Saturday, July 25, 2009

 

Another Classic


Maybe the classic of the last decade or so. A week or two after I’d finished my survey of amateur astronomy's telescope hits from the Golden Age till now, I had an epiphany: I missed one of the biggies. Which biggie? The Celestron NexStar 11 GPS, of course. What makes that one so good; it’s just another blankety-blank SCT, ain’t it? Just hold your cotton pickin’ horses and we’ll get to that. First we gotta set the controls of that ol’ WABAC machine to the recent past, ‘bout 2001.

That was the year we’d begun seeing new ads from Celestron. Big full color ads introducin’ a new scope that looked a little like the other still new Celestron go-toers, the NexStar 8 and 5, but which obviously had about as much to do with them scopes as a Karman Ghia does with a Turbo Carrera. It was big, an 11-inch, it was imposing looking with a huge dual tine fork mount, and it, we were amazed to read, used GPS. Even at the dawn of this century that sounded WAY high tech.

That Celestron could incite endless speculation and get us all drooling like Pavlov’s pups wasn’t as surprising as it would have been five years previous. Despite being owned by the wacky folks at Tasco at the time, Celestron had just produced its first scopes with wide appeal in years when it brought forth the aforementioned NexStar 8 and 5. Almost everybody liked these CATs. No, they weren’t really serious scopes, some of us curmudgeons opined. They were on the light side mount-wise, and their computer controllers displayed some bug infestation, as might be expected for a first generation computer anything. But they were solid, the go-tos were good, and the 5 and 8 shore was modern-looking--they’d a-been right at home on Kirk’s bridge. These scopes was well received enough that we were all ready for More Better Gooder along the same lines, and here it was, it seemed, starin’ us right in the face from the pages of S&T.

Being the cautious (and cheap) sort I am, I did not jump on the NS11 bandwagon as soon as it rolled into town. I figgered there’d be some bugs to be worked out while I screwed my wallet to the sticking place. Indeed there were, but these seemed few and did not prevent the scope from living up to most of its potential the new owners thought. And there was that undeniable lure for me of the C11. Sure, I love C8s. C5s are nice. C14s are big and cool. But there was always something about Celestron’s Johnny-come-lately OTA that attracted me, some ineffable something beyond just the fact that the scope represented lots of light gathering in a package (theoretically) manageable by one person. Even if that person was a broken down hillbilly like yours truly.

I did a lot of thinking about the scope, waffling back and forth. Two things pushed me over the edge. The first (as you might expect) was money. While the NexStar 11 GPS was not exactly cheap, it was undeniably—even by me—reasonable, coming in at $3000.00 before shipping charges. While a not inconsequential sum, it was really not much more than I’d paid for my Ultima 8 when I allowed for the shrinking dollar and the need to buy “optional” accessories for the U8 like a wedge fine-adjuster kit. The final nail in the pine box for my bank account? A review Bob Berta did of his NS11 for my Skywatch newsletter. It was mostly a glowing one, and Bob was someone whose opinion I trusted. Next thing you know, I was dialing up my good buddies at Astronomics and turnin’ over a credit card number to them.

Naturally, the next week was spent in an agony of anticipation. But it really did not seem like too long before the UPS man was ringing the Chaos Manor South doorbell (AH-OOOOGA!). To be honest with y’all, I’d taken the day off from work to be home when the scope arrived. Not only did I want to get the scope as soon as possible, I figgered we would be talking a BIG BOX, and that it might not be fun loading that into my Camry by myself if I had to drive to Prichard, Alabama and the UPS depot to pick her up.

Yeah, I was on pins and needles, alert as a hound with possum fever. I heard the approach of the brown truck when it was all the way down at the other end of the block, and positioned myself discreetly behind a curtain to see whether the UPS Dude gentled the box out or tossed it off the back. I needn’t have worried. I happened to know the UPS guy on the route on the day in question. He was familiar with the odd boxes that arrived at the old manse at intervals and exercised appropriate caution in their handling. Plus, the bigger of the two boxes...you’d have to be the Incredible Hulk to toss that.

With the boxes positioned in the living room, I set about the task of unboxing (really “uncrating”) new baby. First on the agenda was the tripod, so I’d have something to mount the cotton-pickin’ scope on, natch. This was Celestron’s standard (for the time) “Heavy Duty Field Tripod.” Heavy duty? Well, I used to think so. But the one shipped with the 11 was significantly cheapened and lightened compared to the one that came with the Ultima 8 eight years previous. The rubber coating for the legs was gone. The hardware seemed cheaper. The leg spreader (gasp) was now plastic ‘stead of aluminum. I did not despair, since I figgered that if this thing turned out to be as punk as it looked to be I’d just use the U8’s tripod with the 11. Fishing around in the tripod box, I pulled out something that was nice, yet revealing: a box containing three of Celestron’s famous vibration suppression pads. It was sweet that they’d included these with the 11, but it was also, I thought, an indication they believed the big 11 might be too heavy for the economized tripod.

