§ 6.1. New Product Introductions
Gregory Gross

§ 6.1. New Product Introductions

On This Page

  1. Questar Birder
  2. Enhancements for the Solar Observer
  3. Tri-Stand and Astro Pier
  4. Drive Accessories
  5. Carrying Case Updates
  6. Proposals for a Questar Maksutov-Newtonian Telescope

In the 1990s, most of Questar’s product development took the form of an evolution more than a revolution. With the core features of the company’s line of Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes in place since production began in the 1950s, the company took many of those features and updated them. Questar took its Field Model, which it had produced in its modern form since 1964, and added features to make it better suited for birding. The company took its telescope which had always included a white-light solar filter and added to it the ability to observe the Sun’s chromosphere. It took its Folding Pier tripod and spun off two new ways to mount a Questar: the Tri-Stand and the Astro-Pier. Questar took its Powerguide controller, which it first introduced as a rather bulky accessory in 1970, and transformed it into more compact product. And in perhaps its boldest effort to update its product line, the company designed a Maksutov-Newtonian telescope, one that never advanced to production.

Questar Birder

Since the earliest days of its marketing efforts, the company routinely emphasized the versatility of the Questar telescope for use not only as an astronomical observing instrument but also as one that was well suited for terrestrial use. Birding enthusiasts were one obvious constituency within a larger naturalist market.

In the September-October 1978 issue of Birding magazine, Lawrence Balch reflected on his use of a Field Model as a birding instrument. Although he admitted that the vertically-oriented eyepiece and the reversed-image view represented two drawbacks, he believed they were “overwhelmed by the other advantages of the Questar.” With the addition of two modifications—a “Rosenband Special Finder System,” which longtime Questar owner Gerry Rosenband developed and which Questar made available to its customers upon special request for around $200, and a homemade fast-focus modification that Balch designed himself—the Questar Field Model became “a truly superior birding telescope.” Rosenband’s modification increased the magnification factor of the built-in finder system from 2.5x to 8x or 16x depending on the eyepiece in place. At the same time, Balch’s fast-focus mechanism combined an O-ring, a laboratory panhead handle, and a few other simple parts. It enabled one to keep quickly-moving birds in focus as the observer followed them flying in the sky. With a lightweight tripod and a sense of confidence that his Questar was not a delicate or fragile telescope—“nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote—Balch assured his readers about “the lifetime of enjoyment you will get from the finest optical instrument a birder can use.”[1]

Questar Birder
Questar Birder. Questar Corporation via questarcorporation.com

Something similar to the “Rosenband Special Finder System” that Balch described was included with a dedicated Questar Birder telescope, which first appeared without much fanfare in the company’s November 1991 price list. It cost between $2550 and $3095 depending on what mirror substrate and optical coatings the buyer opted for. The listing noted that the 3.5-inch Birder included an integrated 10x finder scope (later promotional literature would indicate an 8.5x finder), a 32mm eyepiece, a fully-featured control box with star diagonal, a rapid focus feature, a basic camera coupling set, and a waterproof case.[2]

Birding enthusiasts took notice. In the Fall 1993 issue of Questar Observations, the company highlighted the Birder’s role in helping the Bucks County Audubon Society place in the top ten of the World Series of Birding that occurred the prior May.[3]

Enhancements for the Solar Observer

Since its first day on the market, the Questar telescope had always included an off-axis metalized glass solar filter for observing the Sun in white light. At the end of the 1950s, the company introduced a full-aperture filter. But after that, Questar introduced few other accessories for the solar observer.

In the early 1990s, the company benefited from recent developments in the marketplace that brought advanced solar observing technology within reach among amateurs. Not only could an observer see the Sun’s photosphere, or “surface,” using standard glass filters. One could also observer the chromosphere, or the first layer of the Sun’s atmosphere, by using specialized filtering techniques to isolate an impossibly narrow bandwidth of light centered at the hydrogen-alpha line on the spectrum.

