When the forerunner of the Celestron NexStar SE, the NexStar 8, appeared in 1998, it was not just a striking-looking new telescope; it was the telescope CAT fans thought might be the savior of Celestron. The company had spent much of the previous decade in the doldrums. It had offered a few interesting products, but mostly it seemed to be playing catchup with Meade. To add insult to injury, the venerable Torrance, California, company had just been bought out. The new owner, Tasco, despite what we feared, did not turn Celestron into a purveyor of junk-o-scopes. In fact, their cash allowed Celestron to release a genuinely innovative instrument, the aforementioned NexStar 8.
Today's NexStar SE 8-inch (Plate 15) builds on that success with refinement. Its sleek design is not quite as striking as it was in 1998, but it still looks as if it would
Plate 15. (NexStar 8
SE) The half-fork mounted Celestron NexStar 8 SE. Credit: Image courtesy of Celestron.
be right at home on the bridge of Captain Kirk's Enterprise. "Streamlined" is a good word for the SE. Its snazzy lines are further enhanced by the fact that the NexStar HC nestles in a recess in the single-fork arm. What is the first thing you notice about the SE, though? It is the color of the OTA, a brash orange, homage to the original Orange Tube Celestron C8 of 1970.
It is what is under the hood that counts, of course, and despite its fairly modest price, the SE does not scrimp. At first, there seems to be a lot of plastic involved in its construction, but that is deceptive. The plastic on the single-fork arm is just a covering; the arm itself is aluminum. The SE feels considerably more solid than competing telescopes in its price class.
Some amateurs have expressed doubts about the SE's country of origin. This SCT was the first Celestron scope to be made entirely in China. In the past, the company has placed tubes on imported GEMs, but the fork-mount scopes have been entirely American made. What impact did this change have on the NexStar's quality? Absolutely none it seems. The SE is almost indistinguishable from the last American-made version of the scope, the NexStar 8i. "Almost" because there have been some minor cosmetic changes to the OTA's rear cell and corrector assembly. The SEs are very good optically when compared to other SCTs and are mechanically as good as or better than the NexStar 8 or 8i.
Who will like the NexStar 8 SE? Anyone who wants a light, visual-use telescope and does not want to spend a lot of money. At a street price of $1,400, the SE is slightly more than $100 less expensive than the C8-SGT, and it is about as close to the traditional "$1,000 for an 8-inch SCT" price that amateurs have grown accustomed to over the last couple of decades. This little CAT will be particularly attractive for beginners because of its incredibly easy setup.
An SE user does not need to perform any kind of polar alignment. Being a fork-mount SCT, the NexStar SE can operate in alt-azimuth mode. Plunk the scope down in the backyard, level the tripod, perform Celestron's SkyAlign procedure—point the scope at three stars using the hand control—and it is ready to observe any of the 40,000 objects in its database that are visible in an 8-inch telescope.
The SkyAlign go-to alignment routine is one of the biggest advances in computerized scopes to come around in the 20 years since go-to scopes appeared on the amateur astronomy scene. This new alignment method is largely the result of a legal tussle with Meade. Formerly, during alignment, Celestron's go-to telescopes pointed themselves north, leveled their tubes, and chose two alignment stars. The scopes would then slew to the general vicinity of these stars, and the user would fine-tune centering. That worked well and yielded good go-to alignments. Unfortunately for Celestron, Meade claimed they had a valid patent for this "north-and-level" alignment system. The courts agreed. What was Celestron to do, other than pay royalties? They designed a new and nonin-fringing routine.
This new alignment method, SkyAlign, is almost the complete opposite of the earlier north-and-level procedure. With SkyAlign, the telescope does not choose the alignment stars, the user chooses them. But, here's the kicker: The user does not have to know which stars are which; all the user must do is point the scope at any three bright objects—yes, objects. These three targets do not have to be stars; Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, or Venus will do. Even the Moon will work. Once the three objects have been centered, the telescope figures out their identities and generates an internal model of the sky. The user can ask the scope to give the names of the three objects following the alignment, but that is not necessary.
