Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Meade LX65 Series 8-inch ACF telescope review - BBC Sky at Night magazine

The LX65 8” ACF telescope has been reviewed in the October issue of BBC Sky at Night magazine.

The review mentions the features that stand out, including the two Vixen-style saddles; the main one for holding the supplied telescope and an additional one on the outer side for a second telescope that weighs up to 3.2kg.



The AudioStar hand controller features 30,000 objects covering all the main catalogues of deep-sky targets such as Messier, Caldwell, NGC and IC, along with Solar System targets of the planets, asteroids and comets. It also includes audio voiceovers for 500 objects.

The Meade premium optics stood out once again with the reviewer stating that “optically in our visual test of the field of view it was pin sharp across the whole view”.

The LX65 series stands for quality at a reasonable price and a great user experience. Accessible at a moment’s notice, the LX65 Series combines advanced features and premium optics in an easy-to-use telescope system. The October 2019 issue of Sky at Night magazine is out now.




Find out more about Sky at Night magazine at:
https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/reviews/meade-lx65-series-8-inch-acf-telescope-review/


More information about the LX65 series on the Meade UK website:
http://www.meadeuk.com/Meade-LX65-telescopes.html




Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Back and better than ever – Meade Deep Sky Imager (DSI) IV


Original post first published on https://www.meade.com/.

Information provided by Bryan Cogdell.



The acclaimed DSI camera series is BACK, and its more advanced than ever. Equipped with a 16MP Panasonic CMOS image sensor, regulated two-stage thermo-electric cooler, and 3.8μm pixels, the new DSI-IV is the ideal camera for all your astrophotography pursuits. The low-noise, high-resolution and fast USB 3.0 readout make this camera suitable for both deep-sky and planetary imaging, making it one of the most versatile astronomy cameras available.




Meade’s DSI-IV has been a long-awaited product. This 16MP camera was designed to enhance your astrophotography experience like never before. The regulated two-stage thermo-electric cooler greatly reduces thermal noise, allowing you to take great long exposure astro-images of galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and more with your telescope. The thermo-electric cooler also keeps control of camera temperature so you can reuse your calibration images night after night. The combination of an on-board fan and thermo-electric coolers helps regulate temperature up to 40-50°C below ambient.







Colour

The DSI-IV Colour is referred to as a “one-shot colour” camera; meaning you get colour directly from the camera in a single image without any special processing of filters. There are actual colour dyes on every pixel of the camera, usually in a matrix of red, green, and blue. This is how other cameras, such as the one on your phone, obtains colour as well. One shot colour cameras are very convenient because you get instant colour.  In situations where you need to capture as quickly as possible, like an eclipse, a comet, or an ISS flyover, the DSI-IV Colour is very useful.

Pros & Cons

The colour version is easier to start with and costs less, plus you do not have to purchase as many accessories as you would with the monochrome model. Colour is generally recommended to a beginner, or to an imager that wants an all-purpose camera. The trade-off is because you are always shooting through the colour dyes over each pixel, you are missing some of the potential sensitivity the sensor would otherwise have, especially in certain parts of the visual spectrum. As a result, the colour version is not as sensitive as the monochrome model.

Monochrome

The DSI-IV Monochrome camera uses the full potential of its CMOS imaging sensor. It is more sensitive than the colour model overall. For deep sky astrophotography, monochrome gives you the edge on imaging very faint detail from nebulae and galaxies. It’s also better suited for Solar Hydrogen-Alpha imaging through a cope such as the Coronado P.S.T and SolarMax series. A colour camera would really limit the amount of light the camera could see in H-Alpha and most of its sensitivity would go unused. But a monochrome camera is ideal for that. And think about it, H-Alpha is only a single colour anyways! Solar imagers simply designate their black and white image as a red image (there are more sophisticated ways to get multi-tone colour but this is the idea)!

