Sunday, April 08, 2012


My Best Girl

Not really. Everybody knows Miss Dorothy is and always will be Unk’s best girl. But I do so love my C8, Celeste, muchachos. I’ve used a lot of scopes over the course of the last 47 years, but I haven’t loved any of ‘em like I’ve loved my Celestron Ultima 8.

Seems like just yesterday that Unk bought Celeste and rejoined the SCT ranks... “What?! Unk was never not a member of SCTdom?” I was always a CAT fancier, at least in spirit, but I did go through a short period in the early 1990s when I was SCTless. How the heck did I let that happen? I’d had to sell my Super C8 Plus to help finance a divorce. I was not scopeless, but I was reduced to cotton picking Newtonians, with my 12.5-inch Meade StarFinder Dobsonian being my big gun.

That was not all bad. I’d been on sabbatical from the wonderful world of astrophotography for a few years following the disappointments involved in trying to image that dim scamp, Halley, and a simple alt-az was a nice change of pace. My bigdob (to me) dang sure kicked out the jams when it came to visual astronomy—even if I missed tracking. And, just between you and me and the fencepost, the Super C8 Plus wasn’t that hot anyway. If you’re a long-time reader of this here blog, you know one of Unk’s prime maxims is “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.” I learned that through bitter experience, muchachos, and one at least slightly bitter experience concerned that Plus.

My road to SCT Valhalla began in 1976 with original C8, the “Orange Tube” C8. I was happy with the O.T., but I don’t think anyone would blame me for wanting to upgrade to the Super C8. It was undeniably better with improvements like a worm gear drive that were spurred by competition with the new CAT on the block, the Meade 2080. Since Unk was rather obsessed with astrophotography at the time, it seemed (and was) a step up, and if I’d stopped at the Super, all would have been well, I reckon.

But I didn’t stop. One thing nagged at me to the point of near-obsession: I didn’t have StarBright. When the Super came out, Celestron began touting the scope’s “improved coatings,” but the word on the street was they weren’t much improved. To get the real deal in transmission and reflectivity, you needed the top-of-the-line and optional StarBright coatings. I coulda had StarBright when I bought the Super, but foolishly declined.

“To StarBright or not to StarBright?” was the big question for the Celestron buyer in the 80s. We knew the coatings were better and made an observable difference, but the Super was not cheap as we judged such things back then, and to get StarBright you had to pony up yet another C note. 100 bucks is not much in our blasé times, but back then, before all the inflation chickens had come home to roost, it dang sure was. $100.00 in 1983 dollars is at least—at least—equivalent to $300.00 today. Which was hard to come by for a young man like Unk, even given that I’d sold the OT for a fair price.

I declined StarBright, and in the excitement of a new and fancier scope, that was OK. But it began to eat away at me. I’d be a-looking at NGC umptysquat and inevitably begin to wonder how much better the object would have looked if dumb old Unk had just parted with 100 more measly simoleons.

Then came the Super C8 Plus, barely two years after the Super’s debut. Outwardly, she looked about the same as the Super. Same pretty and glossy black tube. Same 50mm finder (with a different eyepiece/diagonal arrangement). Almost the same fork—it was slightly redesigned, but the steadiness improvement inherent in that was minimal. The big plus was that the Plus came with StarBright standard. Out the door went the Super and in came the Plus.

I wanted to love the Super C8 Plus. She looked so purty and should have worked so well. She actually did work pretty well. Yes, she had an AC drive, just like the OT and the Super, but it sported a decent worm gear that performed well for imaging as we defined “well” in those simpler times. Her optics? Maybe not quite as well-corrected as my Super’s had been. Not bad, mind you, but not quite as good. Overall I was happy enough with the SCT, but when the need to sell her (and my prized Tandy 1000 IBM PC clone) came, I was merely disturbed, not devastated.

The impetus for me buying a new C8 was the Mid South Star Gaze of 1995; I didn’t have a decent telescope to take to that star party. Yes, I had my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, but when my little Hyundai hatchback died and I transitioned to a Toyota Camry sedan, I found I had no way to transport the near water heater sized thing. No matter what I did, the huge Sonotube just wouldn’t fit.

