Meade | RCX400 | MEADE`S 12” RCX400 TELESCOPE

Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
Few (if any) new product introductions have created quite the stir that Meade’s RCX
series did. Of course, Meade went out of their way to help things along with their preannouncement that a new model would be announced shortly and that it would have a
major impact on amateur astronomy. This created plenty of buzz on the various astro
Groups and Fora as to just what the news would be. When the details were released,
the buzz only grew larger. It was described as an “Advanced Ritchie-Cretien” telescope
on a dual-arm forkmount similar to that used on current LX200GPS models. Since the
existing RC models on the market are in the lofty price classes and chosen for use by
some of the most serious imagers in amateur astronomy, this raised three issues.
One question frequently raised was just what Meade had in mind producing an
obviously imaging-optimized telescope on a forkmount instead of the far more
commonly-used German equatorial mounting? How could it match the performance
of the $8000+ GEMs used by imagers? A check of the prices offered made those
answers clear; this series was aimed at a lower price point; a complete 10” RCX
system cost considerably less than most high-end mounts alone. It apparently was
intended not to compete with the highest-end gear, but instead to fill the gap
between the forkmounted SCT’s and the premium imaging setups - at a price of
about double that of current SCT offerings.
Another issue related to optical quality - how could a 10” complete system for
$5000 match a conventional RC when a 10” RC optical tube from RCOS costs
$13,000? Again, the answer is apparent to me. Despite some of the marketing
language used, it’s not meant to compete, but to make enhanced imaging
performance available at a performance and price point attractive to a different
(and presumably much larger) market. Whether it can do that is a much more
interesting question.
The third topic generated by far the most activity. What was Meade doing describing
this as an Advanced RC when it’s not identical to a conventional RC? The actual
optical design wasn’t described by Meade for some time, permitting folks to embark on
an orgy of uninformed speculation as to the optical configuration. Some such
speculations were published so widely and in such an authoritative tone that confusion
remains, despite the fact that the configuration is now well-documented. For the
record, the system consists of a hyperbolic secondary (as in a conventional RC) and a
spherical primary with a new design of corrector lens (NOT a Schmidt corrector)
added; the combination of the corrector and the spherical primary behaves much as a
hyperbolic primary by itself would. That’s the RC connection - a conventional RC uses
two hyperbolic mirrors.
Not surprisingly, I was curious about this offering. I’ve owned and used most of the
forkmounted SCT’s currently offered, and have dabbled at imaging for a while. I wanted
to see if this series would provide a performance boost above the SCT’s without
requiring the investment involved in a higher-end imaging platform. When Astronomics
offered to provide a 12” for review purposes, I cheerfully volunteered. I had just
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
removed a 12” Meade SCT from the observatory, so I figured I’d have a pretty good feel
for comparing them visually. I had taken enough recent images that I’d be able to repeat
the shots with the RCX for direct comparison.
As mentioned above, the RCX400 series consists of optical tubes and mounts
bundled together. It’s currently offered in apertures of 10”, 12”, and 14”, with a 16”
version in the works. The Giant Field Tripod has been replaced by a new unit that
looks to be even more stable than the GFT, with the added benefit of removable legs
for portability. Despite the imaging orientation of this model, it is not provided with a
wedge, but is compatible with the Superwedge and others in the market. Due to the
base design and to the extra hardware associated with the focusing system, the RCX
models weigh significantly more than the corresponding SCT models. For example, a
12” LX200GPS weighs about 75 pounds, while the 12” RCX400 comes in at a hefty 91
pounds. In the 12” version, this is offset to some degree by the fact that the shorter
optical tube of the RCX can be parked between the forks rather than remaining pointed
upwards during setup as required by the 12” LX200GPS.
