Sunday, April 13, 2014


Telescope Trouble

As in, “How do you keep out of it?”  One thing’s sure:  there is plenty of telescope trouble to go around, muchachos. Why? When us amateur astronomers go out to buy a new telescope today, what we expect is a one that’s got all the latest computer frills, is dirt cheap, works perfectly out of the box, and continues to work that way for a long time. These things are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can be, oh, they can be.

In these latter days, it’s easy to buy an inexpensive telescope (relatively speaking) with every computerized gimcrack imaginable. The problem, sometimes, is getting one that works right. Our market, the worldwide market for amateur grade scopes, is small, so the companies who sell to us are small. Being small and charging low prices for gear means a company’s ability to perfect the designs of complex electronic systems and adequately QA those systems may be limited.

There are small outfits, like Astro-Physics and Takahashi, for example, that will sell you a scope or mount of the very highest quality. You will have to forget “inexpensive,” though. If you are a cheapskate like your old Uncle Rod and buy from Celestron and Meade and the other Fords and Chevys, of the astro biz? You have to be prepared for a telescope or mount that is not perfect out of the box. Or even one that arrives DOA. There are ways to lessen those hairline reducing experiences though.

You do that by following a few simple “rules,” the first of which is, “Don’t be an Early Adopter.” Given the nature of the astronomy marketplace, that’s the worst thing you can be. Ask the folks who sprang for the fracking Meade LX80. That mount, a take on the side-by-side style alt-azimuth mounts marketed by iOptron for some years, the Mini-Towers and their kin, sounded like the kitten’s meow. Here was a mount that would offer sophisticated goto via the AUDIOstar (not Autostar) HC. The damn thing would talk to you. Didn't want to bother with an equatorial alignment for visual use? Set it up as an alt-azimuth mount. Want to do imaging? Back to EQ mode you went.

Frankly, Unk was impressed by the LX80’s specs and pictures. Especially given the announced less-than-1K price. Not only did the mount sound good, it looked good. Beautiful stainless steel tripod. A mount head that wasn’t just attractive but appeared heavy on the metal and light on the plastic. Oh, and it could support TWO scopes in alt-azimuth mode side by side with a payload of up to 70 pounds. For equatorial work? Up to 40 pounds, same as the time-honored Synta/SkyWatcher Atlas EQ-6.

Did I rush out and buy one? Hell no. In addition to his ingrained horror at being one of them early adopters, another of Unk’s rules dissuaded him: “If’n It Sounds Too Good to be True, It Probably Is.” Before you let something like the LX80 hook you, think about it. In this case, what I ruminated on was the question of what a mount with this much capacity, a goto controller, periodic error correction, and all the LX80’s many other features should cost? The answer I came up with by comparing it to similar rigs on the market was was “more than 2,000 bucks” (the price of the Synta AZ-EQ-6). Yet Meade was offering the 80 for little more than a third of that, about 800 dollars.

Occasionally these sorts of things do pan out, no matter how sketchy they appear. I remember when Meade announced the LX90. An 8-inch SCT with full goto for considerably less than the then-current LX200 Classic cost. Unk was way skeptical, but I was wrong. The LX90 was a wonderful scope and a resounding success, and I was hoping the LX80 would be too. I wasn’t willing to bet 800 bucks on it, but I was hoping.

The sister to the above two rules is “Don’t Buy from a Company in Financial Trouble.” This is at least as important as “Don’t be an Early Adopter.” Maybe even moreso. If you get a scope or mount not ready for primetime, you can usually expect its problems to be fixed (eventually) by a solvent company with some resources. An outfit on the rocks? Not hardly. Dang sure don’t depend on bankruptcy laws to get the bugs out of your hand control software.

Meade had been in trouble for some years before the LX80 debacle. Too late, they’d decided it was too expensive to make telescopes in California anymore, and belatedly moved production to China and Mexico. Meade’s problems were apparent to me by 2006, the year their revolutionary new SCT, the RCX400, hit the market with a resounding thud. 

That same year, I got to experience the company’s QA decline firsthand. Given the condition of my new ETX125 was in when it arrived, Meade’s QA program had gone straight to Hades. Some of my ETX’s faux pas were cosmetic. A little girl at the Chinese factory had stuck the Meade label on the tripod on upside down. The RA setting circle had been glued firmly in place and was incapable of being calibrated. Neither of these things was a big deal, but the ETX125PE hadn’t come cheap, and Unk was a trifle miffed.

