by Guy Brandenburg

The Meade ETX-60AT digital, computerized, go-to, 60 mm telescope was recommended to me by a nameless, but respected, member of NOVAC, who
said they were a lot of fun. However, my experience with it is that it is a pain in the neck that makes funny whirring noises in the dark and is much less useful than a decent pair of binoculars.

Why don’t I like it? Let me count the ways.

(1) SETUP

On my home-made Dobsonians, setup is extremely simple and takes way
less than three minutes, even in complete darkness. In its entirety, it
consists of putting the base down on the ground; putting the telescope
on the base; putting the Telrad finder on the tube, and turning it on to
an appropriate level of brightness; using the Telrad to aim at ANY
bright, stationary object; taking off the plastic bag that I use as a
dust cover for the front end of the telescope; taking out the plastic
film canister that I keep in the eyepiece holder to keep the dust out of
there; taking off the socks that I use to keep dust off of my 40 mm
finder; looking to see if the bright object is pretty near the center of
the finder; putting in a low-power eyepiece into the eyepiece holder;
bringing the bright object to focus; checking to see if the bright
object is pretty near the center of the eyepiece, which it always is. If
I feel like fiddling around a bit, I can collimate the two finders with
the telescope itself, and even collimate the main mirror a bit, but it
is seldom necessary at all. To repeat, all that takes less than three
minutes. It takes more time to set up my folding table, because there
are four legs to screw in, and often half of the holes are reluctant to
be found.

On the ETX-60AT, it’s an entirely different matter. After taking it out
of its box, you have to put it on a stable, raised platform of some
sort. I used a heavy outdoor utility table I had built, that my wife
helped me carry to the middle of my mother-in-law’s field. You have to
remove the dust covers, naturally, then put in the low-power eyepiece,
plug in the hand paddle, turn on the main switch, and wait for the
message about the sun blinding you to finish. If you get tired of
waiting, then you press a button, and then you have to enter the date
with clumsy up-and-down and right-and-left controls, then the time, then
whether it is AM or PM, then whether it is daylight savings time or not,
all in the same awkward fashion. After getting each one of those to the
right setting, you have to remember to press ‘Enter’. Then the computer
asks you what kind of setup you want to do. I chose the ‘Easy Align’,
which, believe me, is not so easy. It will tell you to set up the
telescope so that it is level and pointed north, which is not so hard,
because you don’t have to be super careful about that. It will then
suggest a star to align on, which might be a really easy one or one you
have never heard of. If you select the first choice, it will try to slew
to where it thinks that star is currently located, which, of course, it
isn’t. Then you have to fine-tune the aiming of the scope, using the
hand paddle, not your hand. This is much, much harder than it sounds,
for several reasons. First of all, you have to get used to the various
slewing speeds of the telescope. Secondly, even though the field is
pretty wide, it is really hard to find even bright stars like Vega,
Capella, and Aldebaran, because the telescope has no finder at all. All
stars look alike! Also, the tube is so short that it is extremely
difficult to sight along it. I could only get, by eye, to somewhere
around 5 or 10 degrees of the bright stars I mentioned, and then I just
had to slew around like crazy. The only reason I found Vega was that it
was in the limbs of a tree. I never did find Aldebaran in the finder – I
simply got lost in the Hyades (I think). If you reject one of their
choices for a guide star, either by choice or by accident, then the next
choices might be hidden by clouds, a barn, or whatever. I was unable to
go backwards; it kept making the same choice over and over again (Enif).
I found it necessary to turn the scope off and start all over again. By
the time all of this was over, a half hour had passed. I doubt that this
would ever get to be under 15 minutes, even with more familiarity,
because it does NOT remember the current date or time.

Mind you, the first two times I tried to set it up, I totally failed. I
didn’t have a star atlas with me (Hey-isn’t that the idea of these
things, that you don’t need one?) and probably forgot which star was
Dubhe, or Alpheratz, or Mizar, or whatever.

(2) FOCUSING

On my home-made Dobs, focusing is a breeze. You put in an eyepiece, and
even if it’s completely NON-parfocal with the previous eyepiece, you
turn the conventional rack-and-pinion focuser, which has a nice big
cheesy plastic or metal knurled knob, and within at most one full
revolution, the object is in focus. Any 1.25″ eyepiece will do just
fine, though it’s best if the focal length is less than about 35 mm.

On the ETX-60AT, it’s quite different. It came supplied with a 9 mm and
a 25 mm Meade Plossl (I think), and they are fine eyepieces. The problem
is that they are extremely not parfocalized, and it takes what feels
like forever to turn the tiny little focusing knob (shiny, slippery
chrome) enough times to get the new eyepiece into focus. Many, many full
revolutions are required. And if you want to go back to the prior
eyepiece, then you have to turn the focusing screw the same number of
times back the other way.

