One day, about twenty years ago, my high school Physics teacher, perhaps sensing my
innate boredom and restlessness, gave me a mounted 60 mm achromatic lens to play
with after class. Little did he know what he was about to start.
I got the lens home, and, not knowing much about optics, I began to play with it.
After cannibalizing my old Milben microscope set, I discovered that I could magnify
images with the little 1/2" diameter Ramsden eyepieces. I was taken aback by the
quality of the images; the achromat was far better than the magnifying glasses I
once used when trying to build a previous telescope.
That little achromat/Ramsden combination, mounted in a cardboard tube, and rigged
on a primitive mount, was my first "real" telescope, one which gave me so much
pleasure that I remember to this day.
With it, I saw the Pleiades, the Hyades (I could just about fit them all in the FOV),
the Orion Nebula, and so many other sights. Pretty soon, I got the urge to buy a
"real" telescope. I took a job flipping burgers to save up the money to buy one. At
that time, there weren't many options available to amateurs on a budget. Celestron
was most prominent, but there was this young, "upstart" company named Meade,
whose literature caught had my fancy. I ordered one. And so I became an amateur
Such began my fascination with astronomy and telescopes. Since then, I've had the
pleasure to own and use several instruments. Below you will find reviews of some
of them. I have also commented on equipment owned by others but which I feel
qualified to comment upon, having spent enough time with them. Prices given are
list prices at time of purchase (NLA = no longer available).
A few items are marked "Brief Impression", equipment which I used for a short time,
but enough so that I could form a provisional opinion.
Telescope Reviews, Page 1
By Ed Ting
Meade Model #591 6" f/8 reflector
Celestron Cometron 90mm
Orion Short Tube 80 and Celestron F80 WA
Astro-Physics Starfire 12 ED
Meade Starfinder 12" f/4.8 Dobsonian (Brief Impression)
Orion (U.K.) Europa 8" f/6 Newtonian
Meade 8" f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain
1) Meade Model #591 6" f/8 reflector
(6" f/8 Equatorial Newtonian, clock drive, 25 mm, 9 mm MA eyepieces,
Back in 1980, Meade sold this model as an economical alternative to their
popular Model #628. The optics were the same, but the clock drive had
nylon (instead of steel) bearings, and the tube was coated in a less
expensive, less durable (as I was to find out) paint compound. Meade
introduced this scope to compete with the popular Criterion Dynascope
RV-6 ("Real Value") which sold for $299.
This was the first telescope I bought. I waited 3 months to get it, which
seemed like an eternity at the time. Every day I would get home from
school and check to if it came. Keep in mind that Meade was not the
dominant force they are today; at the time their products were just
beginning to compete heavily with the more established Celestron
equipment. Meade was bit of an unknown quantity.
When it finally came, I remember being so impressed with the quality and
sheer size of the telescope. It was much larger "live" than in its pictures.
The parts were lovingly packed, padded, and in some cases re-packed.
Looking back, it's easy to see why Meade has succeeded in the market-
The Meade 591 was a real eye-opener, compared with my home made
telescopes (I had built a few primitive refractors by this time). It was a
quantum leap ahead of anything I'd seen up until then. If fact, when people
ask me to recommend a good "first scope", I still point them to a good 4.5" -
The optics are decent. There's slight undercorrection, nothing serious. The
figure seems very smooth. The clock drive is accurate enough for general
The verdict? I still have this scope, almost twenty years later. It sees
a lot of "star party" duty. The paint on the tube has worn through and
flaked off in many places. Hey, it's ugly, but it works! The new version
of this scope is the Starfinder Equatorial 6 ($650).
Update: 1/99 I donated this scope to my local club, and ordered a
Meade 6" Starfinder Dobsonian to replace it.
2) TeleVue Ranger
(70 mm f/6.8 air-spaced doublet refractor, ED glass, OTA only, 17 mm (old)
or 20 mm Plossl (new) supplied, $850 list, $575-$650 street)
(Note: See also related article)
TeleVue's diminutive Ranger: A surprisingly versatile telescope.
I need to disclose some personal bias here. I have a big warm spot in my
heart for this telescope. It got me back into astronomy after many years
due to its tiny size (16"-19", depending on how you store it), durable
construction, and excellent optics. In fact, it's so small, you have no
excuse NOT to go observing if it's clear out! As a result, the Ranger
has shown me more than my other scopes combined.