Pros & Cons

The DSI-IV Monochrome gets colour images by photographing through a series of colour filters, usually red, green and blue. So to get a single colour image, you have to capture at least 3 times as many exposures! This can also be combined with a “clear” luminance filter which passes as much broad-spectrum light to the sensor as possible. It’s usually better to use the filters in a filter wheel, and these accessories add to the cost of your imaging setup. Switching filters is also time consuming (even if motorised) and therefore not suited for quick action things like an ISS pass or an eclipse. Also, more image processing is required for monochrome cameras since you have to manage and combine all of the different filtered images to obtain a single processed image.

With the use of filters, you have more flexibility. You can do more in light polluted cities with specialised filters. One of the more popular techniques with monochrome cameras is narrowband imaging though specialised narrowband filters. These filters block all but a small portion of the spectrum that only nebulae emit, such as Hydrogen-Alpha and Oxygen-III. These filters are expensive, too, and add to the overall setup cost.






The DSI-IV offers immense value beyond the camera itself. It not only comes with its own high-quality, weather-resistant hard carrying case and AC power adapter, but it also comes with a new version of SkyCapture camera control software. With complete camera control for all major operating systems including Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, SkyCapture can run automatic image capture sequences without the need to purchase additional software. Capture high-quality images and video of galaxies, nebulae, and other beautiful objects of the night sky with Meade’s DSI-IV.

Find out more on the Meade DSI-IV product page:
www.MeadeUK.com/Meade-DSI-IV-Cameras.html










Monday, 15 July 2019

What you didn’t know you needed - Meade LPI-G

Original post first published on https://www.meade.com/. 
Additional information provided by http://photographingspace.com/.

If you’re looking to capture lunar, planetary, and even solar images at an affordable price, then Meade’s LPI-G might be exactly what you need. This small but powerful camera will give you crisp, clean images that will provide you with an endless gallery of content.





Meade’s LPI-G is made for auto-guiding and astrophotography. With our Solar System and guide camera, experience the universe on a whole new level. Lightweight and portable, LPI-G comes in either colour or monochrome, and a 1280 x 960 pixel CMOS sensor with the ability of capturing 28 frames per second at full resolution. The LPI-G can be used with a variety of telescopes including beginner to advanced models and even Coronado telescopes.




Dual Purpose Camera


The LPI-G Camera is perfect for those looking to make the jump into astrophotography. As an astrophotography camera, the 1.25” barrel size allows you to use it in place of your eyepiece. You will be imaging the Moon, planets, and the Sun (with appropriate filters) in no time with high-performance CMOS image sensor. As a guide camera, the built-in ST4 auto guider port makes for easy connection. The LPI-G is compatible with a number of guiding and image capture programs such as MaxIm DL, PHD and FireCapture.

The LPI-G comes with dedicated Meade astronomy software call Sky Capture, which allows you to record and process video and images.


Auto-Guiding


The LPI-G can operate as an auto-guide camera when used with a Windows based computer through the ASCOM software platform. An auto-guide cable is included with the camera. The auto-guide cable is attached to the telescope’s auto-guide port (ST4-type) on one side and on the camera on the other side. This is the only camera on the market at its price point that can double as an auto-guider, which is an incredibly beneficial feature.

Please note that if you wish to use the LPI-G with a Meade LX90 telescope, the Meade Auto-guider Port Module (SKU: 07509) is required. The port module is plugged into the telescope’s auxiliary port enabling it to be used as an auto-guide port.

Meade’s LPI-G used a guider to image the Veil Nebula. PC: Jimmy N.





Colour vs Monochrome


If you’re looking for high resolution images, Meade LPI-G Monochrome is the way to go. For under £200, you won’t break the bank. This is great for solar-imaging as the chromosphere details are absolutely amazing.

Colour cameras are imaged with red, green, and blue. As you can see from the images to the right, green is typically the dominant colour. Stated by photographingspace.com, “This inherent bias is corrected in the process that converts the array into a colour digital image which is called demosaicing. 

