The first lesson of amateur astronomy is patience. Most of the time we wait for the weather--a month of muggy New England days can seems like a million years to an amateur astronomer waiting for a dark and crisp fall night. And then there's waiting for UPS. Fortunately for me, only a month and 117 days after ordering a new 8" Meade LXD75 Schmidt-Newtonian telescope, I signed for two boxes bearing those magic phrases: "MEADE INSTRUMENTS" and "MADE IN CHINA". Yes, my telescope had arrived.
A Review of the Meade 8" LXD75 Schmidt-Newtonian Telescope
Believe it or not, equipment arguments in the amateur astronomy community are somewhat common. They are not at the level of the Windows-vs-Linux schism, but they are certainly more vigorous than those in (to pick an example at random) amateur electron-microscopy. So to avoid giving ammunition to any side, I should emphasize that I am not an expert on telescope equipment. I have only owned two other telescopes in my life and one of them was an old Astroscan whose mirror I managed to ruin with a rather ill-conceived scrubbing. With my credentials thus established, I feel completely comfortable revealing that the LXD75 is now my favorite telescope (sorry, Astroscan) and any attempts to convince me otherwise will prove futile. And now, on to the review.
Meade's LXD75 series of equatorial-mount telescopes replaced their earlier LXD55 series. The LXD55 was initially heralded by amateurs because of its great value (an 8" LXD55 with an equatorial drive and a goto-computer retailed for under $1000). Unfortunately, the LXD55s were later pilloried for their tendency to require major repairs. In particular, the LXD55 mount suffered from both quality-control flaws and the cheaper materials that made the sub-$1000 price tag possible. But amateurs are nothing if not persistent, and many persevered by repairing and improving the mount themselves. LXD55.com even offers a professional HyperTune service that fixes almost all the issues with the LXD55 mount.
Meade seems to have learned from many of these amateur improvements, as the LXD75 incorporates many ideas suggested in telescope help forums. The end result is a better designed mount that uses higher-quality parts (such as steel bearings) while still retaining a low price. Although the ultimate verdict on the new LXD75 is yet to be seen, I believe that it fulfills the original promise of this telescope series: a versatile, capable telescope at a great price.
Some Assembly Required
The LXD75 includes a German equatorial mount (GEM), which is to telescopes what a stick-shift is to cars. If you're going to learn how to drive a car, you're better off learning on an automatic transmission. With telescopes, you're better off learning on a fork mount (such as Meade's ETX series). But for astrophotography, a GEM tends to be steadier and more accurate.
But assembling a GEM is not nearly as easy as other kinds of mounts, and the instructions that Meade includes are written in the impenetrable dialect of technical manuals. To make matters worse, there are a couple of serious flaws in the instructions. For example, the instructions for connecting the mount to the tripod omit two important pieces, without which, a firm connection is impossible. Fortunately, John Stephen's post in the LXD75 support group saved me. At another point, the manual talks about how the "rounded base of the cradle assembly fits into the rounded portion of the mounting slot". It could be just my interpretation of "rounded" but neither the cradle assembly nor the mounting slot seemed to have any rounded portions. The worst part about the manual flaws is that I found myself second-guessing every instruction. Is that really what I'm supposed to attach? What if the manual is wrong again?
Zen and the Art of Quality
As I said before, I believe that the LXD75 series is great balance between features, quality and price. But that's not to say that I found no quality issues. In general, the mount feels solid and well-made, but I also found parts that reflected the telescope's low price. The tripod leg knobs and the azimuth control knobs are made of very light aluminum--they look as if they would break if dropped. I also found minor fit-and-finish problems common in this class of equipment. For example, many of the painted metal pieces are chipped, either through a manufacturing defect or through rough handling during assembly. In addition, there appear to be minor flaws in casting, such as rough, uneven surfaces.
The most serious issue I encountered was that the Right Ascension (RA) axis of the drive refused to work. When I pressed the buttons on the controller, the Declination axis turned fine, but the RA motors would just whine without turning the telescope. For a minute I thought that I had missed an assembling instruction (that darn manual again!). But after I decided to pull the RA motor casing off to diagnose the problem, I realized that the bolt holding the RA motor to the mount was loose. A few turns of a hex wrench later (which, by the way, was not included--none of the supplied hex wrenches fit that bolt) and the motor was turning the telescope perfectly.
The second lesson of amateur astronomy is: Take advantage of an opportunity today for tomorrow may be cloudy. With my telescope fully assembled and operational, I proceeded to move the entire setup to my balcony, where a beautiful dark sky waited. I was probably thinking exactly what Oppenheimer was thinking in the New Mexico desert in 1945. "Is this thing really gonna work?" I turned on the computer and was greeted with the message that all astronomical instruments now carry: "WARNING: LOOKING AT THE SUN THROUGH THIS TELESCOPE WILL BORE A HOLE IN YOUR SKULL..." I failed to get rid of the warning no matter what buttons I pushed, so I fished through the manual again. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was trying to remember the lesson of patience. Meanwhile, the moon was moving in its stately orbit, oblivious to the fact that it would soon move behind my balcony wall. I was past the warning now, and the computer was asking me to enter today's time, the date, the country, state, and city in which I lived. Patience, patience, patience.
Ten minutes later, after pressing a few million buttons on the Autostar computer and consulting the manual repeatedly, I finally had my reward: the three-quarters moon was in the eyepiece, hanging like a brilliant continent in a black, endless sea. Like any good tourist, I snapped a picture.
For the conscious time that I had remaining, I tested the goto computer. Between my impatience and the fact that Polaris is not quite visible from my balcony, I could not properly align the telescope to the North Celestial Pole. Nevertheless, I barged ahead. I tried the easy alignment option in the Autostar computer, which involves two star. First the Autostar tried to point to telescope to the star Vega and asked me to correct it. When I looked, telescope was nowhere near Vega and I started to get worried. I pointed the scope by hand and told the Autostar: "This is Vega". Next the Autostar computer pointed to Kochab, which is behind my house, so I couldn't tell if it was close or not. All I could do is tell the computer, "Sure, that sounds right".
With the alignment complete, I instructed the computer to point to the Ring Nebula. I know the Ring Nebula is near Vega, but I still didn't expect much. Nevertheless, the telescope whirred and turned and when I looked through the eyepiece, I was surprised to see a faint, ghostly doughnut right at the center of the field of view. Not bad!
Next I asked the Autostar to point to the Double Cluster. The telescope moved again, but when I looked, I didn't see any sign of the clusters. I then asked Autostar to do a spiral search. This caused the telescope to move slowly around the area, searching for the target. Looking through the eyepiece it was almost like looking out the porthole of a starship with the stars moving past (minus the space-sickness). A spiral and a half later, the clusters appeared in the eyepiece. The wide-field of view of the f/4 Schmidt-Newtonian held both clusters together. Magnificent!
The Meade 8" LXD75 Schmidt-Newtonian telescope is a good mid-range telescope with an excellent balance of features, quality, and price. I would not recommend this telescope for beginners, who are much better off with a fork-mounted Schmidt-Cassegrain (from either Meade or Celestron). And for those who have the means, I would recommend a Takahashi. But for those amateurs who are looking for an inexpensive astrophotography platform, I hope and believe that the 8" LXD75 Schmidt-Newtonian will live up to the promise. The fast f/4 ratio of the optical tube combined with the steady tracking of the German equatorial mount should prove ideal for capturing beautiful views of the universe. All I have to do now is wait for dark skies.