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Small Wonder: The Meade ETX-60 AT

Well, I just couldn't resist the allure of an ETX-60, Meade's little-bitty goto scope, for $197.00 US$ (from the U.S. retailer, Wal-Mart). This small scope actually has more attraction for me than its bigger and considerably more expensive brother, the ETX-90, since a wide-field portable scope is more useful for my deep sky touring than a (very) long focal length one like the 90 MCT. What are my impressions of the little thing after a first session under the night sky? Very positive!

This ETX-60, for those of you who may not have seen one nor heard tell of it, is a 60mm f/5.8 achromatic refractor. While the fork and drive base are similar in size to those on the ETX-90, they are really more akin to what Meade's using for the new LX-90. That is, no troublesome "hard stops," with the HBX ("handbox," the Autostar), and AUX(iliary) connectors on one of the fork arms. The small panel on the arm also includes a power switch and a red LED indicator. The Autostar computerized hand-paddle is included with the scope--but this is not the familiar 497 used with the larger ETXes. This is the "494" model, which has a simplified control layout. The numeric keypad is gone, with the only buttons being "Mode," "Enter," "Goto," four direction buttons, a help/speed key and two up/down cursor keys.

Also found in the box with the scope are two eyepieces in Meade's nice plastic "pill bottles." These are 25mm and 9mm "Modified Achromats," Meade's name for Kellners. They are actually rather nice, with the 9mm being much improved over earlier Meade 9mm MAs (holding the sucker up to the light and comparing it to a garden variety Plossl I had at hand, revealed an apparent field about the same size as that of the "better" eyepiece). Other than these items, all that remains in the box is a manual and a slimmed down Meade catalog. But, hey, ain't that enough? When was the last time you saw a scope that included two OK eyepieces?

By the way, this little scope is capable of being controlled by a PC just like the big goto instruents, using a program that offers Autostar control (Skymap, Starry Night, Deepsky 2000, and several other current astro-programs offer this facility). But that requires Meade's 506 cable, which, unlike the RS-232 cables for the bigger ETXes, plugs into the AUX port on the fork arm rather than into the Autostar. Don't expect to fabricate a cable yourself, either, since the 506 includes active components to translate between RS-232 serial data from your computer and the data format used by the telescope.

The only problem I noted out of the box was that, typical for Meade scopes, the declination setting circle was "off." That only took a couple of seconds to rectify, but I suppose this could be confusing for beginners, since we are instructed to level the scope with the pointer on "0" to attain "home position" during telescope alignment. The system Meade uses for locking down the dec circle, a knob, is the problem. It's easy to adjust the setting circle by loosening this knob, but it is also easy to dislodge. I have the same problem with the declination setting circles on the LX-10 SCTs I use with my university astronomy students.

I was surprisingly excited by the time I got the 60 set-up on the dining room table here at Chaos Manor South. Actually, initial set-up is really minimal--remove from box (the scope is well-packaged), insert batteries and input site location with the Autostar. The manual is one of the better ones I've seen from Meade-or any other telescope maker. A trifle disorganized, but clearly written. I don't think many novices will have much trouble getting the batteries installed (6 AAs which, according to Meade, should last for about 20 hours-we'll see) and the site location set by scrolling through a list of states and cities.

The big problem was a tripod, as I'd chosen not to invest 99 bucks on the seemingly flimsy Meade extruded aluminum model sold for this scope. I've got a couple of wooden GEM tripods that will be good candidates after I fabricate a simple adapter for the ETX, but what to do on this first night? Looking around I spied our Celestron Heavy Duty Tripod. This is equipped with a C11 wedge that includes an integral shelf--just the right size for the ETX. So I trotted the tripod outside, plunked Little Bit down on the wedge tray and began an alignment.

You have three choices to get this little goto scope aligned: Easy Align (where the Autostar chooses two alignment stars), Two-Star Align (you choose the two stars) or One Star Align (you choose a single star for alignment). In my tree-confined backyard/garden, I knew Easy Align wouldn't be practical. I decided on "Two Star," since it would likely produce a more accurate alignment than One Star.

OK...wadda we got? Well, there's Aldebaran. A couple of key presses and I was in Two Star mode and scrolling through a list of stars (I had previously pointed the scope North using Polaris and leveled the OTA, this scope's "Home Position."). Pushed the button and off Miss ETX went toward Aldebaran. BEEP! Looked into the eyepiece and there was that silly red giant. Centered it up, but it didn't take much. Now for the second star. OOOOPS! It was early in the evening, a brilliant Moon was in the sky and the usual light pollution was present (at least it wasn't cold--only about 45F). What to use as a second star?!

