Saturday, April 28, 2007

 

The New SCT Book

Over the last several years, hordes of fans—well, actually, maybe an amateur or three—have asked me when I’m going to update my venerable SCT book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. After all, the book, mostly written in 1999 and 2000 and published in 2001, is badly out of date. Not just in its reviews of commercial Schmidt Cassegrains and Maksutovs, but also in its take on the very nature of SCT-centric amateur astronomy. In the intervening seven years, you see, there’s been a sea change in the CAT-fancying amateur experience.

When Choosing and Using was written, the LX200 Classic was going strong, sure, but it wasn’t unusual to see someone setup next to you on a star party field with an Orange Tube C8 or a Meade 2080 plugged into a drive corrector (you curmudgeons remember those all too well; I’ll leave you young sprouts to wonder). It was still relatively unusual to see an amateur using a laptop PC at the telescope.

In the seven – eight years since I began Choosing, things dern shore have changed. And I don’t just mean that just about everybody’s using go-to scopes. I mean the accelerating high-tech revolution that’s come to our avocation, a pursuit that used to be comfortingly changeless (Remember Jaegers, who ran the same two page ad in Sky and Telescope for at least ten years back in the 60s – 70s?).

Take a look around you. It’s not just go-to, though we’ve come far enough in that regard that the original LX200 is now considered “old-fashioned” by the young guys and gals who are, thankfully, beginning to enter the hobby again (maybe initially attracted by this high-tech stuff). It’s The Everything Else: the laptops, the scads of software, the hand-held and integrated GPS receivers, the CCD cameras, the deep sky video cams shooting images to DVD recorders, the wireless hand controllers (Meade makes a wireless Autostar II; with Celestron you use the Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad). By God, how long will it be before somebody’s garage door opener sends a field full of telescopes a-slewing to nowhere?

Bottom line, Choosing was badly in need of updating and I told my publisher so. Their response? They agreed…BUT. Seems as in today’s book market that new editions are not a favored item in marketing departments. To put it mildly, the number-crunchers feel the same way about a new edition of an older book as they do about a rabid plague rat. The good folk at Springer – Verlag agreed on a new SCT book, but they wanted a whole new SCT book, not just a new edition.

So, I’ve started work on what I’m provisionally calling The New SCT Book (that will likely change once all is said and done).

What else will change? Glad you asked. For starters, the entire thing will be rewritten. That actually makes me pretty happy. I’m a much better writer than I was way back when (a few years of magazine deadlines will do that), so I can fix all that embarrassingly awkward prose. I can also take care of the factual mistakes I made (which I’ve kept a running list of). What else?

—The Telescope review section will not just be revised; it will be expanded and will be the set piece of the book—even moreso than it was last time.

—Most/all of the information on film photography will be gone, replaced by CCDs, DSLRS, vidcams, and webcams.

—One of my favorite things in the original book, the military-tech-manual-like troubleshooting charts will be gone. I liked ‘em; nobody else did. Replacing them will be a redone – expanded “care and feeding” chapter.

—More on software, including quite a few capsule reviews; not just mentions.

—A much better index.

—More pictures.

—An improved observing section.

—Maybe more projects. I’m not certain whether this project section will be expanded, changed, or eliminated. I’m still a-thinking.

Anyhoo, if you have any wants, any ideas about what you’d like to see in The New SCT Book, just give me a holler. Otherwise, look for it in late 2008 (probably).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

 

Nexremotin’ It

It’s amazing to me how many Celestron owners ignore or don’t even know about Nexremote, one of the most innovative telescope control software tools (putting it mildly) ever to come down the pike. But what, you may ask, is “Nexremote”?

It was a dark and stormy night…

Well, maybe not dark and stormy, but it was a cloudy 2003 evening, anyway. Your Old Uncle Rod was browsing the email. Buried amongst all the Yahoogroup traffic was a personal missive from a dude named Ray St. Denis. Mr. Ray asked if I’d be interested in helping beta test a new software package for Celestron NexStar scopes he and his buddy, Andre Paquette, were working on.