Beginning in the 1960s, etalons began supplanting other means for observing the chromosphere. Their compact form and relatively more accessible cost made them far more attractive to amateurs than other filtering methods. But typical etalons were still only good enough to offer passbands around one angstrom, which enabled views of prominence activity off the Sun’s limb without much else to offer the observer in terms of seeing chromospheric activity on the Sun’s disk.[4]

The situation changed in 1975, when Del Woods founded DayStar Filter Company and began producing sub-angstrom etalons that could be attached to ordinary telescopes. Although their cost made them possibilities only for educational and institutional clients, over time that cost fell to the point where amateurs could afford to purchase them.[5]

In the wake of the total solar eclipse that occurred between Mexico and South America on July 11, 1991, Questar paved the way for a new product that incorporated recent developments in solar filtering technology. Touting the features of the Questar’s telescope that made it well-suited for solar observing and eclipse chasing—its compact size, long focal ratio, and its included solar filter accessory—the company used its advertisement in the July 1991 issue of Sky and Telescope to tease readers about how Questar’s aperture “enhances the performance of the Hydrogen Alpha filter.”[6] The company offered no other details.

Questar advertisement, <em>Sky and Telescope</em>, November 1991
Advertisement for the Questar Solar Observatory. Questar Corporation

Two months later, Questar asked readers of Astronomy magazine, “How often do you use your telescope?” Suggesting that another use for the Questar was waiting in the wings, the company announced its Solar Observatory, “a complete integrated package” for the 3.5-inch Questar. The system included a rear-mounted sub-angstrom DayStar etalon that was tuned by heat and thus required a power source. It also came with a hinged diaphragm, a front-mounted energy rejection filter that prevented damaging radiation from entering the telescope, and a Sunshield for keeping the observer comfortable in the shade and for reducing glare at the eyepiece. To underscore its message, Questar included images of solar prominences and of swirling details of an active region in the Sun’s chromosphere that Michael Olshausen, who helped develop the package, had taken from Washington, D.C. “Our sun is the most amazing object in the sky any day you look at it,” Questar wrote. “The ultimate observing experience is seeing a major solar eruption, a rarer and more scientifically significant event than an eclipse. But you have to be looking.”[7]

Questar Solar Observatory
Questar Solar Observatory included a front-mounted energy rejection filter, a DayStar etalon, and a Sunshield. Questar Corporation

In other pieces of promotional literature for the Questar Solar Observatory, the company described options that were available in more specific detail. It offered three etalon models, all produced by DayStar: the 0.6-angstrom ATM H-alpha filter for $3485, a 0.6-angstrom University filter for $4740, or a 0.5-angstrom University filter for $5310. The inclusion of other components incurred additional charges.[8] Considering that the pricing for a Standard Questar began at $3145 in late 1991,[9] the addition of a Solar Observatory would have represented a sizable investment for an amateur.

About a decade later, another etalon option appeared for solar observing enthusiasts. In the late 1990s, David Lunt founded Coronado Technology Group in Tucson, Arizona. Using experience that he gained from working on projects for the military and professional astronomers, Lunt designed a lower-cost etalon that, unlike DayStar’s products, required no power source. One tuned the etalon simply by tilting it.[10]

In 2002, Questar listed Coronado etalons and blocking filters as part of its Solar Observatory. Prices ran from $1280 for the 40mm front-mounted unit to $3175 for the 60mm unit.[11]

Tri-Stand and Astro Pier

Over the decades, Questar functioned as a reseller of tripods made by a variety of manufacturers. Most notably, the company sold a number of models produced by Linhof in West Germany.

In the early 1970s, Questar began offering products under its own name. The company developed the Folding Pier, a heavy-duty support for the Questar Seven that featured a rocking cradle for equatorial alignment.

Two decades later, Questar supplemented the Folding Pier with two new products for supporting its 3.5- and 7-inch telescopes.

Questar Tri-Stand and Questar Astro Pier
The Questar Tri-Stand (right) and the two models of the Questar Astro Pier—one for the 3.5-inch Questar (middle) and another for the Questar Seven (right)—as they appeared in the company's Telescope and Accessories booklet around the mid-1990s. Questar Corporation

Produced for Questar by FJR Manufacturing, Inc., a company owned by Fred J. Riemer in West Bend, Wisconsin,[12] the Questar Tri-Stand functioned as a relatively lightweight pier that included a tilt head, which allowed a user to polar-align one’s telescope, and a small shelf for accessories.

