On a clear day, as the song goes, you can see forever. And on a clear night, you can see the heavens! But unless you're an astronomer or a clued-in hobbyist, you probably can't identify 99% of what you see or find particular skyward objects. That's where Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetariumcomes in.
This device does two things well and promises to learn more tricks in he future. First, it identifies and describes objects in the sky and provides clear, interesting information about them. Second, it precisely locates heavenly objects for you.
The deceptively small case includes a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver and sophisticated direction-sensing instruments, so it knows where you are, what's visible in your sky (assuming a clear night-sky viewing, of course), and where you're looking.
The Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium makes a good initial impression. But even with its intuitive operation, it's worth reading the Quick-Start Guide. Though it's tempting to turn it on outside as directed (to catch GPS signals), the first power-on is best done indoors for familiarization with operation; also take this opportunity to use demo mode to learn basic functions.
CD-based demonstrations aren't bad but are a bit brief. The device uses a pleasant female voice to read text, including six short introductory segments. I would have enjoyed viewing graphics with the spoken info but the screen is text-only.
It's a well-designed and hands-friendly device with simple controls, an easy to read five-line red-lit screen, and slots and jacks for add-in memory, USB connection, and earphone. Some connections are covered by rubber doors attached by rubber strands, which might eventually be loss-prone. Accessories include straps for the case and device, and a headset clip. A tripod mount can provide stability.
Locating and identifying objects is elegantly simple. You select objects to locate from a long menu; a separate "Today's highlights" list provides the most interesting or easiest-to-find objects available. Locate mode illuminates the sighting ring within SkyScout; easy-to-follow arrows then guide aiming the device.
When the desired object is centered all arrows light, and pressing a sequence of buttons plays related audio information. Unfortunately, this exits locate mode, so it's hard to listen to the audio while viewing the object. Information can also be displayed as text on the screen.
SkyScout is always happy to help locate the Earth, immediately lighting all ring arrows to show that wherever you are, there you already are.
An observation tip notes that because the SkyScout uses a zero-magnification viewfinder, you needn't hold it close to the eye. t's often easiest to find objects by holding it at a comfortable distance, allowing you to see both the object in the viewfinder and surrounding star patterns. Since many objects are invisible to the unassisted eye, wear normal vision correction -- glasses, contact lenses, whatever. Just don't fog eyeglasses with your breath on cold nights, and keep SkyScout's lenses and screen clean. Dress warmly, though wear thin gloves to handle controls.
Using SkyScout to identify objects is simpler: it's a point-and-click operation, though the Target button is one of the few non-illuminated controls. Note that the device may return multiple items if a sky region is crowded.
Whether locating or identifying, the device is chock full of detailed astronomical information, including a glossary; biographies of great astronomers; lists of man-made objects, comets, asteroids, and extra Solar planets; etc. A help button provides quick usage guidance. It's fun to locate/identify/learn all sorts of facts, trivia, history, and mythology.
SkyScout's sky database can be updated online by installing simple supplied PC software; the application's control panel looks just like the SkyScout so it's quite intuitive to operate.
Celestron promises future add-in memory cards providing usage scenarios and tutorials, starting with titles "Astronomy for Beginners" and "The Sky Explorer". Registering the device on the SkyScout Web site promises a free subscription to Night Sky magazine.
Surprising shortcomings were a softcopy-only manual, batteries not being included, and chintzy earbuds which wouldn't stay put. I solved the latter problem by using real earphones, which had the added advantage of keeping my ears warm.
But overall, SkyScout delivers on its promises. You'll never again need to sing
Twinkle twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are... (Full lyrics and history at Wikipedia.)
Date of Review: 03-18-2007
For an interesting companion to the SkyScout, check out my review of Astronomy Hacks --A Book for Star Lovers