Sunday, December 15, 2013

 

NexRemote Again


The winds are blowing, the clouds are scudding, and the rain is falling. So, once again, I haven’t been able to get out and give RSpec a good try. Or fire up the Mallincam Junior Pro.  Or see how well Coelix will go to its go-tos. 

Not that me and Miss D. were stuck at home without any astronomy related activities on tap. Unk had the high honor and distinct privilege of being invited up to give a talk at the Atlanta Astronomy Club’s Holiday Dinner. Not only was it nice to spend time with old friends and make some new ones, the food was purty derned good too.

Weather or no weather, the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South rolls on, and it didn't take too much cogitating to come up with a topic for this Sunday. This one is sorta like The Beatles Again in that this is territory I've covered before. I've told y’all about Celestron's NexRemote software a time or three over the years, but I feel compelled to do so again for a couple of reasons. One is that I still get lots of questions about how you install and use the program, and, indeed, even ones like, “What the hell is it good for, Unk? Why is it better than just sending my scope on gotos with Cartes du Ciel? Huh?” The other reason? We’ll get to that eventually...

I suppose I ought to explain to you greenhorns what NexRemote is and what makes it different from other astro-ware. It’s simple enough to sum up:  NexRemote takes the firmware running on the NexStar hand control and puts it in your PC (ain’t no Mac version, sorry y’all). Let’s underline that:  NexRemote is the NexStar hand control, just executing on a Windows PC rather than on the little dedicated HC computer.

“Well, what good is that, Unk?” There are several good things afoot, Skeezix. If you have the need to run your telescope remotely, NexRemote is a godsend. You don’t have to mess with networking PCs; you have a hand control right on your screen, a hand control that can do anything the hardware HC can do, since, again, it is the NexRemote hand control.

How do you hook this virtual HC to a non-virtual scope? There are three ways to do that. You can use a standard Celestron serial cable between your computer and the serial port on the base of the (hardware) hand control. In this configuration, the hardware HC doesn’t do anything; it just provides a path to connect the NexRemote HC to the scope. Since you will in essence have connected two hand controls to the telescope, pushing any buttons other than direction buttons on the hardware HC will make the scope become badly confused. So don’t do that.

Way Two is to leave the dadgum hardware HC at home. To do that you use Celestron’s “PC” cable, a.k.a. “programming cable” (different from the standard Celestron serial cable), which is connected between the laptop and the mount’s “PC port.” Alas, if you own a CG5 or a CGEM, you ain’t got no PC port. In the past, you could provide a PC port for your mount with Celestron’s Auxiliary Port Accessory. Unfortunately, they have discontinued it. Even if they hadn’t, I found it will not work with the new Celestron VX mount.

The final way? Use Celestron’s wireless SkyQ link, which is designed to allow cell phones to communicate with Celestron telescopes. You can download software that permits you to use the Link with a PC rather a phone so you can establish communications between mount and NexRemote over the air. This is still purty new, but it works reliably it could be awful cool, y’all. No hardware HC required, and one less cable for me to trip over.

“Well, that’s nice an’ all, I reckon, but how the hell do you get the scope goto aligned with NexRemote? Run back and forth between the laptop and the scope? Tote the dadgum computer out to the SCT?” You could do that, but that’s not the optimum way to align using NR. The optimum way involves one of the very best things about the program:  it allows you to use a wireless gamepad (joystick) to slew the scope, which, in effect, becomes your wireless hand control.

As you all may know, Uncle Rod is all too (in)famous for wrapping cables around the scope in the dark, tripping over ‘em, and cussing those dadburned too-short hand control cords. For a long time, I hoped Celestron would come out with a wireless hand paddle.  Meade made an abortive attempt at that with the wireless Autostar, but it just didn’t work right. I finally figured out Celestron hadn’t tried the same thing because NexRemote already gave you that capability.

Plug a wireless gamepad into the laptop and you can align the scope using the joystick. Do you still have to run back to the laptop to mash “Enter,” “Align,” etc.? No. You can map the gamepad’s buttons to hand control buttons. My Logitech Wireless Wingman has everything from slewing speed to “tours” assigned to its controls. There are enough buttons and triggers on the Logitech so I can purty much do anything I want from the gamepad.

Forgetful Unk wrote the button functions on the gamepad...
The best thing, though, is being able to move the scope with a joystick. The action is so much better than those lousy little N/S/E/W buttons of the real deal. You can tell NR to only assign north, south, east, and west to the joystick, or you can have the scope move in whichever direction you push the stick. I find just N/S/E/W more intuitive, but being able to move the scope north-northwest with the joystick, for example, is cool too.

So how do you make this goodness work with NexRemote? If you have a genu-wine Logitech Wireless Wingman or Wingman II, it is plug-and-play. Plug the wireless receiver into the laptop, let the drivers load the first time you do that, select the joystick with a right mouse click on the NexRemote settings screen, and you are good to go.

