Review of the Vixen SXD2 Equatorial Mount with Starbook Ten
| 0 Comments... |I own a CGEM and really like it, even though I purchased the package for the 11” Edge OTA and not the mount. I am not primarily into astrophotography, so my standards are not that high for an equatorial system. I do throw on my Canon 40D to take quick 30-second to 3-minute unguided exposures, for purposes of closer examination/gaining more information on a given object, but that’s about it. I never go above three minutes, and more often than not, it’s only one. I can usually align carefully enough to get an image with little or no star trailing- under two minutes. I do however, like accurate pointing and tracking for visual work. And I have accidentally stumbled on something that gets me absolutely passionate and crazy about this mount, and I will elaborate more on that later.
I bought the SXD solely for my (amateur astronomy’s best-kept secret-excellent deep sky performer-great contrast giver-aesthetically pleasing-great focuser-no-non-sense doublet) Astro Telescopes 152. I have so far discovered that the mount and that instrument are a match made in heaven, especially when you purchase the SXG half pillar (optional from Vixen at $250) to keep a long OTA, hence your expensive oculars, from contacting the tripod legs. I find that since the stubby tube of the 152 is quite short, I can barely get away with not having the pillar, even at the zenith. (Though another inch would be too long.) But it’s going to be nice to have the tripod legs at a lesser extension and with a smaller footprint since this means I will be able to move more freely around the setup. I say “going to be,” because I haven’t received it yet, and did all of my testing without it. I am tempted to cancel the order, as I made out fine anyway. –BTW, the included 12.5 pounds of counterweight are perfect in this configuration. Interesting note: my CGEM requires much more weight to balance the same telescope setup because of a disparity in the design of the two mounts.
I acquired my SXD2 early because by chance I was chatting with one of the salespeople at my dealer on the phone about another matter and just happened to inquire about the mount with the Starbook Ten that I was playing with at NEAF. The last time I was doing this the previous year, the book was attached to the ATLUX mount that ran $10,000. Needless to say, that was too rich for my blood, since I am not into A/P heavily enough. And the mount itself weighs 50 pounds, which, for a person who is portable, is totally out of the question.
Another interesting and okay, unusual thing about this review is that I have only used this equipment for eight hours total. I usually thoroughly check everything beforehand by going out with the gear multiple times, but I would like to get this review out to my amateur astronomer friends around the world so that you can have a good idea what to expect when this mount gets rolling in the market, and before you lay out the $3,500 (with tripod and pillar) for it. Rest assured though, that I did run it through its paces during that time. In fact, I spent little time observing. I tried the mount once for two hours on my NYC balcony, and once for six hours at the field on Long Island. I was blessed at the latter half of that Memorial Day weekend with perfect skies for the evaluation. I can tell you that when I brought it out to the field under the open sky and aligned with care using the included polar scope, and my Mark V binoviewer with 19mm Panoptics, the 1.25X glass path compensator, and a very accurate Telrad, the mount pointed and tracked effortlessly and very accurately. After this twenty star/object alignment, it placed whatever I wanted near the center of the field every single time for the entire six hours. I believe that even with a much longer focal length than my 900mm, it would do the same.
Now for the fun stuff. I will try to cover everything related to the Starbook, which is, let’s face it, the real reason you are considering this setup. Yet please know that the other night I discovered that the mount, tripod, and accessories are delightfully portable, MUCH easier to manage than the CGEM or other mounts which are similar in bulk and weight. So the Starbook Ten is definitely nice, but the SXD2 as a whole, has a lot to offer.
- Okay, the correct way to operate the Starbook Ten is with your left thumb on the two vertical buttons that allow you to zoom in and out. As you go in, the slew speed decreases for the sake of precision. Out, it increases. Your right thumb will be on the four omnidirectional arrow keys. These control the direction of the target symbol. It’s nice because you’re always able to govern everything instantaneously and simultaneously, rather than having to search for the button that gives you one single speed setting at a time, and then you have to keep going back to change it.