What really surprised me was that the ETX optical tube, usually flawless since the little scopes hit the street back in the 1990s, had a severe problem. I noted bad reflections any time a bright object was in the field. Checking revealed the scope’s eyepiece tube had not been screwed-in properly; it was cross-threaded into the scope’s back and canted at an angle. I was able to fix it with a strap wrench and a few minutes of my time, but I was shocked that it had got out of the factory in this condition.

“But Uncle Rod, how do I know if a company is on its last legs, or what the hell it’s doing?” Don’t isolate yourself. If you are reading this, I assume you are into the Internet side of amateur astronomy. If not, make it a point to take a stroll through the Cloudy Nights forums, Astromart’s forums, and the Astronomy Forum once in a while. You can’t believe ever’thing you read in those places, of course, but if the consensus of the BBS' inmates is “Acme Telescopes is about to have a meltdown,” you ought to be cautious before buying from that company. REAL cautious.

Which bring us to what the early adopters of the LX80 from the failing Meade encountered. My buddy, Jack Huerkamp, decided to take a chance, so I was able to try his not quite stock 80 at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze not long after mounts began to flow to customers. To say the least, I was not impressed. Even in alt-azimuth mode with a 20-pound load, it was far from stable. 70-pounds as Meade claimed? It didn't have a dog’s chance in hell of doing that.  It was very shaky with just Jack’s 9.25-inch SCT; at least in part due to a poorly designed spring-loaded gear system that caused the scope to bounce. Equatorial mode? Even less steady than alt-azimuth. Oh, and the computer locked up on us on the second evening. Jack wisely returned the thing.

It was pretty bad, and it wasn’t even a stock mount. We had already heard of several cases of that good-looking tripod’s cheaply cast head cracking, breaking, and sending scopes crashing to the ground. Jack had a machinist fabricate a replacement head. At least Jack’s telescope didn't fall off the mount, but that was all the good that could be said about his LX80.

So…the LX80 was not ready for prime time when it was released. It was starkly under priced for what it was advertised to do. When it (immediately) showed design problems, Meade no longer had the resources to fix it. If you hewed to the first three rules, you’d have chosen not to buy and would have saved yourself mucho heartburn.

Beware a Company that’s Introduced too Many New and Complex Products at Once.” That hurt the LX80 and the other new rig Meade introduced concurrently with it, the LX800 GEM, almost as much as the company’s financial difficulties. Their resources were stretched way too thin to support both new rigs, and probably would have been even in Meade’s salad days. The LX80 was bad enough, but the expensive LX800 was worse. It didn't work at all.

In their defense, Meade recalled all the 800s, fixed (some of) the problems, and re-released the mounts/scopes at the LX850 series—which, while having its share of problems, did work. That didn't help the LX80 owners, of course. While their mounts worked, sort of, they did not live up to the specs Meade released for them (and still has posted). Not even close. I hope Meade’s new Chinese owners, who picked up the pieces late last year, do something to help these folks, but they haven’t yet.

Don’t Assume a Simple Non-computerized Telescope Mount Won’t Have Problems.” So, only Meade can do wrong? Not hardly. Let’s talk Celestron now. My Advanced VX GEM is fairly sophisticated electronically given its NexStar goto system. That was not what brought down the first mount I received, however. As I wrote here, a mis-threaded bolt-hole did it in. That is the just sort of thing we can expect with inexpensive, minimally QAed gear. Minimalist QA can affect anything, not just circuit boards. What can you do about it? Thoroughly test a new scope or mount IMMEDIATELY after you receive it, even if that means you have to play with it inside as the rain pours outside (natch).

You are not an early adopter. You waited to put a toe in the water. That was me when I bought my Celestron NexStar 11 GPS mount in 2002, well over a year after the NS11 hit the street. “Don’t Assume a Scope that’s Been in Production for a While Can’t Have Design Problems.” Turned out there was a bug in the firmware of the NS11 that caused a “jump” in tracking when the scope was pointed west. Celestron fixed it, but it took them replacing the motor control board to do that.

Even if a telescope has been made for years and years, changes in production and electronic design can bite you. Take the Meade LX90 that I gushed about above. It had been made for about ten years and was one of the company’s most problem-free scopes when my friend Mike Weasner bought one. Alas, like my NS11, it suffered from a jumping drive. The fix was not as simple as it was for the Celestron, however, and Mike swapped the scope out for multiple LX90s in an effort to get one that worked right. He eventually wound up with an LX200 GPS instead.

