Telescope Reviews

Page 18 By Ed Ting Updated 2/1/02

Click on a Telescope Below: 1) Obsession 36" Dobsonian reflector 2) Meade ETX60AT refractor 3) Orion StarMax 127 Maksutov-Cassegrain
1) 36" Obsession 9/20/01 (36" f/5 open truss Dobsonian, NLA, was $15,995. Serial number reviewed: #4) Anything worth doing is worth doing in excess. Made in the 1990's, these monster Dobs were made by Obsession as "statement" products for aperture-hungry observers with deep pockets. Only four were made, and the sample at hand is the last of the line. Dave Kriege told me "these scopes nearly killed me and my staff." After the manufacture of the fourth unit, the scopes were discontinued due to the huge difficulties in making them. I am writing this in case you run across one, or are simply curious about these fascinating and unusual telescopes.
Godzilla at Stellafane
This is a huge, lumbering telescope. It dominates the observing field, drawing people like magnets. Its owners have dubbed it "Godzilla." There are four finders on this scope - an Orion Short Tube 80 at the eyepiece, a Rigel Quik Point and an 8X50 mounted on a separate stalk, and a Celestron Comet Catcher on the rocker box. Also, there is a large metal rod mounted on the upper truss, cleverly positioned within natural reach of the hand for steering. Three 8 watt lizard cage heaters (I am not making this up) are attached to the rear of the mirror as an anti-dewing measure when the scope is not in use. There are two Kendrick dew removal systems in use on the rocker box. Each finder, as well as the eyepiece, gets its own heater strip. The scope assembles and works much the same way as other Obsessions do. The secondary cage clamps to a wooden ring that holds the truss poles (the ring is necessary due to the long length of the truss poles.) Also, the 36" adds four heavy-duty retractable castors, if you must move it. The mirror is slightly overcorrected and has a trace of astigmatism. I'd complain about this if it were an 8 inch telescope, but for a hand made mirror this large, it's actually a very good effort. I commend its maker (Intermountain Optics in UT, in this case) for their work. I was given a private showing up in the northern mountains of NH on a clear late summer evening. The location was so dark I could see M13, M92, M2, and M3 with the naked eye. We didn't even bother attaching the shroud. The scope was already assembled for me when I arrived (thanks to Barrie, by the way, for his hospitality - he made sure I had everything I needed for the evening.) The first thing I noticed about the scope is that you don't do anything quickly with it. You learn to do things s-l-o-w-l-y. A body at rest tends to remain at rest, especially when it's 15 feet long and weighs 600+ lbs. Even the simple act of raising the scope in altitude to look at Polaris takes much longer than you think. As a result, you tend to spend your time looking at one area of the sky before moving on. Thus, I spent time first in and around the Big Dipper, then I moved on to the Cygnus area, and finally I went down towards Sagittarius. This took the entire evening.
Detail on the scope. Note the Rigel Quik Point and 50 mm finder on separate stalk
The second thing you notice is that while the scope may be a one-man job to handle, the ladder isn't. You need at least a 12 foot ladder, and a 14 foot would be even better. I had some safety concerns. The first time you get up that high, it's a frightening experience. While looking at the Ring, I was perched on the second step from the top (you know, the one with the warning label telling you not to stand there) with my shins braced against the top of the ladder. My body was fluttering in the wind. As if this wasn't scary enough, I then had to lean over in the dark and close one eye to look through the eyepiece. My heart was racing, and it took nearly an hour before I was comfortable with the use of the ladder. My first target was M82. Remember that first scene in Star Wars, where Princess Leia's ship comes overhead, firing laser shots behind it? A few seconds later, a massive Imperial Destroyer enters the scene. Finding M82 was a lot like that. I kept finding these annoying little galaxies that I'd never seen before. They were littering the field. Then, suddenly, M82 comes careening by like the Titanic. I gasped. Keep in mind, not only does this scope have nearly four times the light gathering ability of the largest scope I am used to (Obsession's 20") it has a super-long 4,572 mm focal length. As a result, even an eyepiece like the 35 mm Panoptic yields 131X. This is about as low as you can go. You are going to get good at dead-reckoning objects with a 1X finder real fast with a scope like this.
