Sunday, June 21, 2020

 

#562: The New NexRemote



Following my re-checkout of my Losmandy GM811G mount after not having used it for way too long, it was time to get to work on the New Herschel Project, muchachos.  But then thunder began to rumble. After several days, I threw in the towel and hauled the scope and my beloved Losmandy inside.

A week later, I thought I might finally get started on the New Project. The scope and camera to do that would be my Celestron Edge 800 SCT, Emma Peel, and the Mallincam Xtreme. Why not the Mallincam Junior Pro or Revolution Imager? The need to get some Herschels under my belt.

I’ve used the Xtreme recently (in the course of writing a Sky & Telescope article) and wouldn’t have to waste time re-familiarizing myself with the camera. I will certainly get to the other two video cameras, since many of you have asked about them. While I’ll turn to visual as well as often as possible, a video camera is usually better suited to the typically hazy suburban deep sky of Possum Swamp in late spring and early summer.

Initially, Thursday night looked fairly good. The Clear Sky Clock, Scope Nights, and the Weather Channel were agreeing it would be the first in a string of relatively passable evenings for observing. But then, despite the Weather Channel still forecasting “clear,” clouds began to fill the sky. I set up the Edge and the Celestron Advanced VX mount in the backyard anyway. What could happen?

Yes, I know I need to get back to the Losmandy mount and get squared away with the Ethernet interface and other software again, but I had a motive for setting up the smaller mount. I’d replaced the AVX mount’s Real Time Clock battery, and, as with the Losmandy, I wanted to make sure the AVX functioned properly after the change. I had little doubt it would be OK, but you never know. Also, frankly, the sky was looking worse than ever. The AVX is easier to lug in and out than the GM811, and I can convince myself to get it into the backyard even if the weather’s looking dicey.

Also, I would also be able to try something new with the AVX. Your benighted old Uncle Rod learned something. Celestron’s CWPI program (“Celestron – Planewave Instruments;” the program was developed in association with Planewave) now works with the Advanced VX mount—it was originally exclusive to the CGX models.

Now, no doubt most of y’all already knew that, but remember, when it comes to astronomy—and more than a few other things—2019 was a lost year for your Uncle. Anyhow, I’d heard a lot about CWPI. It’s sort of like a modern NexRemote, but with model building and star charting added, and I was anxious to try it with my AVX to see if it might fill the same role in the New Project that NexRemote filled in the old.

So, the plan was, the plan was…get started with CPWI. I’d go for the gold with the program to include interfacing it to the Celestron StarSense alignment camera and my Wireless Wingman gamepad (yes, the same Wingman I used with NexRemote for so many years).  If everything was hunky-dory, I might even try connecting SkyTools 3 to CPWI, which appeared to be possible, and start running the Herschel list.

“But Uncle Rod, don’t you know SkyTools4 is out?” I do, Skeezix. I even have a copy of the “Imaging” version, which I reviewed for the Second Edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT. But the imaging version is maybe a little bit of overkill for what I’d be doing, and I do not yet have a copy of SkyTools 4 Visual, so it would be good, old ST3, which saw me through the original Herschel Project.

Set up Thursday afternoon was OK, if not exactly a joy—it’s already awfully warm here. I knew if I waited till the cool of the evening, though, I might lose the will to mess with all the video gear and the computer, so I got on it. The AVX and the SCT are not too bad, and I was able to set everything up without incident. Well, only one. I started to pick up a heavy equipment case with my “bad” arm and it swiftly told me not to do that.

So, it finally got dark Thursday night just as Rod’s favorite 10-meter net (The Lockdown Fun Net, Thursdays, 1900L, 0000Z, 28.420 MHz) was wrapping up after a rollicking session that lasted far longer than usual…10-meters was “open” and we had W2s, W3s, W8s and more check-in for what is usually a local net here in Four Land. Walking out of the shack, I saw what I pretty much expected to see:  brighter stars winking in and out as bands of clouds and haze began to move in on what had been a clear sky in the afternoon. Naturally.

Typical Possum Swamp spring sky.
The sky wasn’t good enough to even think about firing up the Mallincam, not even close. Nevertheless, I uncovered Mrs. Peel. If I couldn’t do anything else, I’d at least polar align the Advanced VX using Sharpcap and my QHY guide cam. While a dead-on polar alignment isn’t necessary for video, it can make the stars look better in 30 second exposures. Also, Sharpcap makes it easy, so “Why not?”