The Questar Astro Pier appeared as two versions, one for the 3.5-inch Questar and another for the Questar Seven. Both were heavier supports that featured castor wheels and that, especially in the case of the smaller model, were better suited to long-exposure photography.

In its November 1991 price list, Questar sold the Folding Pier at $1995, the Astro Pier at $1450, and the Tri-Stand at $965.[13]

Drive Accessories

The evolutionary trend that occurred at Questar in the early 1990s also touched the company’s Powerguide drive controller.

For decades, Questar had offered accessories with similar functionality. First was the rather basic Varitrac accessory, which appeared in 1964. It later evolved into a larger box-like Powerguide unit in 1970.

A Questar Duplex outfitted for astrophotography with an updated Powerguide controller, motorized declination drive, Starguide, and counterweight
A Questar Duplex outfitted for astrophotography with an updated Powerguide controller, motorized declination drive, Starguide, and counterweight. Questar Corporation

In 1990, Questar introduced a significant update.[14] The new Powerguide accessory was far more compact than its predecessor. It consisted of two components embedded in the Standard or Duplex Questar’s base: a 9-volt battery compartment and a small panel with on-off and northern-southern hemisphere switches and with jacks for 12-volt DC power input and for lighted eyepiece reticle and declination drive power output. A hand controller, which connected to the base by means of a lightweight cord, had buttons for making drive rate and direction adjustments and for operating the eyepiece reticle. It even included a small built-in LED flashlight.[15]

Questar also introduced a motorized declination unit for use in making precise adjustments and avoiding vibrations causing by working the manual declination slow motion knob during astrophotography sessions. Designed to be used in conjunction with the Powerguide accessory, the drive unit connected to a jack on the handheld controller by another cord. The top and bottom buttons on the controller then controlled the declination motor in the same way that the left and right buttons controlled the right ascension motion.[16]

In 1996, Questar introduced the Powerguide II.[17] The update represented somewhat of a simplification of the earlier handheld version: the controller, which now housed the 9-volt battery, simply had an on-off switch and four buttons for making directional adjustments. On the telescope’s base was one phone jack-style port. By pressing both the north and south buttons while powering up the unit, one changed operation for northern or southern hemispheres. Pressing both the east and west buttons while powering up switched the unit between sidereal to lunar operation.[18]

Carrying Case Updates

Around the same time that it made changes to its Powerguide accessory, Questar also introduced a new carrying case that featured a small pouch for storing the handheld drive controller.

At the end of 1991, the company announced the reintroduction of a hand-sewn leather case for the Standard and Duplex Questar.[19]

Proposals for a Questar Maksutov-Newtonian Telescope

Perhaps the most significant evolutionary thread that occurred at Questar during the 1990s involved a type of instrument whose development never got past the drawing board: proposals for a Questar Maksutov-Newtonian telescope.

The variation combines elements of Dmitri Maksutov’s original design with Isaac Newton’s reflector, which uses a concave primary mirror and flat secondary mirror to bring light to a focus towards the front of the telescope. The challenge with Newtonian reflectors lies in figuring the primary mirror: limiting both coma and spherical aberration requires a precise parabolic shape. To eliminate optical aberrations that still appear with even the best mirrors, many users of Newtonian reflector often reach for additional coma-correcting lenses.

Maksutov’s combination of mirrors and a meniscus lens, on the other hand, offers a well-corrected system whose spherically-figured optics are relatively easy to fabricate. But for those who seek wide viewing fields and fast focal ratios, the Maksutov-Cassegrain design falls short.

Especially for astrophotographers, the Maksutov-Newtonian offers the best qualities of both designs: a telescope that corrects for optical aberrations and that features a relatively fast focal ratio for shorter exposure times. As an added bonus, the combination lacks the secondary mirror spider vane that one finds in conventional Newtonian reflectors, an element that causes diffraction patterns to appear in images.

