Sunday, October 12, 2008


The Celestron SkyScout: Uncle Rod was Wrong

Yeah, despite what you might think (or more likely what I might tell you), it happens. Unk is wrong, wrong, wrong. Now, some folks might say that that is not exactly an uncommon experience. I dunno about that but one thing I will say is that when I finally figger out I was in error. I will admit it. This entry constitutes my mea culpa concerning the SkyScout.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, if you’ve been aboard for at least the last couple of years, you know there are times (a few) when Your Old Uncle does not positively gush over the latest glitzy piece of astro-gear. So it was a couple of years back when I offered my initial and uninformed opinion of Celestron’s latest fillip, the SkyScout. Oh, I admitted the concept was “interesting”: a little handheld camcorder-like “starfinder” that worked magic with a built-in GPS receiver, digital compass, accelerometers, and a computer brain. My uniformed conclusion, though? This thing, no matter what kind of technological advance it represented, would be of limited interest to amateur astronomers.

What, after all, was it good for? It might be able to identify naked eye objects or lead you to them via a zero-power sighting window. B-U-T… “If you already know the stars, what good is that? And if you don’t know ‘em, a paper planisphere and a red flashlight are one hell of a lot cheaper.” I also doubted whether the young-set would like this thing much. I predicted that, far from hooking 'em on the sky, the SkyScout would almost instantly lose its allure and chase ‘em back inside to the Playstation 3, sending Mummy’s and Daddy’s 400 pieces o’ eight down the ol’ tubes. Well, guess what? I was wrong. The SkyScout is not perfect, but it is amazing. And it’s actually useful for both amateurs and younguns.

How did I come to this conclusion? I got my hands on a SkyScout in the flesh and tried one rather than just speculating. My first hands-on with the ‘Scout came at a recent club star party. My buddy and long-time observing pal, George Byron, had brought one out and was kind enough to let me take it for a quick spin.

First impression? It’s bigger than it looks in the pictures. Yeah, it’s like a camcorder, but think “big, honking 1990s analog camcorder.” It’s not heavy, but it feels solid, and looks that way with its brushed chrome panels and rubber-armor fittings. The next thing I noted was not quite as impressive. The SkyScout’s display is a black-on-white LCD that’s illuminated a particularly deep shade of red—even redder than Celestron’s NexStar hand controller’s illumination. That’s good from a night-vision preserving perspective, but not so hot from a middle-aged-eyes perspective. I found I had to put on my dadgummed reading glasses to decipher the smallish letters or even to read the legends on the SkyScout’s buttons. Naturally, I then had to remove the spectacles to sight objects in the sky. Do note that my close-vision is bad enough that I can’t read the NexStar HC or even the green-illumined Sky Commander display either. Still, it would have been nice if the Big C had used bigger text.

Operationally? Once I figgered out what the hell I was doing without the benefit of instructions, I was good to go (the widget does have a “help” button, but I couldn’t find it in the dark). Basically, you do two things with the SkyScout: you identify stuff and you find stuff. Since my main interest, I suspected, would be identifying objects, I tried that first.

There are two ways to identify objects with the Scout: you can just mash the “Identify” button beneath the display, or you can use the scroll/selector button on the control panel’s left to get to “Identify” on the menu and select it. If the SkyScout is on anything but its main menu, you may find you need to use the “back” function the this control to get to the right place. Once there, or after pushing the “Identify” button, the display responds with “Sight object and press ‘Target.’” The ‘Target’ button referred to is conveniently placed on the upper housing, close to the rear peep sight window. "Hokay, let’s see if you know yer stuff, little gal,". I pointed the thing at Polaris.

Sighting naturally brings up the sight. The SkyScout’s zero power window is appropriately large—it’s more like using a Telrad than a b-b gun sight—and the surfaces are anti-reflection coated and red illuminated. In use, you put whatever you want to I.D. in the red-illuminated inner circle inscribed on the front window, taking care to line that up with the corresponding circle on the rear window. I haven’t measured how much sky these circles take in, but the whole window seems to encompass a couple of degrees and the inner circles ‘bout half that. With Polaris as near to the center of the sight as I could get it, I punched “Target.” A series of little illuminated arrow-heads positioned around the periphery of the front sight flashed, and I figgered that meant my choice had been registered. The ‘Scout, despite having built-in audio, didn’t beep at me or do nuttin’ else.

Retrieving my readers revealed the display was now sayin’ “Polaris” just as it should have. This is where things get a bit glitzy. You’ll find that for some I.D.ed objects (about 200) the word “audio” will also be displayed. Scroll to it and select it and, if you’ve got (the included) earphones connected, you’ll hear a nice description of the target that often includes its mythological/folklore background in addition to the “whats” and “how fars.”