(3) FINDING THINGS

On my home-made Dobs, finding things took a while to learn, no question
about it. I had to learn how to use star maps and atlases and
guidebooks, to estimate what interesting objects would be up in the sky,
and to be able to visually approximate where exactly they would be in
the heavens based on what things looked like in the atlas. Star-hopping
is a skill that I am still working on, naturally, but I am getting
better. Every time I go out and find something new, I have a real
feeling of accomplishment. On the other hand, if I just want to look at
an interesting bright patch that I see in the Milky Way (or wherever), I
can manually aim and nudge the scope and look at it. If I want to try to
track a speeding airplane or satellite for somebody, I just get behind
the Telrad and move the scope along, and it works.

On this Meade ETX-60AT, however, the idea is that you can simply punch
in the name of the object or its coordinates, and it will slew towards
the object. It will do that, but it will also suggest items that are
well hidden by the Earth (Tarantula Nebula, anybody?), and items that
you would absolutely need a star atlas or catalog to figure out. I mean,
I know by heart probably about the names of 20 or so Messier Objects,
but I don’t recall ANY of the NGC or IC numbers by heart. Sure, some of
you expert observers know lots of them, but I thought the whole idea of
this type of scope was that you didn’t have to learn how to star-hop or
to find things in an atlas – that the scope would do that for you! I do
know that it offered to show me objects that are totally invisible in
this latitude in December, like Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula.
I didn’t try it, but I bet that it would have happily slewed until it
was pointing down towards the lawn. However, if there was a Messier
object on my list that I had not found, and I knew it was up, I could
simply use the clunky up-and-down interface, find the M number, and it
would slew towards it. Boy, would I feel proud of my accomplishment. Not.

And, on top of that, having an automatic scope does not free you from
the need to learn the sky and to have an atlas and a sky catalog.
Because without that information, you would have no idea what the things
on the little computer display would mean. And, for the ‘easy align’,
you have to be able to do some non-trivial star-hopping.

(4) THE VIEWS

I looked at several of the big showpieces the other night in the
ETX-60AT: Saturn, the Pleiades, and the Orion Nebula. I was totally
underwhelmed. The images were crisp, but that may be because everything
was at so low a magnification that no detail was visible. Using the 25
mm eyepiece, Saturn just looked like a big, yellow star. With the 9 mm
eyepiece, you could begin to see that it might have rings. Maybe. The
Pleiades looked OK in the 25 mm eyepiece, but not really very
interesting. They only filled up a very small part of the field of view,
and were not striking at all. The Orion Nebula just looked like a little
bright and fuzzy patch in the 9 mm eyepiece, and no detail was visible
whatsoever.

By contrast, I then used my 15 x 70 Galileo binoculars to view all 3 of
those objects. I could see no more detail on Saturn, but the Orion
Nebula and the Pleiades were much brighter and attractice.
In my home-made Dobsonians, all 3 of those objects are absolute
show-stoppers, very spectacular, and easy to find, too. You can magnify
almost as much as you want.

(5) TRACKING

With my home-made Dobsonians, the viewer just nudges things a bit. It
takes novices a few minutes to master this. Otherwise, things are very,
very steady.

With a pair of hand-held 15×70 binoculars, holding things steady is a
real challenge — no, strike that, it’s impossible. Everything shakes
around like crazy. The best is if you are lying on your back on
something soft, looking nearly straight up. I definitely need to finish
my binocular mount.

With the ETX-60AT, the telescope attempts to track for you, making all
sorts of little electrical noises. However, if you discover that for
some reason the object is a bit off center, and you recenter it with the
hand paddle, then the little idiot computer tries to fight you, and puts
it back off center. Consistently.

(6) NOISE

Hand-driven, home-made Dobsonian reflectors are almost totally quiet,
except when you are changing eyepieces or swearing to yourself. You can
hear the leaves blow in the breezes, and the deer trying to sneak up on
you. If you slew the scope by 720 degrees in the azimuth, you might hear
a very, very slight whoosh.

Binoculars don’t make any noise, either.

However, these ETX-60AT’s are always making little alien electrical
whirring noises, and sometimes little boops and beeps. They are only
quiet if you turn them off.

(7) PHOTOGRAPHY

I don’t know. I have taken some decent 35 mm film photographs of star
clouds in Cygnus with a home-made, hand-powered Scotch (or ‘barndoor’)
mount, but I haven’t tried this thing. But, given all of the jiggling
and shaking this thing did when it tracks, I doubt it would work.

(8) EASE OF USE

Get binoculars or a home-made Dob instead. This thing is a pain in the
neck. It has virtually the same problem with viewing the zenith as Dobs
do, too.

BOTTOM LINE:

If you like little electrical noises and video games, then this is the
gizmo for you. If you think you can get out of learning the sky or
having star atlases and catalogs, you’re wrong — you need them with any
type of scope. If you want wide field views of the sky, get a pair of
binoculars or make a a relatively-short-focal-length Dobsonian
reflector. If you want anything in higher magnification, then this scope
won’t do it. The Meade ETX-60AT surely is not the one for me.