Sunday, January 26, 2020


Better Late Than Never…

Yep, better late than never, I suppose—I got it done anyway. Finally.

The whosit and the whatsit?! What in the aitch-e-c-k is your silly old Uncle Rod talking about now? My yearly M13, muchachos. As those of y’all who’ve been here a while know, I have two astronomical traditions I’ve stuck with through thick and thin: Every Christmas Eve I view M42, and some time over the course of a year I take a picture of M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules.

In recent times, catching M42 on Christmas Eve has been dicey. The weather has been increasingly crazy over the last decade or so, and we are now as likely to have thunderstorms, or hail, or snow on Christmas Eve as we are to have clear skies down here in Mobile, Alabama (for you blog old timers, that’s “Possum Swamp.”). Now, M13, that is easier. It’s in the sky for an awful long while over the course of a year. All I have to do is work up the gumption to get out with a telescope and a camera and give it a go.

Which didn’t happen this past year until September for reasons you can read about here. Yeah, 2019 had been one heck of a year, but I still intended to get at least a snapshot of the old grandpappy glob before the annum ran out. If I needed any additional impetus to get a scope into the backyard, that was provided by a Sky & Telescope Test Report assignment; this time on Meade’s new medium-weight German equatorial mount the LX85.

I’d been curious about the LX85 for the last couple of years but hadn’t heard much about it. Which seemed strange. While the mount’s predecessor, the LXD75, hadn’t been perfect, it had plenty of fans. Many of whom I thought would flock to Meade’s new GEM after years of the company not offering a mount in the LXD75/Advanced VX class. Had all the LXD75 users jumped ship for the Celestron Advanced VX? Was there now too much competition in the sub-1000-dollar mount arena for Meade to stir up much interest? Was there something wrong with the LX85?

I was excited when two big boxes arrived from Meade—I always am when new gear is at my door. But I was feeling a mite skittish. It’s been no secret the current iteration of Meade has had its ups and downs quality-wise. Would a good-quality mount for this modest price (the 85 is currently about 700 bucks at many retailers) be too much to ask?

Those two boxes were duly manhandled into my usual staging area, the Sunroom, in short order, and I dug in. One contained the mount and its tripod and the other a Meade 8-inch ACF Schmidt Cassegrain OTA. While the Test Report had originally been intended just to address the mount, my editor, Sean Walker, and I put our heads together and decided a review that included the SCT OTA normally shipped with the mount might be of interest to y’all.

Anyhow, the first thing that struck me? I’ve seen recycled cardboard, but this was ridiculous. The box the mount came in had apparently been recycled to the point where it was ready to crumble. Everything was in one piece, but just barely.

Out of that box came a tripod not much different from the usual Chinese 2-inch diameter steel tripods we’ve become accustomed to since most of our gear began to come from the Far East. There was also a tripod spreader (an oddly curved affair). And there was the mount head of course, a really pretty mount head finished a gleaming white. Finally, there was a white, oddly shaped octagonal counterweight of about 13-pounds, a CD containing Meade’s Autostar Suite software, and a distressingly thin but sufficient (barely) instruction manual.

Well, alrighty then! Let’s get this puppy on the tripod. There were no surprises there. Everything went together pretty much like an LXD75 or an AVX or a CG5. The white-tubed OTA went on the Vixen style saddle without a hitch. Sure looked purty, I had to admit. Next step? An indoor fake alignment. I like to power a mount up indoors, enter correct date/time/location, and send it on gotos to objects. I can generally tell everything is basically well if the scope is pointing in roughly the correct directions. At this point, alas, Murphy threw a monkey wrench into the works. No matter how I searched through the boxes and packing materials, all of which I was careful to preserve, no power cord did I find.

I was irritated, but figured it wasn’t a big deal. I had numerous spare DC power cords in my inventory here including some from Meade; I’d just fetch one of those. I did, plugged it into a jumpstart battery pack and into the scope. No dice. The mount’s power connector was slightly different from those on older Meade mounts. The cable I had just wouldn’t make a good connection.