Typically all this happens in-camera unless you shoot raw and demosaic yourself, but either way, the process averages the results from an area of pixels on the chip and creates artifacts such as false colours, colour bleeds, jagged edges, and more. 

With a Monochrome camera, you get a 1:1 unblemished result based on a number of photons that hit the pixel well, with non of this immediate pokery that gives you a degraded image straight away.


Although colour cameras are much more simple, the post-processing of a picture taken with a Monochrome camera gives the image vast more detail…with that, you can’t go wrong."




Find out more on the Meade LPI-G product page:
http://www.MeadeUK.com/Meade-LPI-G-Cameras.html






Thursday, 6 June 2019

Meade LX65 8" ACF SkyNews review

Original review by Ken Hewitt-White published in SkyNews magazine, January/February 2019.


We test-drive Meade’s latest computer-controlled catadioptric reflector.


Meade’s freshly minted LX65 8-inch telescope certainly has extras. It boasts Advanced Coma-Free (ACF) optics, a computerized GoTo mount with motorized tracking, capacity for two telescopes and Meade’s AudioStar control system software, which offers brief “Astronomer Inside” recorded voice descriptions of chosen celestial objects.

Meade LX65 8" ACF.
Get up and GoTo. Meade’s new LX65 8-inch ACF features a computerized single 
arm alt-az mount with computerized,  GoTo pointing and plenty of extras. 
Note the convenient holder for the hand unit and helpful handles on the tube assembly 
and mount. Fully assembled, the instrument weighs about 18 kilograms (40lb). 
Photo by Gary Seronik.
The instrument arrived in two reinforced cardboard cases. The 8-inch telescope and various accessories, (a red-dot finder, a star diagonal and a 26mm Super Plossl eyepiece) filled one box; the mount, tripod and electronic accessories were in the other. Before observing, I took out the well-packed components and examined them carefully.

The optical tube assembly, or OTA, is 46 centimetres (18 in) long. With its compact catadioptric design, the instrument resembles a conventional Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a 2,032-millimetre, f/10 optical train. The OTA is relatively light (under 5. 5kg/12 lb) and easy to carry, thanks to a handle at the back. And it’s well built. The LX65 passed an unplanned test (kids, don’t try this at home) when it rolled off a low storage shelf in my office and fell exactly one foot onto the carpeted floor – to no ill effect. Whew!

The altazimuth (alt-az), single arm fork mount likewise sports a helpful handle. This hefty unit (almost 8.5 kg/19 lb) attaches without tools to the adjustable-height steel tripod via three thumbscrews beneath the tripod head. The mount’s Vixen-style dovetail bracket and locking knob ensure secure attachment of the 8-inch OTA. Interestingly, a second dovetail bracket allows users to attach an additional scope on the same mount. However, the mount’s alt-az nature means that it’s not suitable for long-exposure astrophotography.


Dual scoping, anyone?

Thanks to its dual dovetail saddles, the LX65 mount will accept a second telescope. After attaching a Meade 4-inch refractor (close to the recommended weight limit of seven pounds /3 kg), I expected increased shaking. Surprisingly, the reverse was true – having scopes on both sides of the single-arm fork helped balance the load.  

There are adjustment knobs to make the second scope aim in exactly the same direction as the main scope. Be careful, though: Turn the wrong knob in the dark, and you might cause the companion scope to fall off! I advise trueing up the tubes on a daylight target.

Side saddle. An extra dovetail bracket, far right, permits attaching a second, smaller telescope to the mount. Fine adjustment screws, right, allow the auxiliary scope to be precisely aimed to match the view in the main instrument. The uppermost knob operates the altitude clutch lock.


Setting up

To prepare for an observing session, I set up the telescope in the “home position”. All three components – tripod, mount and OTA – needed to be exactly level, the horizontal OTA aiming either true north or magnetic north. The accompanying 50-page instruction booklet suggests the latter, and an eyepiece-shaped compass with a built-in bubble level is provided to assist in the process. But I found homing on true north was easier for me in my north-facing suburban yard.

