Friday, 8 February 2019

Meade’s LX850 Astro-Imaging System

Meade LX850 review first published in Sky & Telescope magazine.

Can this mount’s full-time automatic autoguiding make everyone a deep-sky astrophotographer?


There are more active deep-sky astrophotographers today than ever before. We have digital imaging and an abundance of commercial gear to thank for that. But there are also many would-be astrophotographers waiting in the wings. The reasons why they’ve yet to take the plunge vary, but I know that for some it’s the complexity of assembling a deep-sky photography system. Just deciding what telescope, mount, autoguider, camera, and software to buy is difficult enough, but even more daunting is getting everything to play together nicely. Many see it as an overwhelming challenge, and it’s these people that Meade must have been thinking about when the company set about creating what is now sold as the LX850 Astro-Imaging System.


On paper the LX850 sounds simple — a German equatorial mount with a built-in autoguider (called StarLock) that autonomously begins tracking the sky whenever you point the mount at a celestial target. It’s completely self-contained; you don’t need any external hardware or software. Just add the telescope and camera of your choice, open the shutter, and you’ll be on your way to making deep-sky masterpieces.

Above: Meade’s LX850 Astro-Imaging System with full-time, 100% automated autoguiding is a major leap forward for deep-sky astrophotographers, especially beginners. It does for long-exposure astrophotography what Go To telescopes did for observing. Although the 12-inch model pictured here weighs more than 200 pounds, it breaks down into manageable pieces.

But as everyone who has done it knows, autoguiding can be difficult even with careful human oversight. Meade has successfully tackled difficult technological challenges in the past (the self-aligning LightSwitch telescopes are a good example), so it’s not surprising that the company attempted this one. But for the LX850 to be deemed a real success, the system has to work for its target audience — people with little or no experience doing deep-sky astrophotography. And that’s definitely a tall order.

Nevertheless, after extensively testing the LX850 this past summer and fall with a Meade 12-inch f/8 ACF telescope, I’m comfortable saying that the company hasn’t just been successful in achieving its goal; it’s been stunningly successful. To understand why and how I’ve come to that conclusion requires a bit of backstory. So, bear with me for a moment while I explain.

Deep-sky Guidelines

There are no unbreakable rules for deep-sky photography. Even my long-standing quip about having to do it at night isn’t true in an age when astrophotographers use the internet to control telescopes half a world away. But some generalizations do apply. Foremost is that digital photography allows us to assemble great images of faint celestial targets with individual exposures that are relatively short. With just about any telescope and camera combination, the world of deep-sky photography is wide open to you if you can make exposures up to 10 minutes long.

Some form of guiding is needed to consistently make usable 10-minute exposures, and traditionally astrophotographers have done this by tracking a guide star in or around the field being imaged. Crosshair eyepieces and push-button hand paddles are all but extinct now that today’s deep-sky photographers have switched to electronic autoguiders.

But autoguiding is a complex melding of hardware, software, and technique. I started out in the late 1980s with the original SBIG ST-4 autoguider (which is like telling someone you learned to drive with a Ford Model T). And after nearly 25 years I still consider myself lucky if I can shake most of the autoguiding bugs out of a new deep-sky setup in only a night or two. And that’s just the mechanics — there’s still the “art” of selecting a suitable guide star and setting an autoguider’s “soft” parameters (exposure time, aggressiveness, etc.) every time I switch to a new target. This is why Meade faced an uphill battle to create a system that could do everything autonomously with equipment that beginning astrophotographers could easily master.

Hardware

Meade offers the LX850 as a package deal with four telescopes: a 130-mm f/7 APO refractor, and 10-, 12-, and 14-inch f/8 Advanced Coma Free Schmidt-Cassegrains. We borrowed the 12-inch scope for this review since its 56-pound (25-kg) weight places a significant load on the mount (the 14-inch is only 7 pounds heavier). This scope’s 2,400-mm focal length also places significant demands on the autoguider, since it greatly magnifies even tiny guiding errors.


Left: The heart of the StarLock system is a pair of digital imagers that you can attach directly to the mount (shown here) or to the main telescope. The author never had StarLock fail to automatically find and track a guide star. It also assists with the LX850’s polar alignment, high-precision pointing, and periodic- error reduction in the mount’s drive. 

