As we know, the iPad has several amazing apps which help you stay productive, have fun and do a variety of other things. One of the things I have been slightly underwhelmed by is third party hardware support. I’m not talking about simple stuff like bluetooth keyboards, rather hardware that attaches your iPad to other devices.
Celestron have a long and distinguished history manufacturing some of the best telescopes on the market and they have released a piece of hardware called SkyQ, which is essentially a wifi dongle that you can plug into your Celestron ‘goto’ compatible telescope and control it with an app on the iPad. For the uninitiated a ‘goto’ telescope is basically a computer controlled telescope that once aligned, will point automatically to any object in the sky. It’s great for lazy people like me who don’t have the time or brain power to learn about the night sky in the traditional way.
The idea behind the SkyQ dongle is it creates a local wifi network and allows you to connect your iPad to it to use a free app called SkyPortal to control the telescope. SkyPortal is basically planetarium app (that can be used without having a telescope and the SkyQ device) which has a huge database of objects and information on each of them. Some of the more well known objects also have an audio narration. For those of you in the know, Celestron have wisely got a company called Simulation Curriculum who make an up outstanding app called Sky Safari, to help them build their new SkyPortal app.
Once you have connected the iPad to the SkyQ wifi dongle via the SkyPortal app you are good to go. You can use the built in compass in the app to find an object, or swipe around the planetarium to find something, press on it, find out some information about it and direct the telescope to it, all via the iPad app. I took my iPad and the SkyQ dongle to a dark site in deepest darkest rural North Bedfordshire earlier this week and the setup performed really well. Once connected to the scope, a target appears in the SkyPortal app showing exactly where the telescope is pointing. Not only is the whole setup really quite cool, but it is also a huge improvement over the original way to control the telescope which is via a built in handset with two lines of LCD display. It’s one of those things that demonstrates why the iPad is so useful in that it improves a piece of hardware which existed before the iPad was even invented.
It’s not all peaches and cream though. There are some issues with SkyPortal and SkyQ when you connect them together in a more urban area, my back garden for example. Once aligned and connected to the scope the SkyQ dongle and SkyPortal app has latency issues. There can be up to a 10 second delay between pressing a command in the SkyPortal app and it happening on the telescope. This issue makes the setup unusable, especially when you are trying to move the scope manually during alignment. I’ve contacted Celestron support about this, and to be fair they have been extremely responsive. They have said that the SkyQ dongle and SkyPortal app has issues with interference with other wifi networks and cell phones, which are pretty plentiful in my back garden. They have assured me that an update is on the way to the SkyPortal app to deal with this situation, but if you only observe in urban areas I would hold off adding the SkyQ device to your astronomical hardware collection until the fix is out. As a footnote to all of this, Celestron has another app called SkyQ currently in the App Store. This costs $4.99, but Celestron themselves has said the app is broken. It has a slew of 1 star reviews and hasn’t been updated since September 2013. It does make me think why Celestron still has this app in the App Store as it could be confusing for customers, especially since they are still charging money for it when it is well out of date.
The SkyQ and SkyPortal app remind me of when I tried the iRig a couple of years back. It’s a super cool and great idea when it works, but when it doesn’t it’s a bit of a let down. The SkyQ device is rather expensive and I feel that I’ve been left being a beta tester rather than having a proper polished product in my hands. I really hope that Celestron can sort this out as getting all of my neighbours to turn off their wifi and cell phones when I am star gazing in my back garden isn’t exactly a suitable option.
The SkyPortal app is available here in the App Store for free.
The SkyQ dongle is available from various suppliers for around $100.