Sunday, November 27, 2011


Requiem for an ETX

Not my ETX and not all ETXes, muchachos, just the best of the breed, alas. When Meade revamped its website a few weeks back, a couple of sharp-eyed ETXers noticed both of Meade’s Maksutov Cassegrain design ETXes, the 90 and the 125, were gone. All that was left of the ETX tribe was the 80, a wide field achromatic refractor on an ETXish base. That dean of ETXdom, Mike Weasner enquired with the powers that be at Meade, and they responded that this was just an “oversight.” The ETX would live on.

Which was true, as far as it went. What Meade meant by “live on,” apparently, was that the ETX 90 would continue in some form. After a week or so, the 90 reappeared, but she was alone. No ETX 125 to be seen. And the 90 wasn’t exactly the same, either. It was on a redesigned (cheapened?) base and fork not unlike that of the ETX 80. Which is a shame. The ETX 90 as it was was probably the best it has ever been, with most of the hardware and software bugs out (finally).

Things actually haven’t been rosy in ETXdom for a while, with Meade seemingly unsure what they should do with the little Chinese-made telescopes. There was talk of the ETXes being discontinued a couple of years back, and though the small wonders survived, changes were afoot. The fancy and truly useful new features in the latest and greatest ETX incarnation, the PE model (onboard clock, north and level automatic alignment), were abandoned.

What will hurt with the passing of the ETX 125 is that it was the most useful ETX. The 90 is cute, and beginners love it, but there is a limit to what you can do with 3.5-inches of aperture, no matter how fine. The 5-inches of the 125 put it in another ballpark. Not only is it still reasonably portable; you can actually do some fairly serious observing with it. Its superb Gregory-type (aluminized secondary spot on the corrector) optics do not give up much to a C8 on the planets and are surprisingly competitive on the deep sky. Add to that full go-to for an incredible 800 bucks—even less lately.

I thought it would be appropriate this Sunday to recount where we have been with the little MCTs, or at least where I have been with them. I will admit I am a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the ETX brigade, but I have at least admired Everybody’s Telescope from afar since it hit the streets.

Yep, “Everybody’s Telescope,” the working name for the project Meade embarked on in the mid-1990s. Frankly, they could have called it the “clone the Questar 3.5 project,” since that was what it was. What they decided to call the new telescope as their work neared fruition, though, was “ETX.” I suppose that sounded glitzier and more high-tech than “everybody’s telescope.”

Fifteen years ago, us Boomer Amateurs still ruled the roost, and most of us had got our start in the 1960s, when the inside front cover of every single issue of Sky and Telescope was reserved for a full page ad for the Questar 3.5. It was just so beautiful, so gemlike, that most of us bought into advertising that at least implied the tiny Maksutov could outdo our homemade 6-inch Newtonians. It couldn’t, of course, but most of us never got to find that out, since the Questar went for the equivalent of at least five thousand 2011 dollars.

Nevertheless, lots of us carried a torch for the Questar into the 1990s, and if we couldn’t convince ourselves that one was a sensible buy, even if we could now actually afford one, we still wanted one. Meade solved that problem for us. The ads for the ETX that hit the magazines like an earthquake in 1996 showed a beautiful little telescope that looked a lot like the Questar. Oh, it wasn’t stainless steel and shiny aluminum, but the Meade blue tube and the black fork and base looked scrumptious, anyway. No, there was no beautifully engraved dew shield or Brandon eyepieces, but the ETX 90 went for an amazing $495.00, meaning it very nearly was everybody’s telescope in that almost everybody could afford one.

It appeared the ETX might even have some advantages over its “inspiration.” Yeah, it had a flip mirror on the rear cell, but that was merely to allow you to attach a camera to the rear port. Unlike the real deal, it had a normal finder instead of the weird and dew-prone through-the-main-eyepiece job. Not only that; the ETX 90 was battery powered. The basic Questar 3.5 limped along with an AC synchro clock drive.

As is often the case, reality, bright morning daylight reality, was a little different from what the Meade ads seemed to promise. Yes, the ETX was attractive, but if we hadn’t already suspected it, one look at the scope in person showed the drivebase, the fork, and the rear cell were all plastic. Those cool looking little legs sticking out of the drivebase? They were every bit as useful as the same thing on the Questar: completely useless, in other words. The drive in the drivebase? It was indeed battery powered, but that was the only advantage. Move to a new target and it might take 30-seconds to kick in due to gear slop. The finder was almost as good as the one on my Tasco 11T 4.5-inch reflector—not-so-hotsky, that is.

I certainly hadn’t expected a leather case and a build quality so good and so beautiful that I’d want to display the ETX under a glass dome in my study as I lounged around in a smoking jacket (kaff-kaff). But I did hope the little upstart would at least have good optics. I’ll admit I began to lose hope as those initial “plastic and clunky” reports came in. I was wrong about that. The ETX turned out to have world class optics.

