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AstroDevices Nexus WiFi DSC, Half Hitch and iPad

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#1 Doug D.

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Posted 18 January 2012 - 10:17 PM

I have been waiting quite some time for a turnkey solution that would enable me to use my Half Hitch II with DSCs wirelessly with an iPad/iPhone. The Australian company Astro Devices just this week released a new device called the "Nexus" that makes this possible (see also announcement from Serge Antonov from AstroDevices in the vendor's announcements forum on CN). I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one a couple of weeks ago - I was aware it was in the works more than a year ago and have been pestering Serge for updates every now and then. When he contacted me to let me know it was ready to be released I jumped at the chance to order one.

The weather hasn't cooperated very much since obtaining the unit but I have had a chance to hook it up to my 4096 TIC encoders on the Half Hitch II, do a 2 star alignment using SkySafari+ on both my iPhone and iPad, and hunt for some targets to test it out. I need to spend more time with it to confirm the accuracy at higher powers but so far, I'm pretty excited about this little gadget.

The Nexus is about the size of a Skycommander XP-4, weighs even less and fits pretty nicely on the fold out tray of the Half Hitch. The encoder cable plugs into the unit and after pairing wirelessly (pretty simple procedure) with the iPad, you start SkySafari and connect using the "Telescope" setting built into SkySafari. This differs from SkyFi, as I understand it, which can be made to work with a Push To scope in conjunction with an XP-4. The Nexus avoids the "middle man" so to speak, and passes encoder settings direct to the iPad, Mac, PC Android, etc. - although I am personally only interested in it as an iPhone/iPad solution. I guess it is fair to say the Nexus is more like a wireless version of the Dave Ek DIY box (although a Bluetooth mod has also been described).

For me, it is a real pleasure to use that big iPad screen to find objects and track my scope movements as I push the scope around on the Half Hitch. It offers a compact, fairly simple grab and go solution. The Nexus has a number of other features (e.g., serial to WiFi, simple camera shutter trigger, firmware update via USB stick) most of which I've yet to try.

The one issue so far, which Serge warned me about right away is that the Nexus drains a 9V alkaline battery pretty quickly when using encoders and WiFi. The Nexus has a connection for an external 9-25V DC battery. I had a Tekkeon Li-Poly battery lying around which I decided to hook-up and this is turning out to be a great solution (compact, high capacity, good cold weather performance).

The attached image is just to show the Nexus and give you an idea of the hook-up with the Half Hitch. The Tekkeon battery is larger than the Nexus and I've got it attached with Velcro to the underside of the HH fold out tray. The Nexus is communicating with the iPad and SkySafari with the cursor showing the scope "position" (not aligned to sky indoors obviously). Pushing the scope around moves the virtual sky around the fixed scope cursor or other way around depending on how you set it.

The iPad is mounted in a Delkin "Gecko" iPad1 accessory holder and attached to a Manfrotto "Variable Friction Magic Arm" held by a "Super Clamp" (attached to tripod leg). It is very easy to adjust the position of the iPad with this set-up. I will continue to put the Nexus and iPad through their paces in coming days and weeks and I'll update with any new thoughts as I go along but I'm pretty confident this is going to be a sweet set-up for anyone wanting to combine push-to with the great GUI (and extensive database) that the iPad and SkySafari plus (or Pro) can provide.

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#2 Ricky

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Posted 18 January 2012 - 10:22 PM

Thats a real good looking setup!

#3 Emanuele

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Posted 18 January 2012 - 10:37 PM

Wonderful! I've been looking at a solution like this for a while and was not aware of the Nexus device!

#4 orlyandico

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Posted 18 January 2012 - 11:00 PM

Hmm. Two hundred bucks!

I made my own in a couple days for the cost of an Arduino and a Bluetooth dongle. Total price.. $70. Maybe I should get into business for myself.. :)

#5 Doug D.

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Posted 18 January 2012 - 11:11 PM

May be - and that is a great way to save some bucks. But for someone such as myself with meager electronic skills and even less time, I'm ok with maybe paying ~twice as much to get a Nexus and the support that goes with it. The Nexus is also WiFi and not bluetooth, which may or may not be important to you.

just curious - are you able to use your Arduino and BT dongle to communicate with an iOS running something like SkySafari?

#6 swsantos

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 12:58 AM

Will it work with an Android tablet with Sky Safari for Android?

#7 orlyandico

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 01:19 AM

SkySafari for iPad / iPod cannot talk over Bluetooth, this is documented on the Southern Stars web site. I actually use a SkyWire with my iPad (another fifty bucks).