A call to Meade got their AC/DC power supply on its way to me, but I’m still not sure what the problem was. Is the DC power cord an extra option (that would seem strange) or was it just omitted from the box by mistake? When the power supply arrived a few days later, I proceeded to give the mount that indoor fake-align checkout. The LX85 seemed to work as it should. Next up? The good, old backyard.

While we’d been enjoying a surprisingly dry fall, naturally the arrival of the LX85 brought considerable clouds and rain. When we finally hit a clear (but substantially hazy) spell, I figured time was a-wasting and got the mount and the ACF OTA set up in the back forty despite the presence of a fat old Moon in the east. The results? Read my Test Report, but I was satisfied enough with the LX85 that I didn’t hesitate to set up for a photo run on the next evening.  

On that night, the first thing on the agenda was an accurate polar alignment. Which I accomplished with the wonderful software, Sharpcap. Sharpcap is an imaging program that is as capable of taking long exposure deep sky shots as it is planetary closeups. What I was interested in on this night, however, was its polar alignment tool, which makes dead-on polar alignment a snap.

I’d mounted my 50mm guide scope and QHY guide camera on the scope. With Sharpcap’s polar alignment tool running, the program used the guide camera to display plenty of stars in the vicinity of the North Celestial Pole and gave onscreen prompts as to how I needed to move the LX85’s altitude and azimuth adjusters to get the mount’s RA axis pointed right at the pole. In just a few minutes I was only arc-seconds away from a perfect polar alignment. If you are serious about astrophotography, an exact polar alignment is a big help and maybe even a necessity. Do yourself a favor and check out Sharpcap.

Polar and then goto aligned with a Canon DSLR on the rear cell, I sent the scope to M13 and got to work. I brought up that wonderful program, PHD2 guiding, selected a guide star in the field of M13 (I’d only had to move the mount slightly with the AudioStar to center the cluster when the goto completed). I picked a star and let ‘er rip. I didn’t want to waste time fiddling with PHD’s many settingswho knew when those blasted clouds might return?so I just stuck with ones that worked with my Celestron Advanced VX.

That was just fine. Without doing any tweaking, the auto-guiding was more than good enough to yield round stars in a 1-minute exposure. How about a longer shot? Maybe 5-minutes? The mount was behaving OK, but I was skeptical—an SCT sure brings a lot of focal length to the table.

No prob. The shot isn’t perfect as you can see here. The haze and the Moon alone saw to that. The stars are good and round, though. Also, while I’ve certainly taken much better pictures of the Great Glob, this one is kinda special. It was my first astrophoto after a long layoff, not just from picture taking, but from observing of any kind. It was nice to get back in the saddle. And I had also completed my yearly quest for an M13 shot of some kind.

As I said in another recent blog entry, my feeling as I was shipping the Meade gear back to California was “Man, things sure are looking up for ol’ Meade. They really are still in the game.” Ironically, it was only a few days later that I learned Meade had declared bankruptcy yet again. I hope Meade pulls through, and if they do, that they see fit to continue the LX85.

Since y’all responded so positively to my question here and on Cloudy Nights as to whether you’d like to see me bring the blog back on an at least semi-regular basis, that’s just what I’m a-gonna do. The next one is already in the works, and there may be a new observing series forthcoming shortly after that. Well, after it warms up down here in the currently frigid heart of Dixie, that is!

2023 Update

Yep, Meade (Ningbo-Sunny) was sued and sold to US company Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center). What became of the LX-85? It is still being marketed by the new Meade, the fourth owner of the company if I'm counting correctly. Changes? The only obvious one is the white OTA is gone, replaced by a blue one. I think the white OTA was prettier, but so what?

Otherwise? Despite my good experience with the scope, I've read some not-so-good ones on the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards. What to make of that? In this price class there are sure to be lemons or at least some mounts being better than others, folks with misplaced expectations, and novices without a good grip on how to use a GEM. I wouldn't hesitate to buy the combo if I needed an 8-inch SCT of outstanding quality and a good enough mount. 

