Links to other parts in this series:
Introduction and Overview
Since I purchased my Celestron NexStar 6SE a few years ago, I’ve enjoyed dorking around with the different ways I can drive the thing with a computer of one sort or another. Of course, you can use the NexStar SE just fine with only the hand controller, but where’s the fun in that? Truthfully, while it’s certainly usable, the hand controller’s interface is a bit on the clunky side–especially when wading through its menus to find some DSO to which you’d like to slew. I much prefer to be able to use a planetarium app like Stellarium or SkySafari to find and slew to objects of interest.
As I investigated the possibilities, I learned that there are quite a few different ways you can control your NexStar SE with a computer. For starters, the connection between your scope and the computer can be wired (through a serial or USB port), WiFi, or even Bluetooth. Then, once the connection is established, you have quite a few apps from which to choose to do the actual controlling. All of the possible configurations of connection and control have their positives and negatives, and which one might work best for someone depends largely on their own personal preferences.
I’ve had cause to revisit this topic anew because I recently purchased a new Windows 10 laptop (an Acer Aspire E 15 that I really like) and have spent considerable time and effort getting it set up and configured the way I like. It’s not exclusively for use with my telescope–far from it, it’s my main PC–but I certainly intend to use it for observing activities. As I’ve been getting the thing set up, I’ve also managed to learn a couple new things along the way. My intent is to share that information with you here in a series of blog posts. It’s certainly true that you can find a lot of this information elsewhere, but it tends to be scattered about in various forum posts and websites, so I thought that consolidating the information into a single location would be helpful. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention the mother of all NexStar websites: Michael Swanson’s NexStarSite.com. Michael is also the author of The NexStar User’s Guide II, pretty-much the authoritative source for all things NexStar (especially for the NexStar SE). Michael’s books and website cover all varieties of NexStar telescopes, old and new. Because of all the variations in telescopes, though, and the sheer volume of information, it can sometimes be challenging to find the right piece of information for your particular model. So I thought I’d distill it down and offer a primer on just the NexStar SE and only controlling it by computer.
Why Computer Control?
While the hand controller that comes with the NexStar SE is perfectly adequate for observing, its user interface is a bit on the clunky side–necessarily so because of the limited size of the display and the button that have multiple functions depending on context. Additionally, while the hand controller has a decent collection of objects in its built-in catalog, it’s not always so easy to find those objects in the catalog. If your object of interest isn’t in the catalog, you must enter its coordinates in order to slew the telescope to the object.
You can certainly argue that these are merely minor drawbacks, and I’d be forced to agree. But the capabilities and convenience of the hand controller pale in comparison of those obtained by pairing the scope with a good planetarium app. Being able to see a visual representation of the sky and simply click on an object to slew the telescope is a pleasing experience. The search capabilities are generally superior, as are the extensive object catalogs and the amount of data available about each object.
There’s a bit of a price to pay, though, for computer control. It takes extra hardware and software, and that could mean a little extra money out of your pocket (depending on your choices). Computer control also takes more time and effort to set up–especially if you don’t have a permanent observatory-like setup and have to set it up for each observing session (like me). So, it’s all a tradeoff.
Having recently joined the RV generation, my wife and I spend quite a few weekends camping with friends during the warmer months–sometimes in campgrounds with full amenities, and sometimes out in the boondocks completely off the grid. When we’re traveling like that, I like to bring the NexStar along with me and share the night sky with friends, but still keep things simple. Using the telescope with a wireless connection to my Android tablet allows me to use the SkySafari app to control the telescope and minimize the time I spend finding the next target in the hand controller.
Other times, I might be more interested in a focused observing session, maybe even with some casual imaging. I have an old Canon EOS Digital Rebel (350D) DSLR that I’ve been experimenting with, and I like to control it via USB with my laptop. So it makes sense to use the same laptop to control the telescope, too. So the best setup for computer control can depend on your usage.
In this series of posts I’m going to try to cover a range of options:
- wired connection between telescope and laptop
- WiFi connection between telescope and tablet
- Bluetooth connection between telescope and tablet
- WiFi connection between telescope and laptop
- Bluetooth connection between telescope and laptop
The hardware and software that I use for myself include the Celestron NexStar 6SE telescope with its included serial cable, a USB-to-serial adapter, a Celestron SkyPortal WiFi adapter, a homebrew serial-to-Bluetooth adapter, a Google Nexus 7 (2nd gen) Android tablet running the SkySafari app, and my Acer laptop running the Celestron SkyQ Link PC and NexRemote applications along with the Stellarium planetarium software. It sounds complicated, but I’ll walk you through it–it’s not as hard as it sounds.
In part 2 of this series, I cover the simplest implementation–a wired connection from your telescope to your PC.