“Well , I dunno,” sez Uncle Rod.

I was, I will admit, simply not overly excited about looking at yet another planetarium program that would—SHAZAM!—allow you to click on objects and send your scope on go-tos. Ho-hum.

Andre responded by saying this was a very special and very different program. What this app, which he and Andre (who called themselves the “Astro-geeks” (!)) were calling hcAnywhere, did was duplicate the NexStar computer hand-paddle on a PC screen. But that was not the big news. After all, ASCOM can throw up a simple direction button “hand control.” What was big news was the fact that, as Ray explained, hcAnywhere replaced the hand controller. That is, it would allow you to leave the handpaddle at home!

A virtual hand controller was something the Celestron and Meade troops had dreamed about for a long time, so my interest was, understandably, piqued. Hell, a virtual hc was the Holy Grail of us go-to-mad SCT troops. And just to sweeten the deal, Ray said he’d send me a “programming cable” along with the software so I wouldn’t have to scrounge one somewhere. Why a programming cable? The program, he said, used the NexStar’s “PC” connection rather than the normal RS-232 socket in the base of the handpaddle to connect to the scope. Before hcAnywhere, the PC port’s/programming cable’s only use had been for updating scope motor control firmware.

So I was convinced to join the effort, and in short order I had hcAnwhere up and running. Even today I’m amazed at what Ray and Andre accomplished. Once I got the package, I found that “just” duplicating the HC was only a small part of the story. Thanks to hcAnywhere, I now had something I’d wanted for a long time: wireless scope control.

hcAnywhere, you see, was compatible with Logitech’s wireless “Wingman” gamepads. Not only could you use the joystick to slew the scope, the gamepad’s many buttons had been assigned to perform various hc functions. Slewing the scope was just a small part of it. It was also possible to use the Wingman to access menus and perform alignments without touching the computer. This made the whole hcAnywhere idea seem much more practical to me. Initially, I’d wondered about the practicality of aligning the scope with a PC. Unless the laptop were near the eyepiece, you’d have to center star and then run over to the laptop and try to “accept” the star as quickly as possible before it drifted away (some Celestron scopes in some modes don’t begin tracking until the alignment is done).

But the gamepad option was about more than just making go-to alignment easier; the wireless Wingman made the difference between hcAnwhere being an innovative curiosity and a genuinely useful setup. I don’t mind telling y’all that as soon as Andre and Ray let me know me about the gamepad thing I ran over to Ebay and snagged a Wingman (for less than 20 American dollars).

When the software and the gamepad arrived, and many cloudy nights had—of course--passed, I got the Nexstar 11 out under the stars with hcAnywhere. Funny thing? For such a seemingly complex piece of code, it all worked perfectly and without complaint. No crashes. No errors. I didn’t have to give up my planetarium programs either. Seems as hcAnywhere had a “virtual (serial) port” that would allow other programs to share the PC port connection. Turn that virtual port option on, startup Cartes du Ciel (or whatever), tell CdC the port number hcAnywhere had assigned, and the planetarium worked just like it always had. Click on a DSO, scope went there. Yeehaw.

Only major annoyance? While the Wingman made it purty easy to do alignments, I’d still have to wander back to the PC and read the display to do many operations. I mentioned this to Ray and Andre and they said, “Well, Rod, why don’t you enable speech?” They should have prefaced that with “you dummy,” since the speech-synthesis function was well documented in the program’s help file (which, as usual, Your Silly Old Uncle refused to read). Turned out hcAnywhere was able to use the Microsoft Mike/Mary speech synthesis utility. It’s strangely sexy to hear my “scope” intone: “Nexstar Ready!” or “Object Acquired!” in a female U.S.S. Enterprise-computer-like voice. Not just sexy, though, USEFUL. With the volume at a reasonable level, I can now do many operations with the help of audio cues without returning to the laptop.

But other than being SUPERCOOL what did hcAnywhere really do for me?

--It let me leave the non-virtual handpaddle in the case. I don’t know about y’all, but I can never find a good place to put the derned thing. I’m dropping/losing it all night long.

