The Meade LS-6
Well, here’s another item that has probably elicited lots of curiosity amongst you fellow astronomers both new and grizzled like me, but for which there exists precious little objective information. (hint: If the review starts out calling the subject ‘Award Winning’ or ‘Revolutionary’ or ‘Game Changing’ – it’s probably not objective…)
In any case, what I have recently laid my hands on is a Meade SCT with ACF optics mounted their new Lightwswitch computerized Alt-Az GOTO mount, that self-aligns without any user intervention using GPS, Meade LNT (level, North Technology) and a digital camera to internally map what it is looking at, and with Audio Visual capabilities thrown in for good measure ……
What could possibly go wrong?
Ignorance is bliss after all. To be honest, I had very low expectations for this scope. Partly because I cheated and did some research (it had issues following its 2009 debut) and partly because my back yard can best be described as an arboretum built beside the I95.. so lots of stuff to interfere with target acquisition…
But what is it?
The Meade LS series is their new (2009 debut) LightSwitch series of Catadioptric scopes that utilizes an internal digital cameras, GPS and level/north sensors to automatically initialize, get your time/place and perform an automatic two star alignment without any input from the user.
They come in two flavours – standard Schmidt Cassegrain optics or Meade’s high end ACF – short for Advanced Coma Free optics that Meade uses to describe their SCT hybrid optics. ACF optics reportedly deliver flatter and sharper fields of view than standard SCT optics. The LS series is available in a 6” model (the LS-6 in this test) and an 8” model. Both share the same mount. Only the apertures are different. Both are F10 systems.
Well, the weather sucks.
The LS-6 comes packed in a double boxed, foamed clamshell shipping case. Well packed and protected. The tripod ships in a separate box.
The 1st impression is that the Meade has departed from their signature deep blue glossy paintwork in favour of a rough textured lighter blue colour. It doesn’t look as classy, but fingerprints don’t show up..
The 2nd impression is this is a large mount. It has a lot of presence to it. The OTA itself is a little oversized with the various sensors mounted on it, but the mount itself extends above and to the side by much more than a standard mount. This is borne out by the weights. The LS-6 mount/OTA tips the scales at 28lbs compared to 21lbs for a similar Celestron 6SE package. The tripod is another 9lbs – so all in all, still a very portable set-up.
The 3rd impression is that the angular ‘L’ shape of the mount was designed by a bricklayer. Maybe it will grow on me.
The 4th impression is that the tripod is cheap. It’s like Meade went to their Chinese supplier and said ‘what is the cheapest tripod you can sell us that will support a 28# telescope.
I’ll have to wait for some clear skies to test the auto align function on actual stars, but I was curious to see just how far the LS-6 would get and what it does. So I set it up on the back deck to see what would happen.
Anyway…. Open the tripod, install the plastic spreader on the central bolt and tighten. Plunk the LS-6 down on top and rotate it around until it clunks into the indents and tighten the 3 hold down thumbnuts. Plug in your preferred power source (8 C batteries, 12V power tank or Meade #05874 AC adapter), then the hand controller.
A note here on power. Although the LS will run on 8 ‘C’ cell batteries, even the normally rosy marketing descriptions has the runtime down at only 3-5 hours off a set. That’s a set of batteries a night!! It wouldn’t take to long to justify an alternate power source. Get yourself a powertank type supply. They’re good for a full night even with other accessories. All you need is a cord with a 5.5mm connector with a center tip positive to fit over the inner 2.5mm pin.
Flip the power switch ON and stand back! (One has to smile - there is actually a caution in the manual to warn you against ‘sudden, unexpected telescope movement’ – I can imagine the Meade lawyers, none of whom probably even know which end of a telescope to look in, worrying that users could accidently walk into a veritable Ginzu of frenzied telescope GOTO.)
Oh yeah, did I mention that this thing talks to you to!
If you don’t disable the multi-media/sound feature (it’s on by default), the LS-6 will advise you in a soft spoken voice exactly what it is doing and intends to do. This also shows up on the hand controller display too. First, it establishes its home position, seeking level and North, which it did, and then calculates the tip and tilt of the mount. This step essentially measures the variance from ideal in the X-Y-Z planes so the internal algorithms can be adjusted to compensate for my cavalier set-up.. Although the manual doesn’t tell you, setup really doesn’t matter. There is no ‘home’ position for start-up, and it doesn’t seem to care if the mount is particularly level or whether it starts out facing North. As part of the start up routine, it figures all this out by itself.
