an added bonus. When I started out over 40 years ago in amateur astronomy, I could never imagine that I would be making and using such a telescope now!

Jim Riffle

May 2001 (rev. Jan 2002 & Jan 2004 & Jan 2008)

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While there are many "stories within a story" in this writing, I want to go to just one that has affected me and Astro Works and which has made a product like the Centurion 18 viable. Just as Jack Marling's Lumicon products had advanced astrophotography, over 10 years ago Richard Schwartz and his associates started Santa Barbara Instrument Group by offering the ST-4 autoguider. This innovation became instantly coveted by all astro-imagers for use in autoguiding their telescopes during long exposure film images. Then someone listened to Richard after he displayed his laptop computer deep sky images taken with the modest 192 X 164 array ST-4 CCD. The rest is history. Richard really did something great for astronomy and his company SBIG is currently the leading player in shaping digital imaging in amateur astronomy.



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