Sunday, February 03, 2008


Everybody's Telescope?

Amateur astronomers still love Everybody’s Telescope, the Meade ETX, despite it having been a fixture on the market for more than a decade. Plenty of amateurs old and new still wonder about it, though. Is it a real telescope? Is it really Everybody’s Telescope? Or is it just a plastic-laden toy designed to lure gullible novices?

I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, the ETX most assuredly is a real telescope. Is it everybody’s telescope? I don't know about that; she's actually more easily handled by more experienced amateurs despite her reputation as a "novice scope." But almost everybody will find the ETX  pretty useful, if not for everything. Its prime attraction for seasoned amateurs is as that cliché of the amateur world, the grab-‘n-go scope. Cliché or not, EVERYBODY needs a scope that can be set-up easily and quickly and which can deliver optical excellence.

Beyond proving the value inherent in John Diebel’s Small Wonder, yesterday evening was one of those nights that showed me, if I needed to be shown again, the worth of something some blasé and equipment-happy amateur astronomers sneer at: small scopes in general. Saturday night. Bi-monthly astronomy club darksite outing. And the sky looked anything but promising. One of those afternoons when the skygods just can't make up their minds. One minute not-so-bad...the next...ulp. If I hadn't had my ETX125 at my disposal, I'd probably have stayed home. As it was, I didn't mind grabbing ETX and tripod, a small box of 1.25-inch eyepieces, and a short list of objects I generated with Deepsky (the planning program) just before I left and driving out into the boonies for 45 minutes.

At the PSAS darksite my little scope, an ETX Premier model, a.k.a. "Charity Hope Valentine" proved herself--in spades. At sundown, there were enough stars in the clear to allow me to do a go-to alignment, which goes very quickly with a Premier. These scopes' alignment routine is like GPS without the GPS. Thanks to an internal battery they retain and update date and time. The mount is also equipped with level sensors and an electronic compass. What the heck does that mean? Plunk the ETX down. Rotate it left until it stops at the “hard stop” and re-lock it. Turn on scope. It does a little dance, pointing north and leveling, and heads for two alignment stars. Center these two with the aid of the red-dot “LNT” finder, and the scope is ready for an evening's enjoyment.

Did I enjoy the little scope? And how! Did I ever! At least when the clouds scudded off long enough to allow her to show her mettle. The skies at our darksite are OK. To the west they are purty derned good and the Milky Way is regularly prominent when it's there or overhead. There is the (intense) Possum Swamp light dome to the east, though. Despite Orion's fairly low altitude in the east early in the evening, Charity gave a view of M42 that was incredibly pleasing. Yeah, I know, that huge and bright cloud looks good in any scope, but under these far from perfect conditions (including some haze), the ETX was clearly displaying M43's comma shape, something a lot of smaller scopes (and some larger ones) struggle with. IOW, impressive contrast despite a rather sizeable central obstruction.

Other stuff was also cool when the clouds parted. Miss Valentine resolved a surprising number of stars in Lepus’ rather subdued glob, M79. M37, the open cluster in Auriga was perfectly framed and a thing of wonder. Orion’s reflection nebula, M78, looked big and surprisingly bright. Mars showed good detail at high power when the seeing steadied (only occasionally).

How did she go to her go-tos? OK. There’s only so much you can expect in that regard from a long focal length MCT mounted on a heavily plasticized fork mount. And yet, I’d rate her go-to accuracy as at least “acceptable.” When objects were missed (often in a part of the sky most distant from the alignment stars), they were not off by much. A more careful alignment (y’all know how slap-happy I am) might have delivered even better results. Don’t get me wrong; the ETX did fine and her accuracy was no worse—maybe even a tad better than—that of a neighboring observer's Celestron NexStar 8i. Charity actually displayed less backlash than her Celestron sister.

The only problem was the sky; the clouds came to STAY at about 21:00. Despite their depredations, I did see a lot by the end of this short evening, far more than I would have seen if I'd stayed home and watched the dad-gummed boob-tube. The ETX-125’s great value is that she is an encourager. She encourages a vacillating amateur astronomer like yours truly to take a chance on a not-so-hotski sky. Often with memorable results.

How was your Saturday Night?

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