Loosening the clutch on the mount’s altitude arm allowed me to manually level the tube. There is no manual motion in azimuth – to move the scope on that axis, one must power up the mount. Electricity is supplied by installing eight C-cell batteries (not included) in the base of the mount. A port on the altitude arm permits using an AC power adapter (not included) or a portable 12-volt DC power supply (cable not included). For the purpose of this review, I stuck with the batteries.

After eyeballing level and north, I switched on the computer-control hand unit and answered the usual prompts in the two-line LCD screen for date and time. (Earlier, I’d keyed in the latitude and longitude of my observing site – a crucial preliminary step). Next was the star-alignment procedure to ensure GoTo pointing accuracy. I expect newbie stargazers will love it.

The “Easy Alignment” option chooses two bright alignment stars for you. During my early-autumn testing, the software decided to start with brilliant Arcturus in the western sky. The machine slewed rapidly (and loudly!) the long way around, through some 270 degrees, to the target. (The AudioStar control system has a “Quiet Slew” command to limit the speed by a little less than half). AudioStar overshot Arcturus, but I nudged the scope in altitude and azimuth until the star was centred in the red-dot finder and the supplied Super Plossl 26mm eyepiece, which gives roughly a ?-degree wide field.

When I keyed ENTER, the sidereal drive kicked in and the LX65 automatically moved to the second alignment candidate, Altair. After centring Altair, I hit ENTER again and the screen displayed “Alignment Successful”. Amazingly, the alignment result was always good, night after night. Subsequent GoTo commands would consistently place my quarry in (or very near) the field of the 26mm eyepiece. My eyeballing worked!

All in the details. Eight C-cell batteries, above (not included), power the LX65. Input ports on the altitude arm permit connecting to an external power source. The star diagonal, top right, accepts 1 ¼ -inch eyepieces, such as the included 26mm Super Plossl eyepiece shown here. Upgrading to a larger diagonal will permit the use of 2-inch oculars. The corrector plate, right, of the LX65 8-inch is recessed less than one inch from the front of the tube assembly and, as such, is exposed to both wayward fingertips and damp night air. A dew shield would be a useful accessory to have. Left photo by Ken Hewitt-White. Right photos by Gary Seronik.

Exploring with the LX65

It was time to observe. The hand unit’s AudioStar software contains a database of roughly 30,000 celestial objects the telescope can locate and track at the push of a key and offers a “Guided Tour” and “Tonight’s Best” selection of sky objects (accompanied by the “Astronomer Inside” voice descriptions) tailored to when I’m actually observing. Most of my priorities were on those AudioStar tours, but I preferred finding my own way around.

I began by star testing the scope’s optics with my alignment star, Altair. In a 9mm Tele Vue eyepiece (generating 226x), Altair exhibited perfectly concentric rings both inside and outside of focus around a tiny Airy disc – indicating very good optical quality. I detected no astigmatism and found images to be coma-free almost to the edge of the field.

When the evening air was steady, I experimented with magnifications ranging from 78x (the supplied 26mm eyepiece) to 290x (a 7mm Nagler) on a variety of objects. The Moon, of course, was an arresting sight. I’d key in a slow slew speed and cruise up and down the lunar terminator, examining ragged craters, jagged mountains and winding rilles. Even though Saturn rode low on the ecliptic, the LX65 showed the Cassini Division in the ansae of the planet’s impressive rings. It was the same low elevation story for Mars, but the scope picked up the dark mass of Syrtis Major plus a tiny white polar cap on the orangey gibbous disc.

The famous Double-Double, Epsilon Lyrae, resolved beautifully at high power, as did gorgeous Gamma Andromedae – a colourful pair comprising deep yellow and sky-blue dots. The marquee globular cluster M13 yielded considerable resolution in my 7mm eyepiece. The Ring Nebula, M57, was a grey doughnut; the Dumbbell Nebula, M27, a misty apple core.