The heart of the Ranger system is a 70 mm ED objective with a 480 mm
focal length. The focuser is helical, like a telephoto lens (the eyepiece
does not rotate). You find rough focus with the draw tube, then you
fine-focus with the focuser. Although it's well-made, I think I would still
prefer a rack and pinion focuser. Switching between, say, a 40 mm and
a 6 mm eyepiece results in some frustrating fumbling in the dark.
The objective is not a true apochromat; the scope shows plenty of false
color on bright objects. TeleVue classifies the Ranger as a "semi-
apochromat". You can see a purple halo around the limb of Venus and
the Moon, although the intensity is somewhat lower than on a traditional
Otherwise, the Ranger performs like a champ. Stars snap into focus in
a way that few reflector owners appreciate. Views of Saturn and Jupiter,
and of deep-sky objects like the double cluster in Perseus, are quite
stunning with the right eyepieces. You'd swear the aperture was a lot
bigger than 2.7".
With a 13 mm Nagler, the Ranger becomes a surprisingly good deep-sky
instrument. It's actually easier for me to find M33 with the Ranger than
with my 6" reflector. It's fun to see how "deep" this little scope will go.
M81/M82 are no problem. M51 is no problem. M65/M66/NGC3628 are
a little more difficult, but still relatively easy. M109 and M97/M108 are
just about the scope's limit from suburban skies. With practice, however,
I think I can go even deeper. You don't need a big scope to do deep sky!
For planetary observing, however, it becomes difficult to acheive higher
powers without resorting to tiny eyepieces and barlow-stacking. A 7 mm
Nagler, for example, only yields 68X.
You need to find a way to mount this scope. If you don't have TeleVue's
excellent Gibraltar/Panoramic tripods, figure on getting at least a Bogen
3001, or equivalent. The scope attaches via a sliding dovetail bar using
a 1/4" screw. You don't need a finder, but I did install a TeleVue Quick
Point, and it helps.
If you the idea of a Ranger, but want a rack and pinion focuser, consider
getting a Pronto, which is the same scope except for the focuser and a
2" diagonal. It will run you about $850-$975 (street price, depending on
3) Celestron Cometron
(90 mm Alt-Az Newtonian, 25 mm, 9 mm Kellners, $129, NLA)
This little scope was released before Halley's Comet's arrival in 1986. It
featured OK optics and a good table top tripod. Unfortunately, the eyepieces
were .966", and the views were much dimmer than you'd expect for a 90 mm (a
Questar or an ETX, for example, gives much better and brighter views.) Looking
inside the focuser revealed why. To achieve a long focal ratio, the designers
placed a small barlow lens inside the drawtube. I have nothing against barlows,
but this one appeared to be uncoated and of poor quality. Also, removing it did
I experimented for a while by using 1.25" eyepieces and an adapter, but the
results didn't get a whole lot better, so I sold it.
4) Meade DS-10
(10" f/4.5 Equatorial Newtonian, no drives, 9, 25 mm MA eyepieces, $499, NLA)
Our club had one of these as our club scope back in the late 1980's. The
optics were fair to good, but, as in any fast reflector, there was noticeable
coma around the edges of the FOV -- forget about using any cheap 40 mm
eyepieces! Also, you could not rotate the tube (it was bolted onto the
mounting plate in the equatorial head), which got to be a pain after a while.
The mount was a little wobbly, but its low height - the rear of the tube stood
only about a foot or so off the ground - partially compensated for this.
Despite the generally competent nature of this scope, it just didn't get used
very often after the first year or so.
5) Orion Short Tube 80 and Celestron F80 WA
(80 mm f/5 doublet achromatic refractors)
(Orion ST: 25 mm, 10 mm Kellner eyepieces, OTA only, 45 degree diagonal, $249)
(Celestron: 25 mm SMA eyepiece, equatorial mount, tripod, 90 degree
(Note: See also related article)
These scopes share the same optics. I thought I saw a third version, a
Vixen model, in a British astronomy magazine, but I can't be 100% certain.
The Vixen sure looked similar, and it came with an interesting feature: it
could turn itself into a microscope. You just point the objective lens
down, slip on this corrector lens, and -voila!- microscope! Neat, huh?
I've had the opportunity to look through 2 Orions and 1 Celestron. First,
let me say that I like these scopes. They can't be beat for the price. If
could somehow arrange to have these placed on department store shelves
instead of "the usual" brand, there would be a lot more happy budding
astronomers out there!
