By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Product: SkyWire Serial Accessory
Vendor: Southern Stars (http://www.southernstars.com)
Price: $79.95 USD
Shipping: varies according to destination

SkyWire Serial Accessory is a simple cable that makes it a breeze to connect your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone to your computerized telescope and control it with an app called SkySafari. Set up and use is really easy, although you need to use Southern Stars SkySafari version 2.1 app (or later) to take advantage of this cable.

Years ago I purchased a computerized telescope mount (and telescope), and found it was a serious step up for the rank amateur sky observer. Nowadays, rather then dealing with the frustration of using guiding stars to target in on a celestial object, I can now let a computer do all the work. Although the process isn’t perfect, it was an improvement over the tasks I needed to follow to get setup in the past. The Meade Autostar computer controller on my mount has a funky red LED display, which has issues like being completely un-readable when temperatures are in the lower 30 degree F. While it does know the position of a fair number of objects, it is also a bit of a process to select one. Not to mention that, before you begin to search, there is no indication  that an object is currently in the sky until after you select it. It didn’t take me long to look for a more intuitive interface.

From my previous articles here on our Space page, you see that I use my MacBook Pro along with different Astronomy software to make the process even easier. But what if you are starting out like most people today, you may already have one of Apple’s i-devices. SkyWire used with the SkySafari software makes it easy to step a telescope up. Additionally, most of these devices make use of the compass and GPS features, so you can use them to assist with locating the general area of the sky your object of choice might reside.

SkyWire is a cable that transfers the serial data (RS232) signal from the telescope controller to the i-device you are using. The SkyWire cable ends in a DB9 connector. If your telescope controller doesn’t use this connector, you will need a cable to convert the DB9 connector to whatever your ‘Scope” uses. In my case, the Meade LXD75 uses a standard telephone connector (RJ11). It came with a cable that has the RJ11 on one side and a  DB9 on the other, so all I had to do was plug the SkyWire DB9 into the telescope’s DB9 connector and plug the RJ11 end into the AutoStar. Note that I mention all this cable detail because it is specific to my set up. Hopefully there is enough detail so that someone with a different set up will understand what to do.

The current version of SkySafari is version 3, and you need version 3 plus to gain the telescope control features. I was pretty impressed with SkySafari. It is a very comprehensive piece of astronomy software with lots of features. It is a great standalone product and worth considering even if you don’t have an interest in the SkyWire feature.

With SkySafari 3 Plus running on my iPod Touch, I plugged in the standard i-device connector into it and an alert box in the software told me I am connected to the SkyWire. By default SkySafari 3 Plus has the telescope control set to “demo mode”.  You need to go into the settings and select your telescope controller and mount type. This system will work with a wide variety of telescope controllers (those that use the RS232 interface), but some do not. Check the products web site to see if your controller is included.

Once you have selected the telescope controller, bring up the telescope control and select connect. If your controller is on and ready to go it should immediately connect. Now all the power of SkySafari 3 Plus is available to control your telescope. And there is a lot of power in this program!

I have both an iPod Touch and and iPad, so I used both to control the telescope. The iPod Touch is a bit smaller then my Meade Autostar controller but it is infinitely easier to find objects in my sky and slew the telescope to them with this setup. The display is huge compared to the Autostar’s display. Secondly, I am looking at an image that represents what the sky looks like where I am currently located, so by looking at the display I know if the object is above or below the horizon. Using the iPod’s compass feature, I can actually locate the part of the sky tof he object I am interested in viewing, and it is easy to see if there are obstructions that would prevent viewing. SkySafari 3 Plus provides information about the object as well as an image, so I have an idea of magnitude and have data I can read about the object, and can even see what it would look like using a larger telescope. It would be truly cool is there was an easy way to mount and align the iPod on the telescope, so that it could be set to show what was in that part of the sky the telescope is currently pointed toward!

A benefit of any piece of software to aid in observing the sky is its ability to help find objects of interest. Like most astronomy packages, SkySafari show solar system objects, many stars, and puts symbols on the screen where deep space objects are located. It also has two features that point out interesting objects in the current sky. First of all under the search menu there is a “Tonight’s Best” selection, which lists a number of items that should be viewable in your local night sky. You can go through the list and create an observing list of objects you would like to view, or just select one and go to it. The observing list(s) in SkySafari are accessed using the search menu.

The other feature requires an internet connection, it is Sky & Telescope’s SkyWeek feature. This weekly list provides a sky observing task or suggestion for each night of the week. Scroll through the weeks list, choose the correct day and you can read their suggestion. There is also a “View” button that when clicked, centers the object in SkySafari, so you can see where it is.

Using the iPod is nice, but the screen is small. The iPad has a larger screen, and I find this more effective when displaying the night sky. However, it is a bit more awkward to hold up to the sky, (but just only a bit more difficult). One issue I have had with connecting my MacBook Pro to the Autostar is tripping over the cable. The cables I have aren’t long enough to easily string around to protect from an accidental pull and unplug. One advantage of the iPod is that it is small enough to just hang on the telescope mount, so the cable stays out of the way, just as the Autostar cable does.

The SkyWire coupled with SkySafari and your i-device is a cool way to control your telescope’s computer. It is easy to set up and simple to use. I am certain any user will discover that using the data, display, and easy interface of an i-device will be far superior to what came with the telescope. If you have a telescope, and i-device, and want to make the connection, this is definitely the way to go.

Author’s note: In the next review, I discuss Southern Star’s SkyFi, a device that lets you wirelessly connect your telescope computer to your WiFi enabled computer.

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Comments
  1. Hi, great review, thanks!

    Can the software on the iOS device help with the initial alignment of the telescope, or do you still need to use the controller to do that?

    Cheers

    Josh

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