There was also the 8-inch f/7 Coulter Odyssey I’d ordered on a whim a couple of years before, and which had turned out to be fairly good optically. It would have fit and I reckon it would probably have done well under the dark skies of French Camp, Mississippi. Had it not been in pieces awaiting parts, that is. Parts, including a new focuser, that would allow me to upgrade its slightly too humble body. I’d had to destroy the Odyssey’s plumbing parts “focuser” to remove it, so the Coulter was out.

It was time, muchachos, it was time. I picked up the phone and dialed Astronomics, from whom I’d ordered multiple times over the years. But which SCT would I order? I considered the Meade LX200 (“classic”). How could I not? The first practical go-to SCT was riding ever higher in the mid 90s, but I demurred. A buddy of mine, the then president of the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, had one. I had initially been impressed as hell with it, but it began having problems, specifically declination drive problems. “Ah hah! I knew them dadgum computers wouldn’t work long!” Little did I know the problems had resulted from him tinkering with his scope in a misguided attempt to make “good enough” into “more better.”

I was pretty much a Celestron man, anyway; my inclination was to stick with the brand I knew. OK. Which Celestron, then? At the time they had five C8s in their lineup. The first one I considered was the C8 Classic. What I liked about it, in typical Unk Rod fashion, was that it was C-H-E-A-P. Celestron had decided they could make money if they offered a scope at the opposite end of the spectrum from the 2000 dollar plus jobs that were now top-of-the-line for them and Meade. Their loss leader was a return to the days of the Orange Tube, more or less.

The Classic C8 was not a bad CAT, but it did not have the panache or the capability of the OT. The black tube looked OK, but was not “standout” as was the orange paintjob. The fork on the Classic was similar to the original C8’s but was not the beautiful sand-cast thing of the first scopes. Like the original, the Classic used an AC powered spur gear drive system, but the second, “balancing,” motor the Orange Tube used to improve tracking was gone.

If there was a real deal breaker, it was that the nice price of the Classic, 999 smackers, didn’t buy you much. The tripod was extra (which did indeed hearken back to the first C8). So was StarBright, just like always. The telescope came without even a minimalist footlocker case. The accessories were very paltry, including only a single simple eyepiece and a 30mm finder. Once you added a tripod, a drive corrector, a 50mm finder, and a case of some kind you’d be—yep—at least approaching that 2 grand mark.

Next up the food chain was an SCT Celestron was calling the “C8+.” Despite the “plus” in its name, it had nothing much in common with the Super C8 Plus of yore. What it was was a stripped down Powerstar C8. The scope had a DC drive powered by a convenient 9-volt battery, yeah, but the worm gear of the original Powerstar models had been replaced by a spur gear, and the 50mm finder had shrunk to a pitiful 30mm. The C8+ was a step down from both my Super C8 and Super C8 plus. I thought.

Finally, there was the Great Polaris C8. It was very much like the original Celestron German mount scope, the Super Polaris C8. The only difference of note was that the Vixen Super Polaris GEM had been replaced by the heftier Great Polaris. Other than that, the GP shared the drawbacks of the SP: a low price that wasn’t so low once you figured in the cost of StarBright and the overpriced single or dual axis Vixen drive motors and hand control. Uh-uh, said Unk.

Which left the top-of-the-line (other than the still-available but way too expensive Compustar 8) Celestron Ultima C8. One thing that appealed to me about the Ultima was that it seemed to come with everything: tripod, wedge, hand control, case, and a good eyepiece. StarBright was STANDARD. Nothing else to buy. I was also impressed by the ads that touted the U8’s astrophotographic prowess—the bug was biting again. In fact, there was only one thing that didn’t impress: the price of admission.

At over 2000 dollars, this would be by far the most expensive scope I’d ever imagined buying. It was a hard decision, but with Miss Dorothy’s ever-valuable help and advice I toted up the pluses and minuses, which came out in favor of the U8, and, with shaking hands, I picked up the phone, called Astronomics, and told ‘em I wanted an Ultima 8.

Oh what an afternoon it was when the Big Brown Truck finally came to a halt in front of Chaos Manor South and the driver unloaded (reasonably carefully) two gigantanormous boxes and one smaller one. I tried to restrain myself, but it was no use; I tore into them suckers. First, the skinnier one that I assumed held the tripod.