Meade fixed the 90, but it took quite a while. Part of the problem was the disruption caused by the move of production to Mexico. Mostly, however, the 90's woes were caused by electronic changes designed to simplify the scope and add new features. Most companies do that as time rolls on. Simplifying is usually a good thing, but not always. Changes of any sort put out the welcome mat for Mr. Bug, and just about everything in our scopes' drives these days is dependent on the proper functioning of computer code.

What can you do about it? Again, test thoroughly. Test all the scope’s modes and features, including EQ tracking with a fork mount SCT if you have access to a wedge. As above, keep your ear to the ground on the Internet. Almost every scope/mount has a Yahoogroup devoted to it, and new problems will show up there in a right quick hurry. No, you can’t always take one or two problem reports seriously—the people who had trouble programming their VCRs have an even harder time with goto scopes—but a bunch of complaints don’t just equal smoke, it means FIRE.

Meade and Celestron, even in their new Chinese-owned guises, are relatively small outfits, but you can go even smaller in amateur astronomy. To one-man garage operations. Some of these, like Shoestring Astronomy and Sky Engineering, and quite a few others, are resounding, reliable successes that have been around a long time and are obviously in it for the long haul. While good small manufacturers like these are not the exception in astronomy, neither are they the rule. Amateur astronomy's tiny businesses offer products that range from amazingly good to amazingly horrible. You can’t always get a good read on the quality of their equipment, either. Often, too little of it is out there for that, and, naturally, the reviews posted on the sellers’ websites are always glowing.

Which brings us to, “Buying from a Small and Unknown Manufacturer is Always a Roll of the Dice.” My long-time observing companion, Pat Rochford, found that out when he ordered an equatorial platform kit from a one-man operation. If you are interested hearing about the whole, sordid affair, you can read the details here.

I hope the seller has improved his product in the intervening years. Since he is still around, I presume he has, but in 1999 his platform did not work. It sucked, in fact. It didn't work with an 8-inch scope, much less the 12-inch it was advertised for. What was worse? His response when Pat asked for a refund after weeks of fiddling with the thing, “I don’t have a return policy.” In other words NO REFUNDS. Sometimes you find gold in them thar garages, but experiences like Pat’s are always a possibility. In retrospect he and Uncle Rod (who was complicit in the buy) should have been more cautious.

Don’t Wait too Long to Get a Problem Resolved.” Like I did with my Celestron Ultima C8, Celeste. On First Light Night, the very evening after I received my beautiful new SCT, a problem cropped up. I was happily observing with my new baby in the backyard when the drivebase let out a whine and the scope began a high-speed slew in R.A. that didn't stop till I cycled the power.

Was I disturbed? You are dang right I was, but I procrastinated. I was in denial. What I shoulda done the next morning was call the vendor I bought the scope from, tell them about the problem, and insist on an immediate exchange. Instead, I waited, and waited. In my defense, 1995 had a right cloudy spring and summer. I was only able to get the Ultima 8 out once in next couple of weeks, to the Mid South Star Gaze. The problem didn't recur there, so I thought I was OK. Unfortunately, the reason it didn't come back was because it didn't have time to come back, given the pitifully few hours of observing we got. Nevertheless, I assumed the First Light malfunction had been a fluke.

You know what they say about the word “assume,” doncha? At the 1995 Deep South Regional Star Gaze the following autumn, the R.A. runaway came back with a vengeance, spoiling most of the last and best night of the star party. The good thing was that the telescope was still under warranty—with about five months to run—but a warranty repair meant I had to pay to ship the drivebase back to California, and was without a working scope for weeks. I should have set up the Ultima 8 in the living room the morning after First Light, turned it on, and let it track for an extended period to see if the problem came back (it would have). I didn't and paid the price.

A Corollary to the above rule is, “Never Call the Manufacturer if you have a DOA Telescope; Call the Seller.” If you bought a new TV at the cotton-picking BestBuy, brought it home, turned it on, and it didn't work, you wouldn’t ship it back to Panasonic for repair, now would you? Nope. You‘d take it right back to the store for a refund or replacement. That is exactly what you should do with a telescope that's bad out of the box, too.

If you do call the manufacturer, what will happen? They will likely have you ship the scope to them for repair. Shipping will be on their dime, but you will be without the new scope for weeks—or even months.

