CES: Sky Prodigy telescope knows position of 4000 celestial bodies


Photo: Heather Beschizza

Celestron's new Sky Prodigy 130 wasn't much use within CES Unveiled's carpeted ballroom, but the $800 telescope promises to track celestial bodies by itself to deliver instant gratification to observers. "In three minutes, you're an instant astronomer," said Celestron's Michelle Meskill. "You don't need to have a computer, and 4,000 bodies are in its database." Its 130mm lens and 5" mirror are powerful enough to offer a look at Saturn's rings and the Galilean moons. I'm conflicted about these gadgets. When I was a kid, I sat on Worthing beach at night, filling in an already-ancient copy of the I Spy the Sky workbook with the aid of a pair of bad-ass but very plain binoculars. Some analog experiences are such that computerization doesn't appeal much to me, even though my life is computerized up to the eyeballs. That's ridiculous in all the most obvious ways, I know! But it's the way I feel; actually going there being out of the question, getting as far I as I can without help is part of the fun.


    1. Exactly, I can see the value in one now when I know how a non computerised one works but how do you ever learn ?

    2. Actually, the self assembling thing isn’t too far off. My old dorm mate from university is from Denmark and he now works for Lego. He’s still pretty low-level, but it apparently to keep competitive and to increase profit margins they’re going to roll out pre-assembled models, first at exclusive toy stores/catalogs, then more broadly. These pre-assembled kits will be very elaborate and take a lot of time and skill to assemble. They will cost 3x 4x more than the unassembled?

      Why? So spoiled little brats can bring their friends over and claim they assembled them their-selves. Focus groups of upper-middle class and above American parents just love this my friend says. The idea that if daddy buys a pre-assembled ship in the bottle and tell his friends/office mates he actually did it, why can’t his spoiled self-esteem generation brat do it?

      Makes me want to puke.

      These are the sort of parents who will buy this telescope I think.

  1. There have been self-guiding (GOTO) telescopes for years. One still needs enough skill to align the scope with a couple of known “guide” stars before all the automatic stuff kicks in. This is nothing new, the price ain’t that great, and if you really want to see stuff, you need more than a 5″ mirror.

    Bah humbug.

    1. This isn’t a typical “goto” scope. All goto scopes require an alignment process, which for some can be challenging. This scope is targeted at people who have no prior experience with astronomy. It aligns itself. Hence the extra cost. As of now, there is only one other telescope that can align itself. It costs twice as much, and takes three times as long to along…

    2. This looks more like the Meade “LightSwitch” technology – no alignment stars to find – it uses its own build in CCD camera, and GPS, and compass – no need to help it find anything. Does all of the aligning on its own :-)

    3. True that there have been self guiding telescopes for years, but unlike those, this one does not require the user to align it with “guide” stars. This camera takes a random picture of the sky, it compares this picture to its database and takes 1-2 more pictures. It triangulates these sets of pictures to determine your location and the locations of celestial objects. So this is what makes this telescope so remarkable, it truly requires no input on behalf of the user to align it.

  2. I have one of the older Celestron scopes and love it. I have to manually move it but it is powerful enough for me to see the things I want to see. Looking through a telescope at the stars, or even watching meteor showers as a kid are some of my fondest memories…

  3. Rob,

    The mirror is the lens. Technically, the mirror gathers the light and focuses it on a secondary mirror which bend the light toward the eyepiece. The eyepiece is the important piece of the puzzle. A good eyepiece will resolve the light to bring a spectacular view, but it only works with the light gathered.

    Whether or not a scope is good for deep space or local objects is the function of the focal length. If you have a lot of light, like local objects you want less interference as the light is bent toward the secondary mirror, usually f6 or longer (meaning the focal length is 6 times the diameter of the mirror or a 30 inch length for a 5 inch mirror). Telescopes with a f5 or less are called fast and are good when the incoming light won’t get much interference from the focused light.