Next came the GPS acquisition. This is where I held my breath as most of the complaints I had read online seemed to involve the GPS. However, less than a minute later, it had acquired the time and location and announced that it would begin looking for stars. I have firmware v1.6a which, if all reports indicate, seems to have cured the issues.
Now, to be fair, even Superman’s Xray vision couldn’t have performed a star alignment in this muck. But the geek in me was mightily entertained to see it perform the start-up and acquisition routines and have it show you that it is; a) taking a picture b) processing the image and c) identifying the target star. When it couldn’t find Vega because of the cloud cover, it announced it would noodle around and try to find it, and then slewed 15* one way and then the other to perform the imaging/identification routine. If it can’t find the first target star, it will move to the next in line and so one until it exhausts its list and gives up. Another neat feature was that if it is too bright out (as it was for the first two impatient attempts), it informs you that it informs you of this and immediately makes the scope available for terrestrial viewing.
The drives are fairly quiet on the LS and have more of a turbine like whine. There is none of the signature coffee grinder sounds that many GOTOs make at high speed. (the LS slews at max 6* sec). It sounds cool to hear the drives spooling down as the target is approached. In tracking mode, it’s dead quiet. Every other mount I have had has chugged, wheezed or rattled away, albeit quietly, but you always knew it was doing something. You can’t tell if the LS is running or not. The other thing about the LS drives is that there is none of the usual backlash adjustment that my other GOTOs have had. The LS firmware looks after this in the background and as a result, direction changes with the keypad are smooth and immediate in the eyepiece regardless of what speed setting you’re on. There is none of the hesitation, jerkiness or overshooting you sometimes get with other GOTOs.
So after fooling around for an hour, I instructed the telescope to ‘Park’, and lugged everything back into the house for the night. Tomorrow supposedly has some clear spells, so hopefully, I’ll get in some observing time
Day 2-test 2
Got home from work today and everything looks nice and clear so I took the LS-6 out to the deck and let it settle down for an hour while it got dark.
Once it got dark, I flipped the switch (and for vicarious thrills and to thumb my nose at Meade’s lawyers – I deliberately leaned in close) and waited. However, this time, the scope didn’t go through the same routine and as the previous night and as the OTA starting descending below the horizon, I hastily flipped the power off (with the ‘I knew its’ whispering in my head).
A note here about the differences between ‘Shutdown’, ‘Park’ and ‘Sleep’. I had used the ‘Park command the night before, thinking this was the same as ‘Shutdown’. It isn’t. After re-reading the manual and experimenting a bit, they mean the following.
Park – returns scope to user selectable park position before turning off drives and display. Internal calcs keep running.
Sleep – same as Park, but leaves scope in whatever orientation it is in when you select Sleep.
Shutdown – returns scope to Park position and shuts everything down.
I didn’t realise this and used the ‘Park’ command the night before, but set the scope up in a completely different orientation this night, so it was still tracking stuff internally but set up completely differently. ‘Sleep’ or ‘Park’ would be used for observatory installations. ‘Shutdown’ should be used if you are going to move the scope after you’re done, or if you want complete power off.
Anyway, I said a couple of Hail Mary’s and flipped it back on. This time everything went as planned, and with the narration telling me what it was up to, it proceeded to level and orient itself, then the GPS fix, after which it announced it was going to look for the first target star – which according to the keypad was Vega almost overhead and off it went. When it got there, it announced that it was using its CCD camera to look for the target. The handbox showed the process of taking images, downloading images and analysing image. To me, it looked like Vega was a little off to one side, but I suppose that if the target falls within the 15* FOV of the CCD camera, it can still acquire the target. Apparently, the LS thought so too, because it then announced that it was off to Altair, where it repeated the acquisition process and proclaimed a ‘Successful Alignment.’
