Celestron StarSense AutoAlign for Sky-Watcher - First Experiences

"First Light" or better, "Frustration Day"... | "Second Light" - Now It Worked! | User Profiles | Freedom Find Bye-Bye? | Handbox Cable | Preliminary Conclusions | Links

On this page, I collect my first experiences with my new Celestron StarSense AutoAlign for Sky-Watcher module (ordered on February 1, from Teleskop-Spezialisten, arrived on February 7, 2018), which I will call "StarSense module" for short in the following. After the acquisition of a GoTo controller, this module is the final step towards "complete astronomical incompetence." And here you will read how this goes together with modern technology...

 

"First Light" or better, "Frustration Day"...

One day after the arrival of the StarSense module, that is, on February 8,2018, the sky was clear in the afternoon and early evening, so that I took the opportunity to test the module on the Explorer 150PDS for the first time. What followed was a frustrating experience in which three things played their part: my own ignorance, errors and inaccuracies in the manuals, and finally clouds that prevented further testing.

Photos: StarSense on Explorer 150PDS and Star Discovery AZ GoTo mount

First of all, I had already been warned by my astronomy dealer, Mr. Kloß, who wrote:"An older version is described in the operating manual, but this only concerns the indication of the location. So just follow the hand controller's instructions." For me, this meant that I could entrust myself to the guidance of the hand controller. I quickly forgot the topic "enter location"...

After I had built everything up, it was still too bright, so that the automatic alignment failed twice. Then the mount did not want to move the telescope anymore. So I turned it off and on again - after that the telescope moved again. And soon it was dark enough so that the automatic alignment was successful.

Now the next step had to be taken, the calibration, which has to be carried out once during the first use, in order to align the StarSense camera and the telescope with each other. To do so, you have to go to the list of named stars, select one that is bright enough and let the telescope point to it. After that, you have to move the telescope with the direction keys so that the star is visible in the (long focal length) eyepiece. This did not work for the first star, because it was not bright enough to "stand out". That is why I switched to Aldebaran that, as I hoped, would be easier to find. Of course, it was not visible in the eyepiece at first, but after some "moving around" I managed to "catch" it. According to the manual, I should now press "ENTER" to change to a slower search speed for fine-tuning. But every time I pressed "ENTER", the telescope moved back to where it had initially "assumed" Aldebaran would be. After countless unsuccessful attempts, I just pressed the "ALIGN"-button instead. And then I was already in calibration mode, rough mode first, then fine tuning! In the heat of battle, however, I forgot or was not sure whether I had really pressed "ALIGN" or got there in some other way - and clouds prevented me from checking this. But the next day I was able to understand and confirm the whole thing without the need of a starry sky...

Now the telescope was calibrated and needed another auto align before it could ne used. According to the German manual (and as I found out in the meantime, older English manuals) the device has to be switched off and on before the alignment, according to the current English manual not. I think I left this step out, and the alignment was still successful. With great joy, I headed for the Pleiades M 45 - but the telescope was pointing quite off. Meanwhile, the Orion nebula M 42 became visible. So I started another attempt - unfortunately with the same result...

Now the clouds were coming quite fast from the west, a new auto alignment therefore failed, and I just quickly picked out M 42 "manually" to have observed something at all. The Trapezium was still visible, but not much of the nebula. Then I had to go inside to help prepare supper, but the sky was already covered with clouds anyway...

Inside, I had time to think about this matter, while cleaning the Ruccola salad, and I realized that although time information was requested, no location information was asked for. This might, of course, be the reason for the poor alignment. After supper, I took the mount with telescope and module into the kitchen, found the location entry only via the menu system (which is probably the only possibility nowadays), and there I found that Torrance in California, the Celestron headquarters, was set as location. In Germany, only Frankfurt and Munich were offered as the closest locations for me, but when reading the manual I found out what the little "ball" on the right wanted to tell me: I might press the "Celestron" key on the hand control for more input options - and this way, I was able to enter the coordinates of the village where I live.

Meanwhile the clouds had cleared again and I made a second attempt, now with correct location data. However, the clouds came back so quickly that the first auto alignment failed. What was left behind was a mischievous hobby astronomer...