- I will put this attribute of the mount at the top of the list because it is very important to me personally, as I sometimes simply go out on my balcony for a couple of hours just for fun. Many of you too, are in positions that render much of the sky unattainable because of trees, neighbor’s houses, mountains, whatever… The mount can align on anything. Forget the list of dedicated alignment stars that are required for alignment on other mounts. Having said this, it is indeed better if you do choose a listed star because it is already in the Ten’s computer. (I’ll just call the entire unit “the Ten” herein) So, if you see say, M5 right in front of you and it is the only thing around that you can actually see in the eyepiece, it would be better to input M5 and then slew to it and then align, rather than going to M5 and hitting the align button. That way, the computer recognizes the object for alignment. But if you are stuck with a small slice of empty sky, you can use the encoders, or the position they call up, to align. There doesn’t even have to be anything noteworthy there. As long as you match something on the screen with something in the eyepiece. At the tail end of my session on L.I., I shut the SXD down, moved the mount so that it was about 100 degrees from Polaris, and then chose the “without polar alignment” selection. Then I oriented the telescope in the home position and found a bordering star in the south at the upper edge of Scorpius. I knew this to be Antares. Actually, it was low and a bit in the mud, so I guessed it was Antares. I slewed there in chart mode and placed the target on the star. The scope was way off. I slewed there, centered the star in the eyepieces, and hit the align button. Now in the alignment records, the computer didn’t show the star Antares, but it had the position of Antares, or whatever it was I aligned on. From here it was easy. I pointed to M12 (again, the computer just knew the coordinates) centered, and aligned. Now, I could go to whatever I wanted. The computer built a model based on my shenanigans. Cool.
- The first time I took the mount out onto my balcony, I aligned on Saturn, the (center of the) moon, M104, and stars that bordered nearby constellations. You point, you center, you hit the align button. You do not have to hit enter and send it off on its own- into your balcony railing or fake palm tree. Even my 12” LX200ACF requires a ghost alignment on the balcony because there are, most times, no alignment stars to be found. This renders everything so far off that I have to rely on Spiral Search to ultimately locate what I am seeking. After I aligned the SXD2 that first night, she purred from the moon to Saturn and Saturn to the moon and tracked both very well
- Another nifty feature of the Ten is that the earth is transparent. What this means is you can see what just set, and what is rising
- The Ten lists objects with one seemingly trivial yet very important piece of information. Each object has an indication next to it as to whether or not it is viewable at the moment. No need to wait for the dreaded “object below horizon” message
- The buttons on the Ten are very soft and comfortable to use, with only a slight push necessary to function. They are also lit in a subtle red
- Unlike the traditional hand controller, with the Ten you always have perspective. You know where you are, and where you want to go. Picture your Wil Tirion star map- every page- laid out in front of you, properly positioned. Except that the Ten will also show every planet (and their moons) exactly where they really are in the sky at that moment, and of course, positioning will update throughout the evening
- The mount is very light and manageable at 20 pounds
- The tripod also, is very light and manageable. The legs close squarely, that is to say, they don’t get tangled up when stored. I have illustrated this in one of the pictures. -The triangular accessory tray is optional (but unnecessary) at $35 from Vixen. Also, there is no need to bother with carrying that awkward triangle that keeps the legs spread tightly. With the HAL-130, the tripod is all you carry. No extra knobs or washers either. One piece. The bolt that holds the mount remains neatly under the tripod base. Even that only requires a comfortable snugging
- When set up, the system, although looking quite light and ineffective, is totally rock solid. So much so, it amazed me
- Declination lock knob is a double-sided job, meaning you can always see it and don’t have to search for it. Although it only tightens in one direction
- The entire system is very small, elegant, tight, (no play) and attractive
- One single cable so that you can slip it into an optional $20-$30 pouch or bag lengthwise for protection while using. For example, the opposite is true when you use it as a stand-alone star map. In this case, the power cord installs into the side, making it inconvenient and difficult to just slip into a case while you are using it. (Maybe you have a cat named Venus that jumps around like a maniac has to attack everything when you go to answer the phone. -Not that I do :-) I purchased a pouch called the Timbuk2 for storage. The other is a Seal Line tablet protector. Both fit perfectly over the SB10, and close with a seal. After my night on L.I., I opt to keep the Ten in the Seal Line during use because it protects it at all times and is comfortable to handle. You can push the buttons and see the screen fine through this plastic. Don’t even think about holding the Ten in your hands all night. It will inevitably get bumped or even dropped. It has a beautifully creamy case and gorgeous screen, so you want to prevent any type of damage. Forget the included wrist strap