Optically, these are rich-field scopes, sort of in the same class as the
Edmund Astroscan. There is noticeable color around most bright objects
(and usually a moderately bright purple halo as well). The Celestron I
saw had pinched optics -- the diffraction rings were triangular. As long
as you don't push the power too much, these are fine scopes for scanning
the Milky Way, or for looking at brighter nebulae. Planets are a different
story, though. With only 400 mm to work with, it's hard to get a sharp,
steady image on Saturn, although the rings and Titan are well within reach.
Jupiter was pretty (albeit tiny in the FOV!), too.
However, as good as these scopes are, they do not deliver anywhere near
the performance of, say, the Ranger/Pronto duo, which are in another class
altogether. I am told the Brandons will also put these 80s to shame.
Which one you buy depends on your needs. The Orion needs a tripod, comes
with two eyepieces, and a 45 degree diagonal which should prove annoying in
no time flat. The Celestron has only one eyepiece (but it's a better one than
the Orion's), a 90 degree diagonal, and a decent equatorial mount with slow
motion controls. For this, Celestron's asking price is $100 more. I think
it's worth the extra, but if you already have the extra parts then you might
do better to buy the Orion.
6) Takahashi FS102
(4" f/8 fluorite doublet apochromatic refractor, OTA only, $2625 list)
(Note: See also related article)
The Takahashi FS102 is one of the "new" series in the Tak line and replaces
the venerable FC100. In addition to the extra 2 mm of aperture, the most
significant change is that the fluorite element is now in front; that is, ex-
posed to the elements. According to Takahashi, the development of new
"hard" multi-coatings (said to be even harder than the glass itself) allowed
this change. Thus the FIRST thing the light hits is fluorite. I've been
following the pro/con arguments regarding fluorite, (actually an artificially
grown calcium fluorite crystal) and the prevailing "conventional wisdom" is
that fluorite lenses are as durable as conventional glass elements. Still,
I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who's had experience with this
The OTA arrived well-packed. I held my breath, opened the carton, and
-whew- no damage to the optics. I had bought this used and had a few
sleepless nights thinking about it -- visions of shattered glass danced
in my head.
What a beautifully made piece of equipment! If you've never seen one,
the FS102 is LARGE for a 4"; the dew shield is 6" in diameter and almost
8" long. To give you an idea of the quality, the dust cap is made out of
felt-lined cast iron, neatly sculpted, polished, and colored lime-green.
It should last as long as your average man hole cover.
Potential buyers should note that the price given above is for the OTA only.
The finder ($130 for 6X30 mm, $275 for 7X50 mm) and mounting ring ($155)
are sold separately. The reader will note that these items, like the scope
itself, are NOT cheap. The OTA does come with a compression-ring style
1.25" diagonal. Like the rest of the scope, it's extremely well made, but
if you want 2" capability it'll cost you another $100 or so for the visual
back, and another $100-$300 for a 2" diagonal (you weren't really thinking
about putting a $100 diagonal on this beauty, were you?)
I eventually bought the 6X30 finder. It's extremely solid and delivers bright,
pleasing images (it had better, for $130!). However, the "dew shield" is only
about 1/4" long - the front lens is right out there, waiting to collect dew. The
eyepiece is again held on with a compression ring, and has an incredibly
smooth action to it.
If you opt to go without the mounting ring, note that the Celestron/Vixen
102mm mounting rings, sold by Orion and others (about $72), fit the FS102
OTA perfectly. Once you have these rings, it's a simple matter to couple
them to a Super Polaris or Great Polaris mount. OK, so it's not as good
as Takahashi's EM2 ($1995), but it is about $1300 cheaper.
I've gone observing quite a few times with the Tak now, in magnitude 5.0 New
Hampshire skies, with a friend. Between us we have ten telescopes. It isn't
hard to find dark skies in NH, but it gets cold quickly, and limits your ob-
serving time to 2-2.5 hours in the winter, even with hot chocolate at your
side! So we were able to compare the Takahashi with a number of different
The closest competitor came in the form of an Astro-Physics Starfire 12 ED
on a GM-8 mount. We ran some tests, but mostly we just went observing,
looking at whatever struck our fancy. Both the A-P and Tak exhibited a
tiny bit of undercorrection out of focus. In focus, the diffraction rings on
both scopes looked as though they came right out of a textbook. Also,
both scopes "snapped" cleanly into focus; there was no doubt as to where
the focus point was.