OK….time for the payoff. Getting the scope out of the box. Opening the big shipping container revealed a spanking new fork mount C11 wrapped in plastic. She had been well protected by contoured foam, and from what little I could see appeared to be in perfect shape. Her upscale and beautiful carbon fiber tube positively gleamed. First sinking feeling: How the hell was I gonna get her out of the box? I accomplished that by grabbing the handle on one of the fork arms, and huffing and puffing and manhandling till I could get a grip on the other arm and gently lower the scope to the floor. My, oh my. I didn’t mean “My, oh my what a good looking scope,” though she was that, but “My, oh, my how in tarnation am I gonna get this thing on the tripod?” A little head scratching and readin of the manual (yeah, me) pointed the way. I had noticed there was only one handle on the fork. That was not actually true. There was only one thing that looked like a handle. The base of the other fork arm was hollowed out. The manual instructed me to insert one hand into this recess, gripping the bottom of the fork arm, and lift while steadying the whole thing with the other handle.

I was skeptical, visions of a smashed corrector dancing in my head. But it worked. Lift up with hand in the fork recess while steadying and applying some pressure with the "normal" handle, and it was possible to lift the 66 pounds of telescope tripod-base high. It was still scary, and once on the tripod I still had to get it in bolted place. It was easy enough to position on the tripod by means of a pin on the tripod which corresponded to a hole on the scope’s base. That done, three bolts had to be threaded-in to secure the NS11. At first that seemed hard, till I realized that lining up indentations on the scope base with the tripod legs would align the holes in base and tripod well enough to allow me—with only a little cussin’ and fine tuning—to get the scope attached to the tripod. I stood up and took a long breath. I’d done it, but, JASPER CHRISTMAS, it had not been fun ‘n easy. I could only hope it would get easier if not easy.

What now? All that remained was to fish hand controller and accessories (a so-so 1.25-inch diagonal, a so-so 40-mm eyepiece, and a standard visual back) and a sweet 50-mm finder (I’d luckily missed the coming of the Chinese finders that replaced the excellent illuminated Japanese models). With everything accounted for, I set down to look at the manual some more. Yeah, I know that is not the sort of thing I’m known for, but heretofore my only experience with go-to scopes had been limited to buddies’ LX200s and a li’l ETX 60 I used as a travel-scope.

When dark finally came, and, amazin’ly enough, clear skies with it, I was ready to go, I thought. At the time our club was without a decent dark site, so it was First Light in the backyard of good, ol’ Chaos Manor South. I set up well before full sunset, since I was still wary (read: SCARED) of the big fork mount, and the last thing I wanted to do was trip over a stray cat in the dark while carrying the humongous thing. I did have to admit that, while the 11 was still a handful, the second time around was a little easier. With NS securely on tripod, it was time to see what she would do with the spring skies. Thankfully, the back 40 was still blessed with some openings in the trees to the East (today, the growth of the big oaks has finally and completely closed out backyard viewing except in the dead of winter).

Connected the Walmart jumpstart battery pack I had bought for the purpose and hit the big switch. In those days, before Meade was able to patent the process of leveling a go-to scope and pointing it north, alignment was crazy simple. Power up. The hand controller told you to press “align” if you wanted to begin a GPS go-to alignment. Doing that started the scope's little dance, leveling itself and pointing north via its electronic compass. That done, the big CAT stopped moving and began listening for GPS SVs to tell it its position and the time. I was a little apprehensive on this score. Minding military GPS receivers is part of my job and I know their quirks. I feared all them trees would keep me from getting a fix. It did take a little while, but I did get one. That milestone accomplished, the scope headed for the first of two alignment stars. Luckily, both were in the clear. Neither was in the finder, but neither was far outside the finder field, either. Despite being new to this go-to bidness, I knew enough from my experiences with my li’l ETX to know not to worry too much about that. Unless stars are half a sky away, center ‘em up and keep on truckin’.

First Light object? Warn’t a whole lot to choose from. My hole in the trees was centered smack on Virgo at the moment, and while galaxies would not be that good a target in the sodium pink skies, you go with what you’ve got. Which one? How about big-daddy fat-spider M87? I hit the “M” key, punched-in 087, and hit enter. The scope hummed and headed east. I was skeptical as to whether I’d hit pay dirt or not, but I sure did like the user friendliness of the NexStar HC as compared to my Autostar. And the quiet, powerful sound of the NS as compared to the LX200’s coffee-grinder symphony. After a while (longer than with my university’s Ultima 2000, I thought), the scope stopped slewing, the little rotating cursor on the HC display disappeared, and it was moment-of-truth time. I pressed my eye to the 12-mm Nagler, looked around the field for a moment, and spotted that unresolved globular-like fuzzball of a galaxy lying almost smack in the middle of the field. Yay.

