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Sky Commander Review
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With such a long dry spell in 2016, I started pondering how to get the most bang for my buck when I finally did get out with the scope. Just think. For the past fifty years, I’ve been manually searching for and finding objects, up to around two-thousand at this point. However, as time has worn on, I thought about it. On the past few observing sessions, going back a couple of years, my yield slowly dwindled.
With a couple thousand objects under my belt, there were not only fewer of the bright objects left to find, but there were fewer with key stars nearby to orient on. That’s right. When I aimed either my finder (but mostly my green laser pointer) at a spot and started mowing the lawn, I’d have to guess more and more on the spot and dead-reckon more than I wanted to in a relatively blank area of sky.
When we’re talking about faint smudges that are often barely within the detection threshold, or ones that only jump out at you if you know exactly where to look, they’re just too easy to miss “mowing the lawn.”
Turns out, I spent too much time mowing the lawn, failing to find the object, and having to move on to the next one. My yield dropped significantly.
One day, I was obsessing over Obsession telescopes. This was one of my rare moments of weakness. To be real, my current 16-inch was about all I could either handle or afford. I noted the add-ons and one of them was the Argo-Navis digital setting circles. The unit cost way too much and at the time, it seemed like they weren’t designed for my LightBridge scope. I’ve since heard they do have kits for them…maybe. Because of the price, I never researched it one way or the other.
My friend Jay, one of my observing buddies, used the Star Commander, sold through AstroSystems in Colorado. When I checked their web site, I found not only was it close to half the price of the Argo-Navis, but they had a direct kit for the LightBridge. It had every feature I needed and then some. Even if the Argo-Navis had a few more bells and whistles, they were things I didn’t need when I did a side-by-side comparison (like interfacing with a computer in the field, which I’ll never do).
It took a while to convince the wife, but right after we got back from vacation, I ordered one. As it turns out, it came right in time for our main September outing to Cathedral Gorge State Park in East-Central Nevada. This semi-annual trip is one of our two major away-from-town sites, the other being Furnace Creek at Death Valley.
I ordered the package and told the guy at AstroSystems I needed a rush on it for the star party. He was very nice and once I gave him the size scope (he custom makes certain pieces), I received the package the weekend before the event.
Installation was a breeze.
I had to remove the pivot bolt from the base and replace it with the one supplied for the azimuth encoder. At the same time, I not only cleaned the lazy Susan bearing on the bottom of the table, but I also replaced the rubber feet, of which I only had one left. Not to get off subject, but I contacted Meade in an attempt to get replacements. Let me tell you, I hope if you have a Meade product, it never breaks. Let’s just say I found what I needed at a local hardware store.
I replaced the bolt and added the encoder, a 10K version, enough resolution for this purpose. Yeah, competing brands use 32K encoders, but in the end, this one is just fine.
As for the altitude encoder, this is where the custom part really came in. The side bearings are a different size, depending on the size of the telescope. The bracket that holds the encoder is centered and then double-sided taped on. From there, the encoder is mounted with the shaft facing out. A long insulated bolt is screwed into the side of the mount and a tangent arm attached with a fork in one end and a knurled lock screw that locks onto the encoder shaft. The issue is to make sure to remove it before lifting the OTA out of the cradle when breaking down the scope!
When I centered the bracket for the altitude encoder in place, I was worried about it being true. The end cuts, which fit the circle of the bearing perfectly, made it go on just right. With the tangent arm attached, I rotated the scope in place and there was no wobble with the shaft. Perfect!
This is the tangent arm stud.
This is the bracket, encoder and tangent arm installed. Note the cable, which has a telephone-like connector, is also installed.
As for the wiring, I routed it through the light shroud from the encoders up to right below the focuser, where I Velcroed the main unit on. I had a minor issue with the bottom encoder catching on the counterweights at the bottom of the OTA, so I added an open-ended plastic clamp (supplied) on the inner front wall of the base to slide the wire in to keep it away from the bottom of the OTA. Problem solved!
Here’s the open plastic wire clamp.
Here’s the azimuth cable installed in the clamp.
Here are the cables hooked up below, then routed inside the light shroud and ready to pull up top to the cage.
Here’s the Velcro strip on the upper cage.
The Sky Commander hooked up and the cables installed.