Detail on the mirror cell. Large black pads are lizard cage warmers used as dew heaters. Note the castor (R) extended for mechanical stability
I saw the central star in the Ring Nebula. It's blue, in case you're wondering. The scope almost gathers too much light for the Dumbbell. It's an elliptical bright white blob with an O-III filter. The image was so bright, I had to pull out the eyepiece to make sure the filter hadn't fallen off. I laughed with giddy glee as I followed the Veil all the way around (it does go all the way around in an almost unbroken circle if you know where to look.) M13, M15, and M92 all show colors in their stars. There is a visible red tint to the outer members of the globulars. NGC6207, the little galaxy next to M13, shows detail and looks like the Andromeda Galaxy does through an 80 mm refractor (I know; I checked M31 later with the 80 mm finder.) With the OIII filter in, I swept down to Sagittarius, and had some of the most memorable observing experiences of my life. The Lagoon more than filled the field of the 35 mm Panoptic. The dark lanes in the Trifid were pitch black, and wide enough to drive a truck through. The Swan looked like three or four separate nebaulae piled on top of one another; the dark area inside the crook of the check- mark shape was the blackest I'd ever seen. The most stunning view, though was seeing those Pillars of Creation on M16, something I never thought I'd see with the naked eye.
Godzilla's Lair: A custom trailer designed for easy (well, easier) transport. Gun racks (L) hold the truss tubes.
After a few hours of this, I got the hang of using the telescope. First, dead-reckon the object with the Quik Finder, then check to see if it's in the 50 mm finder. Then, quickly work your way up the ladder while a friend stands on the bottom support rung on the opposite side. Check the eyepiece - if the object isn't there, use the 80 mm finder. Enjoy the view, then descend and switch places with your friend. Repeat until exhausted. This was a thrilling and humbling experience, and it spoiled me for deep-sky observing for weeks afterwards. The 20" Obsession in my garage didn't seem so big anymore. I've been invited back to use it, so watch this space for more updates. I hope you get the chance to look through one of these someday. 2) Meade ETX60 AT refractor 10/1/01 (60 mm f/5.8 achromatic refractor, Autostar, 25 mm, 9 mm MA eyepeices, tripod, $279 street) I am so glad this telescope came along for me when it did. After using the 36" Obsession (above) I didn't feel like going observing at all. A tiny, computerized refractor might just what the doctor ordered. I was anxious to switch gears for a while and try the 'lil Meade.
Meade's popular ETX60AT
Meade made a big splash in the fall of 2000 with the introduction of these pint-sized ETX telescopes. The 60 mm and 70 mm are essentially the same scope. The 60 mm has a smaller lens (shimmed-down in the OTA) and a slightly longer f/ratio. The street prices are only a few dollars apart, so there's some product overlap going on here. In fact, by the time you read this, the 60 mm units may be on their way out. With the Autostar included in the package (not as an add-on, as with the larger ETX scopes) they're potentially an excellent value. What's more, to compete with Celestron, who started including the tripod with their smaller NexStars, Meade started throwing in their $99 tripods as standard equipment. You get a lot for your ~$300. What's more, there have been some highly-publicized sales going on with the 60 mm unit in the fall of 2001, with prices as low as $99 for the scope itself. Although I've seen many 60 mm and 70 mm ETX scopes out in the field, I hadn't had one for long-term use until recently. I had a 60 mm unit on loan for about a month and became familiar with it during that time. Made primarily of plastic, the scope is really light - less than 6 lbs. Even on the tripod, the setup is light enough to pick up with one hand. While light weight is a plus in many circumstances, it can be a negative during public star parties as people (especially kids) tend to want to grab it, ruining your alignment. Optically, the scope is fair-to-OK. I detect about 1 wave of undercorrection, with some light miscollimation, minor astigmatism, and the expected false color around brighter objects. I'm not going to harp on this too much. The scope costs next to nothing, and the tripod gets really jiggly even at around 80X, which means you'll probably never stress the optics enough to see the aberrations. No one buys this thing for its optical quality anyway. No, they buy it for the cool computer that's included! The Autostar #494 is a lightweight version of the #497 included with the larger ETXs. Not having played with an Autostar for nearly a year, I had to relearn the initialization process. After entering some basic information like the date, time, your latitude, etc, you enter the alignment mode. First off, forget about the one-star alignment; it doesn't work. You need to use the two-star mode, and it will take you a few tries before you get good at it (it took me about four times with the two-star mode before I could get the scope to slew and track accurately.) I had the best luck using the "high power" (39X) 9 mm eyepiece, and defocusing the stellar image until it nearly filled the field of view. Also, there is no finder, which can be exasperating. My blood pressure went down several points after I rigged a Rigel Quik Finder to the OTA (see below.)
