Sunday, August 30, 2020


#566 Stars in the Palm of My Hand Redux

Yeah, muchachos, I know. I said not long ago that I hoped to put a new AstroBlog article on the air at least twice a month, but I barely managed one for August. What happened? The weather is what happened…or didn’t happen depending on your perspective. It’s been nothing but clouds and thunder boomers here. Well, except when there’s a full Moon of course. As I write, there are two tropical storms in the Gulf. So, no “My Yearly M13;” not yet anyhow. Instead let’s talk about the cotton-picking cellphones.

Now, your old Uncle, Luddite that he is, is not that big a fan of the danged pocket computers. I could, as I often say to the annoyance of everybody around me, go back to a black dial-phone hardwired into the wall. Happily. But I must admit they can be handy for some things--like astronomy.  I’ve been involved in using smart phones and their ancestors, the PDAs, in stargazing for quite a while.

I got started not long after the turn of the century with something some of you may remember, Palm Computers nee Palm Pilots. If you’re young, or like your old Uncle occasionally a little short on brain cells, what the Palm was was a “PDA,” a Personal Digital Assistant. It did some of the things we do with smart phones these days:  keep a calendar, manage contacts and appointments, make notes, stuff like that. But with no connectivity. Not only could you not make a phone call with one, in the early days of PDAs you couldn’t even connect to the Internet. Well, you could—sorta. Plug the Palm into a PC (via an RS232 cable) and it would update little news and weather apps; stuff like that. Sounds primitive 20 years later, but these things were actually amazingly useful.

And not just because of the built-in apps like the calendar and stuff. Soon there were third parties producing all manner of software to run on the Palm, just like with today’s iPhones and Androids. In a short time, there was a whole Palm industry producing serious software like word processors. And even hardware like keyboards. While it might seem a little strange to do word processing on a PDA, it worked thanks to the devices’ increasingly good screens. That was a life saver for me in the days when I was still riding destroyer sea-trials. I needed to do some writing on deadline, and couldn't bring a non-secure, non-government laptop with me. A PDA was no problem, however, and I was able to get my work done with my Palm and my (folding) keyboard.

And all that was just ducky, but what I was really interested in, as y’all might expect, was the growing inventory of astronomy software for the Palm. Yep, there were quite a few astro apps, some quite powerful; especially the one I settled on for regular use: Planetarium for Palm. One of my fonder memories is of using my Palm IIIxe and my wee ETX60 (by means of an RS-232 cable from Palm to Autostar) to tour dozens of deep sky objects from the dark Smoky Mountains.

Planetarium for Palm worked great on my original IIIxe, and even better on my “upgrade” PDA, the Palm Tungsten E2 which had—get this, campers—a color screen and the limited ability to use Wi-Fi with an add-on card! However, soon Planetarium for Palm had competition, a remarkable bit of programming called Astromist. Not only did it sport nearly 20,000 deep sky objects; it took full advantage of the Tungsten’s color screen. The Tungsten had the power and the features to show what hand held devices could (potentially) bring to astronomy.

Not that I needed to be convinced. I was so impressed by my Palm that I started a Yahoogroup just for the use of PDAs in astronomy, "PalmAstro." For a couple of years, it looked like the sky was the limit for the gadgets. Till it all came crashing down and Palm wound up belonging to freaking HP. What happened? Poor management on the part of the Palm execs was part of it, but mostly it was the coming of the smartphone, which made PDAs almost instantly obsolete. 

Palm did sell some phones, but with very limited success. The cells they rolled out that still used the Palm O/S unfortunately used a version of it that made the phones incompatible with all the tons of good software that had been written over the years. That was pretty dumb and that was pretty much that for the company. To this day, HP occasionally releases a phone under the Palm name, but these Palms have nothing in common with the good, old PDAs.

While I kept the PalmAstro Yahoogroup on the air until Yahoo shut all its groups down earlier this year, there’d been little interest in it in a long time, including by moi. It was time to move on to something more capable than a PDA as cool as they were. Something with a still better display and Internet connectivity. What was that? Not the smart phone, not for Unk right away. iPhones just seemed stupid-expensive to me. How about a nice iPod instead?

While the early iPods did very little other than play music, the later ones were more like iPhones, just without the phone stuff. That was the iPod touch. It could do anything my Palm could do—calendars, contacts, etc.—but with a color touch screen, more memory, a faster processor, and built-in Internet connectivity. And, naturally, there was already plenty of astronomy software to take advantage of that pretty screen (most apps designed for the iPhone ran fine on the Touch), beginning with SkyVoyager, the ancestor of today’s SkySafari.