Or I would consider it if the price hadn't got so out of control. The pair now goes for a rather astonishing (to Unk) price of three thousand dollars. Not that Celestron is much better. However, you can get an Edge 800/Advanced VX pair for a couple of hundred less. Frankly, I believe the build quality of the Advanced VX is superior to that of the 85 in every way save for the fact the LX-85 has ball bearings on its declination axis. HOWSOMEEVER, the lack thereof has not prevented my AVX from guiding at less than one are-second (slightly less, anyhow). I believe both are overpriced...but so is everything else of late. Still, it doesn't seem that long ago I paid three thousand for a fricking NexStar 11 GPS! 

Oh, well, I suppose ever year that passes I sound more and more like my old man, W4SLJ (SK), who couldn't believe we'd got to the place where a MacDonald's hamburg cost a stinking buck. 'Tis the way of the world, I reckon...

Saturday, January 11, 2020


Meade on the Rocks, Rock Bottom...

Aw for—! Meade’s at it again! Muchachos, it’s barely been six years since we last had to visit this subject: the failing fortunes of America’s beloved former telescope giant, Meade Instruments. Last time, things went bust shortly after the company moved its production to Mexico. The familiar faces who made Meade a name were gone, and the company was soon bought by a Chinese corporation, Ningbo Sunny, who was never much more than a cipher. Now, we fans of Old Blue learn she’s sinking again. Ningbo has declared bankruptcy and is looking for a buyer.

You can read more about the story here, and a Google search will quickly turn up further details. The short skinny, though? U.S. telescope dealer Orion, who is, need I say, not the same Orion Tim Giesler started, just like Meade ain’t the Meade John Diebel started, and Celestron ain’t the Celestron Tom Johnson started, filed a 180-million dollar anti-trust lawsuit.  Said suit asserting Meade/Ningbo Sunny colluded with other Chinese manufacturers to set prices (we assume that “other” is Synta). Meade is in the process of selling itself under court supervision.

None of which surprises me much. I’ve long been aware relationships between Chinese corporations are almost invariably incestuous sorts of things. And I’ve long speculated Synta and Ningbo Sunny might actually be the same entity.

What happens next? Does Orion buy Meade? I wouldn’t be surprised. How about Celestron? The FTC has never looked favorably upon a Meade - Celestron merger or buyout, and I would guess they’d look even more unfavorably on it now due to the Synta factor. But how did we get here, anyway? How did two once great telescope companies go right down the drain?

Celestron’s story is relatively simple. The company was started as Celestron Pacific by California electronics engineer and amateur telescope maker Tom Johnson. In 1970, he expanded Celestron’s sales efforts, which had been focused on small colleges and schools, to amateur astronomers. Celestron quickly put hordes of famous Newtonian telescope makers like Cave, Optical Craftsmen, and Criterion in the grave. Despite competition from Meade beginning in 1980, Celestron dominated the serious telescope market. Until a couple of things happened.

First, Tom Johnson decided to sell his company and enjoy life. The buyer was Swiss holding company Diethelm. The problem was Diethelm didn’t know much about telescopes—nor did most of the people at the company care—and just wanted to take money out of Celestron. I am told the purchase was impelled by Diethelm's original owner, who was "interested in telescopes." Secondly, Celestron did make money during Comet Halley, but wore out their workforce and their machine tools and equipment in the process. The Halley hangover was nasty, with many dealers returning their unsold scope inventory after the comet crash. 

Though Meade had a similarly difficult time following Halley, they were again under the leadership of their founder, John Diebel, who, like Johnson, had begun the company on his kitchen table and then sold it.  Unlike Johnson, seeing his company was entering upon rather dire straits, he rebought it (for one dollar or so the legend goes). Under his guidance Meade began to dominate Celestron as the 1990s came in.

Celestron was chronically undercapitalized by this time and had a hard time coming out with an answer to Meade’s computerized LX200 telescope, a telescope that pointed at sky objects reliably and automatically. The irony is that Celestron had introduced the first goto SCT, the Compustar in the 80s. Unfortunately, it was expensive and fussy. Meade ruled the roost through the 1990s and just went from strength to strength, following the LX200 with the ETX, the LX90, and the LX200 GPS.