Y’all know I am a pretty easy-going kinda guy. I’m not the sort of writer who normally inspires hate-mail, but I got some over the ETX. I used to write occasionally for a semi-pro astronomy-zine called The Practical Observer. It wasn’t a bad little magazine, and I would probably still be contributing to it if I could at least have gotten copies of the issues I appeared in, much less a paycheck, from the publisher, but that is another story. What’s relevant to this story is the firestorm of angry mail engendered by my article about the ETX.

I had the temerity to say the ETX 90’s optics were close enough in quality to those in the Questar 3.5 as to be for all intents indistinguishable from them. I did not rely on memory of looks through Qs and 90s, either. I was lucky enough to have a buddy with a Questar and a buddy with an ETX. I did a shootout between the two, and, much as I tried, I could not see much—if any—difference in their images. Both were extremely good within the bounds of what a 90mm telescope can do. I did point out that mechanically the Questar was worlds ahead of the Meade, but that did nothing to assuage the hurt feelings of the folks who’d dropped 4 grand on a Q 3.5. Ah, well, I called it as I saw it, and what I saw was that, yes, the ETX was fully competitive with the Questar optically.

We now entered in upon a period in the life of the ETX similar to the days when the Commodore 64 computer was at its height, if on a smaller scale. The ETX was so popular that I’m surprised nobody came out with an astronomy magazine devoted solely to it. Companies like the late, lamented Scopetronix were springing up right and left to cater to 90 owners with accessories and add-ons, and one of the best amateur astronomy web sites there has ever been went on the air to serve the huge demand for ETX info. I am talking, of course, about Mike Weasner’s legendary Mighty ETX site, which is still around and still going strong, if in slightly less frenetic fashion.

Me? Unk? I didn’t rush out and buy an ETX, but I didn’t quite forget about it, either. After my shootout between Q and M, I’d check in on Mike’s site every once in a while to keep an eye on the ETX 90 and her new sisters. When it was clear the ETX was a big hit, Meade added a 105(mm) near-twin and, then, a big sister, the 125, to the lineup. Not only that; they shortly equipped all three with computers, the famed Autostar, which would soon be used on all the company’s go-to rigs, putting the antique looking hand control of the LX200 (classic) in the ground.

Still, I hung back and refused to join the ranks. I’d had some additional experience with an ETX, a 125, and had not been overly impressed. The scope in question was donated to the Possum Swamp Public Schools by Wal-Mart (good on ‘em), and I had the opportunity to give it a shakedown cruise. I loved the optics. They were excellent, just like the 90’s, but in an aperture large enough to allow me to actually see some good stuff. Unfortunately, all Meade did to produce the 125 was scale up the 90. Among other things, the plastic fork was just not good enough. Way too shaky. Ah, well.

Fast forward a few years, to 2005. As Unk truly entered upon middle age, he felt ever more strongly the need for a grab ‘n go scope. But something with a little more oomph and features than his Short Tube 80 and StarBlast. Something with cool optics in the 5-inch range. Something with go-to. I’ll be honest, if the NexStar 5 had been in production at the time, I would have got one, but it was undergoing another of its intermittent hiatuses. So I naturally gravitated to the “improved” ETX 125.

Sweet Charity
Overnight, the ETX had undergone a fairly radical redesign. Gone was the tiny finder, replaced by a red dot job controlled by the Autostar. The New ETXes, the “PEs,” also incorporated a battery-backed real-time clock. What that meant was that you had GPS without the GPS. Kinda- sorta. Input time, date, and location, and unless you carried the scope to a significantly different site to observe, you didn’t have to re-enter any of that stuff. The time and date were kept current, and the previous location was held in memory. With the PE’s North and Level Automatic Alignment, all you had to do was set the scope in a very simple home position (cranked all the way counterclockwise to the hard stop), turn on the power, and center two star with the red dot finder when Miss ETX finished her northing and leveling dance.

What got my attention even more than the ETX’s new alignment system was the word that the 125’s fork had been significantly strengthened. It still looked like plastic but that was on the outside; inside was metal. To make the little scope look more modern, I suppose, the tube was now silk-screened with an astronomical image—the North America Nebula. It wasn’t all gravy, though; at about this time the first ETX to fall fell. The 105, which had been significantly less popular than her sisters, was suddenly discontinued.

Should I or shouldn’t I? After reading Mike’s website for years, I was well aware of the ills the ETX was heir to: everything from computer hiccups to broken plastic gears. Yeah, I’d rather have had a NexStar 5, but I couldn’t get one, and for my purposes the ETX seemed just about perfect. Gripping my credit card in a sweaty hand, I picked up the phone and dialed Scopetronix.