The Ultima tripod, it was immediately obvious, was a big improvement over what I’d had on my Super C8s, and looked cooler, even if it wasn’t much sturdier, than the (excellent) tripod that came with the Orange Tube. Not only were the legs large in diameter, they were coated with rubber. I didn’t think that would contribute much to stability, but it would help prevent Unk from banging up the furniture on his way to the backyard, something he was notorious for. The tripod spreader? Metal, not plastic, as it is on the tripod of my (more) modern NexStar 11 GPS.

The smallest of the boxes held the wedge. It was big, no doubt about that. The original U8s had shipped with a wedge not that much different from that of the Super C8 Plus, but that had proven too unstable for the heaviest C8 ever built. Shortly, Celestron substituted a slightly modified C11 wedge, which was what I was looking at now. In addition to its heftiness, I was mucho taken by its integral accessory shelf. Why hadn’t somebody thought of that before?

I wasn’t completely enchanted. How in the hell were you supposed to polar align the thing? The wedge featured neither altitude nor azimuth fine adjusters. I’d have to loosen bolts and just manhandle it, I reckoned. I was shortly to discover the fine adjusters I would need for precise polar alignment were a fairly costly option. In other words, I was being disabused of the notion that Celestron included everything I’d need in the box. Not that it was a huge deal. I didn’t plan on jumping back into astrophotography tomorrow, and it would be easy enough to adjust the wedge for visual use.

Enough of wedges and tripods; time for the big moment. I opened one end of the box that held the Ultima 8, exposing the case. As one reviewer of the time said, that case was a real tour-de-force. As far from the original Celestron footlockers as you could get. A beautiful custom plastic/composition job embossed with “Celestron.”

I somehow manhandled that big thing out of the box, got it open, and was gobsmacked. I could tell from her pictures that the Ultima 8’s fork mount was larger than that of any previous C8, but that had not prepared me for reality. This thing seemed twice the size of my old Orange Tube’s fork. Dang good thing there were handles on the arms.

I had the wedge on the tripod, and it was now time to get that enormous Ultima on that wedge. Luckily, I was an old hand at wrestling C8s. I inserted one (knob-headed) bolt into the hole on the rounded side of the drive base and lifted the Ultima out of the case by the fork arms. Miss Dorothy, impressed by the new scope as I was—both by its beauty and its size—said worriedly, “Rod, PLEASE be careful.”

I did not have a bit of trouble. Walked the scope around behind the tilt plate, slid the single bolt I’d threaded into the base into the “slot” on the top of the plate, threaded in the two remaining bolts, and just stood and admired new baby for a while—till, I’ll admit, my heart resumed beating again.

With the C8 safely on the wedge, I began to tick off details, starting with the finder. It was a good looking Japanese 7x50 job. Alas, it was carried by the two ring fork mount that was now standard for Celestron. Oh, I liked two ring finder mounts, but I didn’t like the fact that the back ring did not have adjustment bolts; instead it contained a rubber O-ring that held the finder in place. I also couldn’t help noticing that while, yes, the finder had a polar alignment reticle, the illuminator needed to make it visible in the dark was not included.

Surprisingly, a hand control was included. Back then that was an almost unheard of luxury on Celestrons; usually it was another option. This was also a dern nice “hand paddle,” as we called ‘em in the dark ages. In addition to four direction keys, including two for an (optional, natch) declination motor, it had a map light and buttons for a  focus motor (optional, natch). Whoo-hoo! The Rodster was going high tech!

While it would be considered laughably primitive by today’s standards, to Unk’s naïve eyes the control panel on the drive base seemed an absolute welter of switches and buttons and LEDs. Including some for a mysterious feature called “PEC,” “Periodic Error Correction,” whatever the hell that was. There were more buttons and lights for selecting drive rates, which included Solar, sidereal, Lunar, and a mysterious “King rate.” There were connectors for motofocus and motodec, and a power connector in case you wanted to run the Ultima off’n an AC adapter instead of a 9-volt battery.

But mostly there was the OTA, that gleaming black beauty. The aperture cover was yet another tour-de-force, a custom plastic locking job. Twist and pull to remove. The focus control on the rear cell was a knurled knob larger than any of those on my previous 8s. Turning it experimentally showed it to be incredibly smooth and easy. One of the Ultima’s greatest new features, as I was later to discover, was the handle Celestron mounted on its rear cell. That made it a pleasure to maneuver a manual C8 around the sky, and even in these days of robo-scopes I still think every SCT needs a handle on its rear cell.

