New Celestron Telescope First Light

Well, the weekend wasn’t a total loss. I had hoped to enjoy the Orionids but every evening the clouds rolled in and by dusk it was pretty much clouded over.

When Monday came rolling around, I spent the day with my wife, daughter, and youngest granddaughters. In the course of the day, we went to Costco because I had been there the weekend before and noticed they had a telescope for sale.

Normally, I’m leery of “department store telescopes”. Not because I’ve bought one and been burned, but because I’ve looked through them and looked closely at them when they’re set up in stores. I think these cheap imported telescopes do more to turn people away from astronomy than help them enjoy the night skies. Online research supports my opinion of them: the vast majority of amateurs vehemently denounce them.

I have a good telescope, an 60mm Shrine Manon that I was given as a 10 year old, brought back from Japan by an airman friend of my dad’s. I’ve had lots of fun with it and it enhanced my budding love for astronomy when I got it. I also obtained three Galileoscopes: for myself, my daughter’s family, and my son’s family. That was a nice little plastic 50mm scope with glass lens, and surprisingly good.  Eventually, I also acquired a Bushnell 60mm on a German Equatorial mount. Happily, I didn’t have to pay for that one…the mount and the tripod are good and solid but the scope…I can only equate it with the dreaded “department store telescopes”.

Having many times used a good friend’s Celestron CS8, I’ve always wanted my own Celestron, preferably the CS8 or CS11. The telescope at Costco was a Celestron NexStar 102 GT Computerized Telescope. Being a Celestron, I knew it couldn’t be all bad. I looked over the scope, eyepieces, and manual. Then when I got home I went online and did some research. This 102 GT appears to be the long brother or precursor to the 102 SLT. Except for the longer length, it seems identical when you compare the two. It also seems to be a customized package deal for Costco. Ranging far and wide on the internet, I found many favorable reviews, including several of the “WOW” type. Usually I take the “WOW” reviews with a grain of salt, but several included pictures that made them much more believable, especially since some of them were rather in-depth reviews. As with anything, there were several negative opinions expressed, but only two were from people that actually owned one. Most negatives were of the “you can do better” variety. Yeah, you can always do better if you have the money or….

The more I read about this telescope, the more comfortable I was about getting it. It definitely was not getting the kind of slap-down department store telescopes get and I was seeing it wasn’t really a department store telescope. So, Tuesday I went back to Costco and purchased one, fully aware that the tripod was the weak point according to all the reviews I’d read.

Getting it home, I put the box in the living room and opened it up. There was a small crinkle in one corner of the box, but the packaging was well done and there was no damage to anything inside. Parts that could be cheap were plastic, but good quality plastic. The accessory tray, for example, is thick enough to stand up to multiple installs and has a nice lip. Parts that needed to be sturdy were, except for the tripod. The scope feels solid and so does the mount. The tripod is noticeably light and even with the accessory tray installed is still more wobbly than I would like.

Assembly took about 30 minutes, with me taking my time and examining everything. Take down and set up in the field will likely be 15 minutes maximum, the overall design is pretty good. With common sense, you don’t really need the quick assembly guide for anything but the hand control aligning instructions.

Out on the porch I performed the alignment for theStarPointer finder scope and main tube. The only target far enough away to be useful was also on the same side of things as the sun, so I had to crank the finder scope power all the way up to have the red dot show against the bright sky. Alignment was a breeze, the easiest I’ve ever had to do for a finder scope.

Now all I had to do was wait for dark and hope for no clouds. I passed the time reading the manual and visiting with my wife.

At 9:30 pm it was dark enough and there were just a very few clouds low on the horizon. Once I had it outside I found a good spot in the driveway. Due to the limited expanse of sky when the trees have their leaves, I was planning to just look at the moon and play with the eyepieces so I placed it for that.

Powering on the unit by plugging in the battery pack, the hand control walked me through a three star alignment process. I elected to use the city database and was prompted for the date, time, time zone, and nearest city. Boise, 20 miles distant, was in there so I selected it. Then it prompted me to center the first bright star in the finder scope. From the manual, I knew that planets and the moon were supposed to be acceptable, so I decided to try the moon as my first “star”. When I had the moon centered it then prompted me to align the star in the middle of the eyepiece. That done, it prompted me for the next star and after that the third. When it came time to accept the alignment, I elected to see what stars it named as my three alignment stars. This was the first computerized telescope I’ve used, so I was suitably impressed when it said that “Moon, Vega, and Polaris” were my three. The moon and Polaris I knew were correct so I was happy to see it lived up to being able to align even if you didn’t know what stars you were using as I hadn’t told it what stars I used. I had wondered about how the moon moves faster than the stars across the sky and how that would impact the alignment, but no worries.