But, soon enough it was time to move from Pod to Phone. Not only to play telescopes, but because I found having one increasingly necessary given changes at work. I was now commuting to both Pascagoula and New Orleans to work on the NAVSSI system (a navigation suite of radars, computers, and other sensors) on the Navy’s LPD landing ships. I found an iPhone made my work much easier with its instant access to my colleagues with  phone and email--not to mention all the other smart phone features we take for granted now. And, naturally, when SkySafari cranked up, I got started with that amazing software.

If you’d like to know more about SkySafari or my take on it, at least, watch for an upcoming Test Report on the app by me in Sky &Telescope. Suffice to say, however, that the program takes all the power of a desktop planetarium program, and stuffs it into your smart phone or tablet (including Android devices). For now, however, let’s switch gears slightly and talk about the other half of the smartphone astronomy game:  how you make your goto goto its gotos with your freaking telephone.

It took me a while to get friendly with the SkySafari's telescope control features. I got my first iPhone, an iPhone 4, loaded it up with SkySafari, looked at the app a time or two, and that was it--oh, used it once in a while to see how high up Jupiter or something was, but not much more than that. Why? Unk practiced a different sort of astronomy a decade ago. I was still ensconced at good, old Chaos Manor South, our huge old Victorian home in the city’s Garden District. There, there was very little chance to observe.

I could look at the Moon or a planet from the front yard, but that was about all and all it had been for the better part of a decade before that. Not so much because of light pollution, which I knew how to deal with, but because of the countless oak trees old and young. My backyard was so overgrown by the end of the 90s that I was limited to a few “windows” here and there—and God forbid you cut down a Garden District oak! So, Moon and planets it was, and I didn’t need all the deep sky objects and stars now packed into SkySafari to tour the Solar System.  There also didn't seem to be much point in connecting the phone to one of my telescopes.

SkyQ Link plugged into CGEM port.
How about dark sites and star parties? When I did dark observing, I wanted heavy-hitter software like SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner or maybe The Sky X if I was in a planetarium kinda mood. Ten years ago, SkySafari was already pretty powerful, but not that powerful.

There things remained for quite some time. Until I heard Celestron was bringing Wi-Fi to their scopes and mounts. Not only that, but that the dongle they’d developed, SkyQ Link, would, they said, not just allow you to control a scope with your phone via Celestron’s SkyQ app, you could use the widget to connect your laptop running NexRemote to the mount wirelessly.

Now, that got my attention. Back in the go-go days of The Herschel Project, I invariably controlled the Advanced VX or the NexStar 11 GPS or the CGEM with NexRemote, which took the place of the hand controller. You didn’t even have to have the HC plugged in. And the SkyQ link would, I thought, make the NexRemote experience a whole lot better.

Eliminating a cable between PC and mount wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics. More than once, one of the zombie-like folks you’ll encounter at most star parties (you know, the people who set up a scope but never use it—instead they wander the field all night long) had tripped on and disconnected my NexRemote cable in their quest to determine, “WATCHA LOOKIN’ AT?” causing me to lose my goto alignment.

When the Link arrived, I was impressed. It looked professionally done, and the instructions for getting it set up were simple enough. Plug it into the mount, connect your PC’s or phone’s wireless to it, start the SkyQ app or NexRemote (along with a helper program for NexRemote), and you were good to go. First problem? It didn’t work with NexRemote. Period. End of story. Game over. Zip up your fly. OK, how about SkyQ? It refused to work with the Advanced VX, though it would work with the NexStar 11 GPS in alt-azimuth mode—in very limited fashion.

Now, normally when something like this happens, I just stuff the junk in question back in the box and return it. But I really, really wanted this thing to work. So I got in touch with Celestron. They readily admitted they knew their app would never, ever work with the Advanced VX or any other German equatorial mount (despite what their ads said). They did insist NexRemote ought to work. They offered me troubleshooting tips and promises about upgrades to the software used to allow NexRemote to access the Link. And they kept doing that, stringing me along, until it was too late to return the SkyQ Link. Oh, well. I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.

And that was the end of wireless scope control for me for some time. Until, in fact, early 2017 when I was assigned to do the Sky & Telescope Test Report on Celestron’s new Evolution 9.25 SCT. There was a lot new about this telescope including a built-in rechargeable battery and a new-design fork mount among other things. Some of these things were good and some not so good, but what was really good was the scope’s main selling feature, built-in Wi-Fi.