Keeping in mind a concept for a tripod and mount package that the company had received several years before, Questar’s Jim Perkins continued to develop the idea as he worked on a project for Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In collaboration with the company’s optical designer and the university, Perkins outlined an initial specification in March 1992. The plan detailed an integrated telescope, case, mount, and tripod package. It was to be highly compact and portable, quick to set up and align, easy to operate for both novices and experienced users alike, aesthetically pleasing, thermally stable, efficient in terms of its power consumption, and fully accessorized for astrophotography.[20]

Conceptual drawing for a 160mm Questar Maksutov-Newtonian with integrated mount, tripod, and case
Conceptual drawing for a 160mm Questar Maksutov-Newtonian with integrated mount, tripod, and case. Jim Perkins/Questar Corporation

Giving most of his attention to the instrument’s optical tube, Perkins designed a 160mm Maksutov-Newtonian telescope with two effective focal lengths: 640mm at f/4 for wide-field operation and 1920mm at f/12 for narrow-field work. The instrument’s prime focus location was at the Newtonian position just behind the corrector lens, where a 90-degree mirror flat was to be positioned. The finder system was to be integrated with that mirror, although numerous questions about the exact construction and functionality of this system remained open.[21]

The construction of the telescope barrel represented an additional unresolved matter. Possibilities included a frame-type barrel, a clamshell design, or a more traditional tube with a plastic cover. Its mirror cell was to allow the user to make collimation adjustments. In signature Questar fashion, the barrel was also to include an integrated and self-storing dew shield.[22]

The Questar Maksutov-Newtonian in its closed position
The Questar Maksutov-Newtonian in its closed position. Jim Perkins/Questar Corporation

The instrument was to be mounted on a two-axis support that could function in either equatorial or altitude-azimuth mode. The mount was to double as a highly portable carrying case that was small enough to be stored on a shelf. Its altitude/declination and azimuth/right ascension motions were to feature clutches that allowed manual movements and that put high priority on “user ‘feel.’” Movement along both axes was to be motorized and possibly supplemented with manual slow-motion controls. Although the specification document considered the possibility of worm gears, spur gears, or even a belt drive system, it prioritized overall smoothness and freedom from backlash no matter what the drive system would ultimately look like.[23]

Control panel for the proposed Questar Maksutov-Newtonian telescope
Control panel for the proposed Questar Maksutov-Newtonian telescope. Jim Perkins/Questar Corporation

For navigation, the proposal suggested that manual setting circles was one possibility. In a significant departure from tradition, Perkins’s initial specification also discussed the prospect that the new Maksutov-Newtonian telescope might feature electronic encoders that would work in conjunction with a controller that included an internal object database.[24]

The proposed dimensions emphasized minimal weight: the telescope barrel would be no more than eight inches wide and 28 inches long, and its weight would be no more than 45 pounds. Extensive use of lightweight alloys, anodized aluminum, and, in what was perhaps the most surprising departure from tradition, even plastics would help accomplish this.[25]

Ultimately, however, the idea for a highly portable Maksutov-Newtonian never matured into a production model. After Perkins invested substantial effort into its design and development, the company’s management did not pursue the project in earnest, and Questar never built a single unit.[26]

But the idea of using the Maksutov-Newtonian design for a unique Questar was not quite dead. In 1998, Stewart Squires, who had recently become one of the company’s dealers, made a proposal to the company’s managers for a convertible telescope. In place of a detachable corrector lens, one could attach an alternate optical apparatus that would position the eyepiece at the front of the telescope and make it into a short-tube Maksutov-Newtonian with a fast focal ratio. Along with offering a high degree of versatility to its user, it also represented an opportunity for Questar to earn profits by offering a retrofitting service for converting existing telescopes to a dual Maksutov-Cassegrain/Maksutov-Newtonian design.[27]

Questar advertisement, <em>Sky and Telescope</em>, September 1998
The company announced “a new family of Questars” in the September 1998 issue of Sky and Telescope. Questar Corporation

Douglas Knight leapt at the idea. Without doing exhaustive research, he published a series of advertisements that appeared in Sky and Telescope between September and December 1998. Using only wide brushstrokes, the company described its apparently forthcoming Maksutov-Newtonian as a wide-field imaging telescope with two focal lengths. The announcement also noted that a retrofit service was available for existing Questar telescopes. The company offered no other details.[28]

Perhaps as one indication that the plan was nowhere near full development, the availability timeframe for the new product slipped from October 1, 1998, to “early 1999” over the course of the advertisement’s four-month run in Sky and Telescope.[29]

Inside Questar’s offices, however, critical questions remained unanswered. After staff considered how to implement what had never been more than a conceptual proposal, the idea’s complexities and flaws became obvious. The retrofit option proved to be especially problematic.[30]

After the last of Questar’s advertisements for its Maksutov-Newtonian appeared in December 1998, the proposal never gained traction, and it disappeared.