Right: The LX850’s electronics are completely self-contained and built around Meade’s time-tested Autostar II hand controller. The mount is also plug-and- play compatible with any modern autoguider that is connected to the “aux autoguider” port. StarLock automatically defers to commands from an external autoguider when it senses signals sent to this port.

I was as amused as my colleagues when a freight truck arrived at our offices to unload the LX850; the shipment included nine boxes (one of them huge) totalling 379 pounds. Nevertheless, when everything was unpacked, all the gear fit in the back of my small sports coupe with the rear seats folded down.

The complete scope, as pictured on the first page, weighs nearly 250 pounds, but it breaks into components that are relatively easy to transport and assemble (the heaviest piece is the 68-pound equatorial head).
For the first month or so of testing, I stored the LX850 in my garage. Even when stripped of the most massive pieces, the tripod with the equatorial head attached was too heavy and awkward for me to drag from the garage to my observing spot just a few feet away in the driveway. Everything had to be broken down to be moved.

There is, however, a dividend associated with all this weight — the LX850 is a remarkably solid mount, and it handled the 12-inch scope with ease. Flexure, the bane of many autoguiding systems that use a separate guide scope, was all but non-existent. The LX850 is also very well engineered and equally as well manufactured. Because of careful design, the only tools needed to assemble the mount are two Allen (also called hex) wrenches. 

Meade supplies them along with a special tool that fits the two sizes of hand knobs on the mount, but you can still turn these knobs without the tool. The heavily illustrated user’s manual gives very clear instructions for putting every thing together and roughly adjusting the mount in preparation for a night of observing. My biggest complaint about the mount is the short, coiled cord on the hand control — it could easily stand to be three times longer than it is.


After weeks of testing the LX850 as a portable setup in his driveway, the author moved the scope to a pier in his backyard observatory where it was more convenient to work with the SBIG STT-8300 CCD camera seen here and its associated computer equipment. He used StarLock for a “drift” polar alignment (see the text for details), on the first night and then just “parked” the scope after each observing session. As such, he could begin on subsequent nights without having to align the scope again.

StarLock

Once I was familiar with the scope and working at a leisurely pace, I could assemble everything in less than half an hour (on many nights I did it in about 15 minutes). As stars emerged from the evening twilight, I would power up the LX850 and spend about 15 minutes working through the mostly automated steps needed to polar align the mount. This requires having a clear view of Polaris (or another suitable polar star in the Southern Hemisphere). Without a clear view of the celestial pole, observers will need to use alternate alignment methods.

Pressing a few more buttons on the hand control let me slew to any of thousands of objects in the scope’s data base. The LX850’s default setting uses the pair of sensors built into the StarLock autoguider to precisely center each deep-sky object by offsetting from nearby bright stars — the process, which can be turned off, is completely automated and adds less than a minute to the time needed for a regular Go To slew to a target. It’s very accurate, and a boon to anyone working with a camera (or eyepiece) that has a small field of view.



Within 15 or 20 seconds of slewing the LX850 to a target, StarLock would automatically find and begin tracking a guide star. I could then open my camera’s shutter and make successful 5-minute exposures. If, during the setup procedure, I took the additional 15 minutes or so needed for a more accurate “drift” polar alignment (another process that’s highly automated by the StarLock system, as well as one that can be used when Polaris is blocked from the observer’s location), I could easily make success- full 10-minute exposures. This didn’t happen on just a few “lucky” nights; it happened every night.

Throughout the summer and early fall I photographed dozens of objects, making hundreds of 5- and 10-minute exposures. On a microscopic level some images had stars that weren’t perfectly round. But when stacking individual exposures to create final images, I never rejected a single frame because of the guiding. Never! Not one!

This is an astounding track record for the LX850, especially because I always used StarLock’s default settings. There are only a few things that advanced users can do to tweak StarLock’s autoguiding, but none that I tried gave better results than when I just let StarLock do its own thing. It’s a system that beginners can use out of the box and consistently get good results.


Smooth Sailing?

