Sunday, November 04, 2012


Requiem for the Personal Planetarium

“What in the H-E-Double hockey sticks is a ‘personal planetarium,’ Unk?” One of those recent wonders of modern technology that are amazing at first, but turn out to be amazingly short lived. I am not talking about something like a Spitz Junior Planetarium—I said “recent,” old timers. Nor am I talking about one of those snazzy new Sega planetariums. I am not talking about a planetarium projector of any kind, muchachos.

A “personal planetarium” in the language of Meade and Celestron was what I would actually call a “star finder.” Not a low tech paper planisphere like little Unk used to help him find stars and constellations back in the 1960s, though, but an electronic device, a gadget shaped like a camcorder or, in Meade’s case, a pistol, which could automatically identify and find objects in the sky.

Celestron’s SkyScout was first out the gate seven years ago. When it hit the streets, somewhat tech-baffled old Unk was gobsmacked. It was a little like a Telrad, a zero/unit power sight you held in your hands. You sighted stars or planets, mashed a button when you had your target centered in the LED-illuminated sight, and whatever you were pointed at would be identified with text on an LCD screen. It got better. Many objects had audio descriptions. Mash another button and you would hear Stardate veteran Sandy Wood tell you all about it (via earbuds).

Like they say on the dadgum WTBS late at night, “that ain’t all.” Even more amazingly, the widget could guide you to any of the objects in its database. Select said target on the LCD screen via a cursor/scroll button and The ‘Scout would lead you right to it, flashing LEDs in the sighting window to show you which way to move.

How did this camcorder sized gadget do these things? In addition to an onboard GPS receiver, it possessed a built-in electronic compass and accelerometers. In other words, basically the same technology that went into the ground-breaking NexStar GPS telescopes at the turn of the century, and which could now go into a (fairly) small and (somewhat) popularly priced hand-held device.

This SkyScout sounded fascinating, and if, as Celestron suggested, it would be possible to hook the thing to a telescope, it might go beyond fascinating into “way-cool,” but Luddite old Unk was not convinced. He could not see what this toy would do for the average amateur astronomer, and given its price, $399.00, it would be hard to convince most parents to buy one on a whim for little Bud or Sis. I concluded my dismissal of the SkyScout in t his 2006 article by saying “At $199.00 this would be an incredible buy for anybody; just for the built-in GPS receiver.” Not that I expected the price of the SkyScout to come down that level anytime soon, if ever.

While waiting for Celestron to back off the 400 simoleons fare, Unk was amused, bemused, and somewhat intrigued, if not surprised, that longtime Celestron rival Meade was advertising a competing product, the MySky, about a year after the release of the SkyScout. I was impressed. By Meade’s ebullient advertising copy, at least.

In appearance, the vaguely pistol-shaped MySky seemed a little clunky, really more like a cordless electric drill with a rechargeable battery pack attached to the grip than a Glock. But it had one thing the SkyScout did not: a full color video screen, albeit a small low resolution 480x234 one. It was still a video screen, howsomeever, and showed little movies about some of the objects. Most of all, it gave you a computer-planetarium like display that blew the SkyScout’s text only black and white LCD out of the water.

The MySky didn’t just sound more high tech, it sounded more intuitively useable and useful.  Instead of peering through a Telrad style peephole as on the SkyScout, you did rough aiming by watching a display of constellations and objects on the screen, and lined up precisely using the illuminated pistol sights.

That was the “more intuitive” part. The more useful part? Meade didn’t just make noises about you being able to connect the MySky to a telescope “soon,” like Celestron did; it was ready to go for that right out of the box. No interface device required, just a simple cable. Plug the dang thing into your Autostar scope and (we were told), you could point the MySky at any object in the sky, pull its trigger, and your telescope would go there. In order to make that practical, the MySky was equipped with an onboard library of 30,000 objects, which dwarfed the SkyScout’s paltry 6,000 (mostly stars). It got even better. No GPS on your Meade scope? The MySky would give it GPS!

