Getting reacquainted with my Meade ETX 125 EC
By George Stonebreaker
Hello and greetings from stormy West Central Arkansas. It is raining again, there is nothing on TV worth watching, (boy ain’t that the truth) and so I am taking advantage of this opportunity to spend a few minutes writing about a super fine Telescope. My Meade, ETX125 (127mm) Maksutov-Cassegrain, Telescope. My real passion for any and all Refractors is sometimes a very real problem, because I have become a refractor nut.
I know what you are saying, “this guy doesn’t even know the difference between a refractor and a Mak”. Wrong! I am very aware of the differences, and I know that my ETX 125EC, (and my ETX 90EC), are both Maks. I also know that my little ETX60AT is a refractor. In my journey as an “amateur astronomer” (notice the use of lower case letters that is because I am still learning and I don’t consider myself a real “Amateur Astronomer” (upper case letters) yet. So I am adding a little history to explain my dilemma.
I started my hobby with a 127mm reflector scope, mounted on a very shaky, clumsy, aluminum and plastic tripod and a GEM mount that I had absolutely no clue how to use. “Hey which end of this thing do you look thru?” When I had finally read all there was to read about it I set it up, and actually managed to see a few things with it. The telephone pole about a half mile from my home, a big black bird sitting in a pecan tree, also about a half mile from my home, but he flew away before I got it focused real well. I tried my best to align the little finder scope and the OTA, but it just didn’t happen. I did everything including standing on my head to try to see the Moon and other Solar system treats, but all I managed to do was start to wonder if maybe I needed some help and how do I find that? I was unaware that there was an astronomy club in my area, and thought that a star party was somewhere the celebrities hung out, drank and snorted cocaine.
I am very hard headed and there was no way that this little reflector was going to beat me, so I would doggedly drag it out night after night and eventually I did learn to aim and to find things in the heavens. I had discovered all the internet and print media, and so I slowly became a pretty good self-taught, star gazer. While visiting, a local park, with my wife, and daughter, I saw a flyer that was left announcing a star party on the 3rd Friday of the month that was being held at that very park by the local Astronomy Club, and it said everyone was welcome. Well, I went and fell in love, with a beautiful almost brand new Burgess Achro1278 127mm f/8 Refractor telescope. “Hey I gotta get me one of these!”
Unfortunately, however much I pleaded it was not for sale and I was told they were few and far between, most sold out before they were even delivered or built. I was hooked. No more little reflectors for me, I wanted a “Real” telescope and it had to be one of those long sleek looking classic style, Refractors. Heck the one I had, (my reflector) didn’t even look much like a telescope, more like a Black ABS plastic sewer pipe, with a smaller pipe sticking out of the side. Hey! What’s the matter with this picture?
Sticker shock is probably the best way to describe my search for a nice refractor. I had been looking for something like the Achro 1278, and I was surprised at the difference between the cost of a 5” refractor and a 5” reflector. To make a long story short, I was not sure that I wanted to star gaze bad enough at that point to spend that much money. All the refractors I could afford left me comparing them to the 1278, they came up short in both fit and finish, and looked cheaply made as the focuser was held on with 3 small sheet metal screws. The focus unit on the Burgess 1278 was actually threaded into the heavy weight aluminum optical tube. I decided that maybe I needed to go another route, and look at what I understood to be a better mouse trap - a combination of the best of both worlds, the SCT. Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. It had mirrors like a reflector, and a lens on the front (I found out later this was called the corrector plate, and actually held the secondary mirror too) but you could look thru the back end (visual back) and not have to stand on your head to use it, because it is very short. Because of the way the light cone travels thru it, it is a fairly long focal length, in a small compact package. Of course there are some giant models that are up to 20” in diameter, but most are in the smaller range of 4” to 10”. Compared to the average reflector they are more expensive, but compared to a Quality Refractor with the same size objective lens they are a real bargain. I cast my net out into the waters and started to research the many different, brands and models available, and one that kept popping up was a hybrid Maksutov type made by Meade instruments called the ETX. There were apparently several different models and sizes of this ETX series, and they even had a web site dedicated to their use and all the info you could ask for called Mike Weasners “Mighty ETX Site.” Well I got real interested the more I read and learned about the ETX, and I decided to see what was available on the used market since I had discovered that the usual astro sites, Cloudy Nights and Astromart, had classified ads and eBay was also another source of new and used astronomical equipment. Before the year was out I had acquired a whole fleet of ETX models from 60 to 127MM, all used, all pristine examples and all very impressive machines. They were also a new treat to me in that they could be made go-to by adding a 497 Autostar computer hand controller to the 90EC and 125EC models. The little 60mm refractor had its own 494 hand controller and it was goto also. I was never interested in the 105mm 4” model, because it was only a little more than a ½” bigger than the 90EC and seemed to be not nearly as popular or available as the others. I am always looking at the resale value of anything I buy because I tire of things quickly and I would have been stuck a thousand times with stuff that I just didn’t use anymore, so I would carefully research most items and before I would buy them. I liked to know that I could sell them to someone if I tired of it or needed the money.
