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Celestron Ultima 2000

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A Forgotten SCT : Re-Use, Recycle, and Re-view..

Over the last forty years of observing I've owned a few telescopes. I've had some great views, occasionally spent a little too much, sometimes been guilty of obsessing over wavefront correction (I bet no one can relate to that...) and enjoyed it all. I've observed through apos, Maks, MakNewts, Newts-Dob, Newts-EQ, and SCTs (fork and EQ). Not everything was mine of course. Apertures ranged from my first 50mm refractor (ah, the memories...) up to 12" equatorially mounted reflectors and everything in between. My preferences have always been lunar/planetary observing, with double stars and DSOs somewhat in the background. I've never been remotely tempted to photograph what I've observed; wallet-wise probably a smart move.

The telescope I have had now for a year represents to me the finest set of compromises I've ever experienced. If that sounds like faint praise, it is not. Unless it dies a cataclysmic death (or I do) it will be the last telescope I own. Strong words! My telescope, the late and seemingly unlamented Celestron Ultima 2000 is, simply, remarkable. And it also has a rather special "feel-good" factor for me, which transcends mere specifications. The Ultima 2000, an 8 inch go-to SCT, was introduced in 1996 and by 2000 had faded away. This remarkable and advanced telescope was not the huge success Celestron wished for: an 11 inch version was promised but never delivered, partly due to the lackluster sales for the 8 inch. There are still one or two new Ultima 2000's for sale even at this late date, but at $3000 they will not be flying off the shelf just yet. The later versions featured the Fastar photographic OTA.The scope came complete with all the usual accessories, including a very nice 7X50 straight-through finder and a quite handsome carrying case (a cross between the original flimsy footlocker and a top-of-the-line JMI). This telescope has something of a cult-like following - if you have one you will know what I mean! In my opinion, despite all the advances of the last decade, neither Celestron nor Meade has ever made a telescope quite the equal of the Ultima 2000. I will try to explain why.

Firstly, the appearance. This is the age of multi-speed focusers, exotic materials and high grade multi-hued automotive paint jobs for telescopes.  Telescopes certainly do not have to look as if they were assembled from industrial waste or the leftovers from a bathroom renovation, but do they need to be fashion statements? Designer focus knobs recall racing stripes on a Yugo. The consumer cow, that seduceable beast, is always tempted by new and shiny gadgets, but in my estimation the telescope is best viewed as a tool, not an ornament. Each to their own of course; the link between form and function is always personal and certainly elastic. Somewhere no doubt in this arena of image-consciousness there is a compromise; enter the redoubtable U2K (as it is affectionately known), which acquits itself quite nicely. Nothing in the way of excess metal, plastic or bling, no strange references to something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise; nothing, in other words, that should not be there. Painted a simple silver and black, this is an elegant, not overdressed cat; simple, unassuming and purposeful, it looks like a telescope. For me, this is a Good Thing.  My particular scope is now on its third owner: originally bought by Todd Gross who gave it a highly favorable review, it crossed the continent, and then re-crossed to come home to roost with me, its final resting place. It was made in 1996, the first year of production, and is not a Fastar version. It almost looks new.


Next, the optics. These are as good as, or better than any SCT I have ever used. Period. Eight inches of obstructed aperture, if properly made (and well collimated and well cooled down.....) can do extraordinary things. Lunar views are spectacular: high power views of the major planets are detailed; and double stars down to the theoretical limit are accessible, atmospheric seeing being the major factor. Just as important is light-gathering capability. DSOs become interesting at this aperture: unlike the views through smaller and doubtless exquisitely made refractors, globular clusters become truly exciting, and EASY to observe.

Comparison with smaller (and more expensive telescopes) is revealing. The visual image starts to bear some resemblance to the magnificent photographs that saturate our collective consciousness. After all, photons is photons, and the more you can collect the better. A century ago when skies were truly dark small telescopes were more effective light collectors: reading 19th century texts on observing DSOs with 3 inch refractors is quite revealing, and sometimes quite shocking. But nowadays so many of us are forced to do the majority of our viewing from light-polluted sites, and so for observing (not imaging) an 8 inch telescope might well be said to be a good minimum. And, of course, the 8 inch aperture will resolve fine detail. Most of the time, in visual observing, the actual resolution of an 8 inch telescope is limited by the atmosphere. No, it will not read the number plates on Lunar vehicles, and the central star in M57 will forever be unavailable, but E and F in The Trapezium is quite easy from my backyard, M13 is always a blaze of stars, and Jupiter (when it is high enough..) is engrossingly detailed. Of course the one thing an 8 inch (or any other commercial SCT) cannot do is ultra low-power sweeping: if your idea of fun under the stars is to look at the Milky Way at 25X magnification, then this is not the scope for you. Worthwhile views that are not plagued by coma and field curvature start at around 50X-60X - anything less will be seriously compromised. (And this is why I have binoculars.....)


