8-inches aperture does not excite? Is 12-inches still ho-hum? Even 16 is not quite enough inches? If you have the dollars, Meade has the SCT. Just when the dust had settled from Meade's introduction of its fork-mount LX400 SCTs, the company announced a pair of GEM-equipped scopes with similar optical tubes: a big 16-inch and a positively huge 20-inch (Plate 24). This Max Mount 20-inch is, in fact, the largest production SCT sold since Celestron stopped making its gargantuan C22 in the late 1960s.
Optically, the 16 and 20 are identical to the smaller LX400s and have all the bells and whistles Meade has bestowed on this series: electric focusing and collimation, a built-in cooling fan, USB ports—the works. The optics are done to the same prescription as those in the smaller models; they are a UHTC-coated f/8 optimized/ aplantic SCT design.
It was not the tubes that caught everybody's attention when this pair debuted, however. A 20-inch offers a sizable increase in light-gathering power over a 16, but it is still an incremental leap, big as it is (on the 20-inch OTA, the standard Meade 50-mm finder looks like a tiny red-dot peep sight). What surprised amateurs was the
Plate 24. (20-inch Max Mount) The world's biggest production SCT, the enormous Meade Max Mount 20-inch. Credit: Image courtesy of Meade Instruments Corporation.
huge GEM Meade built to carry these OTAs, the Max Mount. This towering thing weighs in at 329 pounds without counterweights and is probably the largest mass-production mount ever offered to amateur astronomers. Although Meade advertises the Max as having a payload capacity of 500 pounds, that includes counterweights. The actual maximum Optical Tube Assembly (OTA) weight the mount can handle is probably closer to about 250 pounds, but that is still a lot of pounds to play with, especially considering the fact that the titanic 20-inch OTA weighs in at a comparatively modest 190 pounds.
The weight and size of the Max are what grab you when you first lay eyes on it, but its capabilities are just as impressive. This GPS-enabled GEM can be controlled by an included Autostar II hand control or with a PC via furnished software. The large gears used on the Max lend it what is probably its most impressive statistic: a very low periodic error. Meade claims a before-PPEC-training periodic error of 5 arc seconds. After making a PPEC recording, typical error is about 2 arc seconds (they say). If so, the mount can be used for unguided imaging at all times, 2 arc seconds being below the scintillation threshold of atmospheric seeing.
So, will everybody at the next star party be setting up a Max Mount 16 or 20? Not likely. Beyond the fact that this is not by any means a portable or even transportable pair of scopes (the manual's assembly section has numerous notes that warn "death or serious injury may result" due to mishandling of the tremendously heavy OTA and GEM), they are quite expensive now. When first introduced, Meade was offering some real deals on both scopes, but just as they were going into production, prices rose precipitously. The 16-inch version is currently $40,000, and the 20-inch is $50,000. That is a lot of money to spend on a hobby—or even a "serious avocation." Still, some people who are not exactly millionaires have been known to spend that much or more on a bass boat.
Size and price aside, it is early in the life cycle for these two telescopes. As mentioned, the fork-mount LX400s have had some technical issues, and it would not be surprising if the big guns also had some teething problems. Still, who would not buy a Max Mount 20 if they could? It is the top CAT in every way at the moment and will probably remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future—if Meade can resolve its current difficulties and get Mad Max and the LX400 sisters operating without hiccups, that is.
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