So, were my experiences with the LX850 all smooth sailing? The short answer is no. And the reason why can also be summed up in a single word; documentation. I approached the LX850 with the mindset of a beginner, and as such I relied heavily on the instructions in the manual and, more importantly, those that scroll across the hand control’s display and are thus easiest to use in the dark. I found some of the instructions confusing. But a far bigger problem was the conflicting and misleading information shown on the scrolling display compared to that in the printed manual. It took several frustrating hours spread across two nights for me to sort it all out and realize that the manual, and not the scrolling display, had the more accurate instructions for initializing and polar aligning the mount. And you have to properly execute these steps before you can use the LX850.

Hindsight made this seem even more ironic, since what you need to know to get started with the LX850 is really quite straightforward. In my opinion, it’s no exaggeration to say that a beginner equipped with a good “quick-start” guide could power up an assembled LX850 for the first time and have the system ready for autoguided exposures in less than 30 minutes. The good news is that Meade says it’s working on an updated manual.

The space here limits my comments mainly to the mount’s unique autoguiding capabilities. But even with a review five times this size I couldn’t cover all of the features of the LX850 Astro Imaging System. Many of them, however, are found in all of Meade’s Go To telescopes equipped with the time tested Autostar II controller (see, for example, our review of the 8-inch LX200GPS in the March 2003 issue, page 50). Likewise, the 12-inch f/8 Advanced Coma Free Schmidt-Cassegrain scope I tested has the same optics that were in the RCX400 scope that we reviewed in the February 2006 issue, page 78.

In the history of amateur astrophotography, autoguiding turned a lot of people on to deep-sky photography (it was a rare breed of individual who could tolerate hours of manually guiding a telescope). Today’s autoguiders are far easier to use than the early models, but they are still challenging to master. So by that standard, the LX850 Astro- Imaging System is a quantum leap forward. It has done for deep-sky astrophotography what Go To telescopes did for observing, turning what many consider a daunting task into something that can be done with push-button ease. It’s quite an accomplishment.


What we like:

  • Automatic autoguiding
  • Solid, heavy-duty mount
  • Automated setup features

What we don't like:

  • Documentation needs work
  • Hand-control cord too short


Reviewed by Dennis di Cicco, Senior editor Dennis di Cicco has been guiding telescopes for deep-sky photography since the 1960s.



Thursday, 17 January 2019

Meade and Coronado eyepieces

Eyepieces are the most popular telescope accessories. They are used to adjust the magnification of the telescope, trading off magnification with field of view. Meade’s eyepieces have an excellent reputation for value and performance.
Meade eyepieces. From left to right: Plössl, HD-60, Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) and Mega Wide Angle (MWA).

Meade’s range of eyepieces include the Series 4000 Super Plössl and the Series 5000 HD-60, Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) and Mega Wide Angle (MWA) eyepieces. They all perform very well but each series has its distinct advantages.

Series 4000 Super Plössl eyepieces

These Super Plössl eyepieces feature multi-coated optical coatings offering sharp views and high contrast. They are available at many focal lengths from 6.4mm up to 56mm. Their apparent field of view (AFoV) is 52°. These dependable eyepieces are a great starting point for newcomers to astronomy.

Series 5000 HD-60 eyepieces

The HD-60 series of eyepieces are fully-multi-coated with a 60° apparent field of view. They achieve sharp views across the whole field of view due to their optical design and exotic glass used. They also provide 19mm eye relief for comfortable observation. Overall HD-60 eyepieces are optically 40% better than Super Plössl eyepieces. The focal lengths range from 4.5mm to 25mm.

Meade eyepieces. From left to right: Plössl, HD-60, Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) and Mega Wide Angle (MWA).

Series 5000 Ultra Wide Angle eyepieces

The Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) eyepieces have an 82° apparent field of view while maintaining sharp, high resolution views across the entire field of view. These fully multi-coated premium eyepieces offer good eye-relief and are available at focal lengths from 5.5mm to 20mm.

Series 5000 Mega Wide Angle eyepieces

These 100° apparent field of view Mega Wide Angle (MWA) eyepieces are Meade’s widest-angle eyepieces. They offer excellent views across the whole field of view due to their advanced optical design and optical coatings. These eyepieces offer the ultimate experience to the visual observer.


