Tasco Model 9TE-5 Review
How the 9TE-5 might have looked in a 1970’s child’s bedroom.
I recall mid-1970s Britain as grim, dim, polluted and mono-cultural: even McDonalds seemed exotic and foreign. But it did have some redeeming features. The Space Race didn’t yet feel over and Apollo was still a recent memory. Viking was sending back the first images of the surface of another world and Voyager was heading off into the outer solar system imagined in Kubrick’s still-in-the-local-Odeon ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. Carl Sagan was on TV and giving the R.I. Christmas Lectures.
And I had just been given my first proper ‘big scope’ for Christmas – another Tasco to replace the table-top 4VTE that I’d had for years and that I loved but didn’t really work.
That new Tasco was a 3” Newtonian, a 3T-RB. Despite basic eyepieces and a fairly crude alt-az yoke mount I used it a lot. We didn’t have a lot of money, but Mum believed in educational presents. She doubtless went without something herself (and not for the last time) to buy that Tasco. The camera shop in my home town always had a big window display of Tascos during the Christmas season and she’d seen my nose up against the glass. Thanks Mum.
The 60mm refractor sibling of that Tasco Model 3T-RB is the scope on review here – the 9TE-5. It’s a scope that sold in large numbers across the world. Thousands of kids must have ripped the Reindeer paper off one every December the 25th from the late Sixties into the early Eighties.
So I bought one to review as part of a series I’m doing that takes an unashamedly nostalgic look at the scopes I saw in that camera-shop window, so long ago that it seems like yesterday.
At A Glance
~4.5 Kg incl. mount and tripod
Data from Me.
What’s in the Box?
All smaller Tascos of this era – from a 30mm hand telescope to an equatorial 4.5” Newtonian (the 11TE-5) - shared the same yellow and black box design that is now so evocative for me. Upmarket Tasco models came in wooden chests, but it’s these bright and exciting boxes I remember piled in the camera shop window every autumn from mid-November, circa 1976.
So, for me, it’s always a 1970s Christmas in Tasco Land ...
A 1970’s Christmas: fairy lights, chintzy baubles ... and a Tasco telescope under the tree.
Design and Build
Tasco was founded in 1954 by one George Rosenfield and first named ‘Tanross Supply Company’, eventually shortened to ‘Tasco’. Tasco began as a hardware and fishing tackle supplier, but started importing re-badged Japanese scopes from the late 1950s. Those scopes varied from spy-glasses that were little more than toys (like the 1ETE above) to ‘observatory class’ (back then) 4” refractors on driven pier-mounts, made by Royal Optical.
Models like this 9TE-5 had a long life, but they did vary a bit over the years, gradually decreasing in quality and features into the 1980s when much more plasticky fare invaded the Tasco catalogue.
Tasco marketed several smaller refractors with a similar 1960s vibe. The table-top 6TE-5 is a 50mm refractor that is very similar to the 9TE-5, but much more compact to house and display. The similar-looking 40mm 4VTE has a variable power eyepiece that makes it basically useless:
Tasco table-top Model 6TE-5 looks like the 9TE-5 and works well.
Tasco Model 4VTE is more common and looks much the same. Sadly, it’s all but useless.
The single-coated 60mm objective is an air-spaced Fraunhofer achromatic doublet of 700mm focal length giving ~F12. It’s a sensible choice, as F12 is the focal ratio from which simple eyepiece types work reasonably well.
All Tascos originally carried a small sticker saying they’ve passed the ‘Japan Telescopes Institute Inspection’. This was silver and oval on earlier models, gold and round later.
Some OTAs also had another sticker with a two-letter code. On this 9TE-5 it reads ‘GJ’, on my 6-TE5 it’s ‘FN’. These may refer to the sub-contractors for the optics, which varied (Tasco was just a brand), but the focuser label plate has a minuscule Circle-T symbol in the bottom right corner, so on some level it was ‘made’ by Towa, borne out by the very decent optics of this scope (I have an 80mm Towa with really first-class optics).
This OTA is a classic 1960s Tasco design which hung on well into the 1970s – a white metal tube, with a black cast lens ring and black metal dew shield.
At some point in the 1980s Tasco switched to similar models but with red tubes which I really don’t like (sorry), but that apparently evoke their own nostalgia in some younger collectors.
The 0.965”-only focuser looks like the modern plastic ones fitted to zillions of cheapo scopes on Ebay, but in fact it is made of cast metal and black enamelled, with a chromed metal draw-tube and rack. Consequently, its action is commendably smooth, precise and free of slop or image shift. Travel is limited, but generally sufficient for both astronomy and terrestrial viewing.
Just about the only things on the whole telescope made of plastic are the focuser knobs. On earlier examples (like the one shown in the booklet) these would have been cast and silver coated metal – just one of the areas where quality gradually decreased over the years.