Now…. these are words that all of us GOTO jockeys have read at one time or another – only to be frustrated by vague/inconsistent GOTOs and poor tracking. So it was with a jaundiced eye that I punched in a GOTO for the moon, my reasoning being that even if it missed, it was easy to find manually and I could at least evaluate the optics.
Dead center – damn! Okay, a tougher test this time..
M13 – dead center
The M57 – same
Albiero – same
M2 – dead center
M13 – centered again
There was a couple of times where the target ended up in the outer 1/3 FOV and just as I was thinking ‘Aha – gotcha!’ – it would perform its final backlash approach and bring the target dead center. I was grinning like a slots player watching the lemons line up…
So it was with a sense of contented bewilderment that I left the scope centered on M2 and went inside for a late dinner and my favourite TV show.
When I came out and hour later, M2 was still dead center in the 19mm Panoptic (about 80X). This was spooky. With every other GOTO scope I’ve owned, I had to really work to get any kind of acceptable performance, and it felt like divine intervention whenever I somehow managed to juggle all the variables and got accurate, consistent GOTOs and good tracking. The LS mount did all this perfectly and without any input from me.
Over the next couple of hours, I puttered around the available sky objects visible for my time and viewing location. All were dead center and eliminated the fretting over whether the object being sought was too dim to see, or was just another missed GOTO.
So after exhausting the targets in my limited slice of sky, I centered the scope on a small identifiable cluster of stars within the Pleiades that were just coming up over the trees, tossed a towel over the scope to keep the dew off, and went to bed around 11:00pm. When I finally shook myself awake at 4:30, I went out to see how the tracking faired. The small star grouping was still in the FOV, but had slipped off center by about ¼ the FOV over the last 5-1/2 hours.
By this time, Jupiter and Orion were high, so I quickly did a GOTO and Sync on Betelgeuse and then quickly peeked at M42, Jupiter, M31 and the moon again.
I say quickly, because anytime I did a slew, the powertank would protest with a low-battery warble. If this low battery level had nothing to do with the very slight slip in tracking – it was still great. If, however, the low battery did impact the tracking somewhat, then the performance was nothing short of phenomenal..
So not wanting to push my luck any further, I invoked the ‘Shutdown’ and put everything away for the night.
The LS-6 has Meade’s ACF – Advanced Coma Free optics. The primary is oversized to field more light, the secondary obstruction on this 6” scope is a little larger than standard SCT designs and it comes with Meades UHTC coatings which should help every photon reach your eyeball.
Based on the observations the first night out, I can report that the ACF optics are indeed a cut-above standard SCT optics. For this observing session, I was viewing from a light polluted back yard with a ¾ full moon riding high. The seeing was probably about a 7 out of 10.
Stars in general – seemed to be sharper further out to the edge than I recall my from my previous SCTs(5, 6, 8 and 10”)
Moon – very crisp. Excellent contrast.
Jupiter – one of the best views I have had in a long time. Lots of subtle banding at 100X. 4 satellites were pinpoints.
M42 – Trapezium resolved no problem. Lots of greenish/grey nebulosity despite the moon.
M31 – bright central core – the rest pretty washed out by the moon.
M2 – nice and tight.
M13 – outer stars resolved. Some granularity showing in the core.
M57 – small, pale smoky ring. Visible with direct vision.
M76 – Little Dumbell – hourglass shape barely discernable but there.
Double Double – clean split at 100X – messy split at 75X
Double Cluster – barely fit into field of view of a 32mm Plossl, but a very nice view.
Albiero – different colors very marked.
There was a very slight hint of miscollimation at 400X, but things were working so well that I didn’t want to push my luck trying for perfection – besides it could just have been the seeing. I would rate the optics of this scope as excellent. Under a dark sky, with good seeing, this scope would show you everything possible for 6” of aperture. Are the ACF optics worth the extra money? – I would have to say – Yes.
The focuser was initially very stiff, which combined with the marginal tripod, induced a lot of vibration when focusing. The original owner had purchased a JMI motofocus unit to help with this, but after trying it, I decided I didn’t like it. It removed any connection you have with the scope. (I know that there are some GOTO luddites out there that will sense some irony here…)
However, after taking the focuser apart and cleaning out the stiff silicon ‘glue’ they use for lubricant and then re-lubing with a good moly grease, the focusing action is much smoother and less vibration as a result. There was no image shift in my unit, and the focus ‘sweet spot’ was easy to hit.