I grew real fond of the ETX telescopes and very slowly learned to use the go-to. It was my introduction into a lot of sky that I just knew nothing about, but in the back of my mind I still wanted a Classic style refractor like the Burgess Achro 1278. I started a very serious search for one that took 3 years but I finally got my hands on one, SN #86 year 2003, absolutely as new, and like nothing I had ever owned before or since. I have submitted a review about it to CN and it has been accepted. It was as close to a work of art as anything I had except for my first new Cadillac. Better make that my wife’s Cadillac.
All my other telescopes were relegated to the back of the astro shed, covered with white lint free rip proof, nylon laundry bags. They were out of sight and out of mind until just a few days ago, when I was looking at my little William Optics ZenithStar 80 II ED APO and my AT66 ED APO. Both are refractors and very small and compact workhorses, but I was wishing I had just a bit more aperture, without having to mount my 1278 on the CG-4 and drag it and all the counter weights out to spend a couple of hours, visiting Saturn, and Mars, at or about 4:00 a.m. As much as I love that 5” telescope, I have to admit as I grow older that it can be a real chore to carry in and out for a quick look and I have, been ignoring it more and more in preference to my small WO ZS 80 and my AT66 as grab and go. About this time, reaching for something, I tripped over the leg of my Meade 884 ETX tripod and it hit me, here is a 5” Mak that is just perfect for what you want to do with it. Low and behold the batteries were still in great shape and nearly fully charged, (although I use the DC converter whenever I set up long sessions the batteries were basically new, and unused anyway). I had to move my huge Mead standard field tripod and superwedge, for my Meade LX-50 10” SCT out of the way to get the ETX125EC out of the corner and into the middle of my Astro shed where I could check it out and test all its functions. I found it to be just as nice as when I abandoned it for my big dream Refractor. Sitting right next to it was the ETX 90EC, also in pristine condition waiting to be out under the stars again. I looked at the number of telescopes I had collected over the years, and decided I needed to have a astro shed sale soon or I was going to be putting them in the old tool shed or, or garage. There sat a display of 7 different telescopes all ranging, from 40mm solar scope, to a 254mm Dob and SCT, all of them just what I wanted when I bought them. Another glance included my collection of big or giant Binos and my GT-100x45s MK 1, Garrett Optical Binocular-Telescope. I wonder if there is such a thing as an Astro hoarder, or maybe I’m just an “Astronut”.
Getting back to business, this is supposed to be a review of the now classic Meade ETX 125EC Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, not my shed. I am in no way affiliated with any telescope manufacturer, although I should have bought stock in Meade Instruments years ago, to recoup some of the thousands of dollars I have spent on their equipment.
The real beauty of the 125EC is the ease of use. If you ignore all the many, many, pages of complicated directions on how to use the 497 computer controller and put it away (the 497 controller) until you have learned to use the basic functions of this and all ETXEC models, you will soon be able to track and keep your target in your medium power eyepiece for as long as ½ an hour or more. Just by remove the outer screw on the back left side of the EC hand controller ( the little hand controller with just a few directional , speed, and the mode buttons), thus setting the controller to a default of Northern Hemisphere Equatorial Mounting instead of Alt/Azimuth as it is set in factory default. A short time spent aligning the Meade 884 tripod, with North (don’t worry yourself to death trying to be dead on polar north, just close is good enough, for most observing), and after it is pointing north, set your tilt plate Latitude (mine is 35° North) and level the tripod using a small bubble or torpedo level. Once again close is good enough, don’t sweat being off a little bit, you are here to look at the wonders of the universe, not to wear yourself out trying for perfection in your set up. Let’s face it 99% of us are setting up a tripod mounted scope on who knows what kind of surface, not a pier mounted scope in a permanent observatory. Spending a lot of good, precious observation time on the perfect set up can be a complete bust when it is dark and you or your kid, kicks or trips over the leg of the tripod and undoes all that work. You are just going to be a frustrated perfectionist most of the time more worried about perfect alignment then what you can see. I do admit that when I am imaging I am more careful about my set up, but for casual visual observation, “close” is OK.