When it came time to operate it, I powered it up with the internal 9V battery and tried to set it up in the garage. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing and thought I had it at least functional.
I found out the error of my ways when I got to Cathedral Gorge.
In the meantime, when I read deeper into the instructions, I discovered that not only would the unit not function well under 50°, but using the Fastrack mode, which allows use of the 10K encoders and moving the scope faster without confusing the computer, it drains the battery. The solution is external 12V. Uh oh. I had no plans for an extra battery pack or running power to the scope! My friend Jay came to the rescue. The solution? A jump start power pack from Harbor Freight for $50 or so. All I had to do was figure out what to do with it. The solution turned out to be simple. I installed two hooks on the front brace of the base and mounted it with a bungee cord. Problem solved!
For the next short week, Monday to Thursday, I worried about what would happen when I put the unit to the test in the field. It was a good thing I always go to the Gorge a day early so I can get in more observing. I spent most of that Thursday ironing out the bugs in the Star Commander.
I had an opportunity to actually go through the alignment process on real stars and not just guess what I was doing in the garage. Since I did a quick Dobsonian setup at home, I missed one important step. So…when I set the date one day ahead (this is recommended so that the planets will be in place, due to Zulu time…don’t ask, I don’t know or care about the particulars), I first couldn’t get to step two, the alignment stars. Polaris was behind a cloud. Oh…kay. Now what? I stared at my green laser pointer and wondered if I’d be using it. Instead, I waited a bit and finally, Polaris peeked out from behind the high clouds drifting across the north.
Now, to find the second star, which had to be at least ninety degrees away. The unit used star names. Despite being at this passion for fifty years, I don’t know hardly any of the star names! Yeah, sue me. I don’t care about individual stars, except how I can use them to locate deep sky objects. I know star patterns, sometimes not even what constellation they are. It’s just not my interest. So…I had to look through the provided list for a star that I actually knew. When I checked my Tirion star atlas, though I thought it might at least give me the names of a few of the major ones, sorry…it didn’t name hardly any of them! Just great!
For the first test, I didn’t want to, but I settled on Vega, which was almost straight at the Zenith. Also, it wasn’t obscured by the few odd clouds still drifting over.
I bring this whole ritual of finding the stars for a reason. Once I had it aligned, I pulled an object from the database and tried to find it. Now I had another problem. I hit find, and it kept changing the object to another one. Aaagh! Back to the instruction book. When I finally figured out how to get it into find mode, I had another problem. It was also in random search mode as well. In this mode, as the scope moves, it identifies whichever object moves through the field. This is a mode you want if you’re just aiming and letting the unit do all the work. Turns out, my punching in objects was ineffective. Since it was in random find mode, it would automatically jump to whatever object the scope was aiming at. Or, so I thought.
Now, once I figured out how to shut the random mode off, (by the way, I never actually looked to see if I was on any of those objects), I finally put the unit in regular search mode. I plugged in M22, which was in the right area of the sky with no clouds. It was almost dark enough to see it with the naked eye. I moved the scope and followed the numbers. Uh oh, the scope moved in the wrong direction. Well, it moved sort of toward M22, but it was at the wrong spot. I re-read the initial setup instructions. It turns out for my model scope, I had to reverse the direction of the altitude encoder. I re-entered the entire initial setup and made sure all the bells and whistles were set the way I really wanted them. Fast track was on, random find (it’s actually called something else) was off, the encoders were the right direction, so on and so forth.
Now, I had to go through the alignment ritual all over again. Guess what? Polaris was gone again. Now, I had to sit tight and wait for the band of clouds to dissipate. In the meantime, one of my observing buddies and I watched a spectacular lightning storm to the southeast. Finally, not only did Polaris show again, but Antares, one of the stars I actually knew, showed way to the south, and a minimum of 10° up from the horizon. Woohoo!
Despite what others have said about unnecessary precision, I used a 12mm Orthoscopic to align both stars. I used it not only because of the magnification but because of the narrow, relative soda-straw field of view (45°). I figured if I centered both stars in that narrow field, I should have the thing pretty close. Turns out, my method works pretty well and I still use it now.
Once I had it aligned and with the correct parameters, wow! That thing worked fantastic!
I started finding object after object. They were never perfectly centered, or rarely, but with my 18mm 82° EP, they were always well within the 70° distortion-free zone. I learned to center the object, then look at the offset and go for that on subsequent objects. After a little practice, it worked like a champ, the objects close enough to center.
