January 14. 2012 – SkyFi Wireless Telescope Control

Posted: January 14, 2012 by tedbade in Academia, Hardware Reviews, Space Exploration
Tags: , , ,

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Product: SkyFi Wifi to Serial Adapter
Vendor: Southern Stars (http://www.southernstars.com/index.html)
Price: $149.95

Introduction

SkyFi is another fine product from Southern Stars, who sell SkySafari software for mobile devices and Mac computers, as well as other telescope-related hardware products. SkyFi uses WiFi to connect the RS232 control data flow from a telescope controller to an device (iPod/Phone/Pad apps as well as computer applications).

Setup

Figure 1 - SkyFi

Connecting the SkyFi to your telescope controller isn’t difficult. The package includes a couple of adaptors which will work with the mosre common telescope setups. The connection on the SkyFi itself is an RJ11 telephone jack. You can make a cable that connects the SkyFi directly to your telescope controller, use the included adaptors, or purchase a cable specifically for your computer from Southern Stars. Once connected to the telescope controller, you turn it on and it creates a wireless network.Your remote device needs to be connected to this network and also needs to be running software that can send and receive telescope control and data using the TCP IP. The connection scheme is the same as the one in the previous article. The Southern Stars web site has a nice explanation and pin out of the cables you need, in case you want to make one.

The SkyFi device itself is a bit larger then a cell phone. It is powered by 4 double-A batteries and can accept a power brick as well (6 to 12 VDC). There is no on/off switch, but there is a switch that selects either external or internal voltage source. Switching to external voltage source disconnects the internal batteries. (Which acts like a switch). A piece of velcro can be used to attach the SkyFi to the telescope mount, out of the way of motion. It is very light and once running, you won’t need to adjust it at all.

Once on, the SkyFi makes a wifi hotspot available. Firmware on the device controls the IP address and security. There is a standard IP address which is printed on the SkyFi, but you can change this and security settings if needed. I didn’t bother changing the default settings, as they worked well. I could find no fault with the defaults!

Using the Product

Before you begin using the SkyFi, you need to be sure that the telescope control software you use can communicate to the telescope using TCP IP. I Didn’t know some programs do not support TCP IP. On my MacBook, I have Voyager 4.5 and a copy of Sky Safari Beta that will work. The Starry Night Pro Plus that I like using doesn’t do TCP connections to telescopes. The people at Starry Night were unaware of a solution that would work on the Macintosh. For Windows users there are a couple of shareware applications that create a virtual com port that can be tied to the TCP connection, so I imagine this would work with a Window based machine and Starry Night or any other non-TCP controller application.

Figure 2 - SkyFi with a Telescope

If you are controlling with your i-device, you will need the Southern Stars Sky Safari package. (I am unaware of any other astronomy app that controls a telescope). We looked at these Apps a bit in the last article. In the App’s settings, you choose to use TCP IP to connect to the telescope controller. The default address is the same as the default on the SkyFi. (No surprise there!) Select to control the telescope and you are in control using your iPod/iPad/iPhone.

Working with the Voyager software, I had no issues controlling my telescope computer at all. Commands were instant as was feed back. The only issue I had was with me forgetting to choose the SkiFi network rather then my own home wireless network. You also need to make sure the controller software has the same TCP address that the SkyFi has. In Voyager 4.5, there is a box to enter this address. The default address is printed on the SkyFi device, which is another good reason for keeping to the defaults. However, if you need to change it, you can always re-label the back of the unit.

When I first read about the SkyFi, I thought that it was a wireless device and that it would log onto the local wireless network and make the telescope available on that network. It doesn’t do that. Rather then logging onto an existing network, it creates one of it’s own. So I couldn’t use this device to control my telescope with my desktop computer, since it doesn’t have a WiFi card. Nor would one be able to use it to allow access to the telescope from a remote site. You need to be in range of the SkyFi’s wireless netwrok to connect.

Figure 3 - VSP3 Screen

Since the computer you are controlling the telescope with is connected to the SkyFi network, it won’t be connected to your regular one. While observing I usually listen to Internet radio and I will often pop onto some internet site to inspect images and information about the object I am seeking. So I don’t get to listen to the Internet Radio, but I can still do my research by logging back onto my home network, do the research, then re-connect to the SkyFi. Luckily, this isn’t a big issue. Once the telescope is aimed at an object, the onboard controller takes care of compensating for the movement of the earth. Once connected back to the SkyFi, the data stream identifies the slightly changed location and all is well. It is just an added step in the process.

Conclusion

The biggest issue I had with the SkyFi is that it doesn’t come as a package. You buy the SkyFi and then need to find some compatible software. If the software you already purchased isn’t compatible, then you need to consider this as part of the purchase cost. It would be a whole lot nicer if the SkyFi came packaged with either SkySafari or Voyager. However, if you are into astronomy, you probably already have some package that will work with the SkyFi.

Much to my chagrin, I had expected that using the SkyFi would remedy the tangle of cables that I “need” to deal with when observing. However, I found that I still need to bring an extension cord to power the AutoStar (or use the battery adaptor). Since I had the power cord there, I went ahead and plugged in my MacBook Pro, so I still had the extension cord cable and the power supply cord to the MacBook. Thus, the tripping issue wasn’t really resolved. I suppose I could run the Scope on battery and bring the extension cable to the MacBook Pro, but that would cost me a lot in the battery budget.

As far as distance, the SkyFi does pretty well. I walked around the yard with my MacBook and had to get pretty far away to loose the connection. I think I was able to move slightly father then the expected 100 feet from the device. I was also able to put the MacBook on my dining room table and still control the telescope in the yard. I can see this as a real advantage in the winter as it would give me a chance to warm up between observations.

SkyFi is available through the Southern Star’s web site as well as many other astronomy stores. Southern Star also sells Sky Safari for MacOS X in three flavors, the Plus and Pro versions includes telescope controls ($20 and $50 respectively). The version for the iPod/Phone/Pad can be purchased through iTunes store again, you will need either the Plus or Pro version to control the telescope. In the next installment of this series, I will look specifically at the Sky Safari applications for the Macintosh.

Recommendation

Overall, the SkyFi works very well. If you are looking for a wireless connection to your telescope, this is the device you want. I don’t think there are many other options. I had no issues controlling my telescope using the device. If you have an iDevice and want to control your telescope, this is again a terrific solution.

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Comments
  1. Kite says:

    Thank you a Really informative review going to use mine with the skywatcher hawk 1145 but will it work in some way with my Meade etx 80 as someone said I may need to swap the handset to a 497 as the 494 doesn’t have theconnection

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