The crinkle-finish yoke mount, on its matching tubular metal tripod, is typical of Tascos of the time. It’s a fairly crude thing that has an oddly school metalwork department look compared to modern mass production and is a mix of good and bad.
The metal tripod is solidly made. It has adjustable chromed leg inserts, clamped by distinctive wing nuts, so it’s adjustable to a range of sensible heights.
It also comes with a useful metal eyepiece-tray-cum-spreader. The way the spreader hinges inwards when you lift the tripod is surprisingly convenient – it narrows the leg spread enough to manoeuvre through a doorway but doesn’t trap your fingers. It’s child-friendly light-weight too.
The problem is the yoke mount. The azimuth bearing is just a plain push fit and on this example it’s very loose unless you tighten the lock screw ... in which case it’s locked solid.
The altitude bearing isn’t great either – two bolts tighten into lugs attached to the tube, secured with locknuts. Unlike the smaller yoke mounts on the 6TE-5 and 4VTE, which have thumb screws to adjust tension, these need a screwdriver and spanner and they frequently loosen in use.
To move the scope, you just push it up and down and around, but with fine adjustment in altitude only by turning a threaded wheel that extends a chromed arm connecting the OTA and yoke.
Once you’ve got good tension on the altitude bearing, that threaded arm and screw arrangement work fine for fine altitude adjustment. Early examples, again like the one in the catalogue, sport a similar fine adjustment for azimuth; in this one it hasn’t been lost or removed, it was just never there: that cost-cutting again.
Altitude fine adjuster. 1960s 9TE-5s had one in azimuth too.
The 9TE-5 came with two standard eyepieces in the usual rubbery black Tasco bolt cases with gold writing – an H12.5mm and an H20mm. Sensible focal lengths giving 56x and 35x respectively. They’re decent eyepieces too, single coated but with metal bodies and glass optics (unlike some beginners’ scopes today).
Less useful was the dodgy barlow lens that shipped with every 1970s scope. Even less usable were Moon and Sun (ouch!) filters.
More of a mystery is a 6mm eyepiece (giving an optimistic 117x) labelled ‘T.P.’ This came in a small, separate grey carboard box that is typical of Circle-T eyepieces; it’s labelled with the Circle-T logo too and seems of higher quality than the others. I don’t know if this was standard or an after-market accessory, but the hand-written price (£14.67) on the box suggests the latter.
I had hoped that this Circle-T eyepiece might be an orthoscopic, but is seems that T.P. stands for ‘Triplane’, a triplet design closely related to the Kellner, supposedly marketed by Vixen and Swift in the 1960s.
Tasco eyepieces: the Circle-T ‘Triplane’ was probably an after-market accessory.
Tascos from the late 1960s into the early 1980s came with a long, pale green envelope containing an introductory booklet evocatively titled ‘A Key To Worlds Beyond’, a solar system chart with some lurid (even in the 1970s very outdated) planetary artwork; and a Rand McNally Moon map that seemed such an exciting accessory during the era of Apollo. Both booklet and map were really good, even if ‘Worlds Beyond’ does include a lot on astrophotography and a complete Messier list that most 9TE-5 users were unlikely to need, along with some astronomy theory that’s probably school-exam standard today.
‘Worlds Beyond’ also included some attractive images of Tasco’s larger scopes to encourage you to nag your parents for an upgrade. This worked, because I eventually persuaded my poor mum to buy me the 3” refractor on page 5 – it took a whole summer to arrive from America, during which I continually phoned that same camera shop for updates.
The ‘Worlds Beyond’ booklet shipped with every Tasco from 1966 into the 1980s included an image of an older 9TE-5 with a different focuser and azimuth slow-motion.
Tasco Refractors illustrated in ‘Worlds Beyond’ included an earlier version of the 9TE-5.
Tascos shamelessly shipped with lots of colourful 1960s bumf ... right into the late 1970s!
In Use – Daytime
My usual daytime test for ‘serious’ refractors is viewing branches in silhouette at 100x. This isn’t very relevant here, but the 9TE-5 passes this test with a reasonably sharp view with some false colour out of focus.
At more realistic spotting-scope magnifications, like 35x with the supplied H20, the view is pin-sharp and excellent, if narrow. You could have used the 9TE-5 for some bedroom-window bird (of the feathered variety!) watching back in the day.
Snap through the eyepiece at 28x with a 25mm Takahashi Orthoscopic.
In Use – Astrophotography
With its wobbly mount and 0.965” focuser, the 9TE-5 isn’t exactly an imaging scope, but back in the mid-1970s I took quite a few passable snaps of the Moon on ISO 400 (the fastest I could get) b&w emulsion through its reflector sibling, the 3R-TB.
I took those lunar snaps by holding my mum’s 35mm camera up to the eyepiece; then I had to develop and print them myself in the darkroom I’d built into our spare bedroom. I still recall the smell of the chemicals and the thrill of seeing lunar craters appear on the paper as I sloshed it about in the tray.