- C-11, maximum
- Very quiet, similar to the Sirius mount
- The screen, at a certain zoom setting, is proportional to a desktop screen with The Sky 6 Professional. CW, I framed Saturn, M3, M106, and the horizon, and they both showed the same objects
- To keep the screen from being Uranometria-like and overwhelming, zoom into a given object, and then gradually zoom out. Other objects, probably NGC, will appear one by one, just as in The Sky 6 Pro program
- Unlike the old Sphinx that had the Starbook that needed the optional red monolith (which always kind of perplexed me), the Ten has a detailed screen menu so that you may adjust the brightness of the night vision screen and the level of illumination to create a custom mix that is to your liking. I personally like to keep the night vision off and lower the standard screen brightness to a level that is comparable to the night vision screen intensity. This also retains all the nice different colors on various objects and information
- EXCELLENT 100-page manual. Covers absolutely everything, including, to my surprise, a detailed layout of (matched) counterweight and OTA capacities (even where the weights should be on the bar!) so that there is no mystery involved with respect to how much the mount can handle. I guess you could say it is a capacity white paper! -An interesting design characteristic is that the mount requires less counterweight then is obvious when you look on the OTA side. As aforementioned, the two small weights that come standard with the Delux are all I need across from my 152 and accessories, an instrument which weighs around 29 pounds when loaded
- Almost 8000 NGC objects alone. Even though most are out of our reach, it’s kind of cool to slew to that area and wonder how much out of reach while we stare or expose into the darkness
- Very elegant and illuminated polar scope with these features: Time graduation circle, Meridian offset scale, Date graduation circle, water level, knurled ring for focusing
- Regarding polar alignment, you can shut it off if Polaris is not in sight, going back to the ability to be able to align anywhere, or if you do not need tracking for terrestrial work. I do this on my balcony, because it allows the mount to track in both right ascension and declination. Obviously if you Polar align, then the mount will track only in RA (after you adjust the setting in the menu)
- Surprisingly accurate from home to the first alignment star. Just make certain your tripod is level
- 20 alignment positions! If you are into A/P, and you need accuracy, you will be in good shape with a mount that can build such a good template of your playground. Needless to say that visually, this provides UNCANNY accuracy. This was proven to me. Keep in mind that a 20-star/object alignment takes about 30 minutes
- Calculations for star alignment are based on the most reliable two stars or objects that you have chosen. From the Vixen’s performance that evening, I believe two stars will have you pointing and tracking acceptably
- An alarm will sound if you did not balance the setup correctly (Haven’t heard it myself – and don’t intend to)
- The inside of the SXD2 is very different from the previous SX Mounts. Eight bearings have been added to the shafts of the RA and DEC axes and the screw gear shafts are made of carbon steel with brass wheel gears. The worm screw gears have strict concentricity for smoothness and accuracy
- Detailed moon map that you can manipulate and orient with the Ten buttons. You can also zoom in on the lunar surface which is on the screen for comparison with reality
- One can input orbital elements for 10 comets and 10 satellites, and edit or rewrite at any time as necessary. This is where the Starbook Ten becomes a serious tool, and not just a novelty. To illustrate this: Comet inputs include; Code name, Time of pericenter passage, Argument of pericenter, Longitude of the ascending node, Inclination, Minimum distance from pericenter and Eccentricity. For satellites: Name, Satellite number, International designation, Epoch year & day fraction, 1st derivative of mean motion, 2nd derivative of mean motion, Radiation pressure coefficient, Ephemeris type, Element number and checksum, Inclination, Right ascension of the ascending node, Eccentricity, Argument of perigee, Mean anomaly, Mean motion, Revolution number at epoch & checksum
- The Ten will also accept customized coordinates for things that you would like to view, that are unique to only you. Do you have the SXD2 mounted on your beachfront home porch? At the press of a button, you can be observing the Fresnel patterns of the lens at that lighthouse on the other side of the bay. In my case, I used to focus on the Twin Towers. There was a blinking red light that I fancied at the top of the antenna of the north tower, and then I would descend to the different instruments and dishes, then to the observation deck
- The Ten has adjustable limiting magnitudes for most object catalogues
- Choice of RADEC or Altaz
- Ten has a 5-inch high definition screen – 800 X 480 pixels and weighs just over a pound
- Includes a 272,342 object database (Obviously, most are obscure stars)
- Different tracking speeds for sun, moon, comets, satellites
- If you have many screens open, you can use the left arrow button to go back page by page. This is very convenient compared to clearing and having to start over
- Backlash compensation, Periodic error correction, (input jack for an) Autoguider, Hibernate, built-in speaker, LAN connection for updates, and an available expansion unit for enhanced autoguiding where you can actually work with an image on the SB’s screen.
