Updated, 8/04/04, 12/28/04 (7" f/15 Maksutov-Cassegrain, Drives, 8X50 finder, tripod, 26 mm Plossl, $2795 + $125 shipping) (Update, 8/04: The scope is now the LX200GPS-SMT, at $2695)
Marvelous telescope. This unit was loaned to me by a club member who was out of town for a week, and asked me to "baby sit." I became very familiar with it during that time. This is Meade's answer to the Questar 7. Although the scope is expensive, it is downright cheap compared with the Questar, which sells for $5,200-$10,000+. The Mak looks like an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain at first glance. However, the tube is a few inches longer, there are two tiny cooling fans in the visual back, and the meniscus corrector in front has push-pull cells, a nice touch. Also, Schmidt- Cassegrain users are going to get a surprise when they attempt to lift this thing. The OTA and fork arm assembly weighs 52 lbs (the similar section of the 8" S-C weighs 38 lbs.) In other words, this 7" assembly weighs almost as much as Meade's own 10" Meade LX200 S-C. This is not a travel scope. This somewhat heavy weight, coupled with the fact that the scope is mount- ed alt-az, means the scope is really, really solid and steady on its feet. I had to bump the scope pretty hard to make the images waver. I confess, I was a bit apprehensive about aligning and initializing this telescope. I needn't have worried. The controller walks you through the process. OK, so I had to do it three times to get it perfectly right, but each 2-star alignment only takes a few minutes, and by the third day it had become second-nature.
Once set up, the scope is a breeze to use. The precision of the computer is very good. I had to train myself to use the hand controller, instead of the manual slo-mo controls, to make fine adjustments. You CANNOT use the manual controls once the telescope is aligned (damage to the scope may result.) I'd had a number of brief glances through these scopes in the past. The initial results were very encouraging, but I wanted to hold off writing about one until I could do a long-term test. The optics are wonderful. I noticed almost no spherical aberration, and the scope's collimation was dead-on. On Saturn, the views were razor sharp, and got a few "Oh Wows!" from the others present. One advantage of the ultra- long 2,670 mm focal length is that your comfortable 15 mm-25 mm eyepieces produce some pretty high powers. The other scopes present the first night included the G5, my non-sdf Renaissance, and Meade's 102ACHR/500. The Mak turned in an impressive performance. I could see detail on both planets with the Mak that eluded the others. On the third night, I had good skies and a lot of time on my hands. I dragged out all of my telescopes and compared images on Saturn, Jupiter, and several well-known deep sky objects. On the planets, the Meade easily disposed of the C102, Ranger, and the non- sdf Renaissance. Note that none of these telescopes are slouches.
Against the mighty Takahashi FS102, things got a little tougher. In times of good seeing, the Maksutov's images were just a tad sharper, with more slightly more detail visible on the ball of Saturn. Cassini's was also a little crisper, and easier to hold with direct vision. Due to the larger aperture, Saturn was whiter as well. The 6", 8", and 10" Newtonians were OK on the planets, but were out- classed in this company and didn't really put up much of a fight. On deep sky, the Mak turned in a surprising performance. No, you can't see all of the Pleiades, or the Double Cluster. However, on objects like the half-dozen or so open clusters in Auriga, the Mak's images were so sharp and contrasty, you could have fooled me into thinking it was a refractor. On M33, I could start to see the shape of the galaxy, with its two spiral arms, very exciting. The 10" Dob threw up a brighter image, but the image lacked detail, and remained a smudge in the eyepiece. On the fourth evening, the sky was unusually clear and transparent. I did another comparison, this time between the Mak and the Takahashi on Jupiter. There was a double transit happening, a rare and special event. Low-level planetary detail is a very stringent test for any optical system, and I was anxious to see how the two scopes compared and differed. The results were very close. In times of good seeing, the Mak slightly edged out the Takahashi. However, during times of average or slightly unsteady seeing, the refractor won out, and in fact the FS102 gave the more consistently excellent images. When Europa exited the limb of the planet, the Takahashi showed the thin black space between the moon and the planet more sharply, and more consistently. However, during those rare moments of ultra-steady seeing, the Mak would throw up a wondrous view that took my breath away. I kept thinking of that scene in the Wizard of Oz where the film suddenly turns into color.