That first night, I found two Palomars and several open clusters which were custom objects I manually entered back home, plus some Herschels from the already installed database.
Then a funny thing happened. The battery went dead. Huh? I had a fully charged 12V jump start battery. There’s no way it could’ve drained so fast. Then I wondered if the power cord was bad. When I checked the power, it was in 9V mode. Turns out, the entire night it was never even plugged in to the 12V unit, even though the cable was attached.
By then, I’d had enough. It was around midnight, I’d at least found a few objects, and the next morning I’d either get some more 9V batteries or maybe a new power cord for the 12V unit, if need be. I was in no mood to troubleshoot things in the dark.
The next morning, I pulled the fully charged battery pack into the trailer and studied it, the cord and the Sky Commander. Sure enough, the Sky Commander 9V battery was almost dead. When I plugged the 12V unit into it, I got nothing. The power cable was brand new from Radio Shack and should’ve been good. I almost drove into nearby Caliente to look for another power cable but studied the one I had. Radio Shack sells all their cables with adapters. You buy a generic cable and get an adapter depending on what you’re plugging it into. When I unplugged the adapter, I noticed it had a polarity on it. I felt like such an idiot! I looked carefully at the markings, plugged it in right and then into the Sky Commander and wham! 12V power. As a precaution, I went into Pioche on a store run for something else, and grabbed a couple of 9V batteries just in case.
Between the next two nights, I found 70 objects, including Pluto for the first time confirmed since sometime in the 70’s. Back then, I can’t say for sure I actually saw it. The unit worked like a dream! The only other issue I had wasn’t with the unit but the battery pack. The cigarette lighter adapter plug has a green LED on it to let you know it’s plugged in and hot. Well…that little LED was pretty bright! That first good night, Friday, I ended up putting four layers of masking tape on it. It was still very bright so I rolled the plug until it faced down and at least it didn’t light up the whole front of the telescope!
Here it is lit up now, even through four layers of tape.
The Sky Commander is an awesome tool. Because I had it, I was able to look for faint fuzzies, some in the mag. 15 range that I’d never find with the green laser and hunting and pecking method. There were no nearby stars to orient with. The two Palomars I found I’ve been trying to spot for several years. I never would’ve spotted Pluto without it either.
I’m very satisfied with this unit. Now that I know what I’m doing, the setup is very simple and using it’s a dream. At my last dark sky observing session, I’d call out the object from my Megastar pre-printed maps and my 11 year old grandson would dial it in and find it for me.
The unit has a capacity of 30,000 objects. It currently comes loaded with catalogs including Abel Planetaries (82), ARP Galaxies (338), Bayer Stars (1,564), Double Stars (600 select), Hickson (100), Messier, Named Deep Sky Objects (135), Named Stars (142), NGC (7,840), UGC (12,921), Herschel 400, IC (5,250), Barnard (343), Berkley (86), Collinder (471), Trumpler (34), Planets (8) and it allows for 59 user-defined miscellaneous objects.
I’ve filled up the 59 user-defined objects with Palomars and open clusters. As I knock them off, I’m going to erase them and add more. I must note that entering the coordinates is a bit odd. You only enter the major coordinates and not seconds per se. Only so many digits are allowed, but that’s enough to get you in the ballpark, especially with current wide-field eyepieces, and within their 70° zone.
Also, when I was at Radio Shack, I purchased a RS-232 to USB adapter cable so I could plug the unit into my computer for software updates. Well…the cable/computer doesn’t recognize the Sky Commander. It could be several different issues but so far, I haven’t taken the time to figure out what’s wrong yet. That’s something to keep in mind if you purchase one.
Folks, I do NOT recommend one of these for a beginner. Why? The simple reason is that I’ve been doing this 50 years and I know the sky. I know what to do if this system goes on the blink. For a newbie, if the system fails, they’ll have a useless and very expensive piece of gear. They’re going to have to pack up their toys and go home because they won’t be able to find anything. If you’re experienced at finding objects, or are maybe disabled and need this kind of assistance, it’s an outstanding unit that’s simple to set up and very easy to use.
For the experienced observer or the disabled, I highly recommend it.
- Carol L, jrbarnett, okiestarman56 and 4 others like this