Day 8 test 3
Yes – it’s been that long. It’s getting colder now, down to about 20*F
Took the scope out, plunked it down and switched it on. As before, it chose Vega as its first alignment star, but for some reason, decided on Capella for the 2nd star this time around. It was a bit later and Altair was behind the house, but the LS had no way of knowing this (or did it….?). In any case, Capella was visible winking through the top branches of a crab apple tree at the bottom of the yard. You can press any button on the keypad to abort a target star and it will go to the next one on its list, but I thought, ‘This’ll screw the little #*&%! Up!’ and let it proceed. Damned if it didn’t get an alignment through the branches. Initial GOTO’s were not as perfect this time, but once a Sync was performed, accuracy was restored.
The seeing was pretty unstable tonight. Did I mention that it was cold. Called it a night.
Day 9 test 4
Same kind of weather/seeing. Turned it on, and went inside for a coffee. When I came out 15 minutes later, it had successfully completed its alignments, but Capella was in the lower ½ FOV, not centered as Altair was the first time. Again, a centering and syncing was all that was needed to be accurate.
The Autostar firmware has an alignment routine to re-align the CCD camera so I thought I’d give that a try. It selects a star which it then slews to, and which you are then prompted to manually center in the FOV of a medium power EP, then accept. Sort of like a Sync for the CCD camera. This seems to have restored the accuracy as subsequent start-ups in the next couple of days had the final alignment star sitting dead center when I’d go out. Why it would have been different since the initial use – maybe the temperature variances perhaps, electronic gremlins, dark matter – who knows…
So the LS-6 has a very accurate GOTO mount and excellent optics – what’s not to like?
Well. I’m so glad you asked.
The tripod as mentioned is borderline serviceable with the 6”. I can’t see how the 8” version would be useable. Meade only lists a 2lb difference for the 6 vs 8” OTA mount combo. However, I don’t buy this, an 8” mirror has 75% more glass, even assuming the same thickness and the aluminum tube has about twice as much aluminum in it….
The other problem with the tripod is that it’s footprint, particularly at the lower extensions, is perilously close to the outside balance point of the scope. Be very careful doing the ‘lift one leg to adjust routine’. If you’re not very careful, the scope will tip – it’s very top heavy. It’s upper legs are only 1-1/2” diameter, reducing to 7/8” on the lower legs. The bottoms are capped with a squishy rubber feet that quiver like a rubber chicken on a stick. The spreader is plastic with 3 holes for 1-1/4” EPs, and two of the three holes were too tight to receive an eyepiece. A quick ream out with a 1-1/4” hole saw fixed that. And there are no ‘hard stops’ for the tripod legs, so you can keep tightening the spreader and the legs will keep going out until you run out of thread on the center bolt. I installed spreader chains to limit this movement.
I have had several LX200 tripods before and they are rock solid, so Meade does know how to do this properly.
The standard diagonal prism that ships with the LS is a cheesy looking plastic bodied unit that looks like it came off a Walmart 60mm Galaxy Buster. It seems OK optically, but come on guys! – decent looking metal bodied units are a dime a dozen.
The series 4000 26mm Plossl that ships with the LS is again, OK. However, it is of that peculiar Chinese design that has the eye lens buried deep below the top of the eyepiece. Eye relief is great on any 26mm Plossl, but by burying it deep down, you can’t take advantage of it if you’re an eyeglass wearer. Finish and coatings were excellent, but there is a reason you can buy 6 series 4000 plossls, a 2X barlow and a set of filters in an aluminum case on Astromart for $169….
Red Dot finder
I must admit, I am prejudiced against red dot finders. They don’t magnify, they don’t gather more light (in fact their tinted window actually makes things dimmer), they introduce a parallax error when viewing and like an optical finder, you have to contort yourself to use them in anything but a horizontal position. Oh yeah – and you always forget to turn the darn things off….and then they really are useless. The LS’s red dot is no worse than any of them. I suppose one could argue that a GOTO as accurate as the LS doesn’t need a finder at all, but for daytime use, or trying to center that particular target for which you can never remember the obscure SAO designation (quick – what’s the designation for the double double in Lyrae?) you do need a finder. To be fair though, the red dot is fine for daytime use and it is mounted very solidly on the OTA.