Actually, it was more like this ol’ hillbilly jumping up and down and letting go a couple of REBEL YELLS! This go-to stuff was, again, new to me and I was still a mite suspicious such a thing could work. My hollering attracted the attention of my young daughter, Lizbeth, who shortly joined me with her Christmas scope, a 6-inch Dob with nice Parks optics my buddy Pat and I had put together for her. We looked at quite a few night-birds all across Coma-Virgo, with Lizbeth taking an occasional peep through the NS11’s finder to help her track down the same prey. Her verdict on the new scope? “Daddy, I like the C11 BETTER. You use my scope for a while!” That suspect tripod? It turned out to be fine, and was so pleasantly light and easy to lug around that I never did get around to using the U8 tripod with the NS11.

First light with Lizbeth had been fun, but I was already plotting a deep sky getaway to see what the scope could really do. Before gettting to that, though, I needed one other item: a case. By 2002, Celestron had long since discontinued cases, but I still needed one; maybe moreso than ever with a big dog—er, “CAT”—like the 11. There were several choices for the NexStar, but I picked a JMI. Yeah, I thought the advertising photos Jim ran in Sky and Telescope, showing a VW bug jacked up on a NexStar 11 case were a bit whacky if attention-grabbing, but what got my attention was the fact that the JMI case had wheels.

Being able to wheel the case out to the car has made the NS11 almost as portable as my vaunted Ultima C8, Celeste,. Yeah, I still have to lift 60+ pounds of Big Bertha and case into the Toyota’s trunk, but that has turned out to be marginally doable. Only downcheck with the JMI is the fact that the finder has to be removed to close the thing. Jim Burr has always been one creative individual, though, and his solution to this problem was a clever one. He designed a little two-piece bracket. One part screwed onto the telescope rear cell. The other onto the finder. With this gadget installed, the finder could be removed by loosening two nice, big knobs. Not only does this bracket make it easy to remove the finder to shut the case, it is so well-designed that the finder's alignment is not affected.

With the case situation resolved, it was time to head for dark skies. By the time I was able to get a few days off from the confounded shipyard, however, star party season in the south was purty much done. Except for one, my Good Buddy Pat noted, the Chiefland Spring Picnic. In due course, then, we were on the famed CAV field along with a couple of hundred other dark sky crazy amateurs. What do I remember most about the Picnic that year? How crowded it was, how hot it was, and how foolish Pat and I were to even think about tent camping on the field. Why we decided to do that, I can’t remember and will never understand. With daytime temps on the field over 100F and the mercury not getting below 80 at night, we sweltered. By 8am it was way too hot to sleep in tents that seemed more like toaster ovens. Before the weekend was over, Unk was bein’ initiated into zombiehood. I resolved that henceforth I would never, ever sleep anywhere other than a motel when at Chiefland.

That was just the annoying part, however. There was also lot of good, starting with our wonderful CAV friends. Most of the time that “wonderful” also applied to the skies. Oh, we was dodging clouds and navigating sucker holes early in the evening, and getting shut down at about 2am, but that is late spring/early summer in the deep south. What was remarkable was how dark and lovely the skies were in-between, and how the NS11 drank it all in.

If nothing else, I was more than satisfied that the computer part of the scope would be consistent and reliable. Every night every object I requested from horizon to horizon was placed somewhere in the field of the 12-mm Nagler. Bertha was just as good optically, producing one of the better star tests I’ve seen in SCTs over the years. I also noted that despite the fairly large primary, focus shift was gratifyingly small. Whatever. I know I saw oodles of cool stuff over that long weekend. What was the coolest thing Bertha delivered? It wasn’t the M13s and M17s and M8s and M20s. What I remember most is what the big cat did to NGC 6712, a normally ho-hum little globular down Scutum way. In the NS11, this ho-hummer became a thing of wonder. Its loose shape amplified beyond imagining with scads of tiny stars set in a field rich beyond belief.

Yeah, I loved my new SCT. But that don’t mean she was perfect. I noticed that when the scope was pointing west of the meridian and tracking in alt-az mode, she would occasionally jerk-jump a wee bit. Just enough to make you wonder what happened, and somewhat disconcerting if you were looking at a rich star field. Turned out there was a bug in the NS11’s motor control firmware (Celestron scopes generally use two computers: one in the hand controller, and a “motor control board” inside the scope). The good part was that C already had a fix. The bad part was that my scope was early enough that my motor control board was not user upgradeable. That turned out not to be a huge deal, since Celestron was quick to dispatch a new MC board to me with the new firmware onboard and which I could upgrade further myself if that proved necessary (and it did…took several releases before all the bugs lurkin’ in the computers was exterminated).