The reading is done in a clear and professional (dare I say almost sexy?) voice by Sandy Wood of Stardate fame. "But won’t much of this info be superfluous or already known by experienced amateur astronomers?" Maybe. I picked up some interesting factoids and tidbits I’ll definitely remember. Don’t feel like listening to audio? The spiel can also be displayed in (small) text. Don’t care Pea Turkey about this sort of thing? Just the facts, m'am? Select “scientific data” from the display, and you’ll be given fairly extensive (text) information on your object: name, type (DSO type, binary star, etc.), distance in light-years, spectral type for stars, separation (for double stars) and more. I tried the identify function on several stars from horizon to horizon, and never once did the ‘Scout miss a beat.

Next up was “locate”—“go-to,” I guess. Punch the (yep) Locate button or select “Locate” from the main menu and the SkyScout guides you to the target. How? First you select what you want from one of several menus, deep sky objects, named stars, planets, etc. These objects are fairly well sorted in their databases and are not too hard to get to. The Herschel 400 (yep the ‘Scout’s got ‘em) are, for example, arranged in groups: “H1 – H20,” “H20-H40,” etc. Scrolling is required, but that is not too annoying. When you’ve got the target of choice selected, the ‘Scout informs you the targeting reticle is active.

With the reticle active, look through the sight and observe the illuminated arrowheads mentioned above. These will light up to direct you to your target. “Up” arrow illuminates, move up, “down” is lighted, move down. The SkyScout did not have any problems locating whatever I asked for, but my experience, and what I hear from other users, especially novice/casual astronomers, indicates Locate is a little harder to do than Identify. First of all, you need to take care to keep the front and rear sight circles lined up as you “slew” across the sky, and you need to position the device at arm’s length rather than pasting your peeper up against the little window. The position of your head also can make a difference. Accuracy? I found the SkyScout always placed what I wanted somewhere in the window, but being careful positioning my eye and the SkyScout itself made the difference between “somewhere there” and “right there in the middle.”

What else can the SkyScout do? Identifying and Locating are the main things but not the only things. One other function I found nice was that the SkyScout can “trace” constellation figures. Tell it to trace Cassiopeia, and the ‘Scout will land you on all the stars forming the Queen’s “W.” While the SkyScout, unlike Meade’s competing product, the MySky, is not exactly graphics heavy, it can at least display the constellation stick figures. Combine that with the trace function and I believe the little gadget might be a real help in learning the sky pictures.

That all? Not quite all. One of the most intriguing things you can do with the SkyScout is interface it to Celestron’s NexStar series of go-to scopes via an add-on kit called the SkyScout Connect ($99). “Connect” is a hardware interface to the Celestron controller that allows the user to send a scope on go-tos from a SkyScout. It also allows non-GPS-equipped scopes and mounts—like the ASGT series—to use the SkyScout’s built in GPS receiver during alignments. At this point, I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around what good this would do beyond the convenience of GPS, but look for a review soon; especially if I can cadge a review SkyScout Connect kit out of Celestron. How about GPS? Why haven’t I mentioned the ‘Scout’s GPS receiver? Simple: so far I’ve been jawboning about George’s SkyScout. When he handed his over to me, it was already aligned (or whatever you want to call it). To investigate GPS I had to wait to get my own SkyScout.

My own SkyScout? That was frankly something I had avoided. Laying out nearly 400 shekels for this thing, that is. Oh, I supposed I could have whined to Celestron for a review unit, but I was a little reluctant to expose their expensive toy to my clumsiness or to put it in the hands of my undergraduate astronomy students. What made me finally buy one? The price drop. As I said in my initial blog entry, I could at least conceive of handing over the cash for a SkyScout at the 200-dollar level. So, when the price quickly came down to that figger (in about two years), I grumbled a bit but ordered one up from the fine folks at Astronomics. I thought, if nothing else, this was something my students would enjoy playing with (like our green laser), even if I couldn’t find much useful to do with it.

In a remarkably short time, a little box was on Chaos Manor South’s front porch. After I ripped that sucker open, what was revealed was, in addition to the SkyScout, a CD containing a firmware updater/flasher program and the manual, a USB cable, a nice little nylon camera-style case, a wrist strap for the SS, a shoulder strap for the Case, a pair of “earbud” earphones, and a quick setup guide.

First order of bidness is installing batteries. The ‘Scout uses two AAs that are not just inserted in the battery case, but are first slipped into little cylindrical magnetic shields (to protect the SkyScout’s compass from electromagnetic interference that might be generated by some batteries). Somewhat annoyingly, it takes a screwdriver to open the battery chamber. My usual workaround for battery cases secured by screws, a dime, won’t work, since the retaining screw is somewhat recessed. Luckily, and contrary to what you may have heard, I didn’t find the SkyScout overly hard on batteries, so you shouldn’t be fumbling with the battery door too often.