--It gives me wireless scope control, eliminating the ring-around-the-rosy dance I usually do that ends up with my tripod hog-tied with the handpaddle cable.

--It means that I have ONE cable running from PC to scope. By using another Ray/Andre program Nexhub, you can implement MORE virtual ports, and send everything to the PC via that one Programming Cable (HC, planetarium, and a serial guiding program, for example).

--I can choose which set of firmware my scope uses. I can set my NS11’s virtual handpaddle to duplicate the old "North and Level” GPS hc. Or I can tell it it’s a new SkyAlign model. I can also switch between scope models (I have an ASGT as well as the Nexstar 11 GPS).

--I can develop “guided tours” with ease. The program comes with an application called “Nextour,” that allows you to compile lists of objects that can then be easily accessed via the virtual HC’s tour function. Recently, the excellent planning program AstroPlanner has added a script that saves AP plans in a format the virtual hc will recognize, giving you almost infinite libraries of objects to cram into your Nexstar hand control.

But what’s this hcAnywhere thing got to do with Nexremote? As many of y’all probably know, Celestron took immediate interest in the ‘Geeks, and soon made a deal with the boys to bring hcAnywhere into the official Celestron corral under the name “Nexremote.”

Is there any criticism to be leveled against Nexremote? Only one, and it’s not the fault of Ray and Andre. Celestron’s scopes still use your computer’s consarned RS-232 port. Yes, you’ll be running to the PC port with Nexremote, but the format is still dad-blamed, cotton-pickin’ RS-232 serial data. Why is that so bad? Because modern computers don’t come with serial ports. That meant that I was Nexremoteless for quite some time.

“But Uncle Rod, But Uncle Rod,” you say, “why didn’t you just get one of them little USB to serial converter cables?” Well, I did Skeezix, and she did not work. No matter which brand I tried, my new laptop (a pretty high-powered Toshiba) would not reliably connect to Nexremote using a USB-serial adapter. If I mashed the button 10 times, I might be able to finally connect. When I did connect, the scope might work fine, or I might get lots of “no response” errors.

I hated this state of affairs, because I love Nexremote. Then, finally, one day, a light went on “Get a PCMCIA serial card you nincompoop.” I found one (on Ebay, natch) for 20 bucks (that’s my magic price point), installed it, held my breath and…all was well again; I was Nexremotin’ in style once more after months and months of withdrawal. Moral of the story? You can try one of them dadgummed converter cables with your computer. Might work. If it doesn’t, a PCMCIA serial card will fix things. I just wish the telescope companies would for once and for all abandon the RS-232 mess (Meade has implemented USB for its RCX-400).

So why don’t I see more folks running Nexremote on star party fields. I dunno. It ain’t that expensive. Less than a hundred bucks for a kit with a programming cable, a little more than 50 for just the software. In fact, the program ships with most new Celestron scopes, so most folks won’t pay a dime. Why don’t they use it, then? Dunno. I reckon they don’t know what it is or at least don’t know how wonderful it is.

Ray and Andre’s baby is all grown up now, and I’m sure they are proud. They oughta be. I know it’s done more to improve my observing experience than anything else since go-to came ‘round.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

 

Is anybody surprised?

Surprised that Meade would come up with an “answer” to Celestron’s smash-hit SkyScout “star finder?”

Yeah, “star finder.” Celestron calls their gadget a “personal planetarium,” but I think star finder is a better description, because that’s what it really does. Point it at a star, the star gets identified. Ask for a star (or one of a few deep sky objects), and SkyScout will lead you to the spot. As I wrote here some time back, the SkyScout is an interesting product; one for which I could find a few uses (given the fact that I’m an astronomy educator), but maybe not enough uses to justify its 400 buck price tag. Guess what? Meade may have changed that with their new, similarly priced competing product, the MySky.