During the predawn hours, I indulged in some favourite winter wonders. M42, the Orion Nebula, was glorious. Its teensy Trapezium, fully resolved, was enveloped in wispy wings of nebulosity spanning the 26mm eyepiece field. The open cluster M35 was also a glittering, field-filling delight.

All in all, it was a night of very enjoyable backyard viewing.


Quibbles and complaints


Cosmic controller. The AudioStar hand unit is mostly 
intuitive to operate; however, the author recommends 
learning its basic functions indoors before observing. 
An introductory guide to the hand unit, including a 
menu tree, is found in the LX65 instruction 
booklet. Photo by Gary Seronik.
No telescope is perfect, and if I had to highlight this instrument’s greatest shortcoming, it would be that the mount jiggled every time I touched the focuser. Vibrations took at least four seconds to settle down with each of my (admittedly fussy) focusing attempts. Thankfully, the sidereal drive would keep my delicate treasure in place until the shaking stopped. Given that the 8-inch is the largest of several OTAs offered with the LX65 mount, it’s possible that this configuration represents the worst-case scenario.

I also found that in same orientations, high-power images jittered every few seconds as the scope tracked. And there was a bit of backlash: A slow slew in altitude (not azimuth) to centre an object in the eyepiece often resulted in the scope stopping as expected but the backing off almost one-third of a high-power field.

The listing of celestial objects in the hand unit’s software is generally comprehensive but at times frustrating to access. All clusters – both globular and open – are lumped together in one long list. The galaxy entries suffer from a mishmash of names and numbers and are offered in no order a novice would find helpful. 

Under “Named Objects”, there’s a mixture of recognizable stuff (Pinwheel Galaxy, Lagoon Nebula, etc.) but also alpha-numeric exotica like PKS0405-12 and PHL 909 (quasars) and GRS 1915-105 (a black hole!). Under “Deep Sky”, I scrolled past headings for galaxies, nebulas, planetary nebulas, clusters, quasars, and, yes, black holes. After all that came enter-the-number catalogues for the IC, NGC and Caldwell catalogues and, at the very end, the popular Messier catalogue.


The bottom line

Despite the problems outlined above, I enjoyed working with the LX65. The superb ACF optics and GoTo capability enabled me to enjoy a wealth of sky objects in my light-polluted city sky. I can recommend the 8-inch for novices (they’ll love the “Astronomer Inside” and “Guided Tour” features) and for experience observers ready to upgrade to a larger, well-equipped telescope that’s quick to set up and remarkably portable too.

Summary


A moderately priced, highly portable 8-inch GoTo scope that produces fine views of planets and deep-sky-objects.

Pluses
  • Excellent optics
  • Dual telescope capability
  • Convenient handles on mount and tube

Minuses

  • Slight backlash after shifting in altitude
  • No manual azimuth motion
  • Hand-unit catalogues poorly organized






Monday, 27 May 2019

Meade LX65 203mm (8”) Review


Original text by Matthew DeSipio, Meade Brand Ambassador, April 24th, 2019.


The LX65 series from Meade Instruments provides amateur astronomers with (1) a simple-to-use and portable deep sky visual observation rig and (2) a budget-friendly way to pursue planetary/lunar astrophotography. While refracting and reflecting telescopes have obvious advantages, the Maksutov-Cassegrain (Mak) and Advanced Coma-Free (ACF™) telescope designs provide an extremely manageable size while still offering large enough apertures and focal lengths to satisfy visual observers and planetary/lunar imagers. 


The whole “manageable size” trait becomes increasingly more attractive with each use. I have never used an ACF™ telescope previously, but I really enjoy the advantages this optical design offers. Dobsonians clearly have some great advantages over ACF™ telescopes, but I really enjoy being able to hold an entire 8” telescope with one hand! But, this is just my opinion.