Coronado CEMAX eyepieces and barlow lens.

Coronado CEMAX eyepieces

CEMAX eyepieces are specifically designed for use at H-alpha (Ha) wavelengths. Their optical coatings are optimised to enhance contrast and minimise glare. They are available at the following focal lengths: 12mm, 18mm and 25mm. All models feature generous 20mm eye relief and 52° apparent field of view.

Safety note: Coronado CEMAX eyepieces and barlows are not filters in any way, and for Solar observing must be used in conjunction with an appropriate Coronado Hα Solar Telescope or telescope with a Coronado filter set appropriately and safely mounted.







Find out more about Meade and Coronado eyepieces at:
www.MeadeUK.com/Meade-Eyepieces.html


Opticstar is official importer of Meade Instruments in the United Kingdom.
www.opticstar.com


Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Meade LX65 and LX85 in the UK

Christmas is almost here and so are the new LX65 and LX85 telescopes from Meade! The Maksutov, Newtonian and refracting models arrive in the UK this week.





Find out more about these two new telescope series from Meade from the links below.


Meade LX65 series:
www.MeadeUK.com/Meade-LX65-telescopes.html

Meade LX85 series:
www.MeadeUK.com/Meade-LX85-telescopes.html


Opticstar is official importer of Meade Instruments in the United Kingdom.
www.opticstar.com

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Meade LX65 redefines ease of use

What is more important? Premium optics or ease of use? Now you can have both! The up and coming LX65 telescope series from Meade is packed with more features than any other telescope in its class.

It is lightweight, portable and accessible at a moment’s notice. Yet, it is sturdy enough to support two optical tubes at once thanks to its innovative design. The LX65 is the perfect telescope for aspiring newcomers to astronomy and for seasoned astronomers who appreciate its ease of use and portability.




Optics

The LX65 ACF (advanced coma-free) optics are available in 6” and 8” aperture sizes, accomplishing the best all-round performance for planetary and deep-sky observation. However, amateur astronomers dedicated to planetary astronomy will also be interested in the LX65’s alternative models; 5” and 6” Maksutov-Cassegrain optical tubes. All models are optically coated with Meade’s UHTC (Ultra High Transmission Coatings) for enhanced light transmission. The LX65 optics are sharp, bright and uncompromising.


Versatile

The innovative single arm fork mount has the ability to hold two optical tubes at once! Simply add a secondary short focal length optical tube to browse the sky and locate objects of interest quickly. Yet, simultaneously observe those objects in detail through the primary ACF or Maksutov optical tube.


AudioStar

The telescope is controlled through its AudioStar handbox controller. Its database contains over 30,000 objects to observe at a push of a button. The Astronomer Inside feature, will take you on guided tours of the sky with full speech. Star aligning the telescope with the AudioStar is a simple 2-star procedure and you will be observing the night sky in just a couple of minutes!


Photography

The LX65 is sturdy enough to be used for planetary and lunar photography. Simply attach your Meade LPI-G camera at the back (replacing the eyepiece), connect the camera to your computer’s USB port and start capturing images and video. The LX65 is ideal for visual observation as well as the gateway to astrophotography.


Models

There are four LX65 models:

Meade LX65 5" Mak (SKU: 228001)
Meade LX65 6" Mak  (SKU: 228002)
Meade LX65 6" ACF  (SKU: 228003)
Meade LX65 8" ACF  (SKU: 228004)


Availability

The LX65 series will be released later this year and are expected to be available in the United Kingdom in January 2019.


Find out more about the Meade LX65 series at:
www.MeadeUK.com

Opticstar is official importer of Meade Instruments in the United Kingdom.
www.opticstar.com

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Coronado SolarMax III 90 announced

Meade Instruments has announced four new Coronado solar telescopes in the latest SolarMax III series. The new models are fitted with full aperture 90mm external etalon filters, surpassing the performance of solar telescope designs that use smaller internal H-α etalons.