Android tablets with Sky Safari can talk over Bluetooth to devices such as my DIY Arduino thing. Or to the Dave Ek bluetooth kit, which should be a better choice for Android users. 1/2 the cost of this thing, too.

#8 BWAZ

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 01:59 AM

Thanks for the timely review! I was thinking of the Nexus the other day and this thread got my attention immediately. Cutting off the "middle man" is the real deal here. Though I do enjoy the SkyFi a lot which relies on the middle man to communicate with the mount/encoders.

#9 orlyandico

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 02:02 AM

the SkyFi / SkyWire can talk directly to a "decoder box" like Dave Ek's box or Mike Fulbright's Arduino DSC (on which mine is based).

the SkyFi can also talk to a Tangent Instruments box, but is just using it as an encoder-reader (SkySafari has a built-in 2-star align routine). I suspect the Nexus is the same - it just reads the encoders and presents the raw ticks to SkySafari).

#10 Doug D.

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 05:51 AM

I suspect the Nexus is the same - it just reads the encoders and presents the raw ticks to SkySafari).


That is my understanding as well and an important distinction - unlike SkyFi it doesn't require connection to a separate decoder box. However, if you check the specs more closely, the Nexus is capable of doing even more. For example, it has built in 2-star alignment for use with ServoCat and transmits actual celestial coordinates to the ServoCat and planetarium software. I can't speak to how that works simply because I am interested (for now at least) in using simply to transmit push to encoder coordinates to SkySafari on the iPad.

#11 EFT

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Posted 19 January 2012 - 10:20 AM

I'm looking forward to testing one out in the next couple of weeks and hope to be comparing a couple different designs.

#12 tjay

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 11:55 AM

I'm interested in how well it works as a serial adapter over WiFi. WiFi control of my mount and my DSLR shutter would be kind of neat.

#13 Markovich

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 01:39 PM

OK, I must admit to being a bit confused about it. Does it offer similar functionality to SkyFi, meaning that it simply passes through the encoder readouts to your astro application ( like Sky Safari,etc) ?

#14 astrodevices

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 10:25 PM

Hello Mark,

SkyFi only serves as a WiFi to RS232 adapter (+ WiFi to USB serial adapter in the latest model), it does not support the encoders' readout. You need another device that reads the encoders...

Nexus provides the encoders' readout and also two WiFi to RS232 adapters (all are independent) as well as WiFi to USB serial (later this year through the firmware upgrade). In case of using Nexus with ServoCAT only one of the RS232 ports is available as a WiFi to RS232 adapter.

For a simple wireless DSC mode of operation Nexus is equivalent to: SkyFi + Tangent Instruments Box.

Best Regards,
Serge.

#15 Markovich

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 10:54 PM

Ah ok, that's clear. VERY interesting...since I've been waitng for a USB SkyFi for a couple of months now. Tempted to cancel and order yours for my Obsession and iPad.

#16 Doug D.

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 11:06 AM

The weather is just not helping out here so while I've been waiting to actually use my Nexus some more under a clear dark sky, I've been playing around with placement of the iPad for maximal utility with both my scope and mount. In the original post, I showed how the iPad could be mounted to a tripod leg using a Manfrotto "magic friction arm". This is great but obviously doesn't move with the scope in the direction of each target. Mounting an iPhone is pretty trivial but the iPad poses some challenges. I finally settled on a position that gets the iPad close to the center of gravity while at in an ideal spot for real time pointing (i.e., as a "finder" with the Nexus) and viewing. The Nexus and Tekkeon battery are serviceable on the HH fold out tray and I have no plans to fine tune their placement further.

The Traveler and binoviewer (w/24 pans) are really what I'd like to use for this set-up although it is pushing both my idea of "grab and go" and the limits of the Half Hitch Mk II. The scope rides very nicely throughout its altitude while at its focus point w/BV & pans, and holds position where I leave it from basically horizon to zenith using the extension arm and weights as shown. However, at or near zenith I can't then adjust the scope downward using my alt axis slo mo knob - I think the inertial mass is just too great for the friction bearing surface and it slips when knob is turned (but I'm still working on it). A HH III or super HH would probably be a better fit with this configuration - although cyclops mode with 2" diagonal instead of heavy BV, would also be a better match (as I've confirmed in past without an iPad mounted). But aside from a few degrees near zenith (where "nudging" works fine by the way), the slo mo alt control still drives the scope through most of its range.