You'll feel better if you do this
Once aligned, the computer either accepts or rejects your data. If rejected, you start over. If accepted, the scope starts making these cool space-age sounding noises as the drives take over. The tracking and pointing accuracy are pretty good for such an inexpensive system. You can make the scope point by using Messier, NGC, Caldwell, and other catalogs. It knows many objects by name (the Ring, the Dumbbell, etc) although there is, on the whole, an over-reliance on Caldwell designations. The Autostar prefers to recognize the Veil Nebula as Caldwell 33/34, for instance. And how many of you know of NGC457 as Caldwell 13? Also, the Double Cluster is filed under "T" for "The" Double Cluster. The Autostar knows a lot. Most commonly-observed objects carry a description of their appearance, distance, and other pertinent information. While looking at the moon, for example, the Autostar will calculate its % luminosity, age in days (carried to the decimal point) and rise and set times. One night, not wanting to run inside to boot up The Sky to calculate moonset, I dragged the ETX out, did a fast align, and had it tell me when the moon would set that night. The Autostar knows some 1400 objects, and you can add your own to the database. Among other things, it's programmed to find 8 planets, 88 constellations, 395 double stars, 189 variable stars, all 110 Messier objects, 66 named objects, and (raise an eyebrow with me now, boys and girls) 11 quasars and 3 black holes. If you get bored late at night, you can have the Autostar entertain you. There are some guided tour modes. One, "How Far is Far?" takes you on a journey starting with closer objects (the moon, the planets) and moves you out in distance to galaxies and beyond. The Autostar picks appropriate objects that are accessible from your location and time of night. There's also a "Tonight's Best" mode that's fun. Mind you, virtually none of these objects look all that great through the ETX - most are just dim smudges. And many will be invisible. I haven't begun to describe all the features. There's a "synch" mode, a "park" feature, you can theoretically do photography, and you can adjust the display to suit your preferences. There's a lot of stuff to keep you busy. But I did notice, you wind up spending most of your time playing with the keypad and reading the display, rather than looking through the scope itself. After a while, looking through the telescope becomes almost an afterthought, a brief diversion from the real action - playing with the controller. In fact, you don't even need the telescope to use the telescope. If it's cloudy or rainy out, or if you have some time to kill during the daytime, you can do a fake one star alignment in the garage, then read up on stuff with the Autostar. Which I did, more times than I care to admit. There are a few quirks. First off, the focuser is maddeningly difficult to use. Every person that came by, and review I have read, has mentioned this little silver knob as a sore spot. The focuser moves the objective lens fore and aft, strange in itself. But the knob is buried in the fork arm when the scope is above 45 degrees or so - it's completely inaccessible unless you have kid-sized fingers. To make matters worse, the 25 mm and 9 mm MA eyepieces are nowhere near parfocal; get used to spinning that little knob a lot. Also, the scope defaults to 8 PM each time to start it up, indicating a volatile memory. But the Autostar does know the last date you started it, and it keeps time, so how much more difficult would it have been to have the unit keep time while it's off? Finally, the manual does an OK job of getting you started, then it just abruptly ends, leaving you hanging. It's billed as a beginner's scope, but I found that advanced astronomers got the biggest kick out of it. Beginners tended to be stymied by all the features and modes, not knowing which ones were important and which ones weren't. And with all the hype that the Autostar doles out, the actual views tended to disappoint. Based on samples I've seen and the mail I get from you, quality control is good, perhaps even better than on the larger ETXs. There are a few dogs out there, however. People are surprised to learn that the 60/70 are my favorite ETX models. They're cheap, and the short focal length gives the Autostar the best chance of acquiring its target. Also, I strongly urge you to buy these new, rather than used, as ETXs tend not to age very gracefully under heavy use or frequent rough transport. This should not be your only telescope, any more than your Palm Pilot should be your only computer. It's a supplement to your other equipment, a cool toy, and a nice conversation piece. Recommended as a stepping stone, or for larger collections. 3) Orion StarMax 127 Maksutov 10/1/01, 2/1/02 (5" f/12.1 Maksutov-Cassegrain, 25 mm Sirius Plossl, 6X26 erect image finder, equatorial mount, case, $539 + shipping) Orion sent minor shock waves through the astronomical world in the fall of 2001 when it announced the introduction of a line of very inexpensive Maksutovs. If you thought the ETX Maks were cheap, check this out: the 90 mm f/13.9 StarMax goes for only $299, the 102 mm f/12.7 is $389 and this 127 mm model lists for only $539. As if that wasn't enough, these prices include the equatorial mount, eyepieces, and soft carrying case. It was enough to flood my e-mail inbox with requests to review it. I was on the phone to Orion as soon as I got my catalog. These Maks are produced in China "to Orion specifications". That's just about all I got out of them, other than the fact that they had plenty of stock on them in anticiaption of orders. Luckily, one showed up at our local club, courtesy of Rivers Camera, and I snagged it for an evening.