What was it like coming back to polar alignment on the Advanced VX from the Losmandy? Like most other Chinese mounts, the AVX uses bolts for altitude and azimuth adjustment. Good thing is these bolts at least have nice, large handles as compared to the old CG5. Polar aligning the AVX is more “twitchy,” but it wasn’t hard for me to get the error under 15-arc seconds. That done, I covered the scope up and went inside to watch the 100th episode of the exceedingly silly Ghost Adventures on cable TV.

Friday evening found me hoping for at least sucker holes as darkness arrived in Hickory Ridge. How’d it go? I guess you could say it was a classic Unk Rod evening. Oh, it started out promisingly enough. The sky wasn’t exactly clear, but most of it was OK. A check of date and time in the NexStar HC said ever’thing was cool with the RTC battery. The CPWI software connected to the AVX through the hand controller without complaint. OK. Fine Business. Guess I’ll start an alignment, a StarSense alignment.

I mashed the appropriate button, but instead of starting the alignment, CPWI asked me if I wanted to calibrate the StarSense. I wasn’t sure if I did nor not. However, I hadn’t used it in a pretty good while and this was my first time to use it with CPWI, so I thought that might be a good idea. The program instructed me to slew to a bright star, and even highlighted some suggestions on the star chart. OK. Well, how about Arcturus. I clicked goto, and off the mount went.

Despite a very good polar alignment, when the mount stopped, the star was not in the field of the Mallincam. Alrighty then, I left the deck for the yard and peered through Mrs. Peel’s Rigel Quick Finder. The star was reasonably close, but no cigar. A degree or two away, mebbe. I’d just center it up and… Wait. How would I center it? You cannot use the HC with CPWI interfaced to the mount. “Oh, yeah, a joystick just like in the NexRemote days.” I’d thought that might be necessary, and had hauled out the old Wireless Wingman.

I went to the gamepad set up screen where I was told to press “start” on the Wingman. I did. Repeatedly. What happened? Nuttin’ honey. So, I spent the next half hour trying everything I could think of to make the software connect to that old game controller. Nothing worked. What would I do? I recalled I had a wired Xbox controller in the house. I went in and got it, plugged it into the USB hub, and the computer made its bing-bong noise and happily set it up.

OK. Let’s see what CPWI thinks of this one. It liked the Xbox controller just fine, picking it up immediately and sending me to a configuration screen. OK, I’ll just take this out to the scope and center that dad-blasted Arcturus. Sorry, Unk. The cord on the joystick was about 3-feet too short. Luckily, one of my few remaining braincells fired and I recalled I had a 6-foot USB extension cable. I even knew where it was. Fetched it, plugged it between Xbox controller and PC, and had enough slack to get my eye behind the Quick Finder. I centered that pesky star well enough that it was visible on the Mallincam display, and went back to the PC and did the fine centering with the Mallincam’s crosshair overlay and CPWI’s virtual HC.

The program seemed right happy then. Said it had done a plate solve and yadda-yadda-yadda, did I want to start an automatic StarSense alignment? I darned sure did after wasting so much time. Ha! Clouds were pouring in from the west now, impelling me to throw the Big Switch.

So, yeah, it was a prototypal Unk Rod evening. But as with most of those, I learned some stuff about CPWI—mostly how to navigate the new software—and now felt fairly comfortable with it. What next? Well, Saturday evening was slated to be about the same as Friday. If I could just get one freaking H-400 in the can, your old Uncle would be a happy camper.

The sky was clearing nicely late Friday afternoon, but then, as I was out for my evening stroll around Hickory Ridge, my phone beeped with a notification from the cotton-picking Weather Channel. The sky was pretty and blue, but this missive insisted there were severe thunderstorms just to the west. Nevertheless, I thought I’d be OK; it looked like the storms would slide past us to the northwest. 

About half way through watching the latest episode of Harley Quinn’s show, I figgered I’d better check on the scope and all (I’d uncovered Mrs. Peel and had everything ready to go on the deck—computer, video display, etc.). One look at the sky, and I covered the scope up in a hurry and moved the rest of the stuff inside. It was just getting dark, but it was still light enough for Unk to see threatening clouds blowing in from the West. There was a strong breeze stirring and a feel in the air that portended “b-a-d weather coming.”