There are rumors that the optics in the U2K were hand-picked for excellence: basically an insupportable hypothesis. I have observed through excellent and not so excellent SCTs of all vintages, and suspect the concept of hand-picking to be a mythology. My example, for example, appears to test out to about a sixth wave spherical aberration at the eyepiece according to the diagrams provided by the estimable Richard Suiter.  I see no obvious evidence of badly figured zones or turned edge; judging by the endless debates over the qualities or lack-of with the SCT design I have come to the belief that getting a very good one is simply a matter of luck. This is one of those good ones, and is a very fine astronomical tool. As an illustration, resolving the Cassini division at this late date (June 2008) is still easy - no mean feat given the tilt of the rings at the present.

The mount is wonderfully rigid. I like forks, it has to be said. I never did enjoy the ritual of making multiple trips for mount, tripod, counterweights, OTA etc. Then again, not being an imager, or a multiple telescope owner, an EQ mount is not essential for me. And, just as importantly, and for the same reason, I have no need of a wedge: a relief as all wedges seem to introduce extra instabilities (and extra weight....)


The U2K has very little plastic anywhere in the mount, save for a couple of axis covers, where metal would have been wasteful. It was expensive when new (about $3000 twelve years ago at discounted prices), and I suppose extensive use of plastic would have been out of place at this price point. The bottom line: damping times are simply a non-issue, just not something I ever think about. This is one extremely rigid and well-built fork mount. Piggybacking a short refractor (one of the cheap Chinese 80mm versions for example) will not overstress the mounting, will not weigh very much, and will, with a low power widefield eyepiece *fill in the visual gaps* perfectly.

The tripod is the classic Ultima tripod, the same as used for the Ultima 8 and Ultima 11. The spreader bar is a serious piece of metal, again not plastic: rigidity for the U2K is a given with these components. Observing in stiff winds will bother me well before it bothers the telescope.

Now to the electronics. For some critics, an important issue. The electronics can be, well, quirky. This, as you may know, is a go-to telescope, but mainstream go-to telescoping in the 1990s was not at the state it is now. The electronics were farmed out to a company called Tangent, and some of the programming of the chips, as far as I know, was performed by Tom Johnson's son ( Jim Riffle also apparently had a hand in the design of the scope, but not I think the electronics) Some things are easier to get used to than others: according to imagers the PEC apparently never did work as well as it should have done, for example. Motors sometimes seem to enjoy themselves a little too much, and in the go-to process can carry on propelling the telescope past the desired object. Not a big issue, and certainly not a deal-breaker. I imagine no one ever owned a computer that didn't sometimes go AWOL......


The (very compact) hand controller will not seem to some to be as intuitively user-friendly as the newer Celestron and Meade iterations: multiple button-presses are the norm with the U2K, but the operation really is easily learned and soon becomes second nature.


In my experience the accuracy of the going-to, having performed the initial two star alignment is very high. I consistently observe at high powers (275X and above), and the U2K faithfully centers desired objects. Not bad for 1996!  Actually not bad for 2008. Tracking abilities, especially for a visual observer, are well up to standard, and corrective measures are rarely necessary to keep objects centered for viewing. I have read that the go-tos of the U2K are only not bad at best. Not quite sure what that means to a visual observer - centering an object that has appeared at, perversely enough, the outer portions of the field takes only minimal effort - but perhaps the comment applies more to would-be astrophotographers. As with many mainstream go-to mounts, I will periodically re-align the scope on new objects, and this minimal effort seems to be well worthwhile.


On the subject of going-to, the slewing speed of the U2K is EXTRAORDINARY: the published speed was around 10 degrees per second, but mine is faster than this by a wide margin. And did I say quiet? This is not your dad's LX200! No one will mistake it for a cousin  of the coffee grinder. Owners of the newer GT mounts would not believe the lack of noise. This is a cat that purrs, and your neighbors will never know what you're doing in the backyard at 3 AM. This was in its time a very advanced piece of equipment, and in my opinion it still puts newer mounts to shame.