If only the MySky had worked out. It didn’t, but not for the reason a few amateurs feared. Some of the denizens of our beloved Cloudy Nights bulletin board worried the MySky looked too much like a weapon, and that the country would soon be inundated with headlines like, “SWAT Team Kills Amateur Astronomers. ‘Looked like they had guns,’ says Clancy the cop.” The MySky didn’t really look much like a weapon, and it wasn’t around long enough in great enough numbers for that to become even a possibility, anyway. The real problem with the MySky was it didn’t work right or reliably.

A few people had good luck with their MySkys initially. But they were in the minority. Numerous new owners found the GPS receivers in their toys did not work. Yeah, you could select a site manually, but what fun was there in that? Meade attempted to remedy the situation by releasing firmware updates, but the process of loading new software onto the MySky’s memory card all too often resulted in the device being reduced to the functionality of a brick.

Those who did have good luck with the thing? Most did not have good luck for long. When Meade, who was experiencing serious financial difficulties at the time, had the MySky built for ‘em in China, they must have specified AS CHEAP AS POSSIBLE as their number one requirement. All too many folks found the groovy trigger switch lasted only a few outings, and lots more discovered that you didn’t have to drop your MySky from a height to destroy it. Setting it up on its handle and having it tip over was the end for numerous MySkys.

Meade went about damage control in the pitiful way they sometimes have. They soon released the MySky Plus. Which has got to be the most laughable product update, ever. The “plus” was that the GPS receiver was rendered non-functional (!) in the new model.  Instead, you selected your site from a list. Nothing at all was done to improve the build quality of the device, either. In other words, Meade’s upgrade was actually a downgrade.

Disabling the GPS was not really a big deal, since it really wasn’t a GPS to begin with. At least it did not output coordinates the MySky used to update its position. All the receiver did was help the MySky select the nearest city to the GPS fix position from a list, which was exactly what you did manually with the Plus. What was bad was that in changing the software Meade must have broken something—bad—since the Pluses tend to be less accurate by far than the original MySkys. The "accuracy" of some of the newer ones was measured in tens of degrees.

I saw a (non-Plus) MySky in action one year at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and was somewhat impressed. BUT mainly I was disappointed. Not only did the (faux) GPS receiver take an awful long time to acquire a fix, the owner discovered he had to lay the MySky down on its side and leave it alone or it would never get one. Also, the color video screen that seemed a little small in the pictures, was positively tiny (and fuzzy) in person.

And that, it appeared, was that. I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with a SkyScout, and the MySky turned out to not ready for prime time, to be kind. Maybe the whole personal planetarium idea wasn’t ready for prime time.

So I thought, till one night at the PSAS dark site. As I was setting up Celeste, I looked over at my (late) friend George Byron and noticed he’d pulled out a little case. Looked like the bag for a point and shoot camera, but I noticed the word “Celestron” emblazoned on its side. George said he’d bought this SkyScout on a whim, but was finding some uses for it. Would I like to try it? “Sure, Georgie, why not?”

First impression? It was more solidly built, large, and heavy than I’d imagined, considerably moreso than the poor MySky. Heavier, but not too heavy to manage comfortably in adult hands. I swung around, pointed at Polaris, and mashed the “identify” button as George instructed. With little hesitation I got a screen of text about the North Star. Best of all, or at least the most fun thing? Retrieving a set of earbuds from my pocket, I listened to Ms. Wood’s wonderful spiel about Polaris.

I was downright enchanted. Every pea-picking star I selected was properly identified, with the brighter ones having audio to go with them. Twasn’t perfect, however. I found the widget’s accuracy to be around 1-degree or so at best and several degrees at worst. Trying to identify fairly close bright stars like Castor and Pollux sometimes gave it trouble. On the other hand, the “Locate” (“go-to”) mode worked pretty flawlessly, seeming more accurate than Identify.

