Sunday, October 02, 2016

 

Issue #511: Sans Wires


Amateur telescopes and mounts have come a long way over the 20-something years since we began to go “all goto, all computer, all the time.” One thing that took a long time to happen, though? Wireless telescope control. For years that was a sore spot with me. Everything from TVs to garage doors to freaking ceiling fans had a wireless remote—everything but telescopes. There, the HC was still tied to the mount with a (usually too short) cable. I spent my observing life trying to find a place to put the stinking HC and trying not to wrap the scope up like an octopus with PTSD.

Shortly after the Meade LX200 GPS SCTs debuted just after the turn of the century, Meade began selling an (optional) wireless Autostar II controller. That would do it, I thought. Surely every Meade owner would want one, and the other manufacturers would soon follow suit. Hooray!

Sadly, that didn’t happen. The wireless Autostar was somewhat expensive, and, worse, was cranky. It worked sometimes, but not all the time, and often not very well. Because of that failure, neither Celestron nor anybody else offered a similar product. The wireless hand control had to wait until the coming of the smartphone.

Smartphones are small computers, so it was not surprising there were soon planetarium apps for them. It just seems a perfect match:  you carry your smartphone around with you all the time, including under the night sky. Why shouldn’t you have a depiction of the heavens on it? Almost every Apple iPhone commercial over the years has included something about astronomy apps. It didn’t take long for those apps to become quite sophisticated, either. Today, the leading smartphone astronomy softs, like SkySafari, are equal to the best PC programs when it comes to features and numbers of objects.

But being able to run some pretty advanced astronomy software is only part of the smartphone equation. In addition to calling over cellphone towers, all smartphones have built in Wi-Fi and most have Bluetooth. Wireless RF communications, that is. And planetarium program plus Wi-Fi equals potential wireless telescope nirvana if you can make your telescope mount communicate over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for telescope mounts is not an overly difficult a thing for a company to implement assuming there are enough people to make it pay. It turns out there are. Maybe just barely, but enough anyway. Soon there were solutions for telescope mounts that allowed your smartphone to send your goto telescope on its gotos either with Wi-Fi (usually) or Bluetooth (occasionally). These solutions take three forms: wireless-ready scopes and mounts, generic solutions that will work with almost any brand of telescope, and brand-specific setups.

Before we talk over these solutions, however, we’d better make sure you understand that “wireless” doesn’t mean “no wires.” If you live in a place as prone to dew as Possum Swamp, you’ll likely need a dew heater and its associated heater element and power cables to keep the wet stuff off your objective or corrector plate. If you take pictures, your camera will likely be connected to a computer via a USB cable. Still, eliminating the hand control cable helps a lot, since you’ll often be using the HC to move/align the scope, and doing that from different positions, meaning the cable gets really annoying. Heater wires and camera cables are not as big a hassle unless they threaten to wrap up and strangle your mount.

Turn-key Solutions

Celestron Evolution Series

For most people, this is the ideal, a telescope that comes configured for use with your tablet or smart phone right out of the box. This is still the exception in the low-mid priced range, but I expect that to change and quickly. The cost of adding Wi-Fi connectivity to a goto scope is minute, and what’s amazed me is that Celestron, with their Evolution series, is the only manufacturer in this tier who has done so thus far. What’s the Evolution like? I’ll save that for my upcoming Sky & Telescope Test Report on the Evo, but I don’t mind telling you that the Wi-Fi/smartphone features work well. 

High-end Mounts

On the high end of the telescope mount market, Wi-Fi connectivity is becoming the norm. I understand that it is standard for 10 Micron mounts now, and nearly standard for the Bisque Paramount series (at least I rarely hear of someone buying a Bisque mount who doesn’t spring for the add-on Wi-Fi board).

Prediction? Within five years all commercial telescopes/mounts will include Wi-Fi connectivity (or Bluetooth in some instances). I will further speculate that most won’t even come with a hardware hand control. That will become an extra-cost option.

Generic Add On Solutions

SkyFi

Just because your telescope didn’t come from the factory equipped to talk to your iPhone or Galaxy doesn’t mean you have to forego the joys of smartphone astronomy. The first Wi-Fi setup (that I am aware of) was actually an add-on for stock goto telescopes. This widget, the SkyFi from the folks who do the SkySafari astronomy app (and Macintosh program), Simulation Curriculum, wasn’t just there first with a top-flight commercial product, their SkyFi is still the most versatile setup.

