Vixen

Vixen has long been a much admired (and copied) player in the medium-weight GEM game. The company makes a wide variety of German mounts, ranging from the small to the impressively large. The Vixens of most interest to CAT-toting amateur astronomers, however, are the Great Polaris Deluxe 2, the Sphinx SXW, and the Sphinx SXD.

The Great Polaris Deluxe 2 (about $1,300 with tripod) is the latest edition of a mount that has been used by amateurs in the United States since the 1980s. The "GPD2" is a solid GEM that, despite its fairly low payload rating of 22 pounds, can do well in astroimaging with C8s or even 10-inch SCTs. It is not uncommon to see astrophotographers pushing this mount beyond its quoted "limit." That is possible due to excellent 144-tooth brass worm gears on both RA and declination. The only thing that lessens the GP's appeal is that currently drive motors and go-to controllers are optional. As shipped, the mount lacks any drives at all. Expect to pay about $500 more for a simple noncomputer dual-axis drive outfit, which brings the complete cost for the GP to around $1,800. If you want go-to, that is available in the form of the add-on Starbook S system—for $700.

The "next" Vixen certainly does not eschew go-to. The Sphinx SXW ($2,000) made quite a splash when it was introduced a few years ago. Not only did it modernize the looks of the Great Polaris with a snazzy white paint job and translucent plastic panels on the mount head, it offered Star Book, a go-to controller different from any other. How? Well, the display is large at 4%-inches, and it is in color. The big deal, though, is that the Star Book displays a representation of the night sky via a built-in and fairly full-featured planetarium program. Click on an object on the Star Book's display and the mount goes there. Many amateurs think this is the wave of the future—having the features of laptop computer astronomy programs without the laptop.

The Star Book HC got most of the attention when the Sphinx debuted, but the specs of the mount itself are fairly impressive as well. The payload capacity is not overly large at 22 pounds, the same as the Great Polaris, but also like the GP, the Sphinx's high-quality construction means it is possible to exceed this limit and still achieve excellent results. The gears are 180-tooth hardened aluminum on both RA and declination and seem every bit as accurate as the brass gears of the Great Polaris.

So, why isn't the Sphinx more common on star party observing fields? The mount was plagued by small but irritating problems from the get-go. Some were minor oversights, like the failure of Sphinx designers to provide a way to dim the display to preserve users' night vision. Some were silly, like Vixen's original insistence that users pay extra to "unlock" the mount's software PPEC feature. Some, however, were serious and included poor electronic reliability and mechanical problems. To their credit, Vixen worked to fix these oversights and problems. One of the "fixes" has been the release of an upsize mount, the SXD ($2,700), which is similar to the original Sphinx but sports a payload rating of 50 pounds and incorporates the numerous electronic and mechanical fixes that Vixen has applied to the SXW over the last several years.

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