It’s time you and I sat down and had us a long and quiet talk about the Meade Backpack Observatory. Astronomer to astronomer, you know? Over the years I’ve had my fair share of problems with Meade products and I didn’t want to be accused of “Meade bashing”, so I displayed the patience of a saint with this product. Despite some initial disappointments and frustrations, I was soon to learn a few very valuable lessons…
Don’t believe absolutely everything you read and if you can’t figure it out, read the instructions.
As always, I like to begin with using any piece of equipment with “intuitive set-up”. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with all the ins and outs of the English language, intuitive set-up stands for too proud and sure of yourself to read the included instruction manual.) When I opened the box, I was delighted with the Meade ETX80 Backpack Observatory. Nice, rip-stop nylon, self-healing zippers, and every little place in the backpack has a compartment to store every component that comes with the unit. The ETX80 is self-contained, lightweight and looks ready to go. I packed everything up, (including the instruction manual) and headed out to a friend’s observatory for its first light and made my initial mistake.
I didn’t leave before dark and I really should have read the instruction manual or watched the video.
While I have played with a great many GoTo telescopes over the years, and the Meade ETX80 Backpack Observatory is very similar to most, it does operate slightly differently. Just how much of the set-up doesn’t require instructions? Well, most of it actually. The little lightweight tripod is a real triumph in engineering design. Instead of screws that will strip out, this is a three-part telescoping design that “buckles” together, the center twists and slides down for a positive spread and lock and it has a built-in level. The last is a great feature I didn’t catch just because of my own stupidity.
The battery compartment on the ETX80 is built right into the base. It’s hard to find in the dark while fumbling with a flashlight and even harder to open if your fingers are a bit on the older side… But I gotta’ hand it to Meade on this one – it doesn’t eat batteries like other models I’ve used. The AutoStar hand controller plugs into a port on the side just like a phone jack, there’s an off/on switch and an additional port. Sweet… This is the entire mount! Even in the dark and uninformed, this one is easy to connect to the tripod. All you do is partially thread two thumbscrews into the base, set them into the tripod top into the holes, give a twist until it locks home and tighten the screws.
Even a blond can do this.
Next stop? Alignment. Thanks to a provided compass that fits right into the eyepiece holder, we level off the tube, point it north and we’re good to go. In my own arrogance, I soon found out that AutoStar isn’t quite like other hand controllers, but it is similar enough that I did figure it out. Off and running? Evenutally, yes. And right to Arcturus. But it wasn’t in the eyepiece… It wasn’t even close. Guess what? No finderscope. OK. How hard can it be? It is Arcturus, after all. I slew this way. I slew that way. My back hurt. My eyes bugged out. And yes. I should have read the instructions. I chose another star and the same thing happened. After an hour or two of being photon-deprived, I simply gave up and used my friend’s dob. We had a good laugh over how any company would make a telescope with no finder and I let it go for the night.
But I didn’t give up.
Now, if you’ll permit an old StarGeezer to ramble a bit? At that point I would have cheerfully thrown it back in the box and let it go, but the Meade Backpack Observatory was donated to me for a reason. Each year I serve thousands upon thousand of people in public astronomy outreach. While I’m at the Observatory, my own physical limitations don’t present any problems, but when called upon to visit at other locations I have difficulties at times. Thus, the Meade Backpack Observatory came into my hands. Sometimes others know things about products that I don’t know, so I was determined to swallow my pride, take out my Tammy-determination and try again.
Once away from my peers, I read the instruction manual and watched the video. You know what? I was doing a few things wrong. The Meade Backpack Observatory is 100% wheelchair friendly. By starting before dark I was able to put the tripod at a comfortable height and use the built-in level to get it right. Then it was a matter of attaching the scope and AutoStar controller, putting the compass in the eyepiece and readying the home position to wait on dark. While waiting, I attached the diagonal and high power eyepiece to the rear of the telescope and located the flip mirror switch that would allow me to either use the low power eyepiece or high power at whim. Now I knew… When it went to star align, all I had to do was punch a button and it would run a spiral search pattern and all I had to do was stop it when my star popped up and center it to align.
From that point on, the Meade ETX80 Backpack Observatory has became my constant companion when called upon to do astronomy outreach programs away from the observatory. I don’t care too much for GoTo telescopes, but I do like having one that tracks the objects when I have 150 people waiting in line to see Jupiter. I like having a telescope that’s self-contained in one very easy to transport unit and one that easy on batteries. We’ve served thousands of kids and adults. My eyepiece smells like ‘smores and the universe has sparkled in the eyes of young and old alike.
So what’s the word? The Meade ETX80 has sparkling optics and the included eyepieces are high quality. Don’t believe everything you read about AutoStar. While it is a fine system, it isn’t as accurate as they would like you to believe – no matter how carefully you align and level things. While the spiraling search is fine and dandy, Meade really should have included some sort of finderscope – even if it was just a cheap reflex finder. The battery life is awesome, the tripod is a little miracle and the backpack is worth its weight in gold.
What’s my recommendation? Sigh… The Meade ETX80 Backpack Observatory isn’t for beginners. If you didn’t have a clue as to what an object looked like when the scope begins its spiraling search pattern, you would miss it… Plain and simple. Even though the true aperture is slightly more than 80mm, it just isn’t enough for someone who isn’t familiar with the sky to easily pick out fainter star clusters and deep sky objects with ease. The same holds true of the alignment stars. It’s one thing for me to know what Altair looks like in the eyepiece – but do you? I might know M29 from a random pattern of stars in Cygnus, but will the average consumer? I recognize M57 at 35X in a small scope, but can everyone? Once it’s in the eyepiece and centered, I can easily tell someone to avert and look for a little glowing patch, or a group of stars that looks like a tiny dipper… but if you didn’t know? I think you get the drift.
If you’re looking for a very fine little GoTo telescope that’s capable of traveling and you’ve got some experience, then look no further. The Meade ETX80 Backpack Observatory is an asset for folks with disabilities, for those who frequently need to travel to remote locations to give outreach presentations, or for those who have experience and are looking for a scope to take camping or hiking. Would I recommend it?
In a heartbeat…