Well, Capella was twinkling through the limbs of a tree (a live oak with lots of leaves still hanging on). BEEP! Looked in the eyepiece and nothing but tree leaves and limbs. What to do? I could look for another star, but, what the heck, I'm lazy. I figured Capella ought to be somewhere in the field. I just pressed enter: "Alignment Successful," said the Autostar.

First object? Jupiter. A few key presses to get to "Objects" and "Solar System" and "Jupiter" and away we went. Another BEEP from the Autostar, and I found Jupiter near the center of the 25mm eyepiece's large field. Alright, now, let's see what this sucker will do. A good buddy had asked me to run the magnification up on this 60mm, wanting to know if it could handle about 100x-150x, which would make it fine for quick, casual looks at the Moon and planets. In went a 7mm Plossl and a 2x Barlow. Nice. There was some color, but most of it was obviously from differential refraction, from the scope not having cooled at all and from seeing that was not exactly top notch. The view of the planet compared quite favorably to what you can see in an 80mm f/5 refractor. When the seeing settled, 2-3+ bands were visible. The ETX tracked quite well, incidentally, despite my casual alignment.

What next? How about the Moon? I figured that would be a real test for the Autostar computer, since the math required to figure Luna's position is pretty intense. Indeed, requesting the Moon resulted in the Autostar displaying "calculating" for a few seconds. Pushed goto, scope hummed, and the Moon was well within the field of the 25mm. The Autostar, like big brother used on the 90 and 125, has a wealth of information on objects, too. A couple of button presses displayed the Moon's age and current distance. The Moon was quite attractive in the ETX, too. At 100x, goodly detail was visible on the floor of that fascinating crater, Gassendi, which was well placed for viewing. Due to the 60's smaller objective and larger focal ratio, color was considerably less than what I'm used to in my 80 f/5 "Short Tube."

Deep Sky? Conditions didn't bode well for that, but what the hey? M45 and M42, anyway. M45 is a particular delight in small widefield refractors, and it was certainly beautiful in the 60! Gotta see M42...what better object for a new scope's First Light run? It was attractive both at low power, where the entire sword was shown off, and at about 100x. At the higher power, the Trapezium was easily resolved--not a huge challenge, but M42 was still quite low in the sky.

I followed up The Great Nebula with trips to several stars--Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, etc. It was gratifying to see that the Autostar displayed genuinely important info about these targets--including spectral types. By this time, Auriga and Gemini were at least marginally above the horizon, so I did the clusters: M35, 36, 37, 38. The 60 placed every one of them in the field, though the Moon and light pollution conspired to make only 35 decently interesting. I was meeting Dorothy for dinner, so I managed to pull myself away from the eyepiece, finally, after a last trip to M42.

Any problems? Some folks have commented on the slow focus travel of the 60. This is due to its focusing method, moving the objective forward and back, sorta like an SCT. But the focus action is very smooth. It wasn't too hard for me to come up with a couple of parfocal, or nearly so, eyepieces. But what about beginners without an eyepiece collection? I found the best method was to roll the focus control with the side of one's finger rather than to try to turn it per se. And what about the Autostar's lack of a numeric keypad? I'm used to this setup, that is, using cursor keys to select and enter data--it's used on both Tangent's digital setting circles and on the Celestron Ultima 2000, and didn't find it to be a problem at all.

Verdict? A lovely little scope. It would certainly not be my choice if I were a novice mainly interested in the Moon and planets, but as a widefield deep sky scope, it's great. I intend to take it out to the club dark site, or at least our suburban observatory facility, as soon as that dratted Moon is gone and see just how deep a 60mm can go! The Autostar was the real surprise. No problems at all-it worked just as advertised, easily driving the ETX to object after object. In my opinion, this is perhaps the perfect configuration for a small goto scope. The wide field means that the need for exacting alignment is incredibly lessened, making the 60 (and its sister, the ETX-70, which is identical except for the objective) a delight rather than a frustration. What about old hands? I think this is going to be a nice, nice portable second (errr…actually…EIGHTH!) scope for me. Would it be better to get the 70mm ETX-70, with its larger objective? Perhaps. Normally, the 70 is only about 50 bucks more than the 60. But Wal-Mart's promotion meant the 60 was some $150.00 US$ cheaper. A no-brainer for me!


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