There was bad weather coming, culminating in a forebodingly early Tropical Storm, Cristobal, in advance of which, I naturally moved mount and telescope inside. The storm was minor in nature, but it did bring wind gusts of 30mph and dump about 6-inches of rain, so it was good Mrs. Peel was safe and snug inside.

Following the storm, the weather improved slowly. It wasn’t good enough for me to get Emma and the Xtreme out, but it was good enough for me to get my old friend, my ETX125, Charity Hope Valentine, out of her case and working again (which you read about last week). That night with Charity Hope Valentine became Night One of the New Project if just barely. I observed a grand total of exactly one object. After that, I sat and waited for better conditions, which it appeared might come the following Tuesday.

CPWI's initial display.
First task once the stars winked on Tuesday night was to see if I could really get CPWI pointing at objects and, just as importantly, interfaced to SkyTools 3. If either thing didn’t work well or reliably, I’d just go back to using the (StarSense) hand control with SkyTools and/or Stellarium. Both things had to work if CPWI were to be part of the New Herschel Project, if it were to be the new NexRemote.

Alrighty, then. I decided to start out with just an eyepiece. Leaving the Xtreme out of the picture initially would allow me to focus on CPWI. So, my good old 13mm Ethos went into the William Optics SCT diagonal I’d screwed onto (ahem) Emma’s rear. That would yield 154x, and despite the eyepiece’s large field would give CPWI’s pointing prowess a good test (I left the reducer off so the scope would be working at f/10).

Polar alignment complete and mount powered on, I started CPWI on the laptop and was presented by the display you see above. Next step was getting the mount talking to the software by choosing the connection type under the Connection menu on the left toolbar. There are three possibilities:  Hand Controller, Wi-Fi, or USB. Most of us will use Hand Controller, which means you’ve got a Celestron serial cable (or a USB cable) plugged into the base of the HC. If you’ve got a Celestron Evolution scope or one of their wi-fi dongles on another Celestron rig, you’ll use “Wi-Fi.” Finally, Celestron’s CGX German mounts allow you to use a USB cable plugged directly into a USB port on the mount.

Select your alignment method.
Once successfully connected, you’ll be asked to verify time and location. I’d already done that during my previous CPWI outing, so it was on to telescope alignment. Next you’re presented with the goto alignment selection window. There are two main choices: CPWI alignment, where you add points to a model by centering stars; or an alignment done with the StarSense automatic alignment camera.


If you choose to do a “manual” alignment, a CPWI alignment, the program will select four points (stars) it believes are good alignment choices, and you’ll center and accept them much as you would with a hand control. The difference with CPWI is you can continue adding as many points to the sky model as desired.

Unk, lazy sort he is, naturally had the StarSense hooked to the mount. Since I’d calibrated it on a star on my previous night out with the software, all I had to do was start the normal StarSense four-star-field automatic alignment. That wasn’t much different than it would have been with the hand control except I could read what the camera was doing on the laptop screen instead of having to squint at a tiny hand control display. After about the same amount of time it would have taken the hand control, CPWI announced we were aligned.

If, unlike Unk, you have not already polar aligned the mount, you may do an AllStar Polar Alignment with the program following either type of goto alignment. Let me add that many of the usual hand control features like PPEC, parking, changing slew rates, etc. can be done with CPWI. Which is a good thing, since as mentioned earlier you cannot use your hand control at the same time you are using the program. It is in a “boot loader” mode and utterly unresponsive.

“Hokay. Let’s see if CPWI aligned anything.” Peering around the patio umbrella on the deck and up at the sky showed bright Arcturus riding high. I located the sparkler on CPWI’s star map, clicked on it, clicked “slew,” and the mount and Mrs. Peel headed for the star just as they would have done with Stellarium or any other program. Trotted out to the scope, and there was Arcturus sitting pretty in the field center.

Ready to begin a StarSense alignment.
How about a deep sky object? M3 was nearly at zenith, and I figgered that would be a good test of the program’s goto abilities—just about any goto system can have trouble with objects near straight overhead.  Instead of locating the globular cluster on the map, I used the program’s search feature, which worked well, and soon had the scope heading to M3. When the AVX stopped, M3 was staring back at me in the eyepiece. It was a little off-center, however, so I nudged it to the middle of the 13mm.