With my SkyScout able to be powered up, the next item on the agenda, since it was still a bright and sunny afternoon, was updating the firmware. That is done by installing the aforementioned flash program on a PC. My “astronomy laptop” is still running Windows XP and I haven’t tried to install Celestron's program on my Vista desktop, so I can’t report on any issues there. I can tell you that currently this software is for Windows only—no Apple support.

Once the application was loaded off’n the CD (via a menu that allows you to do other things, too, like look at the manual, register your SkyScout, etc.) operation was simple. If you’ve done something similar like updating a go-to HC, this will be Duck Soup. Click the “Check for Updates” button on the graphic of a SkyScout the program displays, and it will first check for an update for itself. My loader program was out-of-date, so I allowed it to download and install the new version. That done, I shut down the program and connected the SkyScout via its USB cable. There’re two receptacles on the “eye end” of the ‘Scout; one for earphones and one for USB, that are normally left covered by little rubber doors.

Plugging-in the ‘Scout caused the normal Windows driver loading sequence to initiate. The drivers installed successfully, and while the manual includes instructions for loading ‘em, most Windows users know the driver-load routine by rote and won’t need to reference the manual on the CD. Once I’d got the drivers installed, I brought the updater back up. When I clicked the “check” button again, the program informed me my SkyScout’s firmware did need updating to the current rev, v1.30.

What would that do for me? It would add 36,000 stars, the NGC catalog, the Herschel 400, and the Caldwell catalog. Now, most of these new objects would not be visible through the ‘Scout’s “Telrad window,” but if I did rig the thing up to a scope with SkyScout Connect, they would be welcome. I had also heard that the update cleaned up a few problems with the ‘Scout’s system software. Download and installation took maybe 10 minutes. Amusingly, if you’ve got the Microsoft Mike and Mary voices installed, the updater talks to you in the same voice as NexRemote.

Despite it being daylight in my urban neighborhood, I couldn’t resist firing up the ‘Scout and seeing what she’d do in the daytime. Two of the most frequent complaints I’ve heard about the device concern its ability (or inability) to get GPS fixes and its susceptibility to magnetic interference from large metal objects and power lines (indicated by a magnet icon on the display). I for sure found the former to be the case from Chaos Manor South’s front porch.

Oh, she tried to get a fix, she really did, but my very restricted view of the sky (lotsa oaks, and all the old 2-story houses crowded together) made that more or less impossible. Yes, if I punched “retry” after a failed fix, the SkyScout would claim she got one, but the resulting position data would place me somewhere near Rwanda. I didn’t get all upset, since my little Cobra handheld GPS has a similar lack of success in the yard. Luckily, you can input a site’s time and location data manually. While the unit appears to retain location, you must re-input time/UTC offset after every power cycle (which can be a bit of a bother, see below).

With ‘Scout positioned at the right lat and lon, I tried a few go-tos. Given the relative placement of bright stars indicated by Cartes du Ciel, the SkyScout placed me in approximately the right areas of the sky, it was obvious. Yeah, when I’d stand under the power lines in the front yard, the magnet icon would appear, but it didn’t seem to make much difference in the go-tos. However, nothing would tell the tale like a night under the stars. On this evening, my good buddy Pat and I were planning to slide over to Pensacola to hear Doc Clay Sherrod speak to the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association (look for a full report in an upcoming blog entry), and I figgered that when we got back to Pat’s I’d try out the ‘Scout in his big, open, back-forty.

I was a little concerned about the GPS receiver, yeah, but it turned out I need not have been. From the foot of the Rochfords’ pecan orchard, the SkyScout took a GPS fix in less than a minute, and a glance at the resulting data on the display showed I was at Pat’s Stargate Observatory not Kigali. Several on-off cycles demonstrated the receiver was reliable fix-wise. By-the-by, if you want to use the ‘Scout as a GPS receiver, you can push the “GPS” button on its side and see numbers, graphs, and SV info to your heart’s content. Verdict? The SkyScout’s GPS receiver is sufficient if not quite as “hot” as those in some modern handhelds. Since it’s relatively easy to input site data, this is not a major hindrance to using the device in areas where obstructions (especially to the south) can make it hard to receive SVs.