A note about mounting accessories onto the OTA. You can’t. Every other SCT I have owned has had a ring of 8-32 machine screws around the periphery of the end cell and the corrector cell, to which a large variety of brackets and accessories could be screwed to. I suppose if you removed the red dot finder bracket, you would uncover a couple of potential mounting points there, but that’s it.
Paradoxically, perhaps the least useful accessory – the end cell plug, was a nicely machined chunk of anodized aluminum emblazoned with the Meade logo. Once you take it off to install the diagonal, you’ll probably never see it again. I guess they had to cheap out on the diagonal and finder so they could afford this bit of bling.
It used to be that this word was reserved for computers. However, the LS-6 is essentially a telescope married to a computer, so it follows that it should have inputs and outputs. They are, from top to bottom.
• USB-A (manual says reserved for future expansion, no clue what this means)
• USB-B (this is the one that you use to talk to your computer, whether to do updates or interface with the your favourite planetarium program. I got mine to work with Meade’s Autostar Suite and with Cartes de Ciel.)
• Video out (you can output the CCD camera view (600x480) to an NTSC device like a monitor
• Audio out (to accompany the Video)
• Focuser (if you have a Meade focuser, you can plug it in here and control it from the keypad or from your computer)
• Jack for the Autostar handbox
• 12V power in.
• On the other side there is a microSD card slot. You can take still pics with the CCD camera and save them to the SD card.
The above holds some intriguing possibilities for me. Since I originally received the scope about 2 months ago, and during the course of these tests, I have finally discovered the combination of ports and settings that both my computer and the LS can agree on. It brought back memories of configuring modems…. I have also managed to get a webcam hooked up on the same 50 ft USB cable so the scope can be sitting out on the deck at zero degrees and I can be sipping hot chocolate in front of my computer indoors. I’ll try my hand at astrophotography – best done when one can concentrate on the controls and settings instead of the spreading numbness in ones fingertips and toes. However, terrestrial tests show the FOV of the CCD sensor to be excruciatingly narrow. Similar to about a 150X eyepiece, so it will be a real test of the LS GOTO accuracy once I actually get some clear nights to try it out.
Now, I can hear the tut-tutting starting already. First a GOTO, now a remote controlled GOTO! Anyone not ready and willing to risk body parts to frostbite obviously isn’t serious about the hobby. Well, I’ll think about you guys when it’s minus 10* outside and I’ll lift my cocoa (or beer) in salute to your dedication….
I got into conversation the other day with a gent I was buying an eyepiece from. He was a staunch Dob guy who scorned the use of modern electronics to find your way around the sky. But this same guy was getting out of the hobby because his health could no longer tolerate lugging his dob around. I too am reaching that time in my life where crouching and bending is a lot more work than it used to be. Any scope that can eliminate these setup calisthenics ultimately makes for a more pleasurable and productive outing.
And here’s the thing - if you think about it, even a totally green newcomer to the hobby would probably receive the best possible introduction to our hobby with the LS. Its optics are great, and within the capabilities of its aperture, everything will be found accurately. There will always be time later for learning the idiosyncrasies of our hobby, but at least this newcomer will not be driven away by horrible optics and mounts, or arcane rites of passage. The accessories, despite my maligning them here, are still good enough for the newcomer and don’t detract from the LS-6’s capabilities.
So whether you subscribe to the GOTO concept or not in no way detracts from the LS-6’s capabilities. It is excellent optically, and from my experience, phenomenal on the GOTO side of things. So all in all, despite the crabbing, for me the LS-6 is an excellent comprise between portability and capability.
In re-reading the review, it seems to be that Meade hit a real winner with their LS-6 scope optics and mount and then cheapened that victory with chintzy accessories. It is like the marketing guys were conflicted over their target market…. ”We’ve gotta make it good enough for real astronomers, but cheap enough to sell to WalMart”…..I wonder how that last part worked out for them.
But is it a good scope? – YES. Very good. Might even be a keeper……….
|All times are in (GMT-8:00) Pacific Standard Time Zone|