How does one interpret these results? If you live in an area with unusually steady and consistent seeing, you might consider the Mak over a smaller aperture apochromatic refractor. However, if you live in an area with un- steady or unpredictable seeing, as I do, you might be better off with a scope like the Takahashi, or an Astro-Physics Traveler. On the fifth night, I set up the Mak next to my 10" Meade Starfinder Dob, to see how the scopes compared on deep sky. The Dob, by the way, con- tinues to impress me as an excellent value at $599, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a mid-to-large size Dobsonian (Note from Ed: now discontinued.) I viewed several early winter objects, mostly NGC clusters in Auriga and Gemini. The Dob did better than you might expect, but fell short in two key areas. First, despite the fact that I had just painstakingly collimated it, there was noticeable coma and some contrast loss near the edges. Also, although the Dob is impressive at powers less than 100X, it does not take high mag- nification well. The Mak's stellar images were beautiful tiny pinpoints, and there was no image degradation near the edges of the FOV. Both scopes showed F in the Trapezium, but E eluded them this evening. The three Messier clusters in Auriga were remarkably similar in both scopes, as long as I didn't look too near the edges on the Dob. So while the Mak wins on image quality, the Dob wins on aperture, the width of its field of view, and bang for the buck.
Drawbacks? If you like low power, wide-field, deep sky observing, this scope may not be for you. The heavy weight may bother some. Also, those purists who are not fond of fancy electronics may be turned off by all those sophisticated features. Those stories you've heard about Maksutovs needing a long cool-down time are true. Figure at least an hour, even with the fan running. Finally, there is the issue of the electronics. If the computer ever breaks down, you are in big trouble. Tracking objects by hand with a 2670 mm scope is not my idea of fun (especially alt-az mounted!) The motors make a racket. Also, the ten-cent power cord plug looks as if it's just waiting to break off - there isn't even a strain relief on it. Owners should replace it immediately upon receipt of the scope. The price is steep, but if you can do without the computers and drives, the LX50 model is only $2090 with the tripod. I have mixed feelings about hoisting such a heavy tube on a tilted wedge in the dark, but it is a less- expensive alternative.
So, it's not for everyone. However, I think anyone in the market for an 8" LX200 or an Ultima 8 would be crazy not to check out these Maks. An ob- serving friend who looked through this one got all nostalgic about it and said it brought back good memories of the 7" Mak he once had. He wished he had never sold it. This is the best catadioptric in Meade's line up, and one of their best scopes, period. This was summed up by an observing friend, who, after watching me slew the scope to one impressive view after another, leaned back in the obser- ving chair and said, "A guy could waste a lot of time with a telescope like this."
Meade 7" LX200 Maksutov Hots:
2) Meade Model #390/ #395 90 mm Refractors (90 mm f/11 air-spaced achromats, 6X30 finder, 25 mm MA eyepiece) (#390 Alt-Az, $499, #395 Equatorial, $599)
These are good starter scopes. The samples I've seen have good optics, with some false color noted on bright objects like Jupiter or the limb of the moon. The Equatorial model is more convenient, the Alt-Az version is a little more stable. Your choice. I have recommended these a number of times to beginners looking for a good starter refractor. BUT...Celestron's C102HD offers more aperture, a sturdier mount, and bet- ter multi-coatings at the same price as the #395. Also, Meade has just reduced the price of its ACHR 4" refractors to $595 if you buy the LXD300 mount. They aren't going to sell many of these #395 units if the extra aperture is free.
3) Takahashi FC76 (76 mm f/8 air-spaced doublet refractor with fluorite element, OTA only, NLA) (Replaced by FS78, $1495 list) Although this scope has a mere 6 mm more aperture than the Ranger/Pronto duo, its performance is in another league altogether. In both optical quality and size, it thinks it's a 4" APO. Images were tack sharp and its optics had virtually perfect spherical correction. False color is almost non-existant, though you have to remember that at only 76 mm, it doesn't really gather enough light to throw up a huge secondary spectrum.