So don’t do that. Most of our dealers today are outstanding. I’ve worked with Skies Unlimited, Astronomics, Anacortes, OPT and quite a few others over the last twenty years and have always been made happy. They will help you with a bum scope like my dealer, Bob Black at Skies Unlimited, helped me with my faulty VX. A good dealer will (and should) deal with the manufacturer for you if they need to be brought into the discussion.

Some folks ask me if having the manufacturer repair a new telescope or mount might not still be a good idea if the dealer doesn't have another one in stock and it would take weeks to get a replacement. That’s for you to decide, but I advise you to get an exchange from the dealer. You paid for a working scope, not one that has been repaired. And it will likely take just as long for the maker to fix it as it will for the dealer to get another one.

Not all Troubles are brought on by the depredations of telescope makers, y’all. We create some of them for ourselves. I like small APO refractors. Hell, I’ve got a couple of ‘em. They are great for wide-field imaging, but there is a limit to what they can do visually, and most won’t satisfy you long as a primary instrument. Unfortunately, lots of newbies get to reading the refractor forums in places like the Cloudy Nights BBS and convince themselves that pretty 80mm APO, since it has “perfect” optics and is so expensive, will be all they will ever need.

If only ‘twere so. Once Janie Novice moves past oohing an ahhing over the Moon and Saturn, and especially after she gets a few looks through a fellow astronomy club member’s plebeian 8-inch Dobsonian (which cost a third what her 3-inch did), she’ll be an unhappy camper. Let’s face it, a 3-inch—or four inch or five inch—telescope is, well, a three-inch telescope. Even if perfectly made, the merciless laws of physics, those cold equations, won’t allow it to show as much as the dirt-cheap 8-inch Dobbie.

There are reasons to buy small, expensive refractors, but seeing lots of stuff visually is not one of them. Luckily, small APO refractors hold their prices well and you can unload one for a more practical scope (or hang onto it as your grab ‘n go) when disillusionment sets in. But save yourself the trouble and start with an instrument that will show you plenty of cool things, not just look good sitting in your living room.  “Don’t Buy a Telescope that is Too Little.”

Whether you are a novice or an old hand, also beware of the other misstep plenty of us make. “Don’t Buy a Telescope That is Too Much.” This especially afflicts novices with a nice pocketful of change to spend on the first scope. “Man, Cousin Bubba’s C8 sure shows lots, but a 12-inch must be even better.” And it may be—if you have a permanent observatory or can at least wheel it outside on wheely bars. Otherwise? Not so much.

At first, you might use the big gun frequently, horsing it into the backyard even for half hour looks at the Moon. Inevitably, though, you will begin finding excuses why you just can’t observe tonight:  “Man, I’d like to get out with the scope, but the season premiere of Mountain Monsters is on the dadgum cable TV.” And nothing is sadder than the newbie who arrives at the dark site with his/her huge and complicated scope (of any design), and finally gets it put together and working just as everybody else is leaving at the end of the night.

Big scopes are fun, but most of us want a more “reasonable” one for much of our observing. Since, I have not been able to observe from my backyard for years due to its tree-clogged sky, my C8 on a GEM gets far more sky-time than my fork mount C11. I enjoy the C11 when I do lug it out for special runs, but my bread and butter is the C8, which is just so easy to carry to the dark site, even for “iffy” evenings.

Final advice? In the long run, you’ll be happier and more productive if you focus on the telescope you have, not the one you want next. I went for years constantly dreaming of the More Better Gooder. It sure was fun to drool over the magazine ads, but one day I got tired of it all (well sorta) and decided I wouldn’t move on to the next big thing till I’d wrung every ounce of performance out of what I had.

Guess what, muchachos? I still haven’t exhausted the potential of my two decade old 8-inch telescope (I did buy that new Edge 800 SCT last year, but that was my RETIREMENT GIFT, y’all), much less my 12. My time tested scopes keep my bank account happy, and I don’t spend my days—and nights—worrying about dadgum Telescope Trouble.

Next Time:  My Favorite Fuzzies: M51...

Great advice!

But you know there's this cool new NexStar Evolution that was just announced a couple days ago, and is everything i've been wanting, and i've just got to buy one now...

Oh well, i'll just have to be patient.
Very well said. Agree wholeheartedly.
Just read this as I am thinking of buying an LX80 OTA. How are the OPTICS on these things?
Just read this as I am thinking of buying an LX80 OTA. How are the OPTICS on these things?
Optics should be fine. No different from any other Meade SCT ota...
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