Accessories? Celestron left a few things out, but this was still a top of the line scope, as its accessory lineup showed. In addition to a standard Celestron visual back, I fished out a 1.25-inch Japanese-made prism diagonal, which we tended to favor over mirror diagonals in them days. And an absolutely lovely 26mm Plössl. It looked great, and, as I’d later discover, worked great, being fully the equal of the vaunted Silver Top Celestron Plössl of yore. Plössls are a dime a dozen today, but nearly two decades ago observing with one still meant you was walking in high cotton.

Amazingly, even bizarrely, it looked like the sky was gonna be clear enough to allow me to take first light in the backyard that very evening. Was the Ultima so powerful it nullified even the New Scope Curse, amateur astronomy’s counterpart to amateur radio’s dreaded Wouff-Hong? While waiting for the dadgum Sun to go down, I figgered I’d better give the manual a once-over in hopes of figuring out what some of them buttons did.

I sat down and read the Ultima section of the manual, but, to be honest, I was so excited that most of it went in one ear and out the other. That was OK; mostly it was just basic SCT operation and setup, with which I was already intimately familiar. That fancy drive? Looked like if I installed a 9-volt transistor radio battery and turned the drive on it would default to sidereal tracking and I would be good to go.

The Ultima on her tripod/wedge was way too heavy to allow me to “cheat” as I sometimes did with the OT or the Supers, and carry it into the yard in one piece. I had to remove the scope/fork and tote it and its tripod out separately. At least it was easy to find a good spot out back. Chaos Manor South’s backyard was still somewhat open and free of overgrown trees in those days, and I had reasonable views north, west, and east (today I ain’t got nuttin).

Set up the Ultima, polar aligned by the simple expedient of adjusting the wedge till Polaris was in the finder, inserted diagonal and eyepiece, turned on the drive, and got the new scope pointed at a deep sky object.

First light choice? That was easy. M42 was still visible if sinking in the southwest. I unlocked the declination and R.A. locks and slewed that-a-way (by hand, of course, younguns). I was impressed at the uber smooth movements on both axes and, again, by that rear cell handle. I’d already aligned the finder on Polaris, so when I got Orion’s fuzz patch in the finder, I knew it would be in the eyepiece, too.

My hungry eye went to the eyepiece. The light pollution was every bit as bad then as it is now; the sky away from the zenith was sodium orange. And yet, and yet…with a little tweaking of the focus knob M42 just slammed into view, sitting beautiful in the center of the 26mm Plössl. Excellent contrast brought out the dust patches, tendrils of nebulosity seemed to go on forever, and the stars were hard little diamonds. Switched to a higher power eyepiece and the Trapezium’s e and f stars swam into view.

After about half an hour of staring, The Great One got so low I had to switch to something else. What? On the other side of the sky, spring’s big globular cluster, M3, was getting high enough to fool with. While the eastern horizon was even more light-polluted than the other horizons, many tiny stars were nevertheless resolved in the great cluster. How was the mount? I kicked the magnification up to 200x and gave her (the Ultima was obviously a she) a sharp smack on the fork. Vibrations died out in just a second or three. Focus shift? There was some, but as little as I’d ever seen in a C8. I was already beginning to appreciate the smooth and reliable drive, which made it a pleasure to observe at high power.

Well, it seemed reliable at first. After playing around with the hand paddle, trying out the higher speed slew feature that kicked in when you held down one direction button and pressed the opposite number, I returned to normal tracking and continued watching M3. Suddenly, the scope started a high speed slew on her own. The only way I could stop it was by cycling the power. Rut-roh. Disaster?

The runaway slew didn’t happen again on first light night, but you can bet your bippy I called the Big C first thing in the morning. They suggested I check connections, make sure the motor was firmly bolted in place, and call them if the problem recurred. I did those things, and the R.A. runaway problem seemed banished. The telescope, who whispered to me at the end of that first light night that her name was “Celeste,” behaved herself incredibly well at the 1995 Mid South Star Gaze, showing me, literally, a surfeit of wonders on her first dark site run. Problem cured—I hoped.

