The Russians Are Coming! (Actually, they're already here.)

Jack Kramer

Interesting events are taking place in the astronomy equipment marketplace. It has truly become an international arena, with German, Japanese, Chinese, and now Russian optical products competing with American-made items. Of course, many "American" products are branded here but have a different country of origin. In many respects, this is a boon for amateur astronomers.

The Internet has been a good source for authoritative information on the quality and price of equipment, as have been the equipment reviews in the astronomy press. Recognize that when you compare one make or design against another in terms of performance, you'll get a whole range of viewpoints from different users. But there are some generalities that consistently emerge.

Among the foreign producers, German products, primarily those from Zeiss, have long been regarded as top notch, although they are not presently a major player in the astronomy equipment business. The Japanese also produce some outstanding items; they've made quality optics almost a fetish. If you see optical equipment that says "Made in Japan", you can be pretty sure that it's of high quality. (Of course, we're not considering the "department store" telescopes that are contemptuously known as the "Trashco" brand in some circles! Even the Japanese can produce junk if there's a market for it.) As an example of the good stuff, the apochromatic refractors from Takahashi are considered of the highest quality, with prices to match. Vixen is also highly regarded. But in Japan, astronomical equipment is very expensive. Their APO's sold here are more expensive even than our equally good homegrown AstroPhysics products.

In recent years, various American companies have been selling equipment made in China under their own brand names. The lower wage scale there has converted to significantly lower prices for these optical goods in the U.S. Various reviews have showed that some of these items are quite well made. However, Chinese equipment has not quite achieved the quality level of competing products from Japan. Their mountings are not quite as sturdy. The optics are fine up to a point, but the images often don't hold up at the highest magnification. To some extent the quality and reliability of Chinese-made telescopes depends on the quality orientation of the American firm that's putting its name on them. The Chinese have made some good optics, but it is usually their products that are sold at such low price points by some American firms that it becomes impossible to produce a well designed and manufactured product.

Then there's the Russians. Unlike the Chinese, Russian firms have a long history of expertise and innovation in the optical business. This goes back to the Cold War years when they were producing massive amounts of sophisticated equipment for the Red Army and for export to other Communist Bloc countries. After the fall of Communism they began exporting to the U.S. Because of their lower wage scale, the products were very reasonably priced, although reports at the time indicated that the quality levels on some items were inconsistent.

But in the intervening years as capitalism has struggled to take hold in the former Soviet Union, they have learned to play to their strong points. Recent reports have consistently praised the high quality of a wide range of Russian optics. The Maksutov-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Newtonian design telescopes that are appearing more often these days are usually made by the Russian firms Intes or Intes-Micro, regardless of who may put their brand name on them. (D. D. Maksutov was, after all, a Russian.) In case you wondered, Intes-Micro is a separate company formed by ex-employees of the Intes company. And the Ukrainian firm Aries is making the optics for Astro-Physics' new 10-inch Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope.

Another example is binocular viewers for telescopes. These items from suppliers such as Lumicon and Tele Vue cost roughly $650 to over $800. The Russian firm LOMO has entered that market with a bino viewer priced as low as $325. Reports from those who have used the LOMO are unanimously enthusiastic. After World War II, the Russians moved the entire Carl Zeiss Jena factory, including equipment and personnel, from Jena to Leningrad where it became LOMO. The Zeiss employees trained locals, and LOMO still strives to maintain the Zeiss standards.

Now that Russia has made a name for itself in certain optical equipment, it's reasonable to expect that they will be selling a wider range of products aimed at the astronomy marketplace. With ample production capacity, a skilled labor force, high quality and low prices, they're poised to be a major player in this market. I read one opinion suggesting that if the Russians were to enter the apochromatic refractor business, they could ultimately dominate it, to the detriment of the high-priced Takahashi and AstroPhysics brands. The way things are going, who knows...