It would be nice if the unit would retain time/date for the “next time.” That would make startup quicker assuming you have not moved. As mentioned earlier, location is preserved, but you will have to re-enter time/date every time the SkyScout is turned on—which can be annoying if you let the unit power itself down frequently. While I didn’t think the SkyScout was that battery hungry, Celestron apparently thinks it is, as the unit will turn-off automatically after remaining idle for 5-minutes. When that happens, you’ll have to push the power button and allow the ‘Scout to get a new fix, or you’ll have to manually enter date/time/UTC offset again. Yes, the ‘Scout warns you it’s about to power off, but it would be nice if it would BEEP in addition to displaying a countdown on the screen.

Following the successful acquisition of a fix, I did some go-tos and some I.D.s to satisfy myself that my SkyScout worked as good as George’s had. Sure did. Two units ain’t much of a sample, but at least I was seeing some consistency in the fact that both SkyScouts had performed indistinguishably. One thing I did find annoying this evening was the sight’s illumination. It was bright enough that dimmer stars were overwhelmed. A little noggin scratching and ruminating and looking at the ‘Scout and I realized pushing the button with the “brightness” icon (right below the volume control button on the unit’s left rear) would fix that. Anyhoo, my SkyScout done good, just like George’s. But this good news about its performance still left one question unanswered. What is this thing good for, for amateurs or kids or anybody?

The first part of this question was answered in surprisingly short order. In addition to trying out the SkyScout, Pat and I were troubleshooting his balky set of Sky Commander digital setting circles. It was late, there was a lot of haze, some light pollution, and a fat first-quarter Moon was hanging in the sky like an overripe fruit. We usually like to use Fomalhaut as an alignment star this time of year. But which star was Fomal-whatsit? The haze, moon, and light pollution had dimmed everything, erased dimmer constellation members, and made it difficult to be sure which luminary was the normally prominent sparkler.

Out came the SkyScout. A mash of “Identify” and we were assured that that one was Fomalhaut. I run into these situations frequently, either when observing from light-polluted areas or when trying to get aligned before it’s good and dark (Kocab often skunks me into thinking it is Polaris). This is also a problem when I’m working outside with students, with some kid inevitably asking something like, “Uncle Rod, is that star part of Hercules?” and me having to respond with a lame, “I can’t see enough other stars to tell you.” I will also say no matter how well-versed you are about the sky, you may not be able to identify Zeta Ophiuchi, for example, at the drop of a hat. Which may throw a monkey wrench in your star-hopping. Sure, you could squint at an atlas or a PC screen, but it’s easier (and more fun) to use the SkyScout. Maybe no more justification is needed than that: using the SkyScout is fun.

How about the SkyScout as a learning/teaching tool? I haven’t tried mine with the kids yet, but I believe they are gonna love it. Certainly I’ve had enough reports from educators and amateurs to tell me I was wrong about the ‘Scout having limited appeal for the younguns. Surprisingly (to me) there seem to be sprouts, plenty of ‘em, who prefer the SkyScout to an Xbox 360. Go figger.

Celestron could help here by continuing to release add-on “guided tours” on inexpensive SD cards. Yep, there’s an SD card slot up front on the ‘Scout, and Celestron has a couple of cards out now, “Astronomy for Beginners” and “All About Stars.” I’ve heard particularly positive commends about “Beginners” from novices and younguns. Only bringdown? Apparently (I’ve been told so, anyway) Celestron is playing its cards close to its chest. It would be nice if a software utility were released to allow educators (or whomever) to program their own SD card tours, but for now C won’t say anything about programming the cards other than “PROPRIETARY!”

Yeah, there’ve been a few quibbles interspersed here and there, but as you can tell, my reaction to the SkyScout is overwhelmingly positive. Yes, I was wrong. If you are not a total curmudgeon (“I tell ya, sonny-boy, all we had in my day was a paper Edmunds Star and Satellite Finder planisphere and we was lucky to have that!”) and are the least bit intrigued by this device, get one. I suspect Celestron will introduce a “Super SkyScout” one of these days, and I would bet it will be more than 200 bucks—and I would also bet it won’t be much more funner, no matter how many new bells and whistles it has.

How about the similar Meade MySky? I’ve seen one in operation (briefly) and was impressed. I do understand it’s had some initial problems and growing pains, but I’d still like to try one. I made a rather oblique suggestion of that sort to a Meade rep, but he didn’t take the bait. Chances are they have other things on their minds at Big Blue at the moment. For now, I’d say either “wait and see” or “get the SkyScout.” And I most heartily tend to the latter. I cannot but believe you, like the formerly skeptical Unk, will at least be mucho impressed if not completely bowled over.

2020 Update

Alas, I turned out to have been right about the SkyScout after all. If it had appeared five years earlier, and the company had developed some more and more useful software for it, it could have been a big hit. Alas, it arrived on the cusp of the coming of the smart phone, which could do anything the Scout could do and do it better. I still have my SkyScout--somewhere--but still haven't been able to figure out something useful for it to do.

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