Things didn’t change for the better for Celestron until they were free of Diethelm. In the process of freeing themselves, they briefly became an employee owned company, but, again, there wasn’t enough capital. In what we at first thought heralded disaster, they were bought by notorious telescope importer Tasco. Those of us who came up in the 60s and 70s have some pretty unfavorable memories of Tasco’s cheap department store scopes, but there is more to that story than you may imagine. You can read all about it right here. Bottom line was Tasco’s capital allowed Celestron to develop an outstanding line of goto telescopes, the NexStars, which showed the company could again be competition for and even a threat to Meade.

At first, however, it looked like we’d be down to one scope company after all, Meade. Tasco declared bankruptcy (that had nothing to do with Celestron, which was the only money-making part of the company) and Meade attempted to buy Celestron. The FTC said “no,” optical giant Synta stepped in, and, frankly, it was downhill all the way for Meade from there.

Meade’s problems didn’t just concern the resurgence of Celestron. A couple of their actions had contributed. First, the company went public. Certainly, that sounded reasonable when the company was on top of the world, and certainly Mr. Diebel deserved to profit handsomely for his long, hard years of work. But Meade wasn’t quite as stable as they appeared to be, and going public just made things dicier. A blow came when most Walmarts stopped selling Christmas Telescopes not long after a major dealer of the things, Discovery Channel Stores, went under. Meade’s numbers were good, but a lot of those numbers were due to the department store end of the business that really wasn’t that profitable anyway. Take away the el cheapo part of the equation and things began to look a lot bleaker for the blue team.

One other misstep, I’ve been told, was the company’s dalliance with an optical communications company. All those ETX 125’s with metal rear cells you’ve seen surplused out were built for this failed endeavor. A company with deep roots and resources like a GE can afford a few disasters. A company built on the shifting sands of a niche market? Not so much.

And so, production halted at Meade’s big factory site in Irvine (not far from Ducks Stadium) and the facility  was soon on the chopping block. Meade still operates from a nearby location, but the once grandiose home/factory of the world’s largest and most successful telescope company is no more. Their top-of-the-line amateur scopes began to be produced in Mexico and everything else came from Ningbo-Sunny or one of their “friends” in China.

And there things have sat. Read the piece linked in the first paragraph, Pore Old Blue, if you want more details on the circumstances at the time of the Meade's sale (including a couple of utterly disastrous product introductions). Following the Chinese buyout, from what I could see, Meade continued on pretty with business as usual—if at a level that appeared to place them a distant second to Celestron for the first time in a long while. The big, splashy everybody-will-want-one Meade product introductions, and that crazy, wonderful old full-color, glossy print catalog were but fading memories, but Meade was still capable of producing good telescopes.

I found that out when I got my hands on my first new Meade in a long time, the company’s new LX85 GEM. Admittedly, some things did  spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for me. Like a shipping container that was made out of what appeared to be recycled Kleenex, and a manual that was not only incomplete, but which was merely a half-hearted rewrite of decade old LX75 instructions. However, everything worked. I was quite impressed by the Meade answer to the Celestron AVX—I thought the Meade was actually superior in some ways. Certainly, the Meade ACF 8-inch SCT presented wonderful images (you can read my LX85 Test Report in the January 2020 Sky & Telescope).  My thought as I was shipping the gear back to Meade? “I’m impressed. They done good! Things are looking up for Old Blue!” Alas, shortly thereafter the outcome of the Orion lawsuit became known.

What do I think will happen next? If you’re a Meade fan, I wouldn’t worry too much. The name has value, and the products still sell. Someone, Orion or whomever, will buy the company and continue to market most/some of the telescopes, I would guess. What makes me really sad is not the fate of this incarnation of a once great company. It’s that two famous and outstanding American telescope companies are now but fading memories gone these many years.

So, that’s it for this time, Muchahos. When will the next one appear? When the mood strikes your old uncle, but most assuredly before February runs out. If you’d like the blog updated more frequently, tell me. Comment here, on the thread I’ll put in the Cloudy Nights “Astro Art, Books, Websites, and Other Media” forum, or by email or on Facebook. And please spread the word to former Uncle Rod fans who may have lost the thread.

Uncle Rod News! The long-awaited (well, one or two people asked about it) second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT, my vaunted SCT book, is due to be published in April. It has been completely updated and much has been rewritten. I think you are gonna like it.

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