Views of Jupiter and Saturn rivaled those of my FS102. The views are slightly dimmer, but the scope throws up an amazingly detailed image on the Jovian planet. Six to eight belts and a shadow transit were easily visible despite moderate seeing conditions. As hinted above, however, this is not a small scope (nor a cheap one!) Its dew shield is huge, and the buttery-smooth focuser appears to be the same unit as on my FS102. You could easily fool someone into thinking it was a 4". Also, the tube comes without a finder - this is important to note, since Takahashi's finders are pricey and use a weird metric mounting plate; plan accordingly. Also, depending on the version you get, you might have difficulty coupling the Tak tube ring to your mount. Wonderful scope. Replaced by the FS78, which adds 2 mm of aperture and has the fluorite element in front. The FC76/FS78 may be the ideal second scope for someone who already owns a high-quality SCT or big Dob.
(50 mm f/8 fluorite air-spaced doublet refractor, OTA only, NLA)
Incredible performance for a scope of this size. Although it could serve as a "luxury" finder, the FC50 is a great little scope in its own right. Looking at the scope, it is clear that Takahashi lavished just as much attention to the "little guy" in their line up as on their larger models. Same beautiful construction, same awesome focuser. The FC50 showed a trace of undercorrection, and I couldn't see any false color (but, it doesn't gather a lot of light to begin with.) Three of us went observing in a nearby field. Although the Renaissance, 10" Dob, and a Schmidt-Newtonian were also present, we all wound up huddled next to the camera tripod-mounted FC50, playing a game which might have been called "I Wonder If The FC50 Can See 'XXX'?" The scope will split Castor. It will also find M81/M82, and easily show their orientation. Jupiter and Saturn were far better than you have any reasonable right to expect. Jupiter's moons were tiny, tiny, perfect little pinpoints. The only problem we had, is that with only 400 mm of focal length to work with, we "ran out" of magnification. The superb 5 mm Pentax .965" ortho was the shortest eyepiece on hand (no one had a .965" barlow handy.) At this magnification - 80X - it was clear that the scope could handle higher power, possibly a lot of it. Speaking of those Pentax orthos, the eyepieces and the superb Takahashi .965" mirror diagonal had all of us rethinking what was possible in the .965" format. The Pentaxes had world-class sharpness (and price!) and the FOV is acceptable.
In short, the FC50 is an exquisitely made, optically superb, expensive (about $500 street, used) specialty item. I don't blame you if you want one.
(6" f/8 Dob-Newt, 5X24 finder, 26 mm Plossl, $349 + $39 shipping) (Deluxe accessory package, 6X30 finder, 2" focuser, 9.7 mm, 26 mm Plossl, add $49) (No Longer Available)
"A 6 inch Dobsonian is a great beginner's scope - it's cheap, useful, and will teach you a lot." I have written these words to newcomers asking for advice more times than I can count. However, it had been a while since I'd spent time with one. This, coupled with the fact that I had just donated my 20 year old 6" Meade #591 to the club, and was thus temporarily without a 6" telescope, made it seem like the right time to order a new one for myself.
Meade offers a nice Accessory Package. For $50 you get the 9.7 mm Series 4000 Plossl, a real finder (the standard 5X24 unit has the optical quality of something you'd find in a cereal box) and the 2" focuser. You can always sell off the extra eyepiece and make the money back. Unfortunately, while the all-plastic 2" focuser usually works well for a few nights, it quickly breaks or starts "skipping". "The best telescope," someone once said to me, "is one that generates the fewest comments." In the case of this 6" Meade, the news is good, because I have very little to say. The assembly was uneventful. Images are clear and crisp, the secondary obstruction is benign, and the optics on mine are just slightly undercorrected.
Complaints? A few minor ones. The 2" focuser's knobs sit almost right on top of the tube, making it impossible to wrap your hands around them for a good grip. Also, the drawtube protrudes into the optical path. The back of the OTA contains a large metal counterweight, necessary to balance the tube at such a low center of gravity. Without the weight, the fulcrum of the tube would be moved forward, requiring a much higher, heavier, rocker box. Orion's 6" Dob takes the latter path. So take your pick - heavy tube/light-low rocker box (Meade) or light tube/high-heavy rocker box (Orion.) Finally, the skinny, high profile of the scope is a little unsteady in the wind. There's competition. Celestron's 6" Starhopper offers better construction, and some neat features not found in the Meade. However, it costs more. The Orion is also a little better-built, but it doesn't have a pyrex mirror and also costs a little more once you add a finder. All three offer good value; buy the one you think suits you best. I'm impressed you can get so much for $350-$400. A cheap dob doesn't have the portability of a catadioptric, or the performance of a modern APO, but for the money, it's darned hard to beat.
