Every now and then we get someone asking the question ‘Why can’t a computerized telescope do ‘x’?’ Usually ‘x’ is ‘find things in the night sky without me having to work at it’.
The answer, as is often the case, is complex.
When computerized telescopes first started being mass marketed (many computer systems existed as add-ons or on high-end telescopes and as early as the 80’s) they general impression given by their marketing was that they did everything for you. No aligning the finder, no two star alignment system. Just toss the telescope onto the grass lawn and start watching. This was pretty much a lie, and many folks soured on telescopes as a result. The marketing tried to be a bit more clear as other companies added different computer options, but what most folks wanted auto-alignment and tracking. So what went wrong?
- 1) What people are comparing it with is not exactly accurate
Many folks are stumped by how they can have a planetarium program on their smartphone (or tablet) that gives them a good idea of what they are looking at in the night sky. What they don’t realize is how innacurate those programs are. They give you a general idea what is up there, sure, but the next time you use it look at just how far off it actually is. The programs can be as much as an hour off, and when you telescope is cranked up to 120x and is looking at 0.05 degrees of the night sky a miss is as good as a mile. Your smartphone does an approximation based your location, the time, and how the tilt sensors are reading. But those sensors aren’t perfect and the GPS positioning can go awry very easily. Some advanced astronomer may use planetarium programs by having Pads or phones attached to their telescope, but these are used as more of an adjusting, high detailed star map than as a direct guard
- 2) The Telescope Manufacturers aren’t exactly rolling in loads of research cash
GPS companies, smartphone manufacturers, Pad manufacturers all have one thing in common: They aren’t small companies. Apple is a mutli-billion dollar company, Google (who developed the droid system) isn’t exactly poor, Samsung, LG, etc. Even when these companies are having hard times they aren’t exactly small. And they spend tons of money trying to stay on top.
Telescope comapnies, by comparison, are on the smaller side. A telescope company that has more than 100 employees is probably a bit bloated. Development and engineering crews are probably in the single digits, with some outside contractors being hired as needed. So this means telescope manufacturers aren’t going to have bleeding edge tech to work on and with. Even when they do get a good idea, it can take a long time to develop & bring to the market. And it will probably use up a large amount of the research budget. An example would be Celestron’s SkyProdigy series, which while it would have been much more expensive to develop 10 years ago was still probably not an easy developement cycle. And this bleeding edge tech does not ensure success. The SkyProdigy is fairly expensive (smaller models were dropped some time ago), and may not work as well as claimed.
The thing is, almost all of us carry some kind of cell phone, if not a smartphone so the market is huge (even then some phone makers have embarrassing failures). But with telescopes the market is limited, there is no ability to take loss leads on the telescopes becuase the customer will subscribe to an astronomy plan. If a product comes on the market it needs to earn its way in sales and margins.
- 3) That said, there is some seriously backwards technology on telescopes
Pretty much all computer guided or controlled telescopes include some sort of hand-controller. This usually connects with an ethernet cable to the telescope itself. No problem, ethernet cable is still well in use, even in an age of everything being wireless. But suppose you want to run the telescope from your laptop using a planetarium program like Starry Night or something? You’d need a cable to run that, sure, but what kind? You’d probably think some kind of USB cable, and probably one of the bigger sizes like USB.
Nope. Odds are you have to connect to your laptop using a RS232 cable. That’s right, old pin and socket tech from the 90’s. These are connection systems that started to go out of style in computer design with the introduction of the first iMac and yet even some of the most modern of telescopes has this connector. Keep in mind that laptops got rid of this connector as soon as they could (pin connections are a big space waster).
Even on less computer gadget features, inconveniences can rule the day. Most reflector telescopes designed after 1999 usually have easy-to-handle knobs on the back of the optical tube for aiding in collimating the telescope’s mirror.
These knobs are convenient, have a nice grip, and are much easier to turn. But here is the back of a computerized telescope that, while modern in design, uses an off-the-shelf tube that has an older screw-based collimation system.