I've seen it all when it comes to astro-ware. That's what I thought, anyway, until the evening I was introduced to a program that changed my entire observing lifestyle. If you're a Celestron go-to user, NexRemote may do the same for you. One cloudy night a few years back I was browsing through my copious email. Buried among the Yahoo group traffic was a personal missive from one Ray St. Denis. Denis asked if I'd be interested in helping beta test a new software package for Celestron's NexStar scopes he and his buddy, Andre Paquette, were working on.
I was, I will admit, not overly excited about yet another planetarium program. Paquette responded by saying this was a very special and very different software. What this application, which he and Denis were calling HCAnywhere, did was duplicate the NexStar computer hand controller on a PC screen. But that was not the big news. After all, ASCOM can display a simple virtual HC. The big news was the fact that, as Denis explained, HCAnywhere replaced the hand controller. That is, it would allow users to leave their hand controllers at home!
A virtual hand controller was something go-to users had dreamed about for a long time. To sweeten the deal, Paquette said he'd send a "programming cable" along with the software so I wouldn't have to scrounge one up somewhere. Why a programming cable? HCAnywhere, he informed me, used the NexStar's "PC" port rather than the normal RS-232 socket in the base of the hand paddle to connect to the scope.
Once I got the package, I found that "just" duplicating the HC was only a small part of the story. Thanks to HCAnywhere, I now had something I'd wanted for a long time: wireless scope control. HCAnywhere, you see, was compatible with Logitech's wireless "Wingman" series of gamepads (PC joysticks). Not only could the gamepad be used to slew the scope, its many buttons had been assigned to perform various hand controller functions. It was possible to use the Wingman to access menus and perform alignments without touching the computer. This made HCAnywhere seem much more useful. Initially, I'd wondered about the practicality of aligning the scope with a PC. Unless the laptop were near the eyepiece, a star would have to be centered and then the observer would have to run over to the laptop and try to "accept" it as quickly as possible before it drifted away.
For such a complex piece of code, it all worked perfectly. No crashes, no errors. Plus, HCAnywhere had a "virtual (serial) port" that would allow other programs to share the PC port connection. Turn that virtual port option on, startup Cartes du Ciel (or any other astronomy program), with the virtual port number HCAnywhere assigned, and the planetarium software worked just like it always had. Click on a DSO, scope went there.
Only major annoyance? While the Wingman made it easy to do alignments, I still had to wander back to the PC and read the display to do some operations. When I mentioned this to the program's creators, they said, "Why don't you enable speech?" Turns out the speech-synthesis function was well documented in the program's help file and that HCAnywhere was able to use the Microsoft Mike/Mary speech synthesis utility. It was strangely appealing to hear the "scope" intone: "NexStar Ready!" or "Object Acquired!" in a female U.S.S. Enterprise-computer-like voice. And useful. With the volume at a reasonable level you can do many hand controller functions without returning to the laptop.
But why the past tense, and what's this HCAnywhere thing got to do with NexRe-mote? Celestron took immediate interest in the program and soon made a deal with the creators to bring HCAnywhere into the official Celestron corral under the name "NexRemote." Why don't we see more Celestron NexStar users running NexRemote on star party fields? It's probably not because of the program's price. It can be found for less than $100 at many astronomy dealers. In fact, the program CD comes in the box with many new Celestron telescopes, so many folks won't pay a dime (other than for a programming cable). Why don't all Celestron owners use it, then? Maybe they just don't know what it is or at least don't know how wonderful it is. The only bad thing? NexRemote is only usable with Celestron telescopes (and Windows PCs). Users of the Synta EQ6/Atlas and HEQ5/Sirius mounts do have a similar application, EQMOD, available that offers much of the NexRemote functionality, including the use of a wireless "hand control" (gamepad). See Appendix 2 for more information about this excellent free program.
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