SkyScout Personal Planetarium
By Lawson Wong
Fun With the Stars
Since it took the world by storm at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, the much-anticipated Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium has finally arrived. Both an educational and recreational tool, the handheld GPS device can locate and identify over 6,000 celestial bodies in the sky, providing useful and entertaining information on each object.
Look and Feel
Made of plastic and housed in a rubberized armor, the camcorder-sized unit looks and feels like a spotting scope. Compact and lightweight, the SkyScout boasts a large, backlit LED screen that makes it easy to read. On the right side of the screen sit control buttons for brightness, volume and power. A directional pad allows for up-and-down scroll navigation. Just below the LED display are the buttons that control the prime functions of the SkyScout: "Identify" and "Locate" as well as the GPS button that tells you your location, time and date. In addition to a protective nylon carrying case, the SkyScout also includes a neck strap, a USB cable and a pair of earphones.
How it Works
Turn the SkyScout on by pressing and holding down the power button. Using its built-in GPS, the device will spend about 30 seconds trying to locate where you are on the planet by longitude and latitude. Once the device finds you, you are ready to explore the sky.
The Personal Planetarium boasts a preloaded database of over 6,000 stars, planets, constellations and other space objects. Even better, Celestron keeps the database fresh, allowing you to download the latest information on stars and planets via the USB connection. For a device that looks far off into the sky, the SkyScout actually does not possess any magnification. Looking through the lens feels like using a targeting system of a galactic laser ray. Peering through the eyepiece, you can target any "space" object in the sky. Press the "Identify" button and the SkyScout will display the name of the celestial object on the red-backlit screen. With a single button press, you can listen to audio commentary about the facts, history and mythology of the object via the included earphones.
The Locate function mirrors the simplicity of using the Identify feature. Press the "Locate" button situated just below the LED screen and the SkyScout will display a menu of categories from Planets to Stars to Constellations. From there, you can choose the heavenly body you want to find, and the SkyScout will direct you there using eight LEDs acting as directional arrows in the viewfinder.
For beginners and young children, the SkyScout comes with a Field Guide, supplying audio and text lessons on a myriad of astronomy-related topics. Given in the same calm professional female voice, the lessons are both interesting and entertaining. Listen to the six-part audio introduction of astronomy or view the biography of famous astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo.
Easy to Use
Celestron's "learning tool for all ages" can easily be handled by users of all ages. While the easy-to-follow "Quick Set Up Guide" and instructional CD are great resources, you really don't need them to start enjoying the SkyScout. The intuitive menus and easy-to-understand "point and press" navigation will have you "surfing" the sky for astronomy information in a matter of minutes. Best of all, even you do need a bit of assistance, just press the Help button and the device will offer up simple, step-by-step instructions on how to use it.
With barely the understanding that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, I do not claim to be an astronomy buff. However, I came away impressed with the simplicity of use as well as the educational and entertainment value of the SkyScout. I was simply amazed at how it identified each and every star and planet I pointed at, and the cool factor of the Locate function blew me away. Although anyone can locate the moon with the naked eye (except perhaps in my foggy hometown of San Francisco), the gadget had no problems finding the large round shiny object in the sky. However, it didn't even break a sweat locating the planets Saturn and Venus and the stars Vega and Altair.
I particularly enjoyed the "Tonight's Highlights" feature that took me on a visual scouting tour of the 20 best objects that night. I jumped from the Andromeda Galaxy to Polaris and then back to the brightest star in the constellation: Cygnus, Deneb. Once again, I was able to listen and read more information at each celestial stop.
Running on just two standard AA batteries, the SkyScout does not require a ton of juice. Depending on the degree of use of the audio and text, the device will last for at least a couple of nights' worth of galactic exploration. As with any battery-powered device, I would always advise carrying extra batteries, just in case.
Who's It For
Although the Personal Planetarium comes with a substantial price tag of $399.99, I look at it as the iPod of the astronomy world. As a learning and recreational tool for astronomy, there isn't another product like it. Easy to use, this learning toy will provide many nights of enjoyment for novice astronomers and kids alike.
SkyScout Personal Planetarium
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