In 1956, the Questar Corporation of New Hope, Pennsylvania, begat a tiny telescope that has inspired 50 years of lustful amateur astronomer dreams, the Questar 3.5 MCT. The Questar 3.5 (inch) can best be described as "jewel-like." It is an incredibly attractive little instrument that is executed in gleaming stainless steel and beautiful anodizing. The most discriminating telescope connoisseur will search in vain for plastic here.
You "cannot judge a book by its cover," of course, and the Questar probably could not have hung on for 50 years if its optics could not deliver. They can and do, providing images as sharp and high in contrast as it is possible to achieve with any 3^-inch telescope. Quite a few Q3.5 fanciers are surprised to learn that the optics in the telescope are not made by Questar. They never have been. Instead, the company has always contracted them out to other manufacturers, with the firm of J. R. Cumberland having produced the lion's share over the years. No, the optics are not made in-house, but Questar's stringent testing and quality assurance program mean every scope that goes out the door possesses world-class optics.
If it were only that the telescope is "pretty" and has good optics, no one would likely pay the $4,250 that a Questar 3.5 sans tripod and with basic bottom-of-the-line coatings commands. What keeps the Qs coming, then? The Questar was an innovative design in 1956, and it is still innovative today, offering some unique features no other telescope can boast.
When an amateur astronomer finishes admiring the Questar's beauty, the first question that comes to mind is, "Where is the finder?" The Questar 3.5 does not appear to have one, which is surprising. This is a slow focal ratio, long focal length, Gregory-type Maksutov (f/14.6, 1,300 mm), so a good finder is mandatory. Actually, the Q3.5 does have a finder, just not a conventional one. When a finder is needed, the observer continues looking through the main scope's eyepiece and flips a little switch on the rear cell. This switches the ocular to a wide-field finder objective via a unique reflex optical system. The finder objective is mounted on the bottom of the rear cell and delivers a 4x image that takes in a full 12° of sky with the Questar's lowest-power eyepiece. The advantage of this somewhat complex arrangement is that the observer never has to move an eye from the eyepiece to find or center objects, a distraction when trying to pull in dim DSOs with the 3.5's limited aperture.
Need more magnification rather than less? With other telescopes, the user would change to a different eyepiece or insert an amplifying Barlow lens. Not with the Q3.5. Another rear-cell switch moves a built-in Barlow lens into the light path of the main optics. Again, the observer has not had to look away from the eyepiece. Not only is this Barlow convenient, it is a high-quality Dakin Barlow.
Like all other CATs, the Questar's corrector plate is prone to collecting dew. There is no need to spend money for a dew shield, however, as one is built into the Questar. Grasp the scope's lovely star-map-emblazoned tube and slide it forward, and this "tube" is revealed to be a dew shield. Extending it reveals the actual tube of the 3.5, which features an anodized Moon map. Like the star chart on the dew shield, it is not detailed enough to be very useful, but it sure is beautiful.
The Questar 3.5 is beautiful and legendary. Despite being in production and nearly unchanged for over 50 years, it is still sexy. Is it a good astronomical telescope, though? If there is one thing that prevents us from recommending the Questar wholeheartedly it is its aperture problem. Despite the beautiful tube and mount, this is still just a 3.5-inch telescope. It is an optimized 3.5-inch telescope, but it cannot violate the laws of physics. It will still be outperformed optically by the larger-aperture C5 and ETX-125.
It is remarkable that Questar has not had to change the 3.5 much over the last 50 years, but that is not necessarily a good thing for the amateur. While the rest of the telescope industry has moved on to computers and go-to, for example, the Questar still pokes along with an AC synchronous motor drive. Yes—polar align the scope and plug it into a wall socket (or inverter), and it tracks the stars. Unplug it, and it stops, which is not exactly high tech. A DC drive is available as an extra-cost option, but at over $4,000 for the basic scope, many purchasers will need to go easy on options.
Beautiful as it may be, the Questar mount is not overly pleasant to use. Since it does not have a computer, its drive base has to be tipped over to point at the Celestial Pole if it is to track the stars. Before it can be polar aligned, though, it will have to be mounted on a tripod of some kind. The three ridiculous little tabletop legs supplied with the scope are useless for much of anything; that means shelling out for Questar's tripod or an equivalent heavy-duty model from a third party. Despite its light weight (8 pounds), the Questar 3.5 needs a stable tripod due to its long focal length. Even on a good tripod or pier, however, the mount has limitations. Most seriously, its design prevents the scope from pointing at far southern objects (or far northern objects when observing from the Southern Hemisphere). Move too far south in declination, and the tube bumps into the base. Yes, the Questar 3.5's slow-motion controls are silky smooth, but they sometimes exhibit a surprising amount of backlash.
Like the Meade ETX, the Questar uses a built-in 1.25-inch star diagonal. This is necessary so eyepieces will be in the correct position to allow the switchable Barlow and finder to work properly. Unlike the Meade, however, the Questar diagonal is not set up to accept standard 1.25-inch eyepieces. It is formatted for the special pair of included Brandon oculars, which screw into the rear cell instead of sliding into a focuser tube. Although these are very good eyepieces, it is hard to imagine today's amateur not wanting to use other oculars, such as TeleVue Naglers. Luckily, TeleVue sells an adapter that will allow some of its eyepieces to be used in the Questar. They may not come to focus with the finder switched in, however.
Nevertheless, the Questar 3.5 is a "good" scope, maybe even a great one. Questar astronomy is astronomy with style. The little 3.5 is tremendously portable, and it is just about as well made and reliable as a telescope can be. In its case, with its included solar filter and pair of Brandons, it really is, as Questar has always advertised it, a "portable observatory." The ETX 90 may have optics nearly identical in quality, but unlike the Meade, the Questar is a telescope to pass down to grandchildren. That makes it almost seem like a bargain.
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