I liked George’s SkyScout so much that I began wracking my brain for possible uses for one. A common problem for antsy observers like Unk? I like to get my scopes aligned just as soon as the brighter stars begin to peep out. As a result, I’ve often done polar alignments on Kocab instead of Polaris. The SkyScout would keep me straight. And I believed it would doubtless pique the interest of my astronomy students. Anything that keeps the sprouts interested is worth some fairly serious money. That last was the kicker, fairly serious. In stingy Unk’s opinion, “400” is out of the range of “fairly,” but Celestron had recently reduced the SkyScout’s price to more palatable 200 bucks.

When I got my own ‘Scout from Astronomics a little later, I was mostly pleased. No, as with George’s unit, the accuracy was not up there with DSCs or go-to, but was more than sufficient for naked eye use. I was pleased with the package. In addition to the SkyScout, who I immediately named “Scout,” visualizing a faithful old sensitive-nosed hound, the box from Celestron included a nice looking case, batteries, and the USB cord used to update the SkyScout’s firmware.

Updating the firmware of a new piece of gear is a little scary, but I reckoned I ought to do so anyway. I’d heard that the upgrade not only squashed some bugs, but would increase Scout’s database from a puny 6,000 objects to a robust 40 freaking thousand. The upgrade was easy, it turned out.  When I loaded up the software that came on an accompanying CD on my old Toshiba laptop, I was presented with a program very similar to the one used to update Celestron telescope HCs. Connected Scout to the computer via the USB cable, the program squirted the new firmware over, and I was done.

It now had 40,000 objects. Most of ‘em would be invisible through Scout’s zero-power finder, though, so “Why?” I figured the bigger database would be a Good Thing if I wanted to link the SkyScout to a telescope with the new SkyScout Connect module and send your SCT on go-tos to more than just the brightest and best. 99 dollars for the Connect was a pretty reasonable price, but I never did get around to buying one. Once again I was stymied by the puzzle of “What for?” Why would I want to swing Scout around the sky, mashing its button for go-tos when I could just key the object into the NexStar hand control?

I had a lovely time using Scout for several years. He did save my bacon regarding alignment stars a couple of time, and my freshmen/sophomore astronomy students just loved the little thing. I won’t say I used the SkyScout every clear night, but for the longest time he got taken out once a month at least.

Scout wasn’t perfect, natch. In addition to middling accuracy—which I discovered could be improved somewhat if you held the SkyScout up to your eye just so—there were some ergonomics issues. The display screen was illuminated a subdued night vision red, which was good. What was bad was that I had to wear my readers to make out the small, dim text when selecting objects. And take them off again to look through the sight. And put them on again to read what Scout told me about the target.  Yadda-yadda-yadda.

More seriously, the SkyScout was rendered almost useless by the presence of large metal objects nearby. Anywhere nearby. One night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Scout tried to tell me Polaris was up in the east—because of the row of cars parked along the field edge. At least the widget displayed a little magnet icon when it was experiencing interference problems, but it displayed that icon far too often if’n you ask me.

And there was one truly aggravating “feature” of ol' Scout. To conserve battery power, the SkyScout shuts off after a few minutes of disuse. That’s OK, but when you turn it back on it must go through the process of getting a GPS fix all over again. While Scout’s GPS was fairly “hot”—about as sensitive of most older hand held receivers—getting a fix did take two-three minutes, a real pain in the butt when you’d been through that several times in one night.

These irritations are not what finally killed Scout for me, though. That happened last year when I was outside under the stars with my students. This was our first Outdoor Lab of the semester, and I’d brought Scout along. I pulled him out of his case and announced, “Let’s identify that bright red star (Aldebaran).” Before Scout could get a fix, three or four kids whipped out cell phones, ran various astro-apps, and had identified Alpha Tauri.

The cells worked in SkyScout/MySky like fashion using their onboard GPSes and compasses and accelerometers. Hold the phone up and the sky in front of it appeared the screen. Pan around and the sky followed on the display. Yeah, they worked like the SkyScout and MySky, but with big and detailed high resolution color displays. Well, not just that. The phones’ GPS receivers were way faster to get a fix and their compasses much less prone to magnetic interference. Without saying another word, I turned old Scout off and put him back in his case.