I save the best for last. This is not just a go-to telescope; it is also manual. Simply, one can go-to, or one can push the telescope manually, using, if you wish, the readouts on the hand controller to inform you as to your location. As far as I know this is a unique feature in a go-to mount. Loosening axes on just about any computerized mount I know of means that the telescope no longer knows where it is: shutting down and re-initializing will be necessary should an axis be loosened. But not with the trusty U2K.  Perhaps this ability makes sense given the time when the U2K was first produced. I suspect that much of the electronics are the same as those found in the Advanced Astro Master (also made by Tangent), complete with optical encoders on both axes, and of course motors, separate from the encoders, to drive the scope. This would have been a logical progression. The addition of adjustable clutches to both axes means that the telescope can be easily pushed without losing its place. This feature may not sound like much, but not being dependent on pushing buttons all the time is a really rather splendid feeling; you can almost look a Dob owner in the face -  this is having your cake and eating it. As equipment gets cleverer, the user risks becoming an extension of the equipment, rather than the other (and, in my view, right) way round. For most of my observing sessions I find myself using the go-to feature maybe half the time, and the rest of the time I use the telescope as a manual motorized instrument. Go-to is certainly fun to have; using maps and the finder to star-hop is equally pleasurable, and with the U2K I do both. I have always been surprised that the telescope is not better known for this feature -  it is simply marvelous, and not to be underestimated.

Add to this list of qualities the weight, or rather lack of weight. This is a forty-pound (including tripod) system; that is it. The word portable has a painful poignance for me. Portability implies easily movable. My knees and shoulders remind me to this day of some "portable" telescopes that I have owned and attempted to move. For once, English is English: most users would find this to be a truly manageable instrument. 

Lightweight, extremely rigid, optically superb, manual and go-to capability, where on earth is the catch?

Well, there are a couple. Much as I do love the U2K, mine is a mature love: I am not blind to its faults and foibles, and I accept them for what they are. Firstly, this is a twelve year old telescope. It is sad to say it, but in this day and age twelve years is quite an age: obsolescence is the favorite muse of the manufacturer, so forget about expecting any electronic service from Celestron. I am not bashing Celestron for this in particular, but in the world of consumer goods the exigencies of the marketplace do not always favor the buyer. Replacement parts are no longer available, and should anything (gulp!) go wrong the only recourse might be to plunder another U2K for spare parts. But, having said this, Dean at Starizona, can probably give you all the help you need in the unlikely event of problems. Dean has been a marvelous help to me in the past, and I owe him my thanks.

Secondly, again this is a ten year old telescope, and go-to technology has come a long way. The U2K Object Library is around the 10,000 mark: these days this is pretty insignificant, but 10,000 objects is enough to keep me busy for a very long time! 


In addition, a large portion of the library is actually written down in the manual. This means is that if you are hunting down double stars you may well have to refer to the manual for a number to key into the control pad. A real problem if you are observing in a hurry - but who would want to observe in a rush? 


The clutches: unkind and harsh words have been written on the sensitivity of the U2K to balance, and the necessity to get everything just-so. For a visual observer like me this has never been an issue: naturally, balancing a precision telescope is something to be taken seriously but not obsessively so. More of a non-issue than an issue.


Since I am listing the demerit points I have to mention image-shift. There is some, about 20 Arc seconds at the most (as a reference-point, Questar in their "Wobble Paper" stated that they found 45 Arc seconds, or one Jupiter-width to be an acceptable amount of image-shift), this phenomenon being just about unavoidable in any telescope that makes use of a moving primary mirror, except for the most exotic designs. For example, having the primary mirror ride on pre-loaded ball bearing tracks would quite nicely deal with the issue, but at a price many would find difficult to swallow. Is it objectionable? If you object to it, well then, it most certainly is. For me, simply something to live with and accept as an inevitability. Again, the blessings of not imaging.....


Finally, the ultimate indignity. Much has been made of the irony that the U2K was not Y2K compliant. In a nutshell, the electronics did not recognize the year 2000. This is an issue if you want the scope to locate a faint planet; finding Neptune and Uranus mean consulting maps. Again, for me this is a non-event, although perhaps it would be an annoyance for Pluto photographers. As soon as this became known a tiny cottage industry emerged, supplying EPROM 40-pin chips to replace the offending non-compliant chip in the handset. Problem solved if you wished. I believe that Celestron itself offered this service for a while, but of course not any longer. My U2K is non-compliant, and (being somewhat non-compliant myself) it bothers me not a bit. 