Update, 7/99: I have been getting complaints from readers about the plastic #77 2" focuser. Unfortunately, when you get the upgrade package with the better eyepieces and finder, Meade insists upon giving you this focuser. While I haven't tried this myself, readers tell me the focuser from Antares ($80) is a good replacement for the #77 unit. Update, 4/00: Meade recently dropped the price of this telescope to $249, + $39 shipping
(6" f/6 Maksutov-Newtonian, 2" focuser, OTA only, $1149 from Orion w/ 1/6 wave optics 93%, or $1450 from Intes w/ 1/8 wave optics, 98%)
(Note: see related article) This is, with minor cosmetic variations, the same scope sold by Orion under the "Argonaut" name. Orion's version is black, as opposed to these off-white Intes units. I'd heard a lot about these Russian scopes, but I'd never had a chance to look through one myself. After reports of some questionable units from Intes in the early 1990's, these scopes are now garnering almost universal praise.
The scope certainly gives you the impression it's from a different country. There is a serious, no-nonsense, functional look to it (one owner calls his "humorless.") The tube assembly is actually two tubes joined in the middle; see the seam? (You can also see the seam in the Orion unit, if you look real close at the photo in their catalog. The seam is just in front of the rear ring.) The primary has the standard push-pull cells, although the "push" bolts and the "pull" bolts take differently-sized allen keys, which could prove infuriating out in the field if you have to collimate it. This unit (pictured) has a hole drilled in the back. The hole is threaded and takes a small DC fan for cooling. This one also has the enhanced 98% coatings. Un- like the larger Intes Mak-Newts, however, this one has no internal baffles. The focuser is a gearless 2" unit with limited travel and two confusing tension bolts on the drawtube. There's a metal dew shield that attaches using tiny, inconvenient allen keys. Fully assembled, the OTA is on the heavy side at 21 lbs. This scope was shipped directly from Europe, and arrived with no literature; included was a badly translated set of instructions describing (I think) how to collimate the optics. The G11 mount pictured represents a bit of overkill for this scope (a GM8 would have sufficed), but I wound up being grateful for its stability in the wind the night I tested the MN61. It takes a bona fide 60 lb load to over- power a G11; in fact, the G11 nearly overpowered me while lugging it out- side after shooting the photo.
I tested the scope under conditions which can safely be described as "bitter cold." The wind chill hovered around -30 F. I found I could only observe for ten minutes or so before having to retreat back inside. Thus, readers should be aware that my eyes probably never acheived full dark-adaptation. The optics are almost perfect on this unit. This is a great planetary scope that delivers knock-your-socks-off views of Saturn and Jupiter. The impressively high contrast, small central obstruction (18%) and lack of secondary diffraction spikes do a good job of convincing you that it's a high-quality refractor. The fast f/6 optics are somewhat prone to edge distortion when using cheap eyepieces. I set up the MN61/G11 combo next to my new Meade 6" Starfinder dob, which has the same aperture as the Intes but costs about $3000 less. I love doing comparos like this, and usually root for the cheap scope! However, despite a respectable showing by the Meade dob, the Intes was simply in another league. On Saturn, for example, the Meade does well at 174X, but the MN61's images were quite a bit sharper. One hallmark of a quality scope is its ability to laugh off high magnifications; the Intes certainly qualifies. The Meade seemed to top out around 200X; with the Intes, I could keep pushing the power. Cassini's division was visible at lower powers in the Intes than in the Meade, and was quite sharper to boot. Low-level detail on Jupiter was also more easily resolved. Jupiter, by the way, was stunning in the Intes during moments of steady seeing. On the Auriga Messier clusters, the scopes were closer, although the Intes did have more contrast and tighter airy discs. The f/8 Meade was slightly more tolerant of cheap eyepieces, though. The Pleiades were nicely framed in the Intes with a 32 mm TeleVue Plossl. I think the Intes would make a great wide-field deep sky scope. This MN61 is an impressive telescope, with superb optics and solid (if slightly quirky) mechanical construction. Since spare parts are likely to be rare, service becomes an issue. I am not sure what you would do if your Intes needed major service -- do you talk to your dealer, or is a call to Mother Russia in order? You might want to have this issue worked out in your mind before buying one. In short, the Intes is recommended to discriminating, affluent observers looking for something a little different.