Udder than that? Not a whole hell of a lot to say. The scope has just been completely friendly and reliable over nearly eight years of service. No problems of any kind. But there have been advances. The biggest of which was the introduction of NexRemote. NR is a program that replaces the NexStar HC. You can read all about it h’yar, but the main points are that it adds dozens of features and allows you to use a wireless gamepad as your “HC.” I loved Bertha from the first, but NexRemote made me love her all the more, and has kept her feeling high tech as the observing seasons have come and gone. Even today, not many scopes will, like my Bertha, announce in an Enterprise computer voice “Slewing to target!” and “Target acquired!” and tell me how to conduct a go-to alignment or give me the particulars of the object I’m looking at in a machine-sexy tone.

What’s the deal with the NexStar 11 today? The NexStar 11? It’s gone. The above-mentioned lawsuit in part, I reckon, drove Celestron to introduce a successor scope. In addition to probably being a little cheaper to produce (no carbon fiber tube, for example), the new scope, the CPC, cannot use the verboten north-level alignment routine, even with the aid of NexRemote. Celestron had been paying Meade a royalty for each and every NS sold, and I’m sure they were glad to get out from under it. Yeah, they coulda just modified the telescope’s computers, I guess, but no telescope is forever, and I suppose they decided it was time to move on.

My NS11? We just keep having fun. Last night, for example, we was setup on the Chiefland field once again. While I have a nice wedge for Bertha, I tend to image with GEMs these days. The two things where the NS11 still proves to be on the cutting edge are visual observing and video imaging. Visually, nothing, and I do mean nothing, is as comfortable to use as an SCT in alt-az mode. You can remain seated no matter where in the sky the scope is pointed and just bask in the glories delivered by those luscious optics. Video? The alt-az tracking is good enough to ensure that 10 – 30-second video frames look great, the optics pull in lots of fuzzies, and the design of the scope makes video star gazing a joy.

This past evenig I ran the scope with NexRemote, which was aided by SkyTools 3, which sent the scope goin’ to her go-tos via the same single cable NR uses thanks to NexRemote’s “virtual port” feature. What it boils down to is that I sat in front of the video monitor with a wireless joystick, and sent the 11 to beautiful object after beautiful object. Despite the small chip of my Stellacam 2, all were in the field of my (focal reduced) Bertha. And all were take-your-breath-away lovely. Of late, I’ve sometimes thought I oughta get another, newer big CAT on a GEM, maybe a C14 on a CGE Pro. But you know what? My head is never turned. Every time I get out in the dark alone with my Bertha she makes me forget all about them young upstarts.

Comments:
Hi Rod,
Well I had not thought of my scope a classic (NS9.25) but it has been one honey of an instrument. Wedged for photography, alt-az for visual, it has always performed well (or well enough for me). As my first real scope, I don't think I could have picked any better.

It has made many outreach trips as well as trips to dark sites around the LA area. Once to Montana and once Arizona. The JMI case is a Godsend. (My scope gets to ride in the back seat. It doesn't seem right to have it in the trunk. It's more like a kid to me.)

One thing you didn't talk about with your initial dark site outing was how others viewed your scope. What did they have to say?

Darren
 
Oh, they was impressed...but I think that had more to do with the glitzy carbon fiber tube and the GPS than the scope itself. The true test was this past weekend at Chiefland, nearly 8 years down the road. She still impresses. Everything on the field of a tiny Stellacam chip (albeit reduced to f/4 - 5) and impressive resolution. The Saturn nebula looked not just like a little hard planet with edge on rings. If you looked closely at the (small) monitor, you could see the little "balls" at the ends of the ansae. In this day when carbon fiber and GPS are old had, Bertha still impressed one and all. ;-)
 
Are the Celestron wedges adequate for this unit? Or is it a good idea to upgrade to something heavy duty like the Milburn wedge?

P
 
The Celestron wedges? No...not even close. I've got an APT wedge that is perfect, but they are out of the wedge business, I understand...there are other good choices, though.
 
Rod,

I'm late to the party on this, but I do have a question for ya. If you were in the market for an 11" fork mount scope today, would you go for a used NexStar or a new CPC1100?

Thanks!

Robert Harris
 
That's a hard one, Robert. Much has to do with the provenance of the used NS11 in question. Is it a recent one? Has it been treated well, etc.? Myself, I'd have no hesitation buyin' a used one. But, still, it's out of production...Celestron still supports it...but for how long? I do think it's superior in some ways to the CPC.
 
Hi Rod,

Do you use a focal reducer on the back end, or a Hyperstar-like arrangement at the front end?

Thanks,
Mark
 
Hyperstar? Naw...just a garden variety (kinda putrid) Meade 3.3...
 
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