Using some crafty mixing of barlows, we managed to get both scopes at
almost the same magnification on Saturn. I have to tell you, it was so
close. Keep in mind that the Star 12 has something like a 39% advantage in
light gathering ability; perhaps the extra-extra low dispersion of the fluorite
element partially compensated for this. It was so hard to choose between
them; we eventually gave up and just enjoyed the views. We briefly tried
some high power viewing (200X +) but the skies weren't steady enough to
support the magnification, and my Super Polaris is more wiggle-prone than
my friend's GM-8.
On another night, we caught a shadow transit on Jupiter (in daylight, no
less!) Here, I did notice that the tiny black dot was more tightly resolved
on the Takahashi. We trained both scopes side-by-side on Jupiter so we
could quickly exchange views. I did notice that I was resorting to averted
vision a little sooner on the Star 12. However, when the moon began to
emerge from the limb of the giant planet, it was the Star 12 that found it first.
On deep sky, the Star 12, with its larger aperture, slightly outperformed
the Takahashi. M33 and M42 were a little brighter, for example. But the
differences, like those described above, were small. They both looked so
good. M42, with a 25 mm TeleVue Plossl and a UHC filter, just about filled
the view with a swirling mass of green in both scopes. Our 6" and 8"
Newtonians are brighter, but the refractors seem to show more detail, and
are much sharper.
Replacing one of the elements in a conventional achromat with a fluorite
element (FPL53) should result in about a 45%-50% reduction in chromatic
aberration ("false color") compared with "ED" (FK01) glasses. "ED" in turn,
exhibits about 70% less chromatic aberration compared with conventional
crown-and-flint achromats. In theory, fluorite should reduce false color
to below the level of detectability. I did train the Takahashi on Venus
briefly. While it was "whiter" than any other refractor I've looked through,
I thought I could see some red on the limb of the planet. Note that Venus
was low in the sky, and I was using a "complicated" eyepiece (a 9 mm Nagler)
which has shown some color on its own. So the jury's still out on this one.
Both instruments are beautifully finished. It's obvious both companies
care about their products. I'm biased, but I admit to being attracted to
the somewhat understated (pale lime green) finish of the FS102. And
Takahashi's much-vaunted focuser is simply incredible; if you haven't used
one, you should someday (and the Star 12's focuser is no slouch, either!)
I did think that the visual back and extension tube assembly were a bit
better executed on the Star 12, however.
In short, I'm extremely pleased with my new Takahashi. I expect it will give
me much pleasure in the years to come.
7) Astro-Physics Starfire 12 ED
(120 mm f/8.5 doublet ED refractor, OTA only, $1999, NLA)
It is hard to believe you could once get these scopes for $1999. The current
waiting list for A-P refractors stretches out to over a year. People sign up
for a waiting list just to place an order. Then, after plunking 50% down,
you wait another 9-12 months before you get your scope. Clearly, some-
thing is going on here.
What is going on is that Astro-Physics produces some of the finest telescopes
in the world today. In the rarified air of high quality refractors, only Takahashi
and perhaps the Vixen fluorites are their equal.
The version I used was outfitted with a Meade 2" diagonal and a Meade 8X50
finder on a GM-8 with dual-axis correctors. My friend bought it from someone
at the Suffern show who was moving up to a larger A-P. What can I say about
the views, they were exceptional. I thought I could see some false color (very
slight) on bright objects, and perhaps the color was a little more pronounced
than on my Takahashi, but it was minor.
The Star 12 is no longer made. Roland Christen replaced by either the A-P
105 Traveler, or the A-P 130 EDFS, depending on how you look at it. The new
A-P units are all oil-spaced triplets; the Star 12 is an ED doublet (presumably
air-spaced). I have not looked through any of the new Christen triplets yet,
but they are said to have no false color whatsoever.
For further comments, see above under Takahashi.