The optical tube is the most innovative portion of the setup. The tube itself is made of
carbon fiber (used to reduce focus shift with temperature changes). A cooling fan and
dew heater are incorporated into the OTA. Like an SCT, the secondary mirror is
mounted to the corrector plate, but unlike an SCT the primary mirror is fixed. Focusing
and collimation are achieved by moving and tilting the corrector plate - and thus the
attached secondary mirror - by three servomotors via carbon fiber shafts. The apparent
intent is to provide very smooth, repeatable focus action with no image shift. A
collimation preset can be stored, as well as several focus positions. That’s a lot of extra
hardware and electronics; the longterm reliability of these items won’t be known for a
The mounts are derived from (and very similar to) the 14” LX200GPS mount. Like the
LX200GPS, they offer a large library of targets for GoTo operation, periodic error
correction in both RA and DEC (referred to as Smart Drive), multiple-object mapping
capability (Smart Mount Technology), provisions for autoguiding via either a serial port
or an autoguide port, High Precision Pointing, and compatibility with the Drizzle feature
of the Deep Sky Pro imager’s software. Firmware and object updates can be done by
the user from materials available on Meade’s website, although no firmware updates
have yet been released for the RCX series. Unlike the LX200GPS, the drivebase also
includes a USB hub and interface permitting the telescope and one or more imagers or
guiders to be controlled via a single USB cable. It also includes controllers for the
optical tube’s built-in dew heater, the cooling fan, and the motors used for focusing and
collimation. Substantial internal cabling permits the ancillary USB devices and the
guider to be connected at the optical tube rather than at the base, reducing cable clutter
and tangling opportunities.
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
The telescope box is much smaller than that in which the 12” LX200GPS is shipped.
This means that Fedex Ground can be used to ship these. That’s both less expensive
and more convenient than freight. This one was shipped from Astronomics. Everything
appears sealed and not repacked so I’m gonna consider it a random, non-selected
The tripod box is square and squat rather than the tall, thin box used for the Giant Field
tripod. This is due to the fact that this tripod doesn’t permit the legs to be unspread; the
legs are removed instead.
The box is not so sturdy as the GFT box was;
this one arrived with one corner split.
Nothing was missing or damaged, fortunately.
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
Opening the box reveals
the feet - just as with the GFT
Here are the legs and tripod head ready for assembly (gee, that Styrofoam debris
didn’t look that bad without the flash!).
The tripod legs are slid onto the leg segments and the leg attachment locking levers
tightened. That’s it; the tripod is assembled. As can be seen in the photo on the right,
the leg adjuster release levers simply hook onto the release arms. And what’s this? I
see that Meade has implemented a springloaded center bolt, similar to the popular
“Springy Thingie” LX200 accessory. We’ll see pretty soon if that’s a good thing.
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
Unlike the LX200GPS scopes, the inner “beauty” box doesn’t slide into the outer box
Both open the same way, so both top sections can be removed at once, revealing the
top layer of packaging material. Removing that material reveals the telescope and
accessory box. The foam is the kind that’s sprayed into a plastic liner rather than the
diecut foam used with the LX200GPS series. It protects during shipping at least as well
but would be less convenient to re-use in a transport container for portable telescope
use. To me, this isn’t a portable setup anyway.
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
Let’s look in the accessory box first.
In that box are:
the Autostar II controller (same as the one used with the LX200GPS) A
the finderscope - it’s extra nice, with the focuser at the eyepiece end where it
a 2” star diagonal with UHTC
a beefy 2” visual back
a USB cable
a HUGE 24mm 5000 series UWA 2” eyepiece
Autostar Suite software and USB drivers on a single CDRom
the same flimsy handbox holder as is supplied with the LX200GPS.
Hmmm. No AC supply or DC cable. Like the LX200GPS, there are primary battery
holders in the fork arms so I guess they figure that’s sufficient. As with the LX200GPS, I
have no intention of trying that -I’ll use the jumpstart packs and DC cables I already
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
Now comes the moment of truth. This thing is heavy; at 91 pounds it’s about 15 pounds
heavier than a 12” LX200GPS. My hope is that it’ll still be easier to assemble to the
tripod because the shorter optical tube parks between the forks like the smaller SCT’s.
It turns out that it IS easier to mount than a 12” LX200GPS. I lifted it out of the box and
onto the tripod fairly easily. The springloaded center bolt made it unnecessary to place it
perfectly; I just plopped it on there and slid it around a bit until the bolt snapped up into
place. The large, comfortable handle made tightening the bolt into the telescope base
quick and easy. On the other hand, the fork arm handles are just as poorly placed as
they are on the LX200GPS models - but at least the balance is much closer. There’s
lots of room between the telescope base and the drive base for hardware; about 2.5”
more room than is available on the 12” LX200GPS.