“I like the idear, Unk, but it looks like Logitech has discontinued them joysticks.” I know for a fact you can still find the Wireless Wingman and Wingman 2 on the pea-picking eBay, but if’n you can’t get one, NexRemote’s joystick.ini file can be edited fairly easily to make it work with other gamepads. The information on how to do that is in the program’s extensive help files, and there is plenty more help available on the NexRemote Yahoogroup. Other gamepads will most assuredly work. Hell, I know people using Xbox 360 controllers with NexRemote.

That is just the start of the Good Things NexRemote brings to the table. Got a mount that didn’t come with GPS, and don’t want to give Celestron two-hundred fraking dollars for one? That’s where your Unk was at when he got his CG5 mount. GPS is a nice-to-have for a German equatorial, but it is hardly a must-have and was not worth the money Celestron wanted for their CN-16 accessory. I resigned myself to entering date/time/lat/lon at the start of each session.

Till I found out NexRemote comes with an add-on program, NexGPS, that lets you to use any GPS receiver with a NMEA serial output as your scope’s GPS. While surveying the dealer tables at the Possum Swamp Hamfest one spring, Unk ran across a little Cobra GPS receiver for about 40 bucks. A few extra dollars for the serial cable for this receiver, and my CG5 had GPS as long as I was using NexRemote.

NexGPS
My cheap Cobra worked just as well as the CN-16 and was actually easier to use. When you get to the observing site, fire up the laptop, connect your GPS receiver to it, and start NexGPS. It will get a fix from your receiver. When it has that fix, you can save the position as an observing site for future use. NexGPS lets you preserve up to four locations, which is more than enough for me most of the time. Once you have your site saved, you don’t need to hook up the GPS receiver again the next time you observe from there. Actually, if you are within 60-miles of one of your saved locations, you can use that and not worry about the receiver. How do you select one of these saved sites? On the NR set up screen, the right-click menu has a “select site” choice.

How about time? NexRemote uses the time/time zone/DST data from the laptop. If you want it to be super-accurate, you can have NexGPS update the PC clock with GPS SV time when you have the GPS receiver connected. That can be a good thing if you don’t use your laptop often, and it never gets to update its time from the Internet.

What else? Do you like tours? I ain’t that big on the guided tours the hardware HC has. Its picks are invariably a run of the mill best-of-the-best and not usually /always things I’d choose to observe. NexRemote has you covered with another add-on, NexTour. NexTour is like a mini-planning program that will enable you to assemble a list of objects from the NGC/IC, the Caldwell list, the Abell galaxy cluster catalog,  and the Abell planetary nebula catalog. The magic comes when you have a finished list of objects you want to see. You can save it as a tour that can be loaded into the virtual hand control via the right click menu.

NexTour is excellent, and may mean a lot of y’all won’t have recourse to using an external planning program with NexRemote. If you are like Unk, however, chasing the dim and outré, you will still need to use a program like SkyTools 3 or Deep Sky Planner with NexRemote. How can you set up SkyTools so you can click on its objects and send your scope on gotos? There ain’t no way to plug a serial cable into a virtual hand control.

NexTour
You use NexRemote’s Virtual Port. There is a second pull-down menu on the setup screen below the one that selects the computer’s serial port. This second pull-down allows you to choose a VIRTUAL serial port. Pick a virtual port number different from your PC’s actual serial port (I usually use 6), and you are done. Once you are aligned, just tell SkyTools or your program of choice to connect to the mount using the com port number you selected for the virtual port. I enter “6” in SkyTools 3, and it connects to the scope pretty as you please, just as if it were hooked to the hardware hand control.

Unk’s history with NexRemote goes back almost to the beginning of the program, when it was just the project of a couple of talented programmers, Ray St. Denis and Andre Paquette, a project they were calling “hcAnyhwhere” before Celestron picked it and them up. Unk was a beta tester, and was happy to do that, even if he didn’t see much need for such a program.

In fact, about all I did with hcAnywhere other than checking it for bugs, was set it up in the backyard with my NexStar 11 so I could try out a new Celestron alignment routine I was curious about, SkyAlign. SkyAlign worked just fine, and so did hcAnywhere, and that was good, and there I left things for a long while.

What got me to NexRemoting seriously? One day, I noticed a Wireless Wingman gamepad on the fraking eBay for a few dollars. Thought it might be fun to try with NexRemote. If NR still didn’t ring my chimes, I figgered the Logitech would come in handy for playing Quake on the cotton-picking computer.

When that Wingman arrived, I was astounded at how much nicer a quality joystick was for scope control than four crummy little buttons. But that alone wasn’t enough to turn me into a NexRemote fanatic. That took two things, the Stellacam 2 and DSRSG.