8) Meade Starfinder 12.5" Dobsonian (Brief Impression)
(12" f/4.8 Dobsonian, 6X30 finder, 9 mm, 12 mm, 25 mm MA eyepieces, $895)
During First Night (New Year's Eve, 1997) our club sponsered a Sky Watch for
the public at the planetarium in Concord, NH. The owner of this scope wound
up inside the planetarium for most of the night, so I got to play with his Star-
finder (showing it to the public, etc) for about 1.5 hours. Thus this is a brief
These has been much debate on the 'net as to the quality of the optics and
mount on this scope. Reports have it that the mirror won't cool down and
that the mount is flimsy. I found neither to be true on this particular
sample. The scope did exactly what it was meant to do -- gather lots of
light, cheaply. I have to wonder about those who compare large dobs like
this one with expensive APOs; there really isn't any comparison, since the
two designs have complimentary strengths and weaknesses. I like going
observing with large dob owners. I bring my 4" refractor and we can compare
The optics were quite sharp, more so than I expected. In addition, there is
surprisingly little coma around the edges (but if coma bothers you, it IS
there). These scopes were built to look at objects like M42, and there was
no disappointment in this area. The nebula looked splendid! With a focal
length about midway between a 6" f/8 reflector and your typical Schmidt-
Cassegrain, the Starfinder was actually pretty good on Saturn. At least 3
moons were visible, with a fourth "blinking in" every now and then.
I ran a quick star test. In the center of the FOV, the first diffraction ring
was quite prominent, with a small airy disc in the center. As you move out
towards the edges, though, the diffraction pattern becomes "V" like, not very
pleasing. Hey, what do you want for only $895?
Update, 4/00: Meade recently reduced the price of this telescope to
$795, + $79 shipping.
9) Orion (U.K.) 8" f/6 Newtonian
(8" f/6 Newtonian, 6X30 finder, no drives, eyepieces, $1250, mount only, $549)
The Europa aboard a GM-8
A good set of optics on a too-light mount. This is the British "Orion,"
not the Orion in CA, USA. They offer 4.5", 6", 8", 10", and 12" re-
flectors mated to a Taiwanese German equatorial mount. Unfortunately,
the mount is asked to bear the weight of the 6", 8", and 10". In reality,
it is more suited to the 4.5", or something even lighter.
The owner of this scope figured out how to mount the 8" OTA to his GM-8
and reports good results. In my time with the scope the images looked
promising, and seemed a cut above the Meade/Celestron units. I'm told
the OTAs are available separately.
Update, 7/98 Having used this scope a number of times, I've been increasingly
impressed with its optics. It's better than your run-of-the-mill Newtonians, giving
very sharp images. Worth seeking out, if Newtonians are your thing. Just have
a good solid mount handy.
Update, 12/99 According to Barry at Orion (UK) Optics, these reflectors
will be shipping with a heavier mount starting January, 2000. This is
certainly welcome news, and will make these telescopes even more
10) Meade 8" f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain
(8" f/10 fork-mounted S-C, drives, finder, 25 mm MA or 26 mm Super Plossl)
(LX-10 version: $995 + $195 for tripod)
(LX-50 version: $1395 + $295 for tripod)
(LX-200 version: $2295 complete)
Every time I see one of these things, I'm amazed at how compact the are.
Looking somewhat like overgrown coffee pots, they're easily transportable
out into the field. The tripod is relatively light, too. Yet, in spite of their
portability, you still get a generous 8" of aperture. No wonder they're so
Once set up, these Schmidt-Cassegrains deliver good, and sometimes very
good, performance, although rather consistently below the performance of
good apochromatic refractors. I do notice some variation in quality, mostly
due to miscollimated optics. This is easy to spot. Rack the focuser out a
bit and look at the image. If the alignment is off, it's immediately obvious.
These make good planetary scopes, though I feel kind of "boxed in" with their
relatively narrow fields of view (forget about looking at the Pleiades). Also,
these scopes can take somewhat longer to cool down than small refractors or
equivalent-sized Newtonians. The corrector plate is subject to dew; a dew shield
of some sort is a necessity. Also, image-shift while focusing takes some getting
used to, especially for non S-C owners like myself. What's more, the amount of
image-shift varies from scope to scope. Finally, using cheap eyepieces can result
in some annoying ghost images in the FOV (ironically, the supplied MA25 eye-
piece in the LX10 and LX50 units is a particularly bad offender).
These are good scopes to use if it's windy out -- there's less surface area
for the wind to grab. Also, when it comes time to break down at the end
of a cold observing session, Schmidt-Cassegrain owners are usually the first
ones back inside their warm cars.
I won't go into the differences between the LX10, LX50 and LX200 versions; to
do so would require another separate article in itself. Suffice it to say that the
optics remain the same, but the mechanical and electronic sophistication in-
creases as the model number increases. The LX50 and LX200 are a little more
stable than my Super Polaris, the LX10 perhaps a bit less so.
End Reviews, Page 1