Last year, there was an explosion of astronomy software for both iOS (Apple) phones, pods, and pads, and for the same types of gadgets using the Android O/S. I’d already played around with what was becoming the numero uno phone astronomy application, SkySafari, running the earliest release of it on my iPod. But I didn’t get to try its personal planetarium-like features till I upgraded to an iPhone—the iPod does not have a compass or GPS. When I did get my iPhone 4s, I was mucho impressed by SkySafari.

SkySafari is an amazing program. The latest version, SkySafari Pro, features tens of thousands of objects and millions of stars, and gives no ground to conventional PC programs whether you are running it on a phone or a tablet. I love it, and it was one of the first apps I loaded on my new iPhone. I had lots of fun scanning around, watching the pretty color sky track onscreen. It was even useful, allowing me to find a couple of alignment stars for my Sky Commander DSCs in the gloaming the first night I had the iPhone.

Yeah, SkySafari was great. Great enough that Scout stayed in his case, coming out only for me to change his batteries once in a while lest they leak. The app on the iPhone was not quite like having a personal planetarium—you didn’t get to hear any cool audio files, for example—but it was close, and did the same things for me the Scout used to do. I pronounced Celestron’s personal planetarium dead. It turned out I was wrong.

For a little while, I thought Celestron might come out with a “SkyScout II,” a new model with a big color video screen, add-on tours, and more. They never did. The fading of the competition was probably the main reason for that. They did release a couple of memory cards for the Scout with sky tours on ‘em, but only a couple before the SkyScout’s development ceased (you can still buy a SkyScout if’n you want). But that did not mean Celestron was done with the personal planetarium idea. Just last year they released a new and better one.

I don’t often allow manufacturers to send me unsolicited email, but I make an exception in the case of Celestron. I’ve followed the company’s ups and downs since almost the beginning, and even in this latter day when the Celestron we knew is gone, replaced by a wholly owned subsidiary of a Chinese company, I am still interested to know what they’ve got going on. One afternoon Outlook blooped it bloop that means “new mail,” which turned out to be from the Big C. Seemed as they had entered the iPhone app area with something called “SkyQ.”

At first, it appeared that was not much more than yet another planetarium for iOS, one with the Celestron moniker slapped on it. While I was more than happy with SkySafari, the idea of having an app on my phone that included the word “Celestron” in its title proved irresistible. Irresistible at the program’s minute $4.99 price, anyhow.

I downloaded SkyQ from the app store that very night. What did I think? It was slightly buggy, not surprising for a v1.0, but it mostly worked pretty well. Nice selection of NGC objects (bumped up to all the NGC in the next release), the sky chart was purty, showing clouds and atmospheric effects during the day just like Stellarium, and it tracked smoothly as I moved the iPhone around the real sky. Not that it was perfect, of course.

The first thing I didn’t like, or at least didn’t like very much, was that the program was presented in “landscape,” horizontal, format all the time. Most iOS apps will switch back and forth between vertical and horizontal when you rotate the phone from vertical to horizontal—not this one. That was not a big deal, and certainly OK when using the charts, but I found it awkward when accessing the program’s non-chart-based features.

What I really didn’t like was the difficulty of swiping to move the sky. If you are using the thing indoors, or at least are not tracking the sky with it, you hold the phone still and move the sky around. You do that by swiping. Unfortunately, it was hard to do with the initial release. Swiping might move the sky, or it might just activate the “identify” function for some object. I eventually got a little bit better at navigating SkyQ, but that was by means of practice and experimentation, not by reading the manual. There really wasn’t a manual or much in the way of help of any kind.

Problems associated with moving around the sky have been much reduced in the current release, and I can say that it now works almost as well as SkySafari in that regard. If SkyQ were only almost as good as SkySafari, though, I’d long since have expunged it from my phone and moved on. Why is it still there? Why am I using it a lot?