After the Day of Frustration...

The next day I tried to answer my questions and solve my problems by reading manuals, surfing the Internet, watching YouTube videos (which I had already watched some time ago) and trying out the controls "live." Here are my results!

Entering the Location

I found a discussion thread in Cloudy Nights about the topic of entering the location, which an 88-year-old gentleman, who had just bought the StarSense module, had started. Just like me, he had only been offered a time setting dialog by the hand control. Since this thread started in 2014, it looks as if Celestron did not manage to update the online manuals in 4 years time... As so often, the discussion unfortunately went in all sorts of directions, but the real question was rarely dealt with. But in the end, the gentleman himself found the same way through the menu system as I did, and his approach was also generally confirmed (without the original question being answered...). He did not report whether he was successful with the alignment (as so often...) in the end, but at the beginning he probably only had bad weather. He wrote: "Surely you must be aware of the astronomers curse that when you buy something you get several weeks of rain and clouds free of charge that accompany the delivery." A sentence for hanging on the wall...

At YouTube, I first came across a video from Celestron describing the set-up of the StarSense module. In this video, the speaker just enters the time and the starts the Auto Alignment, just as the gentlemen and I experienced it. Maybe, the Celestron people never left Torrance, CA, and thus, it worked for them... Anyway, I also found in another video, that you have to enter the location via the menu only once, that is, when using the module for the first time. Unique, of course, only if you observe in one place only or stay close to it.

I do not know why the necessity to enter the location via the menu once (or several times) has not found its way into the Celestron video or the manual in its different versions. The fact that the feature is described elsewhere in the manual is no excuse for not mentioning it during setup.

Calibration

I had already written that (after a first auto alignment) a calibration is necessary for the first use, so that the StarSense module "knows" where the telescope looks. To do this, press the "STARS" key of the hand control, select "Named Stars" and choose a star from the list that is bright enough (the hand control shows the magnitude of the stars offered). I do not know how long the list is, I think it is best you take one from the beginning or the end of the alphabet, otherwise you will have to scroll endlessly... After pointing the telescope to this star, use the hand controller buttons to move it into the field of view of the (long focal length) eyepiece and then press "ENTER" to enter the fine tuning mode. The manual says:

5. Press ENTER, once the star is in the field of view of your eyepiece.
The hand control is now in fine centering mode, which has a slow slew speed.

My hand control does not at all think of going into this mode, but returns the telescope to the original position, where it believes the star is. This game can be repeated as often as you like, no matter what the manual states...

I was all the more astonished when I observed in the already mentioned Celestron video a completely different procedure than described in the manual. The speaker selected, as described above, a star, pointed the telescope to it, and then pressed "BACK" twice to get to the upper menu level. He then pressed the "MENU" key, selected the item "StarSense," which is not mentioned in the manual, and there he selected "Calibrate." And then, after he had pressed the "ENTER" button several times, the procedure went on as described in the manual, that is, first came the rough and then came the fine centering of the star in the eyepiece (but basically this was done in a completely different mode and was documented on the hand control display). And all this seems to be mentioned nowhere...

And now comes, in my opinion, the best! I once again tried to find out what happens when I press the "ALIGN" key after pointing to the star (and maybe already doing a little bit of moving around...). I get exactly at the location for which the Celestron speaker needed several keystrokes, namely to the "Calibrate" function. This is so ingenious that even the Celestron people do not seem to know about it...

Switching the StarSense Module off and on After Calibration

After calibration, the German user manual (and older English versions) requires the user to switch the module off and on again, while the new English version does not. What is correct? I have not been able to clarify this "empirically" so far, but I assume that it works without this step (I found similar contradictions between manual versions for the Sky-Watcher Virtuoso Mount...).

And what now?

Now I was waiting for another "clear night" to come, on which I would be able to check all this "live" and maybe could do some first observations with the StarSense module. The wait lasted until February 12, 2018...

 

"Second Light" - Now It Worked!