    Finally, the amount of light gathered will be the determining factor for what you see. The old 2 inch telescopes advertised as delivering 200X meant that a 1 mm eyepiece was mounted on a 2X Barlow and everything was so dark that you couldn’t see anything, even if the telescope could be steadied on the flimsy tripods.

    Anyway, I have an 8 inch f5 and can resolve Saturn pretty well with a 20 mm eyepiece, enough to see a ring separation on a good seeing night. But my favorite objects are galaxies, nebula and star clusters.

  4. I have a 10″ dob (non-motorized, aim it by hand, very simple) I built about 15 years ago. Several years ago I bought a Meade 10″ SCT with go-to thinking it would be a huge upgrade, but instead it kind of took the fun out of hunting for stuff. Having a motorized tracking (instead of nudging the dob along) was the only real benefit. It was heavier, it took longer to set up, and soon I found myself pulling out the dob for short viewing sessions. I finally sold the go-to and kept the dob.

  5. A 4000-object database sounds to me like a deliberately cut-down, low-featured version intended for the budget-priced end of the market. Meade’s AutoStar has at least 30,000 objects, I’m sure Celestron’s is about the same… *pokes around for a bit*

    Aha, looks like a typo in the story & headline. Should be 40,000 objects, I think.


  6. This seems as good a place to ask for recommendations if one was interested in connecting a DSLR to a telescope but one had only a DLSR and no knowledge of the latter.

    Any thoughts on books or where I should start? Many thanks beforehand.

    1. I will recommend two books:
      1.) “Nightwatch,” by Terence Dickinson; and,
      2.) “Backyard Astronomer’s Guide,” by Dickinson and Alan Dyer.

      The first is solid introduction to the features of the night sky, from the sun and planets, to constellations and other astronomical events. The second book is a little more ground-based offering a superb primer to telescopes (refracting, reflecting and catadioptric)and their mounts, as well as how-to’s on observing, buying your first telescope, and of course astrophotography.

      I have a 6″ Schmidt-Cassegrain, and connect my DSLR I using a T-Adapter. This screws onto the visual back of the telescope and using an appropriate ring for my lens mount, connects the camera to the adapter. This makes the telescope a 1500mm f/10 lens for my camera. For dimmer objects and to reduce exposure times (and to flatten the image) you can get a focal reducing lens, which drops it down to f/6.3.

      For bigger Schmidt-Cassegrains, you can connect a camera on the secondary mirror — well, actually replacing the secondary mirror (the small mirror at the front of the telescope). This gives you a fast f/2 setup, but looks weird as you have a big camera hanging off the front of your scope. Google “Hyperstar” to see what I’m talking about.

      1. Today you have certainly earned the latter potion of your username. This is great stuff and much appreciated!

    2. @mccrum: The first thing you do is take a $100 bill out of your wallet, and light it on fire. Using your DSLR and a macro lens, make a high resolution video of the flames caressing Ben Franklin. If you enjoy this experience, you are ready for step two.

      Step 2: Get a good equatorial mount. This does not mean a Losmandy G-11. It means AP900 or better. You could start out by spending ~$3k on a Molestron (the collective noun for consumer SCT’s) with an equatorial wedge, but you’ll quickly find that the vibration drives you nuts. Do it right the first time, and get a real mount. Astro-Physics, Software Bisque, Mountain Instruments, etc…

      Light a cigar with another c-note to celebrate your new purchase.

      Step 3: Get a good telescope. CCD/CMOS imagers are unforgiving on the subject of optical quality. Again, the Molestron won’t really cut it. If you wen’t cheap in step 2 (~$6k) you’ll be limited in terms of weight of the scope. Regardless, you’ll be out another ~$5-15k, depending on what you use.

      To attach your DSLR to the scope, you need a T-mount adapter for the focuser and the camera. These are cheap.

      Now… You’ll need access to a dark site. Depending on where you live, this could be as simple as building an observatory in the backyard, or driving 100’s of miles for week long observing runs.

      I don’t recommend astrophotography as a hobby to any but the most well-heeled and insane,

      1. One would have to believe, since I own a DSLR as a hobby that I already believe firmly in taking Franklins out and burning them, so this all sounds perfect.