How did I do that nudging? Well, I could have had the laptop set up next to the scope and used the program’s onscreen direction buttons, but that wouldn’t have been very convenient. Instead, I used the Xbox gamepad. It took a little fumbling to get it going again, but when I did, it worked just ducky for the rest of the evening. If you are going to be using CPWI without a StarSense, a gamepad is vital because you’ll be centering numerous stars to do your goto alignment. A wireless PC or Xbox gamepad would be best. Me? Since I’m mainly gonna be sitting at the PC and viewing images on a video screen, my wired controller is more than adequate.

I sent the scope to quite a few other targets, no problem. Well, other than most looked pretty putrid in the haze. All that remained now was to get SkyTools 3 running with CPWI, attach the Mallincam to the scope, and knock off some Herschels.

After using SkyTools with NexRemote for so many years, the concept of using it with CPWI was easy to understand:  I’d connect SkyTools to the scope through the program, not directly. The procedure for doing that is different than with NexRemote, but the result is the same. Instead of establishing a virtual port for SkyTools with NexRemote, what you do with this modern software is start up SkyTools’ Realtime (its goto module) and use the ASCOM Chooser to select “CPWI” as the telescope.

As with the Gamepad, it took a little of Unk’s patented fooling around to get it going, but once I did, SkyTools 3 worked faultlessly with CPWI. I’d click on an object on my SkyTools observing list, SkyTools would announce “Slewing telescope!” (in its sexy British-accented female voice), and we’d go to the object. That was all there was to it.

SkyTools 3 with "always on top" CPWI hand control.
Next? Knocking off some Herschels. Unfortunately, I’d burned most of the evening getting the Herschel Project software squared away. At this point in the late spring, it doesn’t get dark until nine—not even dark enough to do a polar alignment. And a look at my watch showed the time was now passing two. Part of me wanted to get the Xtreme on the scope anyway, but I demurred. I was hoping the next night would be at least as good as this one had been and pulled that cursed Big Switch.

Summing up? I am not feeling particularly charitable toward Celestron at the moment—you will find out why next week—but regarding this (free) software, I gotta say they done good. It is not perfect, but it certainly workable. Most of the improvements that are needed concern the star map (for example, why no constellation labels?). I do understand most of the program’s development, which has been slow, has had to be concerned with getting alignment and connectivity issues resolved. Anyhoo, now they need to spiff up the star map. Also, a little more gamepad functionality would be nice. As is, all you can do is move the telescope (fast or slow) with it.

At any rate, I am convinced CPWI and SkyTools 3 (or Deep Sky Planner, which I'll check out with CPWI next time) are what I will use initially for the New Herschel Project—when I use the Celestron mount, anyway. CPWI has got a feel a lot like good, old NexRemote. Enough of a feel that I’m not missing my favorite piece of astronomy software quite as much as I was, muchachos.

Comments:
Dear Uncle Rod,

Thanks for the interesting post, as always. One suggestion to ease centering in the future, instead of having to nudge the mount. Since you're already using SharpCap, you can use its plate solving feature which (1) read the coordinates from the mount, via CPWI; (2) solve the image to see where the mount is actually pointing and (3) re-point the mount so that the target is dead in the center of the view. This works equally well even if the target is not even visible in the image, but the mount is still pointing roughly in the area. You can use this also to add stars to the pointing model or to calibrate StarSense. Basically, no more need to nudge anything in order to center anything. Instructions are available at
https://www.sharpcap.co.uk/sharpcap/features/plate-solving

Hope this helps and clear skies!
Wilhelm
 
Hi Rod! I just recently rediscovered your resurrected Astro Blog, and am excited you are back. The back catalog of blog entries have been a treasure trove of insight for me over the years, and I'm truly grateful for all the help.

Your most recent experience with CPWI seems to have been somewhat more successful than mine. Despite creating a dead-on pointing model with 12 reference stars, I've found the GOTO capability to be quite inferior to the good ol' hand controller on my CGEM. Curious to see if you encounter similar in future sessions. Please keep us posted!

Clear skies,
 
When did astronomy get so dang blamed complicated???
 
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