Although the company introduced a handful of new accessories and put effort into developing new instruments during the 1990s, Questar largely continued to rely upon sales of its existing line of products. As the decade unfolded, however, competitive pressures and other challenges compounded.

Next: § 6.2. Challenges Come to a Head

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1 Lawrence G. Balch, “Birding with a Questar,” Birding, September-October 1978, 251, 253-254.

2 Questar Corporation, price list, November 1991.

3 Questar Corporation, Questar Observations (Fall 1993).

4 Lee Macdonald, How to Observe the Sun Safely (New York: Springer, 2012), 108.

5 Lee Macdonald, How to Observe the Sun Safely (New York: Springer, 2012), 108; “DayStar Company Overview and Index,” Company Seven, n.d., http://www.company7.com/daystar/, accessed March 29, 2021.

6 Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, July 1991, inside front cover.

7 Questar Corporation, advertisement, Astronomy, September 1991, 31; “A Telescope for Lovers of the Sun,” Company Seven, n.d., http://www.company7.com/library/questar/questols.html, accessed March 29, 2021.

8 Questar Corporation, “The Questar Solar Observatory,” n.d.

9 Questar Corporation, price list, November 1991.

10 Richard Tresch Fienberg, “David Lunt (1942-2005),” Sky and Telescope, January 18, 2005, https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/david-lunt-19422005/, accessed March 29, 2021.

11 Questar Corporation, 3.5" telescope and accessory price list, June 2002.

12 FJR Manufacturing Inc., advertisement, Sky and Telescope, January 1992, 109; “Fred J. Riemer,” Legacy, n.d., https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/jsonline/name/fred-riemer-obituary?pid=16297076, accessed April 7, 2021.

13 Questar Corporation, price list, November 1991.

14 Questar Corporation, “Questar Serial Number Systems,” n.d., https://www.questarcorporation.com/start.htm, accessed September 30, 2019.

15 “Questar Powerguide I Drive & Corrector,” Company Seven, n.d., http://www.company7.com/library/questar/qpowerguideI.html, accessed March 30, 2021.

16 Questar Corporation, “Questar 3.5" Motorized Declination Unit,” November 1990.

17 Questar Corporation, price list, February 1996.

18 “Questar Powerguide II Drive & Corrector,” Company Seven, n.d., http://www.company7.com/questar/products/qpowerguideII.html, accessed March 30, 2021.

19 Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, December 1991, inside front cover.

20 Jim Perkins, email message to author, March 12, 2021; Questar Corporation, “Product Proposal [and] Initial Specification: 16cm Maksutov Astronomical Telescope” (unpublished manuscript, March 20, 1992), typescript.

21 Jim Perkins, email message to author, March 12, 2021; Questar Corporation, “Product Proposal [and] Initial Specification: 16cm Maksutov Astronomical Telescope” (unpublished manuscript, March 20, 1992), typescript.

22 Questar Corporation, “Product Proposal [and] Initial Specification: 16cm Maksutov Astronomical Telescope” (unpublished manuscript, March 20, 1992), typescript.

23 Questar Corporation, “Product Proposal [and] Initial Specification: 16cm Maksutov Astronomical Telescope” (unpublished manuscript, March 20, 1992), typescript.

24 Questar Corporation, “Product Proposal [and] Initial Specification: 16cm Maksutov Astronomical Telescope” (unpublished manuscript, March 20, 1992), typescript.

25 Questar Corporation, “Product Proposal [and] Initial Specification: 16cm Maksutov Astronomical Telescope” (unpublished manuscript, March 20, 1992), typescript.

26 Jim Perkins, email message to author, March 12, 2021.

27 Stewart Squires, email message to author, April 7, 2021.

28 Stewart Squires, email message to author, April 7, 2021; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, September 1998, 97; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, October 1998, 122; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, November 1998, 127; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, December 1998, 151.

29 Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, September 1998, 97; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, October 1998, 122; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, November 1998, 127; Questar Corporation, advertisement, Sky and Telescope, December 1998, 151.

30 Stewart Squires, email message to author, April 7, 2021.