Yes, there are compromises. When it comes to optical quality, a 7 inch apochromat will definitely give me a better image of Jupiter. So for that matter would a C14, if the atmosphere cooperated. Both just the tiniest bit more expensive, and perhaps just the slightest bit heavier. The 8 and 10 inch MakNewts will routinely deliver wonderful lunar/planetary images - but it will cost hard cash and non-Dob mounting will involve heavy metal. The bigger Maks, although wonderful (and expensive) instruments can take an age to achieve thermal equilibrium in Northern climes. The humble and ubiquitous 10 inch Dob is a formidable tool that deserves respect -  and usually a real taste for standing, nudging, and a respect for tube currents. The 12 inch equatorial Newtonian will certainly go significantly deeper than any 8 inch scope, but I would really prefer someone else to assemble it (and, much more importantly, disassemble it). And, I prefer sitting. Why fight gravity? It is a battle that cannot be won, and the closer I am to the center of the earth the happier I am. And, I do believe that the comfortable observer sees more. If your tastes run to photographing the nearly invisible, then the abbreviated object library of the U2K could be a frustration. These days  there is an absolute welter of more beautiful and fear-inspiring equipment out there: certainly you can buy much bigger and spend lots more. 


But, I know of NO telescope that combines all the virtues of the U2K. This little cat hits all the sweet spots. Whenever I catch myself wanting a little more aperture, or a few more bands on Saturn, my wallet and my back remind me of how lucky I am to have found the U2K. Celestron got it right with this one. I do have to say again, however, if you are an astrophotographer you might well feel the U2K is not capable enough.

As a postscript, the U2K was entirely built in the States. Maybe this is not important: whether created by the Americans, Chinese, or the three-eyed gnomes from Planet Zontar; all that really matters is that the thing does what it should. But it IS nice to support the US of A, even retrospectively.

Perhaps one of the most important observations I could make is that this is a USED telescope. With a little luck and good management it will last a very long time. Not buying new equipment is undeniably satisfying; not just in the savings, but also for the fact that this used scope can do just about everything that the new scopes do, and some things decidedly better. Admitted, when you buy used equipment you are denied the pleasure of new-scope-smell (those delicious hydrocarbon exudates....)  but, as in buying a used car, somebody else has suffered the Trauma of the First Scratch on the body, and of course there are serious advantages to letting others learn about depreciation. In the age of dwindling resources and increasing consciousness of carbon footprints, questioning our consumption has become a serious subject. To recycle an older telescope that works beautifully is not only a pleasure, but is arguably, perhaps even ethically, the right thing to do. 

So, in conclusion, am I suggesting you rush out to buy one of these telescopes? My answer is only a strongly qualified yes. In all the SCTs of all vintages that I have seen there has been an awfully wide variance in quality; some have been frankly appallingly badly constructed, and some have been right at the limit of what I would deem to be optically acceptable. The very best (and this is one) are stunningly capable, but when you plonk down the long green the idea that you are gambling is sobering to say the least. When everything conspires to produce an excellent example then the owner can feel truly lucky. Celestrons and Meades are built to a price point; the sometimes highly destructive competition between the two companies, although resulting in lower prices, has involved some serious compromises in QC. Like it or not, the SCT is a cheap telescopes, it must be remembered. If you want the level of attention that goes into a Matthias Wirth custom Mak, or an AP, or a Royce mirror, well, you are going to pay appropriately for the privilege. In my view the consumer has not always been the beneficiary from the SCT wars. Although I feel truly sorry for the dealers (who are forced to sell new scopes at insultingly, no, disgracefully small profit margins - just ask any dealer and watch them weep) I think that buying any SCT, new or used, is best done with some sort of return privilege. If not, and you feel like taking a chance, go for it. It is your money. But my strongest advice would be to buy a used SCT only from sellers who are able to give legitimate assessments of their equipment. As a victim who has bought "excellent" telescopes that were anything but, I feel extremely strongly about this point. Words like "sharp" or "good optics" are meaningless. As is my personal favorite "never needed collimation". Just watch out for those turned edges and micro-ripples. Caveat emptor........

Thus, here endeth my hymn of praise to a lesser-known telescope. It has taken many telescopes and quite some time to arrive at this happy point. I will not part with mine; one of us will have to die before that happens (hoping it will be me). The only other telescope that gave me such a complete sense of satisfaction was that first 50mm refractor. Somewhere on the road from child to adult I lost my innocence, as we all do. I recall vividly looking through my 50mm and its tiny eyepieces at Jupiter. It was magic;  me, my imagination,  and the Universe. The U2K almost manages to produce the same feeling. Not a bad thing......

(Writer's note) I have no affiliation with anyone mentioned above. I live and observe in the relatively dark sky area north of Maine. No telescopes were hurt in the writing of this review (but if they were they deserved it)

  • GOLGO13, djcolton, Dave Allen and 7 others like this


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