The rear cell of the optical tube has an approximately
3.25” threaded fitting for optical accessories. I found
that both my Moonlight crayford-style focuser and a
Lumicon Giant EZ-Guider fit just as they would on a
10” or larger Meade SCT. A reducer is supplied with
the RCX that takes this down to a standard SCT thread
fitting. All the standard SCT accessories I tried fit the
reducer normally. The RCX is also supplied with a
surprisingly massive 2” visual back which attaches to
the reducer and accepts the supplied refractor-style 2”
UHTC diagonal or other 2” accessories.
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Those UHTC coatings really make the corrector disappear!
Here’s the OTA rear, showing the connections available there.
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
This detail shows the massive tripod head and the leg level release levers
The carbon fiber tube (with
Meade blue fibers!) is
attractive. Note the manual
slow motion controls - you
won’t be able to focus this
baby without power but you
can move the tube around!
Copyright (c) 2005 Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews
This photo is included just for scale (honest!).
Fit and finish are great, just like the LX200GPS models I’ve owned. I see no cosmetic
flaws and everything that must be assembled went together fine except the
finderscope holder; a little paint on the dovetail kept it from going into the base until I
scraped it a bit. I really, really like the new tripod. I see that there are no accessory
mounting holes at the top center of the optical tube, meaning that I won’t be able to
add a guidescope using hardware lying around here. That may hold me back a bit
later in evaluating its imaging potential. I don’t know whether dedicated hardware is
available yet for this model. There are tapped accessory holes that would accept
radius blocks such as are supplied with Losmandy dovetails so I presume that if those
aren’t yet available they soon will be.
Applying power from my jumpstart battery, everything came up just as it should.
Running the focuser back and forth I noticed that it seemed fairly loud at high speed. I
suspect it won’t be used at high speed very much, though. Digging through the menus I
found the dew heater and OTA fan under “Utilities”; that seems an odd place but now I
know where they are. Unlike the 7” Meade Maks, which use two fans, this model uses
only one, which draws filtered air into the rear of the tube and exhausts it out the front.
Slewing around a bit, it the drive motors sounded similar to the LX200GPS (as
I did my usual indoor alignment; I pointed the optical tube North and the control panel
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South after ensuring that it was midway between the hard stops. Upon being told to do
an automatic alignment, it did the usual “Meade Mambo”, checking level at three
orientations, then seeking North and level. At this point it wanted a GPS lock. As with
all the other GPS-equipped telescopes that have been in my dining room, I couldn’t
acquire an indoors GPS lock. I entered time and location manually and off it went to the
first alignment star. I told it that it was centered and it slewed to another. I told it that
one was centered also, and received an “alignment successful” message. A few GoTo
requests resulted in pointing attitudes that were reasonable, so I pronounced it
functional. I strongly recommend this sort of thing with a new instrument, as if there’s a
problem either with the telescope or the operator it’s easier to sort it out in a well-lit
I’m not going to draw or report any conclusions at this point; I haven’t even looked
through the telescope yet! What I can say is that so far everything seems to be as it
should be. If it works as well in the observatory as it seems to in the dining room it’ll be
a very nice instrument.
The next step was to haul it up into the observatory
and plant it on the wedge there. I made sure I had help
with that phase of the project. It’s definitely a two-man
job - but I believe that it’s easier than either the 12” or
14” LX200GPS. As you can see in the photo, the soft
dewshield from my current 12” LX200 Classic fit the
12” RCX just fine. The dustcap is also the same size,
as is the prefilter for my Ha filter setup.
Clearly, most of what we really care about will be learned in the next phase of this trial.
I’ll be able to see how well it operates compared to the various Meade & Celestron
forkmounts and GEMs I’ve used in this observatory. I’ll evaluate goto and tracking
accuracy. I will be able to measure and evaluate periodic error and periodic error
correction. I will be able to take some images with the Canon 300D DSLR and the LPI,
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and to compare them directly with those I have taken using the same cameras and the
12" Meade SCT. I’ll be able to check focuser range with binoviewers. I’ll see how the
views are in the eyepiece, and how they compare to what I’m accustomed to in the
In addition, I’ll be able to get a feel for just how well all the extra technology works
together. I want to see if it gets in the way, or makes it easier and more convenient to
use. I’ll also watch for any functional oddities with the newer and untried features.
Finally, if time and weather permit, I’ll take it out into the field and see what setting it up
in altitude/azimuth mode on that great-looking tripod is like. It should be of interest to the
folks wherever I take it!
John Crilly
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