- High precision GOTO slewing – 1000x sidereal rate maximum. Micro-step motion control
- Rather than listing all of the settings available, I will simply tell you that the Ten has an adjustment for just about everything you can think of regarding the mount and Starbook. Believe it or not, you can even change the motor power levels, adjusting electricity consumption and torque of the high precision stepping motors. (I recommend the high setting for smooth operation.) Additionally, this mount is very responsive to the user’s commands
- CROSS OVER MERIDIAN function for astrophotography
- All of your alignment data points are listed on the screen (when prompted) for adjustment purposes
- Counterweights are very small and easy to handle
- The Ten is a great learning tool, familiarizing the user with constellations and stars, things that we deep sky folk don’t usually focus on because they are too simple
- Lastly in the Pro column, the Starbook Ten becomes extremely user friendly within a few hours
- No TOUR
- Most of the info on the two upper and lower toolbars is useless. These take up room that could be otherwise utilized with the sky model itself
- No pictures on most objects. Although I don’t think we can reasonably expect them with the given memory available. Thackeray’s Globules - IC 2944. No Picture! Annoying.
- Screen gets uncomfortably crowded as you zoom out, even with conservative parameters for the object catalogues. However, given the size of the screen, this is understandable
- No info button. If you land on an object, you must input its title or numerical identity, and the info will become available. This sucks big time and is not understandable
- No onboard batteries to power the unit when it is a stand-alone tool. You must use an external 12v 3A power source
- The Ten should have an automatic power-off feature like my Canon camera. During a 6-8 hour session, the screen stays on continuously. There is also no power switch on the SB. I was surprised when the capacity of my battery was pretty much as it usually is, drained to the point where it takes about seven hours to recharge. I thought with the SB’s screen and dew heaters on all night, it would have gone down much farther
- No fastening screw on power cable like say, the CGEM has. A good idea is to tape the slacked cable to the data cable which leads to the SB
Teenagers have a thing that they say nowadays. Just sayin’. Well, I’m just sayin’ that there is something about a static star map and a CGEM or similar. The controllers are not as fragile. In fact, I rather enjoy slewing to something, and just tossing the controller over the focuser, or even keeping it in my pocket if it’s cold. -Although with the plastic cover method you can just hang the Starbook from the vicinity of the upper tripod and work through the plastic, which I have found to be my new way of controlling. And not to forget that a star map such as the SkyAtlas 2000, has light and dark areas, or isophotes, indicating nebulous and dense star patterns which the Ten does not. I mentioned earlier that using the Ten is like having all the stars of your star map pages spread out in front of you. But how many of us need the entire sky in front of us at any given time? We usually work on one section, which is where a star map excels. It has inherent detail, focusing on minute patterns and shapes as well as numbers and symbols, however, only in one layer. A real sky chart is heavy and awkward to use, yet generally has better plotting, BUT a fixed limiting magnitude. The Starbook is… well, you get the point.
Yet I really do so love the Sphinx Delux 2. I mentioned earlier that there is something about this mount that drives me nuts. During the end of the session at about 3:30AM on Long Island, I was playing around, trying to act like I had the mount for a while, and began to focus less on testing and more on enjoying. So I traveled around the sky on the Ten’s screen and decided to go to an area which was devoid of objects, but still a nice star field. Keep in mind the Ten has been functioning PERFECTLY all night, and when you go to ANYTHING on the chart mode screen, you can stop and pick whatever you want to see and hit enter. That place on the screen will be in your oculars precisely, especially after a 20-point alignment, which I highly recommend.