In Use – Observing the Night Sky
General Observing Notes
For a beginners’ scope, much about the 9TE-5 is good, starting with the optics, which are much better than I’d expected: sharp stars and crisp high-power views.
The focuser is very competent too – smooth, precise and free of image shift. But, as usual for this era, it’s 0.965” only, which immediately creates a barrier for many would-be owners today.
The supplied eyepieces aren’t useless by any means, but they are a limiting factor. Fortunately, I own a set of 0.965” Takahashi Orthoscopics; popping one into the cheapo Tasco diagonal yields a huge improvement – a lesson on where to allocate money for accessories at this level.
However, the biggest drawback to the 9TE-5 isn’t the scope at all, or even the basic diagonal and eyepieces, but the mount. The wobbly azimuth ‘bearing’ results in huge, unwanted shifts in the altitude position. I used the very same mount with a 3” Newt’ on it for several years in my teens and recall no problems, so the slop in the azimuth bearing may just be due to fifty years of wear. For regular use, it might be worth shimming it with some sheet PTFE.
This OTA is big enough for cooldown to be a thing, but it’s still super quick, just ten minutes or so.
A star test on Rigel with a 9mm orthoscopic showed clear round similar rings either side and not too much false colour.
I spent a lot of time viewing the Moon with my own Tasco back in the mid-1970s and it’s the obvious target for beginners’ scopes like this.
At 100x with a Takahashi 7mm Ortho’, a first quarter Moon offered up quite a lot of detail. I enjoyed the crater arc in Clavius and the terraced walls and peak of Tycho in the southern highlands. Further north was ruined Pitatus and the nearby straight wall with its odd ‘arrow head’ hill at one end. Moving on up the terminator was the rim of Copernicus bathed in dawn light, floor still black night (I’m humming the eponymous 1970’s song by Deep Purple).
Even at 100x, there wasn’t much false colour, just a faint blue rim focusing through the limb. But although the view was fairly sharp, best focus wasn’t as snappy as a really premium optic. Upping the power to 117x with the supplied T.P. eyepiece, the view was surprisingly still just about sharp, though.
Compared to some entry-level scopes, the 9TE-5 would have given thrilling lunar views back in the Apollo era.
Mars at 78x with a 9mm Tak’ ortho’ showed a proper tiny disk, but some dark red false colour which might have been from the atmosphere, as it was low at the time.
With a Takahashi 25mm Ortho’, giving 28x magnification, the little Tasco performs remarkably well for a barely-coated 60mm. I took it on a brief tour of some of the brighter DSOs mentioned in ‘A Key to Worlds Beyond’.
Field of view isn’t bad: the whole of Orion’s sword or the entire Pleiades fitted in the field of view, despite the 0.965”-only focuser and long focal length.
The Great Nebula in Orion revealed a well-resolved Trapezium at 28x with that 25mm Ortho’, along with some structure in the boxy inner region and extended arms. I was surprised to find that the nebula still looked good with the supplied H20 eyepiece too.
Open clusters looked fine through the little Tasco. The Pleiades were nicely framed by both the 25mm Tak’ Ortho’ and the standard H20 - the pinpoint glittering stars embedded in mist you only get from a good refractor.
Other open clusters, like M35, were clearly resolved into component stars. The Beehive cluster just fitted into the widest field of a 0.965” eyepiece. Likewise, the whole Double Cluster just fitted and though it was less sparkly than with a fully coated 60mm objective I was using for comparison, it still contained enough pinpoint stars to be interesting.
I tried to split Rigel, but couldn’t; I wasn’t able to separate the component doubles of Epsilon Lyrae either, but easy doubles like Albireo looked just fine, even with the standard H20 eyepiece.
To me the Tasco 9TE-5 on its black crinkle yoke evokes a space-obsessed childhood from the era of Apollo better than any other scope.
The mount is pretty wobbly, but the OTA, focuser and accessories quite good, well up to regular looks at the Moon, Jupiter or the Orion Nebula. But note that this optical goodness may only hold true for Circle-T (Towa) objectives like this one.
This example retains much of the goodness of early 1960s examples, but cost-cutting is already starting to show in the plastic focuser knobs and lack of an azimuth slo-mo. So if you’re looking to buy – as a nostalgia piece for your study perhaps - the earlier the better.
Note that if like me you lack the space for a full-size retro’ scope, the 6TE-5 is very similar but sits on a table-top mount.
Finally, I’ve approached the 9TE-5 as a piece of nostalgia for an ‘older’ astronomer like me. But in fact, this scope offers far better value as a beginners’ scope than anything of remotely similar price made today. So for some real working nostalgia, why not put one under the tree for a new generation of space-fans?
The 9TE-5 is a wonderfully evocative Apollo-era retro-scope that’s still cheap to buy and a more practical proposition than a larger Tasco refractor or reflector. But it’s also a real working telescope and not a worthless toy.