SkyFi consists of a smallish 12 VDC powered electronics box and a serial cable to connect to your telescope’s RS-232 port (or, in the latest version, to a USB port as well if the scope/mount has one). That is its strength:  it will work with just about any goto scope. The telescope doesn’t know whether it is being sent on gotos from a PC or from your phone; all it sees is a “normal” incoming serial signal telling it what to do.

Any downsides? The SkyFi works with your hand control and does not replace it. You’ll normally do your alignments using the good old HC. Also, according to the manufacturer, SkyFi does not work with Android devices (that are not rooted). If you’ve got Android, you’ll want SkyBT, which is similar, but uses a Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi transceiver. UPDATE...THE NEW SKYFI 3, LIKE THE MEADE BADGED VERSION NOW WORKS WITH ANDROID.

There are several similar products on the market, but if you dig down a little, you’ll find most of these are based on SkyFi, just as many different astronomy apps are actually SkySafari under a different name. There’s a good reason for that: the hardware and software products of Simulation Curriculum are tops and companies like Celestron and Meade don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel.

Brand Specific Solutions

SkyPortal Link

If you own a Celestron telescope/mount, the ultimate after-market solution is a little widget called SkyPortal Link (formerly SkyQ Link and SkyQ Link II). This is a Wi-Fi dongle that plugs into the Aux or HC port of your compatible Celestron mount—and most are compatible with the exception of the earliest NexStars like the still-popular GPS scopes. What this basically does is turn your Celestron GEM or fork mount into an Evolution scope—with a few caveats.

This inexpensive (around 90 bucks) device has actually been on the market since 2013. I bought one with my VX mount with the intention of using it to wirelessly link the scope to NexRemote running on a laptop. Unfortunately, the device wouldn’t work with the VX and NexRemote despite Celestron’s initial claims to the contrary. There was also an iPhone app for the Link, but it didn’t work with any of the Celestron GEMs and was very limited even with alt-azimuth fork mounts. I put the SkyQ Link in a drawer and forgot about it. I intended to return it for a refund but never got around to that.

Now, I’m glad I held onto the Link. Celestron wasn’t giving up on the device, and while they conceded it wouldn’t ever function as a NexRemote - VX link, they intended to make it work with their telescopes and smart devices. The eventual solution? Give up the poor SkyQ app and get Simulation Curriculum to do a version of SkySafari for them. This free application, SkyPortal, available in iOS and Android flavors, not only works with the SkyQ Link, it allows users to dispense with the NexStar hand control entirely.

I was still skeptical. I almost dug out the link gadget a time or two, but remembering the frustrations I’d experienced with it in 2013, I hesitated. Until I had some hours with the Celestron Evolution under my belt. It was so much fun using my iPhone as an HC that I decided I just had to try that darned Wi-Fi dongle with my VX and CGEM mounts.

So it was one clear evening that I set up the CGEM with my 6-inch refractor, Bit Ethel, plugged in the SkyQ Link, and had a go. Once I turned the mount on and selected the link’s Wi-Fi “network” which appeared in my phone’s settings, the iPhone connected to the scope immediately. I was pleased to see that the SkyPortal app, which I used initially, was just like good old SkySafari (albeit with a limited number of deep sky objects—waddayawant for free?). I went to the settings in SkyPortal, chose “German mount” and “Celestron Wi-Fi,” pushed the “connect and align” button onscreen, and was soon doing a 4-star alignment.

After centering two stars on each side of the Meridian, SkyPortal claimed I was ready to rock. Well, we’d see about that. My skepticism soon went away. Any object I requested was nearly centered in an 8-mm wide-field eyepiece in the 6-inch f/8 refractor. There were no hiccups and no disconnections. The app would disconnect from the scope if I let the iPhone go to sleep, but as soon as I woke it up it would immediately reconnect without me having to do anything.

Anything I didn’t like? There are a few rough edges. While the circuitry in the SkyQ Link (and its identical but differently named successors, the SkyQ Link II and SkyPortal Link), is the same, I’m told, as in the Evolution series, the signal seemed a little weaker. When I was in the backyard with houses and Wi-Fi signals all around, my Android tablet would struggle to connect. My iPhone 6s would always work, however.