Setting the virtual port
I bought my Stellacam deep sky video camera in 2005, but it didn’t start getting lots of time under the stars till two years later at good old Camp Ruth Lee. I had a ball out there at the 2007 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, hitting Hickson Group after Hickson Group. My NexStar 11 and the Stellacam were, amazingly, able to show me all the members of the galaxy groups I could see on the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey plates. I’d look up the next target on my (printed) observing list, walk out to the scope, punch in the NGC or IC number of the brightest member, and go back to the monitor to marvel at all the little fuzzies.

Yeah, I was having a ball, but it occurred to me that since I was doing all my observing with a video monitor under a tent canopy where I was relatively warm and cozy, it didn’t make much sense to have to walk out to the scope all the time. I could have avoided that by using my hand control extension cable, but what about NexRemote?  With NR could sit at the monitor and run the scope with that wonderful wireless joystick. And I could use the virtual port feature to connect SkyTools to NexRemote and click my way to the Hicksons without a paper list. I fired up the laptop, connected to NexRemote and never looked back.

I started liking NexRemote on that evening in 2007, but I didn’t start loving it till 2009, when I was just on the cusp of beginning The Herschel Project. I still didn’t use NexRemote every single time I observed. There wasn’t any AC power at the club dark site, and my old Toshiba laptop with its high-speed desktop Pentium chip would run through even a deep cycle marine battery in a right quick hurry. Chiefland had plenty of AC outlets on the field, however, so when I was contemplating my first summertime expedition Down Chiefland Way in July of ‘09, I decided I’d use the laptop and NexRemote the whole time.

Actually I didn’t really expect to use NexRemote down in Chiefland. Hell, I didn’t really expect to use my telescope. As y’all can imagine, summertime weather in Florida ain’t always conducive to astronomy. I knew I was taking a chance, and might not see a thing. Sometimes I do get lucky, though, and for once I hit it just right. I have never seen better skies at the CAV. Not in fall, not in Winter. The False Comet, NGC 6231, just blazed away on those hot July nights—like I’d never seen it outside of southwest deserts.

Downtown Chiefland, FL...
What was most amazing was not what I observed that week in July, but how I observed. From the beginning, I’d planned for this to be an all-video run. At the time I was working on a book idea (since semi-shelved), Uncle Rod’s SCT 100, which would be a survey of the 100 best deep sky objects for 8-inch CATs. I wanted to be sure I had at least “rough” pictures of every object in the late spring-summer-early fall skies, and video, I knew, was the way to cover lots of ground in a night or two.

I set up Big Bertha, the NexStar 11, about 8-feet from the EZ-Up tailgating canopy and ran cables for NexRemote (PC cable) and video back to the canopy. Under there, I had a little portable DVD player for viewing the videos, a DVD recorder for capturing sequences, and the Toshiba laptop for telescope control via NR.

When the stars began to wink on, I powered up the SCT, video cam, monitor, and computer and got goto aligned with NR. Which wasn’t much different from a hardware HC alignment. Go out to scope, center the first alignment star in the finder with the Wingman, walk back to canopy, center star on video display, repeat for one more star, and I was done. After that, I didn’t need to go out to the telescope again till it was time to shut down at the end of the run.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, how did you know when it was time to push Enter and Align without looking at the display on the virtual HC on the laptop screen?” Well, there’s one thing I forgot to mention:  NexRemote talks. Yep, you can enable the Microsoft Mary (or Mike) voices so you get audio prompts, “Center star in the eyepiece and press Align!” This ain’t just glitz; it is genuinely useful. How is the voice quality? Good. Mary’s pronunciations got a little squirrely once I upgraded to Windows 7 64-bit (at the end of the night she now says “shooting down” instead of “shutting down.”), but are always more than understandable.

A July Afternoon on the Billy Dodd Field...
I spent my first night at the CAV going from one SCT 100 object to the next, till there were no more to go to before the wee, wee hours. I could easily have kept on well into the early morning if the ground fog had cooperated. It didn’t, but I still made it to 2 a.m. What was noteworthy about that was how I felt as I headed back to the Chiefland Holiday Inn:  I wasn’t tired at all.

That turned out to be a big benefit of Unk’s new wave video and NexRemote observing system. If I am comfy under a tent canopy, I can keep on rocking real late despite my rather advanced age. On otherwise comfortable warm summer nights, there’s heavy dew—down here, anyhow—and being wet with dew is just about as bad as being cold for sapping your energy. Dry under the canopy I can go long past the time when the young folks start leaving the field. Cold? Sides on canopy, Black Cat catalytic heater at my feet, and I am still chasing fuzzies when the younguns are all tucked-in. Let me also say astrovideo (now with my wonderful Mallincams) allows me to go deeper and see much more than I ever dreamed possible.