Wow, only $539! The StarMax 127
I am just old enough to remember when the term "Maksutov" meant "big bucks." As a kid I drooled over ads for Questars and Quantums, whose larger units cost as much as a small car. Maks have gained a kind of cult status over the years. With their relatively small central obstructions, historically tight quality control, and easy- to-figure spherical surfaces, Maks have been renowned for their razor-sharp optics and trouble-free performance. Today it's a different story. Maks appear at every price level, and they're almost mainstream. The sight of one at a star party no longer draws a crowd. Can an inexpensive Chinese unit measure up? I was fixin' to find out. The scope is attractively painted in a deep, ruby red. There's very little focus shift when turning the knob (which looks suspiciously similar to the knob on the NexStar 4, but no one's talking.) The scope star tested really well - only a trace of overcorrection, a smooth figure, and almost perfect collimation. I briefly ran the scope up to 320X and the star test was still very impressive. Hmmm... The Ring Nebula was contrasty, and showed the 13.1 star easily. In moments of steady seeing, the 14.2 popped in and out. With an OIII filter, the Dumbbell looked similar to the view through a high quality 4 inch achromat. The double- double was split into four tight little balls at only 81X, which is tough to do unless you have very sharp, smooth optics. With the OIII filter attached again, the Veil was seen as two light, wispy arcs, although without much detail. M13 has that ground-sugar look to it and just barely starts to resolve at 150X or so. Nearby NGC6207 could be seen with averted vision. The mount is yet another variant of the ubiquitous Chinese I'm-Trying-To-Imitate- A-Great-Polaris Mount. It's OK until you get up to the 150X-175X level, then the jiggles get annoying. For the price, I'm not complaining. I highly recommend the drive at $59.95 - with a 1500 mm+ focal length, you're going to get tired of turning that RA knob real fast. Also, the short cables are constantly getting in the way; I recommend ditching the cables altogether and retrofitting little radio-style knobs like the ones you can get at Radio Shack. The finder is OK, but I don't really care for this 6X26 erect image unit. However, it's easily supplemented with a Telrad or Quik Point. The diagonal is a little cheap, and I found the views were more comfortable with better eyepieces. And I wished for a heavier mount towards the end of the evening. Don't read too much into this - when I complain about the accessories on a cheap scope, it's generally a good thing. The optical tube itself seems plenty competent, and is good enough to justify spending some cash on upgrades. All those present were impressed with the StarMax. Keep in mind that the particular group that night has "expensive eyes." The other scopes present included the 14.5" and 11" EL Starmasters. Despite all the premium glass nearby, I didn't hear any complaints about the StarMax. In fact, I heard at least one observer say that he's considering buying one to supplement his other telescopes. One caution about all of this. Most of these Chinese telescopes, regardless of their design, have some sample-to-sample variation, and their quality control is not as tight as similar (but admittedly much more expensive) units from Japan, Germany, or the United States. I got a hold of a good one. But it is a sample of one. They may or may not all be like this. I hope they are. These Chinese telescopes do seem to be getting better, seemingly with every shipment that arrives on our shores. I'm interested in hearing from other StarMax owners out there so I can build a consensus on their quality control. Until then, the StarMax 127 is provisionally recommended. (P.S. This is the 100th telescope reviewed on Scopereviews!) Update, 2/1/02: Having heard from about a dozen of you, I can be somewhat more confident about my recommendation. Of those who were able to star test their scopes, the results were positive almost all the time. I did hear of one lemon, which was replaced by Orion with no apparent hassle. End Telescope Reviews, Page 18
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