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  • Mark Mittlesteadt

Exploring the Universe - Size Matters But it's Always a Compromise

Maybe 50 years ago, back when light pollution didn't rob us of the glorious views we no longer have access to, as a child of the 60's I used to lay on my back out in the yard at night and just look up and wonder what was "out there". I watched with hypnotic interest on our old black and white TV the first humans land and set foot on the Moon. I was hooked. I even had models of the Apollo rockets, orbiter and lunar landing module and of course toys of all kinds that were about pretending to be an astronaut. My imagination was consumed with what was "out there" in the Universe. It was more obsession than interest.


My old 7th grade teacher invited a few classmates to look through his telescope and for the first time in my young, developing life I saw Jupiter and it's moons and Saturn with it's famous rings with my own eyes. Not pictures found in books, but I saw them in real time with quite a bit of detail even though they were 400 and 800 million miles away from us. While we have become quite jaded by the views provided by the Hubble and the Voyagers, this event was life-transforming to me. I have never lost my passion for what's "out there", but life happened and it would be about another ten or fifteen years before I bought my first telescope.


Over the past 30+ years in this hobby I've acquired and used so much gear. I've had reflectors, refractors and CATS mounted in all kinds of ways. My favorite objects to view have always been the Moon, Planets and brighter DSO's (Deep Space Objects like other Galaxies, Nebulae and Star Clusters). While I do enjoy scanning the night sky with fast, wide field scopes, trying to eek out views of those faint, colorless fuzzies (which is about the best they would look to me) they have never been quite as appealing, mostly due to haze and ever-increasing light pollution.


Of all the scopes I've owned I have two favorites that I sold long ago with much regret. One is my beloved Meade 8" LX-50 SCT (a type of telescope called a Schmidt Cassegrain that folds the light path into a shorter telescope). I never enjoyed the view more than when using that scope. Some of the views are still moments burned into my memory. I always dreamed of getting Meade's LX-50 7" Maksutov Cassegrain (a variation of the Catadioptric design, like an SCT, but with a lens in front that gave even sharper views). I saw photos of it in ads in Sky and Telescope and dreamed of owning a Mak (this was pre-internet). I just didn't have the money for one.


Years later I saw the Meade ETX line in person, in Discovery stores that sold all kinds of observing equipment (yes this was when there were actual storefronts for you younger people) and I was so drawn into the "Everybody's Telescope" lineup. This was Meade's entry level telescope supposedly for beginners, but not like the cheap, often horrible scopes and mounts most would find in department stores back then. They offered them in 90mm, 105mm and 125mm sizes (the lens/mirror in diameter), each size increase showing the views with more detail, but also costing more.


Something about them with their built-in electronically controlled mounts were appealing, yet I was also aware of the cheap, worthless scopes found in stores. They not only allowed you to electronically control the scope, but they even offered onboard computers that made the mounts "Go To" any object in the night sky so you didn't have to even look for it first. Seeing the Meade ads in magazines with the back to back pages showing the LX and ETX lineup just pulled me in. Then I had the chance on a great deal on a used ETX 105. Because size does matter to a degree, it was bigger than the 90, but smaller than the 125, and not having the cash for a 125 at the time I couldn't pass on finally acquiring one. This was when they selling at their highest retail price and the height of their popularity.


I loved that ETX105. The optics were top notch and I used it more than any other scope for most of my 30 years of observation. I frequently went online and read through Mike Weisner's extensive ETX website and made a lot of contributions to it with all my mods and fixes for that scope. Of course anyone familiar with the ETX line knows how cheap and limited the plastic back-end of the scope was and the mounts were designed with a lot of plastic gears, clutches and such and so were quite problematic. If only Meade had designed the ETX mounts the same way as the LX line of mounts, they'd probably still be in business.


So after years of using my ETX 105 (with it's excellent optics) and keeping it working, I sold it and began buying selling and trading for reflectors and refractors on a semi-regular basis. I owned and used all kinds of scope and mounts, far too many to list here. If I kept every scope and mounts I ever owned, I could easily open and stock a store. I don't know if I just wanted to "explore" other objects, or it was just GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) that led me down that path. I'm a big-time DIY and modder, so it was fun to work on different equipment, always seeking to improve on a design somehow. Hey, what can I say? I've always loved to putz around and tinker with things. As a child I would tear apart cameras just to see how they worked, which is probably why I wanted to become a mechanical engineer. I never did become one, but that's a whole 'nother story.


I got into EAA (Electronically Assisted Astronomy, to aid in overcoming light pollution), and Astrophotography (like the Hubble photos that even an Earth-based hobbyists can take now) and I still did visual observing, and so I acquired all kinds of gear for that as well. For over 30 years I have really enjoyed this hobby. But over the years, I found myself going out and using my gear less and less. The older I got the earlier I went to bed. Not really the ideal situation when the best viewing is past my bedtime. LOL. So I bought, sold and traded a lot of gear, always trying to find a way to make it as easy as possible to at least get some viewing in before bedtime.


The idea of a grab'n'go setup (where I could just go out at a moments notice with almost no setup time) became very important to me if I was going to keep pursuing this hobby. So I ended up with a lot of small, fast, lightweight, wide-field refractors (the design most people think of when picturing a telescope) that could be put on very simple manual Al-Az mounts (just manually point the scope wherever you want to look) that got me out more, even if it was only for a few minutes rather than hours (or all night when it was easier and I was younger). Of course every scope is designed with mostly a specific range of use, and these scopes were for wide-field viewing of DSO's, not high power, detailed views of the Moon and planets of which has always been my favorite nightly targets. It's always a compromise between what equipment works for what objects, but not a lot of thought typically goes into "what works for the observer". The right tools for the job. You want detail? Size matters. But with increasing size comes more effort, and I wanted to get out with the least effort, so I had to make some compromises.


But in the back of my mind, I still recalled the by-gone memories of watching Jupiter all night long with it's short, 8 hour rotation where I could see it rotate, and watch it's moon's going around it, casting their shadows on their host planet. Seeing the detailed cloud bands and the Giant Red Spot move across it's face as it rotated over the hours passing by. The moon's were tiny little 3D orbs, not merely white dots. The details and color is something I will never forget. So I vividly recall that memory as one that transported me off this crazy ball of rock we live on that we call Earth and out into space where I could dream as I used to when I was a chlld lying on my back in the yard at night, wondering what was "out there".


Fast forward to today, and I am now the owner of an ETX 125 I always wanted. Of course this one has been heavily modded with the cheap mount and plastic back end replaced with a highly machined aluminum backplate, rotating focuser and mounted onto my 1979 classic Japanese made Vixen GP GEM (German Equatorial Mount) that I turned into the computer controlled "GoTo" mount. Gone is the stock back end and mount that plagued the ETX line. I now have what you'd either call a "poor man's" Maksutov or a rich man's ETX. Either way, I have something I always wanted.


Like my wife is always telling me...I always buy new scopes and mounts but seldom actually use them. Will I now get out more and once again look up and see the detailed views of the Moon and planets as I used to? Time will tell, although my time is running out as I age. I might be older and less inclined, but I still look up and out into the Universe and wonder "What's out there?"


Astronomy is for the most part, a lonely hobby. One person with a telescope, out under the stars, looking out into the Universe in deep contemplation. I've spent my life in deep contemplation, always seeking the meaning of life. Perhaps that's why I don't get out more. For as much as love it, I want to share it and inspire others as my 7th grade teacher did for me.



My Meade LX50 8" SCT

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