Frankly, I'm surprised. Yeah, I’d expected a Meade “SkyScout,” but I expected it to be very similar to the Celestron device. Just different enough to avoid another round of lawsuits. If it can do that. I wonder if Celestron and its partner Yamcon will pounce on Meade or whether they’ve licensed applicable technology to Big Blue or whether Meade found a way ‘round the patents? Be that as it may, the MySky is surprisingly different in appearance. Rather than a little box/cell phone/camcorder, the MySky looks like, well, like a cordless drill. Makes sense. A pistol-like paradigm really seems more appropriate for easy aiming than a box. Point pistol at sky. Pull trigger (really).

This design is especially appropriate for the MySky since there ain’t nothing to look through. Unlike the SkyScout, where you peer through a zero-power window at an illuminated reticle, the MySky uses a color video screen to guide you to objects. Yep, that’s right, a 480x234 color video display. It will even play little movies. With sound. You can go to the url above to see the “introductory” video that plays on the MySky.


Criticism? Meade shoulda hired Lindsay Lohan for this video rather than using Scott Roberts. Woulda got my attention better, fer shure.


OK, so you’ve got a little PDA-like color computer screen. That would seem to open up possibilities. But how do you point the consarned thing with no peep hole to look through? Easy, Meade’s little pistol has sights. Fore and aft “hard sights” just like on Yer Ol’ Uncle Rod’s beloved S&W .38 “Combat Masterpiece.” And they light up red. This sounds both useable and practical to me, though we’ll have to wait to see how this works out under the night sky, natch.

The other part of the MySky coolness? It appears that when you’re identifying and searching for objects the screen doesn’t just display some ho-hum pointer arrows. It actually shows a color depiction of the sky with constellation lines and all, just like the planetarium program on your PC. Like them dudes say on WTBS late at night, though, BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! Like some of the more advanced planetarium programs, the MySky appears to be possessed of images of some DSOs. This sounds much more like a genu-wine personal planetarium than just a star finder.

Problems? Other than the usual, “Can Meade deliver this thing on time and in working order”? Not many I can think of. Oh, some of the gang over yonder on SCT User expressed fears that the MySky would result in countless amateur astronomer deaths at the hands of police: “Hey what you boys doing out here in the dark? DROP YOUR WEAPON!” BOOM! Luckily, that doesn’t seem likely to me. Oh, I think you should use discretion, sure. If approached by police at your observing site, don’t point your MySky (or cellphone or telescope) at ‘em. But I hardly think this is gonna result in an amateur astronomer Armageddon.

Oh, there was one other “problem” when it came to the MySky, I thought, the same put-on-the-brakes dose of reality I got after thinking about buying the SkyScout. What the heck do you do with the thing other than point out a few objects to students or allow them to do so for themselves (a SkyScout equipped with a green laser would be a very nice tool for that, I’ll admit)? What else can an amateur do with this thing to make it worth 400 Georgie Washingtons?

With the SkyScout, the answer is “not much.” It is what it is. But down near the end of the list of MySky features was the information that the MySky can be connected to your Autostar-equipped Meade scope. And not just to allow you to use the gadget’s onboard GPS receiver during scope alignment for your non-GPS Meade. It’s like this: point the MySky at your object of choice. Pull the trigger. Your scope goes there. To make this practical, MySky has an onboard library of 30,000 objects (stored on an included SD card) vice 6,000 (mostly stars) on the SkyScout.

The idea of that tickles me. Especially when I think about doing this in conjunction with my ETX125. Sometimes, you see, I want more than just an Autostar handcontroller with its many-button-push approach to object go-to. I could use a laptop PC, but dragging out a laptop seems to abrogate the very reason I bought the little guy: GRAB ‘N GO simplicity. With a MySky I could leave the PC (and piles of books) at home.

The only criticism I have regarding MySky’s scope control possibilities? Meade should get over themselves and make all their programs and computer doohickeys ASCOM capable. Yeah, that means somebody might use one of their products with a NON MEADE scope, but think how many more gizmos they could sell. Seems like a no-brainer to me. Sigh.

Will I run out and buy a MySky? Hail…do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck? With Meade (and Celestron, too), it usually pays to sit out the lemming rush of early adopters. But if it pans out, and Celestron don’t hook me with a SUPER SKY SCOUT, I might. Hail yeah I just might.

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