Have I made further improvements to my video and NexRemote “system”? Well, I added JMI's (excellent) Motofocus to the NexStar 11 and my older C8, Celeste, but that is about it. I have occasionally thought about putting a video finder on the scope. A second vidcam with a wide angle lens and I could get the scope aligned without walking out to it at all. In truth, that sounds like gilding the lily. It’s just not a big hassle to align on two stars with Bertha at the beginning of the evening—or even on the six the VX requires.

By the way, yes, I still observe visually, if not that often. But even when I go visual, I go visual with NexRemote. It is more pleasant to use than the hardware hand control. Since I invariably have a laptop in the field anyway—I’d no more be without SkyTools and Deep Sky Planner than I’d be without NR—there is no reason not to.

That other reason I wanted to talk about NR this morning?  It looks like Celestron is out to spoil our NexRemote party. It appears they have stopped developing the program. If so, that means no new firmware builds will be added to NR as new mounts and scopes appear. Nor will the program transition to the new NexStar Plus hand control (though I am not sure that is a bad thing). NexRemote will slowly fade away.

What makes me think Celestron has given up on NexRemote? In addition to comments by Celestron folks that have been passed on to me, as above they have discontinued the vital PC port accessory and are not selling a replacement. Even more concerning, they now give the program’s license number away for free. I am beginning to think they’d just as soon not bother with NR anymore. I’ve been told the folks in California are now referring to NexRemote as “legacy software.”

Bridge of the starship U.S.S. Possum Swamp...
Horse hockey. NexRemote works as well with my new VX mount as it does with my 12-year-old NexStar GPS. A little tweaking, maybe a version that will work with the new SkySensor setup, and NR would be ready to go for another decade. This software is just too useful for us to allow it to sink into the sunset without protest. How can we protest? If you like NR, TELL CELESTRON. I don’t have an email contact for them that I feel at liberty to share with y’all, but you can slip ‘em a note (or maybe even give ‘em a call) via this page.

Will that do any good? I don’t know, but it might. If there is anything right-thinking companies will sit up and take notice about, it is comments by their customers. One person won’t do it. Nor will two or three. But 50? 50 people singing the praises of NexRemote? Friends, they may thinks it's a movement, and that’s what it will be, muchachos, the NexRemote anti-masacree movement.

Next TimeDO NOT FREAK-OUT NEXT SUNDAY, y’all. The blog will not be updated Sunday morning. As has been our custom for years, that edition will instead appear on Christmas Eve night. It will likely be a little more sentimental than usual, too. See y’all then…

Comments:
Really great write up Unk!! Cleared up a couple of questions that I had. Also made me a bit angry about the fate of NR. I just started using all the time a few months ago and don't want to lose it!! Especially since getting the SkyQ link up and running. I've also downloaded and payed for NexHub as well. Would really be a bummer if I wasted that money on something that is no longer supported. I'm planning to send Celestron a message along with a follow up phone call telling them that NR is a wonderful program that should be a priority for them to continue to support and upgrade.

Again, great post and I look forward to the next installment.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!
 
I use nexremote exclusively now, due to your first post about it. I even had a friend build me a box with the circuit inside that replaces the hand controller... Direct from mount to PC for my cg5. Shame they are getting rid of it, especially after buying up the project. If they were nice, they'd open source the software or something so it could be improved and kept up to date.

Heck, today I even bought a bluetooth gamepad that I plan to set up for use with it.
 
Thanks for the great post Rod. Although I am not a Celestron user, the write-up is exactly what I do (when I have time nowadays) with my EQ-6 mount and SynScan controller (and mallincam). The fortunate part about it is that the software that is similar to NexRemote is open source (its called EQ-MOD), and it's authors are constantly upgrading it with new features as suggested by users (via a Yahoo group). The ability to move your telescope with a gamepad is one of the coolest things, and I think when we are at public events, the kids are more impressed at that then actually lookng through the telescope. :-)
 
Right on, Dave. I'm also an EQMODer when I am using my Atlas. Which I will probably be doing more frequently in the future--I am thinking of moving my NexStar 11 OTA to it--the fork is just getting to be too much for me to handle. ;-)
 
Thanks - great write up. I just installed my NexRemote with latest software from Celestron but the direction buttons don't work from my PC while they do work with the hand control. Is there some trick I am missing??
 
Some tips:

Make sure you are using a good serial usb connector--Keyspan is best.

Make sure you have the latest version of NexRemote (from the Celestron website)...
 
When using your motofocus, how far are you able to set your controller from the scope under the canopy for a long distance?

Mike
 
Typically 15-20' Mike, but I believe I could go twice as far. The power for the Motofocus is in the hand control--batteries--but I don't notice any problems with long extension cables.
 
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