The ETX 125EC has a long proud history of pleasing and amazing many a new and advanced amateur astronomer; it is really a beautiful thing to look at - fork mounted shiny gloss Meade Blue and Black - with careful attention to fit and finish. The heavy anodized Aluminum screw on/off lens cap is a nice addition protecting the objective end of the scope, unlike the push on pull off or fall off cap on my Meade LX-50. The way it sets on a purpose built Meade 884 field tripod makes it very attractive and a real eye catcher. This 127mm f/15 1900mm scope is a real performer that in a nutshell works as great as it looks. It is a real shame that Meade has decided to discontinue this fine machine. Only the small 80mm refractor and the ETX90 remain for whatever reason, but I am very glad I have one and I think this fine instrument will be a much wanted and sought after classic as their numbers wane. The handy flip mirror, diagonal and the straight thru visual back make this a great little imaging scope but it is best deforked to give it the full potential as a serious astrograph, because the fork mounting limits the positions you can put it in. (I know a astrograph is a purpose built short fast scope more like a f/5 or f/4, but even an f/15 can be used for imaging, if you are patient enough.) Any need for pointing an ETX125 toward the zenith with a camera hanging off the back is out of the question as there is just barely room for the Right Angle finder to clear the base at Zenith. As a matter of fact, there is an issue that has been described but I have never experienced called a drive runaway that can and has destroyed a lot of these scopes when the drive clutches are set too tight. Runaways have broken and ripped the gears right out of the scopes, not to mention the T mounted camera trying to tear out the bottom of the mount as the out of control scope tries to point to the Zenith. God forbid this should happen, but I guess it has, so here is a tip - set the clutches only tight enough for the scope to stay put and the drive to move it in the direction you want it to go. If the scope does hang up the clutches will slip and not let the gears or mount be damaged because they just won’t give.
The Meade ETX 125 was originally supplied with a Meade 26mm Super Plossl eyepiece. With the 1900 mm focal length as described by the Meade specifications this is about 78 powers, and it acts a very good medium power for finding things and for lunar observation. By their specs, Meade says the max useful visual power is 500X…? I find that very hard to believe. A good 3.8mm eyepiece at that focal length is exactly 500 powers and you would be hard pressed to find the conditions and seeing, to use this high power eyepiece and keep it focused. I have used my Meade 4000 Ultra Wide 6.7mm eyepiece and it is really pushing the limits on soft focus. This is about 283 power and pretty much in line with the 50or 60 X per inch rule most people use as a guide for buying or obtaining eyepieces for a telescope. Just for the heck of it I popped in a TMB4mm planetary eyepiece, and though my target looked bigger all the detail was gone from it. Jupiter’s cloud bands were just an unrecognizable smudge, and all 4 of the Galilean moons just looked like out of focus eye floaters. However, when reined in and used with a quality medium power eyepiece the scope puts up great views with lots of detail and contrast. I really like to use my Meade Series 4000 9.7mm eyepiece or my Meade super wide 18mm with a 2X Barlow lens.
Moving on now to the go-to ability of the ETX 125EC, using a Meade 497 Autostar hand controller adds a lot of value to this fine telescope in that when it is properly aligned and set up it will put most any target somewhere in the middle of a medium power eyepiece. Learning to use the go-to capability can be very complicated, much more so than the Celestron NexStar system. I will admit that I have never actually mastered it, and I have to keep going back to the book to find my way around or to remember the next step in the process, or how to “train the drives”. It is really more my fault then the systems fault because I was weaned on that shaky GEM mount on my very first Newtonian telescope and all the electronics on the Meade ETXEC and AT telescopes kind of intimidated me. This actually held me back using the ETX until I just put the 497 Autostar hand controller back in the box and started to use the simple directional controller and the tripod in polar alignment. For the new or beginning star gazer it can open a whole world of interesting sights and make the solar system come alive and available without knowing anything about the constellations or space navigation. But go-to is just not for me. I felt that having a computer doing all the work for me I was losing ground - especially with the Nexstar Celestron system that is just so easy to use and just dead on most of the time. I grew lazy, quit hunting and started settling for whatever was on that night’s tour. I had become really proud of my knowledge of the universe as seen from my backyard or favorite dark place, and using the go-to was much easier than looking up the target and gathering the needed time location and info needed to go out and find it with my telescope using my own mind instead of some artificial intelligence to show it to me. One of my favorite things to do is to take my very substantial probably very illegal 200Mw green laser and point out an area of heaven for my brother-in-law and my daughter and tell her that is about where it’s supposed to be and then find it. She thinks her old man is pretty smart and my Brother-in-Law was really impressed. In truth I missed that when all I had to do was enter the target and push go and the usual response was that’s a pretty cool gadget. OK, so I am probably not the person to review and give a completely neutral opinion of the go-to capability of the Autostar system, but don’t let that put you off on the ETX 125EC MAK telescope because it is a very fine instrument. If you only had enough money or time for one small telescope, it would be my choice of a do all system that is portable, compact, reliable, and puts up great views without breaking the bank or your back. I think it is a real shame that it is being discontinued, it has a lot to offer any Amateur Astronomer new or advanced, and I am real glad I have mine. Maybe I should just do a shed addition, “hey that’s an idea a 2 room astro shed. HMMM……”.
Clear skies and keep looking up, there’s lots to see.