Not. As these things have a way of doing, the runaways waited until Celeste’s next big star party, the 1995 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, before returning. At least she didn’t start her shenanigans until the final hour of the final night, just as I turned her to M42, the piece de resistance. Standing there with my buddy Pat Rochford as Celeste undertook to imitate an insane carousel, I told him the scope was obviously GOING BACK TO THEM SUCKAS AT CELESTRON, AND I SHOULDA RETURNED THE DANG THING TO ASTRONOMICS AFTER THAT FIRST NIGHT!

Yeah, I was P.O.ed (“put out;” this is a family-friendly blog). I did to manage to contain myself as I explained the problem to the tech on the other end when I called Celestron the Monday morning after the star party. The nice man told me I—thankfully—didn’t have to send the whole scope back, just the drive base, and explained how to unbolt Celeste’s fork from it. Off the base went to the UPS store.

The wait for repairs back then was maybe not as long as it is today, but it was long enough. And the support troops at Celestron were no more immune to confusion and error than they can be today. About two weeks after the drive base had been delivered, I got antsy and called the help line. The Celestron dude’s response? “I’m sorry sir, but we can’t seem to find your drive base, and I don’t have any record of it.” Oh. My. God.

Just as I was about to start ranting and raving, the doorbell rang. “Hold on a second, wouldya?” At the door was the UPS man, who handed me, no fooling, Celeste’s drive base. Back on the phone, I told the dude as much and he sounded relieved; prob’ly he’d sensed the hillbilly on the phone had been approaching melt-down stage:

“Oh, I guess I don’t have a record of it because it ain’t here anymore!”

“OK. Whatever.” I wanted to ask Goober why he didn’t have a record of completed repairs and ship-outs, but I figured that would accomplish exactly nothing and rang off. The important thing was determining whether Celestron had actually fixed my problem.

I was blessed with a clear night that very evening and was able to run Miss C. through her paces. I presumed she would be OK, since the paperwork outlining what had been done (they told you in them days) said they had replaced both the motor and the electronics, but y’all know me: “TRUST BUT VERIFY.” No matter how I used or abused Celeste’s drive, it just kept on humming, and the problem never came back over the next ten years.

“Next ten years? What happened in 2005, Unk?” That was the end for Celeste—in her original body, anyhow. I used her a lot for over the intervening decade, carrying her from one end of the country to the other, observing everywhere from the deserts of West Texas to the backwoods of Georgia, and I had a ball. I even figured out that PEC thing and began to take some 35mm astrophotos I thought were pretty good. But by ought five I’d had my NexStar 11 for three years and had been spoiled by go-to computers. I just wasn’t using Celeste anymore. Though I wanted too. Sometimes Big Bertha, the C11, was too much.

I tried, I really did. I toted Celeste to the 2004 Deep South Regional Star Gaze with every intention of getting back into the groove with her. ‘Twas not to be. Two things were readily apparent: I was, with my limited observing time, now more interested in looking at than for deep sky wonders. And at my advancing age contorting the ol’ bod to aim and observe with an equatorially mounted C8 wasn’t just annoying, it was downright painful.

In the spring of 2005 an era came to an end. I removed Celeste from her beautiful fork and placed her on a computerized GEM, Celestron’s CG5. I was a little sad to relegate that wonderful mount to Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault, but I had to admit I was seeing far more with Celeste than I had ever seen before. I cannot imagine, for example, doing 100 crazy-dim Herschel objects in a single night by squinting through a finder and maneuvering a manual fork. On her new mount, which was soon supplemented by an Orion Atlas for serious (as serious as Unk gets) imaging, Celeste was once again my primary telescope.