When the 125 arrived at good, old Chaos Manor South, what were my impressions? First of all, that this little telescope was not so little. It was more portable than a C8, but not as much as I’d imagined. Secondly, the silk-screened tube some of my mates had pronounced “gaudy” looked awful purty to me. Finally, the tripod that was included in the package was hardly overkill. In fact, it seemed cheap and too light.

Thankfully, that tripod was at least good enough. Out in the backyard, it supported the ETX without too much shaking. What I was more interested in at first light, however, was the scope’s go-to accuracy. Verdict? Like the tripod, sufficient. Objects were not always centered in the field, but were almost always somewhere in it. At f/15, the 5-inch optics produced 75x with a cotton-picking 25mm eyepiece, so the Autostar-fueled go-to was actually fairly impressive when I took that into account. Tracking? Good enough for visual. Imaging? Fuhgeddabout it.

Which is not to say the scope was perfect. When slewing at full speed, she sounded like she was ready to strip a gear—several gears. And, while her design was OK, the QA/execution was not. The RA setting circle was firmly stuck to the base and could not be adjusted (not that I would ever use it), the Meade label on the tripod was glued on upside down by the Chinese person who applied it, and, most worryingly, the eyepiece tube was cross-threaded into the rear cell and crooked and bright objects showed wicked-nasty reflections.

I fixed all those things without much trouble, removing the Meade label and gluing it back on right-side-up, unsticking the RA circle, and unscrewing and screwing-in the eyepiece tube till it was right. But combine Meade’s QA missteps with the weird noises the little scope made when slewing, and it seemed possible she would fall to the observing field in a self-pitying heap at any moment. That never happened, but the scope’s slightly neurotic demeanor inspired the name I chose for her, “Charity Hope Valentine,” after Shirley Maclaine’s hapless heroine.

Despite her occasional faux pas, which have mostly involved her insistence on receiving “drive training” every once in a while if she is to put her go-to targets in the eyepiece, mine and Charity’s friendship has mostly been a beautiful one. I’ve had her out on many “iffy” evenings when I wouldn’t have dreamed of dragging out a larger scope, and she’s showed me plenty of beautiful things I wouldn’t have seen if I’d stayed home. The only significant maintenance I’ve done in a long time has been a keyboard repair when the rubber keys on the Autostar became unresponsive—a problem suffered by all Meade’s Autostar scopes, not just the ETX.

Which brings us to this past Saturday night. My club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, is lucky to have an excellent, secure dark site at a private airstrip. The person who owns this facility is one of the honchos of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary (a little like the Civil Air Patrol, y’all). Each year, a big picnic is held at the site for members, and it has become the PSAS’ custom to set up scopes and show these folks some pretty stuff. They seem to like that, and supporting the event is the least we can do for the people who have been so kind to us. Only problem this time out? The weather, natch.

It looked bad, muchachos. My plan went from “Haul the Atlas out, show the Auxiliary members some bright objects, and start DSLRing” to “Should I even bother?” The answer? It would be a Charity Hope Valentine night. If it weren’t actually raining, I’d head for the dark site with my neurotic girlfriend.

Come three o’clock, I loaded up Charity in her aluminum case (the Meade model I purchased shortly after I bought her), and just a few extra items. On a Charity night, that is usually a small camp table, the eyepiece box, my main accessory case, and that is it. I had another agenda this time. I wanted to try Deep Sky Planner’s go-to features. I’d planned to try it with EQMOD, but that clearly wouldn’t happen. I could still see how DSP’s telescope control worked with the ETX, though. To that end, I brought the larger camp table, the PC shelter, and the netbook. The little Asus will normally go so long on her internal battery that big batteries and inverters are not needed. ‘Course I threw a couple of Monster Energy Drinks in the truck.

The skies didn’t look that good, but they also didn’t look that bad at departure time, 4 p.m. At least it wasn’t completely socked in like it had been a couple of hours before. If I could just show the picnickers Jupiter, it would be “mission accomplished.”

On the way out to the site, for once I didn’t play “what did I forget;” there was so little astro-stuff involved in this expedition that even I would have had a hard time forgetting something important. Instead, I spend the 45-minute drive listening to the Real Jazz channel on XM. Until I got my 4-Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, whose stereo is XM capable, I was skeptical about satellite radio. Not anymore. Now that I have it, I love it. Not only are there plenty of excellent “stations” for any musical taste, audio quality is great and it is a trip to drive to Atlanta or Chiefland and back listening to the same channel the whole time. If you spend much time on the road, get satellite radio; you won’t be sorry, muchachos.