Initially, I thought the alignment process was going to be a problem. First couple of times out I had a hard, hard time centering stars with the onscreen buttons on my iPhone, often mashing the wrong thing and sending the scope to never-never land. I was almost ready to plug in the hardware HC (you can use the direction buttons on the NexStar HC in conjunction with the app, but only the direction buttons), when, the third night out, the onscreen buttons began to feel normal and alignment began to be easy. Even in the initial attempts when I got the telescope pointing to the ground, moving it to the proper star and centering that would always result in an excellent alignment.

Any other problems? It’s not really a problem, but the alignment part of the SkyPortal app is not quite complete; it lacks the AllStar polar alignment routine. I hope Celestron will correct that (Simulation Curriculum merely adds the Celestron-developed telescope alignment code to the app, and depends on them for updates). SkyPortal is also limited by its number of objects, just over 200. The good news is that you can fix that with SkySafari Plus or Pro, which have many, many DSOs, are inexpensive, and include the Celestron scope alignment routine just like SkyPortal. Overall, the SkyPortal Link is a big win, and is the best option for a Celestron owner at this time in my opinion.

Meade’s Stella

Meade has just come out with a Wi-Fi set up for their Autostar scopes, and while I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, it’s safe to say they’ve taken a rather different path than Celestron. This appears to be based on SkyFi, with (I assume) the only difference other than a different name and different shaped electronics box being that it comes standard with a Meade style RS-232 cable. I was rather surprised to see that it doesn’t, like Celestron’s SkyPortal Link, come with a free app. You have to purchase StellaAccess separately. The upside being that StellaAccess appears to be SkySafari Plus, and has many more objects than Celestron’s freebie—it is also inexpensive.

Stella is advertised, unlike SkySafari, to work with Android, so that’s a plus, and, unlike the Celestron Wi-Fi adapter, Stella can be used with other brands with the addition of the proper serial cable, so that’s also a definite advantage. On the other hand, I assume that there are no Meade-centric features here. It sends your scope on gotos and you have to have the Autostar connected to the mount for it to work.

What’s it like using a smartphone (or tablet) enabled telescope? It fulfills not just my desire to be freed from that dratted hand control wire, but also satisfies another dream: to have a hand control that shows a color depiction of the sky. All through the 1990s and into the 2000s, I hoped somebody, someday would make a telescope HC that was like a Nintendo Game Boy. It would have a color screen and would have a built in planetarium program in ROM.

That finally did happen about ten years ago, but when Vixen released its (wired) Starbook for the Sphinx mount it was already being obsoleted by the smartphone explosion. An iPhone or Galaxy is always going to be much superior to any hand controller made by any telescope company. Yeah, I thought I’d miss the lack of tactile feedback from real buttons, but as above, the more I use my iPhone 6 with the scope, the less I miss that.

Above all, using my phone is freeing. Not just from that always short coiled hand control cable, but from my laptop and its wires and widgets. I still use the lappie when I take astrophotos, but otherwise, there is no reason to. SkySafari Pro is the equal of any PC program I’ve used. In fact, the experience has been so liberating, that it’s now hard to make myself drag out the Toshiba even for DSLR imaging. Yes, it’s easier to focus on the big laptop screen than on the DSLR display, but I’m finding I’m willing to put up with that to eliminate more wires and batteries and STUFF. Long live wireless astronomy!

Comments:
Hi, Rod.
I use Orion's StarSeek5 app with my Orion StarSeeker IV alt-az mount. Along with the Orion wireless controller, it provides a nice wireless control for my 127 Mak-Cass.

But WHY can't telescope makers make a BUILT IN dew control system ???! THAT would REALLY let us go wireless !!!
 
One app to check our that has extra functionality like multi star align for improving goto accuracy is http://www.astromist.com/.
Dwight
 
Rod, you are a brave man to embrace these new wireless devices--as well as other cutting edge technologies. That's a good thing for the rest of us crusty, stick-in-the mud, middle-aged folks who stick to the manual star-hopping and print atlases! Thanks for this great blog.
 
Hi Rod, thanks for your article! I have an AVX and thinking of getting this gadget. I only have an Android tablet at the mo'. What model iPhone are you using to make it all work so well?

 
Phil, I am using an iPhone 6s, but I am pretty sure your Android should do OK.
 
Thanks Rod! Enjoying tonight's new article!
 
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