I was happy with Celeste’s new configuration, but I hated for that lovely Ultima fork mount to go unused by me or somebody else. Alas, I couldn’t sell it—nobody’s much in the market for manual 1990s forks lately—and I wasn’t sure what the heck I could do with it. So it sat gathering dust for a year or two. Till an 80s C8 OTA happened to come my way. It did need a little TLC, but when that had been applied it turned out not to be a bad scope at all. Like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, all she needed was a little love. Now if I could just make myself use my “brain transplant” SCT a little more often. That may happen. It just occurred to me that my faux Ultima 8 has “public outreach” written all over her…

Do I ever think of replacing Celeste with a modern C8? Maybe with one of them newfangled Edge HD tubes? Sometimes, but mostly not. I’ll never say never, but I will say Miss C. is still doing everything I need her to do and doing it with aplomb. Equipped with my Mallincam Xtreme, she is going deeper than ever, penetrating the backdrop of the NGC to the next layer, to the multitudinous LEDA and MCG and PGC galaxies that lie beyond. In other words, the love affair continues. Celeste is still beautiful and it looks like she easily has another twenty years left in her. I just hope I do, muchachos.

Next Time: The Classic GEM

Rod great blog as usual, I purchased my super C-8 plus in 1985 still have it, still going strong 25 years later I was lucky mine has good optics and the drive works great. Lately I have been having a lot of fun with the two C90 Orange tube Astros I own why two? Long story, I was attempting to build a vintage complete C90 system , original Locked triangle tripod , wedge , Drive corrector etc , one appeared on the bay almost complete OTA had some problems, price was cheap I figured what the heck , so I pushed the buy it now option. Well to make a long story short the wedge and tripod were still in plastic never used , the tube was missing one mounting screw (the problem , the Machine shop at work fixed that with the promise of a look thru it when reassembled.) I ordered a Baader NX4 universal photo adapter #295 8500 ( LAR ) so I can now use my SCT accessories on it
Specifically my multiple eyepiece adapter. The long term durability of Celestron telecopes of the old school type never ceases to amaze me, both my C90's ( one a first year production model #900101) after regreasing the focus tube threads both work as like new, the optics are pristine.
They are a lot of fun for a grab and go scope set up.
So much for my long "winded " post , by the way Happy Easter,
Satman , Cloudy Nights Classics Scopes Forum
GREAT story, bro...THANKS for letting me share it.
This is a beautiful fork, Unk. Its form is not merely following its function, it is the naked function itself. In the same league as the more athletic of LX200’s and the old sand-cast Celestrons.

Of course, plastics on a modern mount are functional because they cover the integrated electronics without adding weight. The modern LX200’s combination of exposed metal and plastic may not be as evocative a form as the Ultima, but it is still beautifully functional – fully integrated yet with the outside cross-section determined by the load-bearing metal.

Celestron now not only covered the metal entirely (probably reducing the load-bearing cross-section at the same time?), but - unlike Meade with their plastic-wrapped LX90’s - actually jumped at the malleability of the plastic. The form they created is good-looking but largely divorced from the primary function of the fork.

You've probably looked through more
Celestrons than anyone in the country.

I've never looked through an Ultima, but have
read about it's outstanding optical quality.

How much of that quality is due to the crown
verses white water glass Schmidt corretor lens?

I've often wondered the same thing. I expect it has to make a difference; the question is "how much"...
Hi, uncle Rod, I know exactly how you felt all this years.I bought my Ultima in 1995, like you,and it is a pleasure of telescope.
  I live in Rio, Brasil, and a friend of my traveled to NY, and I asked him to buy a C5+ for me, because I though it would more portable,but in the middle of his trip,my brother said, not to waste such  opportunity, and buy a 8  Ultima ,so I called him , and he was leaving the hotel to Adorama.So,he bought the bigger one,and the guy at the store, said to him,"-your friend will be happy with this one."
  I love my  telescope, it worked perfect always,what a great instrument.
  In 1999,a friend of my sold to me a C5+,that it is great too.
  Same as you, I'm planning to buy a  go to German eq. mount,I'm between a Atlas,Cgem or a Cgem dx, I know that you choosed and have a Atlas, but are you listening better things about the Celestron Cgems?
  I love your blog, I have a learned a lot with you.
Thanks and sorry by mistakes in English.
Hi Unk!
I have the same scope and have the run away slew problem. I sent the circuit board to Celestron (a long time ago) and they couldn't find anything wrong with it. It still has the problem. The views through it are really great but...
What options for upgrading the mount might I consider, or should I (continue) to grin and bare it or consider a replacement.
Thanks for your thoughts,
Bill Funcheon
You might want to do what I did and transfer it to a modern GEM. The VX is a sweet solution. ;)
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