Polaris was the third star, so I used the Solar System database to select the Moon as my target. I really like that it only offers what’s visible above the horizon for selecting. I don’t know what I expected, definitely not a high speed slew to the object, but it was slower than I thought it would be. I understand why that would be the case and have no problems with it. Especially since when I looked through the eyepiece, there the moon was.

Using the 25mm eyepiece, the moon was simply awesome. Viewing is far better in this 4” scope than my old 2.4” scope. I was simply floored and wished I had my friend’s CS8 right there to compare. I had to call my wife out and she, too, was impressed. In that view along the terminator, you could clearly see in nice sharp detail the craters, the peaks in the middle of many of them, and in one there was a peak on the far rim of the crater standing up high enough to get lit while all the rest of that half of the crater was in shadow, unseen. Below the moon a single star was visible.

It didn’t automatically track, and I’m not sure why as I thought it was supposed to, but once I went into the Menu and selected the tracking mode, I didn’t have to touch the telescope over the next 15 or so minutes to keep it on the moon. It wasn’t quite tracking properly and the moon was edging out of the field of view at the end of that time but a simple correction put it back in the middle of the view. There is supposed to be a setting for lunar tracking but I didn’t look for it this time around.

I switched to the 8mm eyepiece and was really happy with the view. Once properly focused the view through it, too, was nice, sharp, and every bit as clear as the 25mm eyepiece. The view was of course more magnified. On impulse, I pulled out my Galaxy Nexus and attempted to take an afocal picture of the moon. I was partially successful, but while the resulting picture shows the magnification it truly doesn’t do what I saw justice. The blurring in the picture is due to my trying to line up the camera with the 8mm eyepiece opening, hold it there long enough to get a camera lock, and still tap the shutter button, all while the telescope is tracking. One of those times when I definitely appreciated the non-tracking telescopes! 😉

An afocal shot of the moon through the 8mm eyepiece on my new Celestron 102GT Nexstar Computerized Telescope.

An afocal shot of the moon through the 8mm eyepiece on my new Celestron 102GT Nexstar Computerized Telescope. Blurring is me not the phone camera or the telescope!

That’s my first light with my new Celestron Nexstar 102GT Computerized Telescope and my impressions.

I was really happy to find out, too, that the T-ring I have for my Pentax cameras attaches directly to the telescope. I look forward to trying the camera on this scope. It’s rated as a 1000mm f/9.8 so on my Pentax DSLRs its a 1500mm f/9.8 telephoto.

Listed below are the very few things I didn’t like about this telescope.

1) Tripod. As expected, the tripod is a little light for the 35” length of the OTA (Optical Tube Assembly). I will most likely be swapping this tripod out for the one on the Bushnell which is more robust.

2) The long OTA also means that it’s very susceptible to vibration, especially on this tripod. This I think I can address with a combination of heavier tripod and if necessary a weight hung from the mount between the tripod legs. The vibration does damp out within 3 to 15 seconds and so long as you don’t touch the telescope the tracking doesn’t induce any vibrations. As a result you can have perfect viewing of the target for minutes at a time without having to adjust anything and so vibration shouldn’t be a problem any time other than when you first focus it.

3) The battery pack needs to be attached in a better way. The manual says to hang it from the locking nuts for the tripod legs. When I finished aligning, the telescope had rotated right about 180 degrees to end on Polaris. When I told it to go to the Moon for my first observing target, it continued moving right. I had to grab the battery pack from where I had it hanging and move it around or it would have wrapped the power cord around the mount. The battery pack is 8 AA batteries, so it’s no big deal, but that’s something you have to watch and keep in mind during an observing session, especially if looking all over the sky at things. Lots of ideas for fixing this so it’s just a minor inconvenience.

Those are the ONLY things I had any concerns about. As mentioned, going into the purchase I was aware of items 1 and 2. Personally, I think 2 and 3 are very minor issues. 1 could be a problem, but it’s usable as is as long as you’re aware of it. Like I said, solutions exist.

All in all, I definitely recommend this Costco Celestron Nexstar 102GT Computerized Telescope for someone starting out, as an upgrade from a smaller scope, if you’re looking for a smaller telescope, or if you’re looking at it and wondering. The price ($199.99) is good, I think. You can buy better telescopes if you save up more, but that’s always the case.

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