Evolution 9.25
Not only could you point your telescope to sky object with your Apple or Android smart device, you could also do your Evolution’s goto alignment with the cell phone or tablet. The app Celestron  paired with the scope, “Sky Portal,” was developed by Simulation Curriculum and was actually a basic version of SkySafari. Anyhoo, it offered various Celestron alt-azimuth alignment options including SkyAlign (pick any three bright stars to align on) and routines for German mounts too. Not only that…the alignment routines were now also included in SkySafari Pro. Sounded like the days when I’d need NexRemote were drawing to a close.

If the Evolution worked as advertised. Some owners had complained about weak Wi-Fi signals with early Evos. Me? I found I could control the telescope just fine from 100 meters away on an open observing field. Naturally, in a backyard with lots of obstructions the range was shorter, but it worked more than well enough nevertheless. I still wasn’t sure I preferred a phone to a hardware HC—I missed the tactile feedback from actual buttons—but I was at least becoming a believer.

Part of the reason for that was my astronomy way of life had changed. Following my retirement, Miss Dorothy and I had moved from Chaos Manor South to the suburbs. I now had a nice, open backyard and skies that would show mag 5 stars at zenith on a good night. Since I could now look at the deep sky any time I wanted (when we had those increasingly rare clear skies), I found I was far less interested in doing pedal-to-the-metal observing from dark sites. Me getting older and less inclined to stay up late and to brave the heat or cold and the bugs also had something to do with it. At any rate, a phone with SkySafari running on it suddenly seemed to fit my lifestyle a lot better than a big laptop packed to the gills with astro-ware.

BUT… (there’s always that annoying “but”). I was perfectly happy with the telescopes and mounts I had. I really wasn’t interesting in dropping a couple of thousand bucks on a Celestron Evo 9.25 SCT; that was for sure. So, I did some research. The SkySafari folks and others offered Wi-Fi solutions of their own that would work with just about any telescope/mount. But these generic solutions didn’t give you the Celestron no-hand-control-required alignment capability. Which was when I began thinking about the SkyQ Link again and doing a little research.

What I turned up was the new dongle Celestron began selling at about the same time they rolled out the Evolution was little different from my old SkyQ Link. In fact, the electronics were exactly the same; the only changes were its slightly redesigned appearance and a new name, “SkyPortal Link.” With the Evolution on its way back to California and me rested up from all the observing I’d done with the 9.25, I decided to hunt up the widget and give it a try with SkyPortal and SkySafari.

Doing an AllStar alignment with the Evolution.
Luckily, your old Uncle thinks long and hard before throwing anything away. Even more lucky? The Link made it from Chaos Manor South to the new digs—and I even knew which box it was in (I’ll admit a couple of years down the road, I still hadn’t unpacked all the astro-junk).  Out it came and into the Advanced VX it was plugged.

With the AVX set up and polar aligned I plugged the dongle into the hand control port, powered on the mount, and grabbed my trusty iPhone. I had some hopes, since the lights flashing on the dongle as it booted up looked correct—unlike with the SkyQ app. I had no trouble connecting with SkyPortal, either. But then came the acid test—goto alignment.

After all the drama I’d experienced with the Link previously, the denouement was almost boring. I centered four stars, two on each side of the Meridian, SkyPortal said I was aligned, and the Advanced VX went to anything I requested for the remainder of the evening, just like it always did. Any downers? Only that after not having used a touchscreen to center a star in a long time, I was back on square one with that.

And now? The events of the years since I tried out the Evolution have just led me more and more in the direction of smart phone astronomy. In 2019, I was laid up for months thanks to an accident I have still not fully recovered from. After I healed enough to want to do some observing, I found I was less likely than ever to traipse around to star parties and dark sites carrying a PC. Often, it’s no goto at all…just me, my good old 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, and SkySafari in the friendly backyard.

2019 was bad for me, yeah, but 2020 has been just as much of a loser of a year in its own way. And for everybody thanks to the Bad CORONA (as opposed to the good kind that comes in frosty bottles) among other disasters, tragedies, and constant confusion and mayhem. Now, there are no star parties to traipse to even if I were up to it physically and mentally. I'm moving everything except astrophotography to my phone and tablet and am thinking about doing the same with that (which is made possible by some innovative products from ZWO and others).

I don’t know that I’m ready to get involved with a gadget that allows me to control my imaging sessions with a phone yet, but what say we kick it up a small notch anyhow? When it comes time for me to do my observing for my SkySafari Pro test report lets’ throw in a curveball. I am told the program now supports the Celestron StarSense alignment cam. How will that work out? We shall see just as soon as I get a clear night here.

Otherwise? Anything else I’ve got planned…the continuation of the New Herschel Project, My Yearly M13, getting a few pics of Mars…will have to wait until the stormy Gulf calms down. I will have something for y’all in September, but unless and until the weather improves, I cannot swear it will be much. 

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