In any event, the set-up is very sensitive to iPad placement as you can imagine but this position works pretty nicely (iPad is rigged to the Traveler accessory bar/clamp with a small ball head, clamp and compatible rail, and a few bits of other hardware I have lying around from my camera gear). I've gotten some e-mails about ideas for mounting so I thought some of you might enjoy seeing this. Ahhh, to now try it out for real.......

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#17 Doug D.

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Posted 22 January 2012 - 11:13 AM

and a side view......

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#18 7331Peg

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Posted 23 January 2012 - 01:46 AM

Doug, any feel yet for how well the Ipad handles the cold weather and the dampness? I just got one a couple of months ago, but have hesitated to take it outside.


John :refractor:

#19 Doug D.

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Posted 23 January 2012 - 08:11 AM

That is a great question John - my longest observing session so far was under an hour and the temp was in the 40's (f) as I recall. As soon as things clear up, I can get a better idea. As for dampness - I wouldn't want to get it wet but I wouldn't expect a little dew or high humidity to be much of an issue. But I don't want to imply I'm expert on the issue.

#20 Doug D.

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 10:29 AM

Finally - last night was decent enough to get out and observe for a couple of hours. The temperature hovered in the mid to upper 40's while I observed.

On the plus side, I am happy to report that I love the way the Nexus works with the iPad to transmit encoder positions to SkySafari. The 2 star alignment is a piece of cake especially in conjunction with my GLP. I used just the 24 Pans in the BV (with a 1.25X Glasspath compensator to give me the needed in-focus) so the wide FOV ensured my targets were centered repeatably without much difficulty (I still plan to test accuracy at much higher mags). It is also great to have the iPad located just off to the side of the scope. I just felt the whole experience of using SkySafari this way was a pleasure - it really is a nice app and the Nexus and iPad placement lets you take full advantage of it.

In the approximately two hours I was out there moving the scope from target to target the iPad went from a 100% charge to ~47%. This is a bigger draw down than I would have anticipated for that time period. How much of it had to do with the cool weather and/or WiFi communication, I have no idea. But I am concerned that freezing temperatures could be an issue. On the other hand, the Tekkeon powering the Nexus didn't budge much based on the green LED power charge monitor during this time. In addition, I never lost connection with the Nexus and there were very few instances of on screen lag while pushing to targets.

There is one big potential negative, however, that has nothing to do with the Nexus or SkySafari itself - the iPad really impacts your night vision. Even with the red (night) setting and cutting the screen brightness down, the light is too bright. Moreover, when turning down the brightness from within SkySafari, the screen seems to wash out and lose a lot of contrast making it harder to see (i.e., it wasn't simply reduced brightness but loss of contrast).

The iPad brightness issue would be a problem for a serious night of sustained viewing of dimmer objects (maybe an iPhone would be better in this regard?). But on the other hand, I had my 11 year old daughter out there with me last night and she was loving it! In nights past she would lose interest after a half hour or so but last night she just took control of the scope and was moving from target to target, asking me questions about this and that and hitting the "info" icon on the iPad to get more information on the fly. We both had a blast - especially me to see her reaction to a very intuitive interface and a beautiful sky. Not to sound over the top, but it did seem like she was appreciating this whole "get out under the stars with Dad" thing a bit differently than before. I hope it lasts!

So the bottom line is that I'm still quite enthusiastic about this combination of DSCs with a grab and go Alt/Az mount and scope - even with the iPad caveat. The potential here for casual viewing and some outreach is outstanding.

#21 rmollise

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 11:30 AM

Several outfits, including AstroGizmos, make red filters for the iPad/Pod/Phone that fix the night vision problem but still allow the touch screen to work...

#22 Doug D.

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 11:55 AM

I wondered about that Rod but I was concerned about losing touch sensitivity. I will definitely check it out, thanks for the suggestion.

#23 BWAZ

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Posted 25 January 2012 - 01:39 PM

My Nexus is on the way and thanks for the encouraging report!

#24 Tamiji Homma

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Posted 26 January 2012 - 01:56 PM

My Nexus is on the way and thanks for the encouraging report!


Yup. Thanks Doug, for this thread. I think mine is coming today according to EMS tracking.

I'll have similar system (light-weight tripod/HH) to Doug for my binoculars.
Looking forward to it.

Tammy

#25 Doug D.

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Posted 26 January 2012 - 02:01 PM

It will be great to hear how it goes for both of you. And I'm placing my Astrogizmos red film order today!

Serge at AstroDevices has also been really responsive to my questions regarding the Nexus.






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