I am quite certain that even The Sky Six Professional is not perfectly accurate as far as like, every star in the program. And that’s kind of understandable, even though it is an expensive platform, one that is utilized by professional astronomers in the most prestigious observatories around the globe. As for me, I’m easy, and I don’t expect miracles with most things, so when I use The Sky program for observing agendas or whatever on my desktop, I know that it doesn’t match the sky exactly, but as long as it comes close. I know the good folks at Bisque don’t have their own staff of cartographers floating around in space suits with measuring tapes, or even their own observatories to build their fine product.
So I go deep in the sky in chart mode and explore this and that and then I find an interesting asterism. I love asterisms. I love to try to imagine how far each of the stars are from each other in depth and/or distance, perhaps based on their luminance, among other elements. Which one is closer? Which one is older? So for the fun of it I hit enter. I went to the truck and got a Chunky. (I’m only bad on astronomy nights) I sat back down and peered into the Mark V. Suddenly, I have the same asterism in the eyepieces that I see on the screen. Cool, I’m thinking. Nice coincidence. So I go to another one. (Not Chunky, asterism) Then another. Then I’m like, Mother…! (As we say in the boroughs) I zoom out to see the neighborhood- I look at the screen and then through the eyepieces again. It’s an asterism between M57 (NGC6720) and Vega. (From my notes) Big dot on corner, then triangle, then two stars on either side then three flowing away from the two perpendicularly. Numbers two and three bigger spacing than one and two. The coordinates are: RA 18h 54m 42s / DEC +36 degrees 53,3.
Searched and slewed to another couple more. Still in awe. How does Vixen do this? This really took experts in photometric accuracy, astrometry catalogues and/or celestial mechanics, data sources and mathematical calculations. What about proper motion? Is there a company that sells this stuff as a whole? In any case, Vixen deserves kudos for their efforts. They could have settled on eye candy. Why would they go so far? Are they so committed? Should I be committed? Maybe I’m seeing things! I mean, I expect the first layer of stars to be accurate, but still? After entering the deep sky? Didn’t you ever notice how rudimentary catalogue plotting and coordinates can be? Even the SAO catalogue has many missing stars! Particularly after the ninth magnitude range- Think of how nice this is. Imagine you don’t fancy slewing to different objects. Imagine you crave the asterisms that are not catalogued anywhere- since the ancient Babylonians of Mesopotamia! It is virtually impossible to cover even a sliver of the sky and search for things in a given night. But with the Ten, you have a comfortable chance to find exciting things beyond the first layer of the sky without even a physical slew.
Last one: RA 19h 15m 04s / DEC +59 degrees 42.3. Here we go; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven stars. Hatchet-shaped. From handle, two closer, one farther apart, next one equidistant to last… Turn corner, one dimmer inside, then back out to another two, same magnitude, then sharp right, large space, back to handle, two brightest at both ends of handle. I fall back in my chair. This is so freaking kool!
I have to confess that the night I spent at the field with the new Vixen mount was one of the most memorable and fun experiences I can recall in astronomy. Vixen has hit a home run with the Sphinx Delux 2. It should be noted that there are other ways to have the sky scrolling in front of you as you observe. Laptops, notebooks, tablets and even your phone can control a mount with programs such as Sky Safari. So the Vixen proprietary Starbook, although a fanciful feast at a time in the past, is just one of the ways you can keep up with the sky while becoming more familiar with it and your equipment. Personally, I really dig the size, feel, and full-featuredness of the Ten. And of course, the extremely accurate mount doesn’t hurt either. Together, they are an excellent and fun, yet serious way to observe. And I believe that the price of the SXD2 is a good one.
If I run into any declination problems (that the company has had in the past,) or if I find it necessary to swap out cards, (another past idiosyncrasy,) or any other major problems, I will promptly post an addendum to this review.
Clear skies and good luck with your decision!
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