I purchased the 203mm ACF™ LX65 telescope with the intent on it being a dedicated planetary/lunar imaging telescope. However, the go-to capabilities and advanced electronics make this thing a breeze to setup and use for deep sky object hunting. For interested planetary & lunar imagers, the Meade 203mm LX65 ACF™ and Meade LPI-G advanced imaging camera provide roughly a 0.205”/pixel scale at 1x the focal length and a 0.103”/pixel scale with a 2x barlow (including the additional focal length provided by the 2” focuser I added). I chose to add a 2-speed crayford style focuser to enhance the planetary and lunar imaging experience and I strongly recommend it. The stock focuser is more than adequate for visual observations.


When my telescope finally arrived, my initial impression was: “it looks awesome”. I really do like how Meade designed the LX65 series. From the seemingly durable materials of construction choices to the color schemes, Meade sure designed one nice looking telescope & mount combination.


The LX65 mount allows for the addition of a second, smaller telescope on the other side of the mounting point of the main OTA. I have experimented with the Meade StarPro 80 telescope mounted with my 203mm ACF™ and it really was a lovely night! I would recommend buying a small, short focal length refractor telescope if you want to supplement your observations with a wider field of view.


Honestly, I have used a 42mm eyepiece with the 203mm ACF™ and found the view to be plenty wide enough for many of the larger DSOs (M45, M42, and M31). Still, adding a smaller, shorter focal length refractor (under ~7lbs.) is something to consider.

As far as the mount itself is concerned, the controls are very intuitive and the alignment process is easy. This is extremely important, even for experience amateur astronomers. The AudioStar® hand controller is very nice. The handle at the top of the mount is a convenient trait and I often find myself carrying the mount this way. I initially attempted to power the mount through the 12V input with my field battery, but it became frustrating. Honestly, just use 8 rechargeable C batteries, or else you will end up wrapping the power cord around the mount as the telescope spins around! Unless you need 12V accessories (for example, dew strips), try to stay away from unnecessary cords and power supplies.


Overall, I really like the appearance and startup to shutdown operation of my LX65 203mm ACF™ telescope and mount. The 203mm (8”) ACF™ is HUGE but still incredibly manageable and portable. Lunar imaging with this thing is so stress-free, I really feel relaxed during the image capturing process. Before I show some images, I want to summarize my LX65 findings:




1. The mount looks great. Handle is a nice feature. Relatively light. Tripod is easy to disconnect and reconnect quickly.

2. I enjoy the alignment procedure. Align with magnetic north, level the telescope, and center the alignment stars. Brilliantly simple.

3. The go-to capabilities and electronics allow for additional time observing or imaging, and less time hunting. Tracking is fabulous.

4. The 203mm ACF™ is huge and looks great. The coma-free optics are a pleasure, even with wide-field eyepieces (AFOV>68deg).

5. Use rechargeable C batteries!!! Avoiding unnecessary wiring cleans up the setup and allows for stress-free operation. You can barely tell electronics are present and this is very relaxing under the stars (just like the simple Dobsonian style).

6. Get an aftermarket 2” 2-speed focuser if you are interested in lunar or planetary imaging. An electronic focuser may be a nice alternative.




As far as imaging is concerned, I have only imaged the moon under poor seeing conditions so far. Despite this, the scope and mount did not disappoint! I used a Meade LPI-G advanced camera to capture the following images. Assume I stacked roughly 50% of 4000 total frames for all the of the images.








First up, a two-pane mosaic using no Barlow lens (that is, 1x the effective focal length).



Second, let’s try a two-pane mosaic using a Meade 2x Barlow lens.


You know these are cool. I was very excited and am still eagerly awaiting better seeing conditions. Finally, let’s look at a single image using a 2x Barlow lens.



Clearly this telescope can handle some serious magnification. Focusing was easy with the stable LX65 mount and the aftermarket 2” 2-speed focuser.



Meade LX65 telescopes
http://www.meadeuk.com/Meade-LX65-telescopes.html

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Product catalogue 2019

The new product catalogue for 2019 is now available to download. It includes the latest Meade and Coronado products.



Please download it from the link below.
Meade and Coronado catalogue 2019 (PDF)




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

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.