Gadgets: Your personal astronomer
Celestron's SkyScout is the best thing to happen to backyard astronomers since the telescope.
(Fortune Magazine) -- More than 400 years ago, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe - fat, bald, mustachioed, and sporting an artificial nose fashioned from gold and silver to replace his natural one, sliced off in a drunken duel - charted the heavens with exquisite precision using only his naked eyes, since the astronomical telescope was still some years away from being invented.
I know this because I pressed a button on the new Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium, a handheld marvel about the size of a camcorder, and it told me so, while also pointing out the highlights of my night sky, identifying stars, and helping me locate planets and galaxies.
The SkyScout ($400) is without question the best new tool for backyard astronomers since the computerized telescope. It is not itself a telescope and does not magnify objects, but like Tycho Brahe himself, it doesn't need a telescope to identify and track nearly every visible (and sometimes invisible) star, planet, constellation, asterism, and deep-sky object in the heavens.
Its core is a sophisticated Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver and other gravitational and location sensors linked to a built-in database of some 6,000 astronomical objects. Because the SkyScout gets precise location and time data from the GPS satellites and sensors, it knows exactly what you can see right now from where you're standing.
Is that a star or a planet?
Just point the SkyScout at the object, center it in the viewfinder, press the TARGET button, and as fast as a shooting star, the SkyScout gives the answer on its five-line LCD display. In crowded areas of the cosmos, it displays a menu of multiple possible objects.
Where's the Andromeda galaxy? Can we see Mars tonight?
The SkyScout's LOCATE feature uses a ring of eight blinking arrows to guide your eyes precisely to the object you're seeking. The closer you get, the faster the arrows blink, until the target is centered in the viewfinder.
And then, best of all, the SkyScout uses text or recorded audio files to tell stories about the stars and planets and even the astronomers, like Tycho or Annie Jump Cannon, who classified nearly a quarter-million stars a century ago.
The SkyScout has an audio jack and comes with iPod-like earbud speakers for listening in private; for those who prefer quiet, it displays the lessons and data as text on a stargazing-friendly, red-orange display.
The design is a bit clunky, but the SkyScout seems rugged, with rubberized grips, and it comes with a travel case, although the lack of protective covering for the front and rear lenses is puzzling.
The display is easy to read in the dark, and the menus and buttons are simple to navigate. There's a USB port for updating the SkyScout's database via PC and an SD card slot for what Celestron promises will be a series of interactive narrated guided tours of the sky (sold separately). It runs all night on a pair of AA batteries.
It's like having a learned and entertaining astronomer always at your side to guide you through the night sky, except that unlike Tycho, the SkyScout speaks English, weighs less than a pound, and does not come with a dwarf named Jepp, whom Tycho kept as a companion in the belief that he was clairvoyant.
Bottom line: Celestron's SkyScout is a gizmo of the first magnitude for beginners and experienced stargazers alike.
Name that tune
I was thrilled that my new car came with an iPod port for piping my portable digital music collection directly through the car's stereo system.
There were just two problems: First, the jack is on the passenger side; second, I hate fumbling for the iPod to see what song is playing - although not as much as the pedestrians hate it when I drive up onto the sidewalk while doing so.
Kensington's new RDS FM Transmitter Car Charger for iPod ($90) is the perfect solution. It uses the Radio Broadcast Data System (popularly known as RDS) to beam not just the music but also the current artist and song information from the iPod to the car stereo's display screen via vacant FM radio channels.
The catch is that your car has to have an RDS-capable radio that supports that type of information (if your radio already shows the artist's name and song title, you should be set), and it only works with the newest iPods. But if your car and your iPod are compatible, Kensington's pricey RDS FM gizmo sounds great and is the best automobile iPod charger around.