On February 12, 2018 there was finally a clear sky that lasted for a long time. That is why I put up my Explorer 150PDS telescope with the GoTo control and also mounted the StarSense module to try out my "ideas." I wanted to apply everything I had learned on the day of "frustration" and the day after, and developed my "personal" procedure for getting the StarSense module to work. It consisted of the following steps:

The next time, a simple "Auto Align" should be enough to get started...

After successfully completing this procedure, I checked the alignment accuracy on some targets (M 35, M 36, M 37, M 38, M 38, M 42, M 45, M 31, NGC 884/869). It needed improvement, but I did not want to spend any more time with aligning it, because I wanted to connect the Atik Infinity camera to the telescope. The accuracy proved sufficient for this purpose, because the targets (M 35, M 36, M 37, M 38, M 42) were still visible in a corner of the image so that centering them was not a problem.

If the accuracy is not good enough the next time, I will try to use additional targets to improve the pointing accuracy, or alternatively try the "HELP"function to improve the alignment.

All in all, it worked out for me the second time, but after a lot of effort. In my opinion, Celestron does neither the buyers nor itself a favor, if it delivers the StarSense module with an outdated and misleading (or also wrong...) manual. I probably would never have been able to get the module up and running without a lot of reading, trying, and searching the Internet. What a pity! But obviously, all criticism that can be found on the Internet and elsewhere bounces off Celestron and its German distributor Baader Planetarium, presumably because there is no competitor's product yet...

 

User Profiles

When I purchased the StarSense module, I hoped to be able to operate it on three different telescope tubes. This is theoretically possible, but every time I change the telescope tube, the module has to be recalibrated, which is quite arduous according to my astronomy dealer Mr. Kloß - he advised against this.

So I decided to use the StarSense module only with my Explorer 150PDS. At least, the module can, according to the manual, store and retrieve up to 10 different alignments, but the purpose of this feature is not evident to me, unless you have different fixed positions at which you operate the telescope. But my tripod stand always in somewhat different places or somewhere else, so what is the point of this feature? Maybe I will find out some day....

However, in a YouTube video and later in a discussion thread, I found that there are also user profiles available that seem to serve the exact purpose of using the module on different telescopes. This function is listed in the menu item "Hand Control," which, of course, it is not documented. And so far I was not able to find out anything more about this function. A seemingly "relevant" discussion thread in Stargazers Lounge, of course, quickly slipped into other directions, without providing much information...

 

Freedom Find Bye-Bye?

Many Sky-Watcher mounts can also be moved by hand without losing the alignment thanks to the "Freedom Find" technology. With the StarSense module, you obviously must not move anything with your hand (I tested the with pointing to stars). This is a pity, because the sensors provide the needed information, and it is actually the same company...

 

Handbox Cable

The twisted cable of the manual control unit is short and tight. And because it is so tight, it cannot be extended, even if there were some cable available. By the way, this bothers not only me, but also some YouTubers...

Add to this the "ingenious" Sky-Watcher holder for the handbox, which already annoyed me when operating the original Sky-Watcher handbox: Every second time, the hand control falls out of the holder (which is attached to one tripod leg), because it is so awkward to put it into the holder in the dark. By daylight, I can, admittedly, put it in without hassle...

So I try to lay the handbox somewhere... While I was able to lay the Sky-Watcher hand control on the ground (where it can easily get scratches...) because the cable was longer (it is now used for other purposes by the StarSense module...), the Celestron handbox is now dangling diagonally in the air and lies with its top on the ground. In this situation, it swings back and forth and creates disturbing trembling when I take pictures with the Atik-Infinity camera...

The only thing that might help here is a sufficiently large sock hanging from the tripod leg for holding the handbox...

 

Preliminary Conclusions

In progress

My preliminary conclusion, after my initial failure, is that Celestron does neither the buyers nor itself a favor by delivering the StarSense module with an outdated and misleading (or also wrong...) manual. I probably would never have been able to get the module up and running without a lot of try-and-error and searching the Internet. What a pity!

There are also some other details that get on my nerves. So one almost forgets that the StarSense module seems to do its job well when it finally works properly, and you do not have excessive demands on positioning accuracy. But for being able to judge the latter, I need much more experience with the device anyway.

 

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06.04.2018