Can it really be that simple? Yes. Testing both the new SkyAlign routine and the old north-and-level system on the same telescope, my NexStar 11GPS, showed that SkyAlign yielded go-tos that were every bit as good as—if not better than—north and level. It seemed that SkyAlign tended to almost always place requested objects nearer the center of the eyepiece than a north-and-level setup.
The bargain-basement SE is not loaded with accessories, but it does hold its own in this area. Celestron ships the scopes with the advanced XLT coatings standard. That is somewhat remarkable since these coatings are a fairly costly option on more expensive Celestron SCTs. Like the previous two scopes, the SE is equipped with an inexpensive 1.25-inch format star diagonal and a minimalist 25-mm Chinese-made Plossl eyepiece. As for the finder scope, there isn't one. Instead, the NexStar SEs use a zero-power red-dot "BB gunsight." Some astronomers may prefer a real finder telescope, but since the average SE user will only need a finder for initial go-to alignment, the red-dot job is not a huge handicap. Other than the HC and a decent steel-legged tripod, that is almost all there is in the box other than the scope itself.
Celestron does throw in a couple of CDs. One is unremarkable, a copy of the basic edition of TheSky computer software home planetarium, which can be used to send the scope to targets with a PC connected to the scope with an optional serial communications cable. The other CD contains the remarkable NexRemote software, which can really make this sing (see Chapter 10). As shipped, the SE does not sport GPS capability, but that can be added at any time with the purchase of the optional CN-16 GPS receiver module.
The SE can be powered by internal batteries—eight AA cells in this case. Like other CATs that can use small batteries, it will eat AAs in a hurry, though, and works best with an optional DC power cord and a strong 12-volt DC battery. Do not waste time with the AC power supply Celestron sells for use with this telescope; it tends to send the scope off into never-never land rather than to sky targets.
Is the NexStar 8 SE really that good? Yes! That does not mean the scope does not have a few liabilities. The biggest aggravation is the SE's fork-mount gears. Like Meade's and Celestron's inexpensive GEM-mounted SCTs, the SE's gear train tends to be a little sloppy. When the scope is tracking, that is not a problem, but slew the scope with the HC, especially at slower speeds, and then reverse directions with the opposite button, and there will be a considerable time lag—often as much as 15 seconds—before the scope begins moving while the motors take up the gear slack. This is not an insurmountable difficulty as there is a software routine in the hand control to reduce "backlash" that helps some, probably more than enough for the visual observing for which this telescope is best suited.
Can the SE take pictures? Yes. Imaging the Moon and planets with this scope is fairly easy despite the aggravation backlash causes when centering these objects at high power. Can deep sky images be taken? Maybe. Some fairly impressive long-exposure shots have been done with this telescope, and it is certainly more capable in this area than the earlier NS8s due to a somewhat improved drive system. This is still not a deep sky imaging powerhouse, however. Also, if the SE is to be used for deep sky exposures longer than about a minute, it will require an optional wedge.
One thing a lot of prospective SE buyers worry about is its half-fork nature. Does the fact that it uses only one fork tine instead of two to support the OTA make the SE shaky? The answer is "no." A dual-tine fork would be steadier, but for the relatively light 8-inch OTA a single arm does fine, especially for just viewing. The SE mount does have one excellent feature. Unlike just about every other fork-mounted telescope that has been sold by Meade and Celestron over the last 40 years, the SE features a removable optical tube. The OTA is mounted to the single-arm fork via a dovetail bracket. The tube can slide back and forth in this bracket to balance, which will do a lot to improve tracking and backlash characteristics. It can also be completely removed from the arm for easy transport and storage—or to mount to another scope (maybe a small wide-field refractor, for example) on the fork via the standard "Vixen-compatible" dovetail bar.
The C8 SE is at least impressive, if not overwhelming. If you are a beginner, you will probably be even more impressed. The scope is a great choice for the visual observer or even for the astrophotography dabbler. It is also light and highly portable and may change the minds of those people who do not think they can handle an 8-inch SCT. The SE is a cute and wonderful beginner's scope.
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