        Now I just have to ensure that the wife doesn’t see your advice.

  7. Folks, it’s the 21st century. I expect this sort of thing and no, I don’t think it taints the experience at all. Plenty of great discoveries have been made with telescopes that had directing mechanisms. Putting this technology into the hands of the average Joe is the really remarkable thing. I first saw Saturn on my own with a refracting telescope propped up on a public mailbox. All the kids on my block were darned impressed. Not so much that I managed to find Saturn and align the telescope, but that I had brought it to them so they could see it as well.

    Soon I expect a version of this scope to be mounted on my roof so I can watch it from my projector in the living room! Technology RULES!!!!!!

  8. @chawke & @Anon:

    I’m not making a moral distinction here but an aesthetic one, about the kinds of things I find “fun.” Discovering/building vs. looking-at/playing-with.

    People are free to buy pre-built Legos or self-slewing telescopes if they don’t find building things or looking for things “fun,” I won’t judge them morally but I do kind of wonder, what’s the point? Why not buy a coffee table astronomy book with beautiful photos, and Playmobil [or equivalent] toys? That way you get the best possible looking-at and the best possible playing-with.

    Or maybe I’m the weirdo here, addicted to low-level frustration.

    1. Axoplasm. I like your response to my comment and I fully agree. With me too, it is about aesthetics and the enjoyment of doing something.

      The moral tangent I was on concerned the legos and I have been wishing for an excuse to share this so I inserted here while trying to kinda keep on topic.

      I have nothing against the telescope – wish I had the 800 bucks for one. What annoys me is that this fine instrument will be purchased for some brat who will show it off for a while then will gather dust after one month later his or her parents buy them an animatronic pony or Coolie.

      1. And after a year when the maid thinks they should get rid of it and the father discovers it in the trash, I’ll buy it from them on craigslist and scamper off with a hardly used one. Or the tech will get integrated into all the other telescopes and they all become cheaper.

        1. I got a great telescope at a garage sale in SF about 25 years ago. Celestron, probably unused, for about 10% of the original price.

  9. It is all a question of target market.

    A will draw an analogy to bicycles. When you are 4-6, you get a tricycle. Not really a bike really; most kids can walk faster than they can ride. A tricycle is like the book of astronomy pictures someone talked about. It lets you pretend you are looking at the sky. When you get older, you don’t go straight to a road bike. You get something with training wheels. In this analogy, automatic alignment is like training wheels. If you are an adult and you are getting your very first bike, you might skip training wheels because of the stigma associated with it, but automatic alignment has no such stigma. I see no reason that an adult/child should stunt his budding interest in astronomy by forcing himself to learn the sky with bino’s and sky charts.

    Someone talked about telescopes that end up in closets. I have no doubt that happens a lot. But it will happen less if you can actually find interesting things to look at quickly and easily every single time you take it out. There is, of course, much joy to be had in learning the sky. When you get truly obsessed with this hobby, and are ready to tackle that challenge, then you won’t need automatic alignment. At that point you buy yourself a new bike, one that won’t have training wheels or even the option.

    Pi Meson

  10. Well the Self building legos is a humourous metaphor… I bet many are still annoyed the Slide Rule was overcome by the 4 function calculator LOL… And someone incorrectly note you have to identify some stars to align a telescope. Well, not so, if you just know the trig between some stars of unknown type (BTW I can say that as a professional astronomer)… And of course the idea of seeing it yourself still exists, the photons can still hit your retina, but for those who DO want full automation, they call it a CCD digital camera, built in the 90’s and the who reason Astronomy has fundamentally changed the World ever since… FWIW..

  11. And they have been using STs (Star Trackers) on orbit for almost half a century as well, again using cameras to align a scope to a database… This is ONLY new in that it has now reached the affordable amateur market – itself pretty cool, but surprising not decades sooner, like the late 70’s…. But amateurs seem to love to hang on to last year’s techniques, so this is no surprise it did not pay to convert the idea to a small user market…

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