Dig those clouds.
At the site, I got set up, which took all of ten minutes, including the computer, and waited for darkness and clear skies. Sadly, by the time the sun had set, the clouds had come back. Lots of ‘em. There was a breeze blowing, though, and the bad fluffy things were moving with some speed, so I didn’t give up hope.

When the next break/big sucker hole came, I didn’t waste time. I got the ETX aligned as quickly as possible, which wasn’t very quickly this time. I’ve often talked about Charity’s glitches, but this time the glitch was mine. As I mentioned, time and date are held in the scope’s memory from session to session. Meade claims the battery that does that, a button cell, will “last years.” Six-months is more like it. The battery had been failing for a while, but I had not got around to replacing it. On my model of ETX PE, that requires disassembling the north-level red dot finder module and doing a couple of “calibrations” when the new battery is in. Me being me, naturally I put that off.

The ETX PE is fully useable without the backup battery; you just have to enter time and date in the Autostar at the beginning of each session. Which is fine as long as you get the time and date right. I got the time in OK, but not the date, which was evidenced by Charity stopping a long, long way from her alignment stars. She normally lands within a degree or so of ‘em, so I knew something was up, and checked date and time with the Mode key. Whoops. I centered the alignment stars anyway. The clearing was barely holding and enthusiastic Coasties were lining up for a look at Jupiter. Having the wrong date wouldn’t affect slews to deep sky objects. It would mess up go-tos to the planets, but it would be easy enough to aim at Jupiter with the red dot finder.

Which is what I did. Centered up Jove, inserted a 15mm Expanse eyepiece, and let ‘em look. Jupe was pretty good despite the punk weather, with his cloud bands starkly clear, clear enough that even the youngest observer in the crowd was able to see them. Of course, the moons were the big hit.

In just a few minutes, they'd covered the whole sky.
After Jupe, I sent Charity to M15, which she put in the field without a problem. With a little coaching, “Look away from it, not straight at it,” most of my audience was able to make out that the glob wasn’t just a blob, but made of tiny, tiny stars. As we were looking at M15, I was peppered with lots of questions, several of which concerned “dead stars.” Perfect segue to M57, the Ring Nebula, I thought. Sent Charity Hope Valentine that way, she put the little donut smack in the field center, and I let the folks have a peep. I tried to let ‘em have a peep. Two people got a glimpse of the Ring before the sky closed down again with a thud.

That was disappointing, but at least I’d been able to show my guests something, and they left happy and wanting more, which is always a good way to leave ‘em at a public star party, I reckon. I spent the next hour fiddling with Charity. During the next bout of temporary clearing, I connected to the ETX with DSP. The program was smart enough to know the scope’s date was different from what was in the netbook, and complained about that, so I redid the go-to alignment after correcting that cotton-picking date, which I’d missed by two weeks.

As I’d expected, Deep Sky Planner worked very well with the ETX, and the scope toolbar it throws up was a joy to use. I went to M27, M57, and a couple of others with DSP before the clouds came back to stay. Charity didn’t miss a beat, but that is not to say she was perfectly behaved. I noticed the silly thing had developed an occasional nervous tic. Every once in a while there was a “jump” in her tracking. I am not overly concerned; she has done that before and the cure has always been exercising the azimuth lock and rotating her back and forth in azimuth manually a few times.

And I shouldn’t complain. She did exceptionally well in the clutch. She was easy to set up, showed images good enough to impress the novice observers—hell what she did under these conditions impressed me—and was, most of all, easy to get back in the truck. By 9 p.m. I was again within the comforting walls of Chaos Manor South watching my new Blu-ray DVD of Star Wars.

I just checked Meade’s website and the 125 is still gone, so it does look like the curtain has finally rung down on the ETX 125. Yeah, there’s the similar Lightswitch 6-inch (which was originally counted among the ETXes), but it is an SCT, and much as I love SCTs my choice at the small aperture level is an MCT. Charity’s images are just so astounding. It’s like having a big, long focal length refractor that’s been shrunk in the wash. The ETX 125 may be gone, but I’ve got mine. If you hurry and call around to dealers, you may be able to get yours, too. I think you should.

Next time: It’s been a quiet Thanksgiving holiday at the old manse. All the kids are on their own and most of ‘em are far away, so it was just me and Miss D. We didn’t do our traditional New Orleans trip this year, so I hoped to get out to the dark site with Atlas and Canon. The weather gods thought otherwise. The only observing I got in was a couple of looks at Jupiter with the StarBlast and the 37 year-old telescope (mounted on my Synta AZ-4 mount). Anyhoo, hope all y’all had a good break with plenty of turkey and football, and I will see you on the flip-flop.

And, it's back...
Yes, the ETX lives on! Here's my 2017 review of the new ETX-125 Observer:
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