One reason is the extras. When you boot the app, you can swipe the main screen (which gives you date, time, Julian date, and Local Sidereal time) and slide to useful utilities:  Sun rise and set with a nice day/night line graphic, Moon phase with rise and set times, illuminated percentage, and an accompanying graphic, a display of Saturn’s Moons, same-same for Jupiter (very nice), and rise and set times for the major planets (NO PLUTO FOR YOU!).

There’s still more. Push “Extras” on the opening screen and you get a nice graph of planet visibility, searchable access to the program’s object databases, a monthly Moon phase calendar, a pretty if not overly detailed Lunar map nice for casual Moon gazing, an ISS pass predictor which can display a map showing the station’s current position, and a “tonight’s sky” summary of current events (planets, meteor showers, satellite passes, etc.). There’s also a clickable link to Celestron’s “Sky News” website. All these apps work well and would probably have kept me playing with SkyQ, if not as delighted with it as I became when I stumbled across one more extra.

I was outside one night with the kids touring around with SkyQ when one of ‘em asked me how far away Fomalhaut is, a fact I did not have squirreled away in the old cranium. “Hmm,” said Unk, “We can get an information window, I’ll betcha.” Sure enough, mashing the star on the screen brought up an information window that gave us the star’s distance. It was then that I noticed something else: “Audio Guide.” Might that be…

It was just like using Old Scout. Want to know about an object and don’t want to read tiny text? Click “Audio” for many objects (there is four hours worth squeezed into the app) and you get a very interesting talk about Messier Umptysquat or whatever. Only complaint? Too bad they didn’t get Miss Sandy to record the talks again. The dude who reads the info has a nice voice, but not as nice as hers.

The students and I spent the next half hour cruising around the sky, listening to audio tracks; it was indeed just like using Scout—only better. All things considered, SkyQ, like SkySafari, was at least as accurate as the hardware personal planetariums (accuracy is harder to judge when you are looking at a screen rather than through a peep sight), and there was that, yes, beautiful Apple color screen.

All that was missing from my was a way to connect SkyQ to a telescope. It didn’t stay that way long. Celestron released a wireless interface for SkyQ for use with NexStar telescopes, “SkyQ Link.” It is a little device just a bit bigger than an older USB flash drive, and plugs into a Celestron telescope’s hand control port.

Will I get one? Same old bugaboo: why would it be better to click on objects on a small iPhone screen (you can use SkyQ with the iPad, too) than just punch them into the hand control? Turns out there is one big reason. I’ve learned you do not need to have the hand control plugged into the scope when you use SkyQ Link. You can/must do scope go-to alignment with SkyQ (with a screen that appears when you connect to the scope, apparently). Also, I've been told you can use SkyQ Link with a laptop computer to connect NexRemote to the telescope wirelessly. If that works (I haven't heard of anybody doing it yet) I WILL get the Link.

Even if NexRemote don't work with this widget, being able to align and use my NexStars without the hand control and with no wires has a lot of appeal—especially for public outreach. Not having cables around the scope for kids to trip over and disconnect would be heaven. 

Yes, poor Scout sits upstairs alone in Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault, muchachos. Maybe I’ll find a use for him someday. Maybe I won’t. Even if I don’t, I had a lot of fun and use out of him for years. But there is no denying the iPhone (and Android) apps are better. The SkyScout is dead! Long live “SkyScout II” a.k.a. SkyQ and SkySafari!

 Next Time:  Deep South Nights...

Just downloaded SkyQ and was looking it over and came across an asterism called the Stargate Cluster. I was interested because of the name so looked it up on the ole intertubes and found this URL . The URL says it's in Corvus but the info button in SkyQ says it's in or near Canes Venatici with the wrong declination (35d 47m 59s instead of -12d 03m 09s) and names it STF 1659.
Don Horne
Hi Rod,
I still use my ASUS netbook. I also found the battery life to be ~1-1/2 hours. I found a 10 hour battery for $50 (honestly 10 hours). It was (obviously much larger than the OEM), but as a side benefit, tilted the unit to a much more ergonomic angle for the keyboard.
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