Configurations

The SolarMax III 90 will be available with either a 15mm blocking filter or a 30mm blocking filter. Optionally, each of these models will be available with a second 90mm external etalon in a double stacked configuration. It is also possible to retrofit the second etalon to the single etalon models at any time. The configurations are:
  • SolarMax III 90, BF15  (SKU: 324011)
  • SolarMax III 90, BF15, Double Stacked  (SKU: 324012)
  • SolarMax III 90, BF30  (SKU: 324013)
  • SolarMax III 90, BF30, Double Stacked  (SKU: 324014)

All models are bundled with a full range of CEMAX eyepieces and barlow lens as standard. A hard carry case is also included. To retrofit single etalon models to a double stack configuration please use the Coronado 90mm Double Stacking Etalon (SKU: SME-90).


Multiple improvements

The larger, full aperture etalon filters ensure that solar views have better contrast and more detail. Other improvements of the SolarMax III 90 include a 2” dual speed focuser with fine control. The Coronado SolarMax III range represents the cutting-edge in solar observation and imaging. 

The SolarMax III 90 etalon(s) and rear blocking diagonal filter can be removed to use the scope as a standard refractor for night time astronomy. 

Safety: The SolarMax III solar telescopes should never be used to observe the Sun without the etalon filter(s) and blocking filter (diagonal) fitted. Otherwise, immediate and irreversible eye damage may result.


Availability

These solar telescopes will be released later this summer and are expected to be available in the United Kingdom in autumn 2018.



Find out more about the Coronado SolarMax III range at:
www.MeadeUK.com

Opticstar is official importer of Meade Instruments in the United Kingdom.
www.opticstar.com


Thursday, 29 March 2018

How to setup & align your ETX Observer

The ETX Observer telescopes are lightweight and portable, making them ideal for astronomy on the move and newcomers to the hobby.

This tutorial video demonstrates how to set up and star align these telescopes.





The Legacy Continues

For 20 years, Meade's ETX series telescopes have provided novice astronomers quality, value and performance, with each new model bringing enhancements and improvements. The all-new ETX Observer model continues that legacy.

For more information on the ETX Observer please follow the link below.
http://www.MeadeUK.com/Meade-ETX-telescopes.html




Wednesday, 20 December 2017

New law against laser pointer use

Under new proposals there will be severe punishments for offenders shining laser pens at air, ground or sea vehicles. The new law has been put forward by the transport department.

The first reading of the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill took place at the House of Lords on 20 December 2017. This stage is a formality that signals the start of the Bill's journey through the Lords. The second reading will include the general debate on all aspects of the Bill and will take place on 9th  January 2018.

Amateur astronomers with laser pointers should exercise caution.

The current legislation punishes someone found guilty of shining a laser at an aircraft with a maximum fine of £2,500.  The new laser misuse (vehicles) bill, published today, expands the types of transport that are covered to include trains, buses, boats and hovercraft.

There has a been a steady increase in incidents involving the misuse of lasers since 2011. Approximately 1,250 cases were reported in total in 2016. Laser beam attacks at Heathrow airport rose by 25% in the last year.

When a laser beam hits the windscreen of a cockpit glass the light spreads dazzling the pilot and making it very difficult to see the ground.

People convicted of shining a laser at the operator of any vehicle could face five years in prison. The Department for Transport (DfT) has put forward tough new penalties for the offence, including unlimited fines. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is also considering the findings of a call for evidence on updating regulations for selling laser pointers.


Tougher new law

The new law will make it easier to prosecute offenders by removing the need to prove they intended to endanger a vehicle. It will be an offence to dazzle or even distract the operator of a vehicle either deliberately or if reasonable precautions to avoid doing so are not taken.

Laser pointers

Laser pointers or laser pens are portable, low-powered, battery-operated hand-held devices. They are often used during presentations in astronomy to point out or highlight a planet or a star. They produce a small and narrow beam of visible red or green light.

Laser pointers purchased from reputable UK sources are limited in their power density so that damage cannot be caused to the eyes. However, there are laser pointers sold online, often from sellers in the Far East, that are much more powerful.


Up to date information on the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill at:
UK Parliament - Laser Misuse Vehicles Bill