A Hands-on Review of the StarAid Revolution
By Charles Bracken
The idea of a standalone autoguider is not new. Way back in the 1990’s there was the SBIG ST-4. From what I’ve read, it may not have been the pinnacle of user friendliness, but it was amazing for the time. Since then, several similar products have been introduced, with each generation offering improvements.
The StarAid Revolution aims to take the concept to the logical extreme: autoguiding that is completely plug and play. No computer, no hand controller. Just attach it, plug it in, and it figures out what to do. Further, it adds some other useful features like polar alignment if you connect to it with your smartphone or a computer.
Does it deliver on this promise? Read on.
[Note: I was lent a pre-production version of the product for this report. The final features may change.]
The Revolution looks very much like a rugged version of the 1.25”-format guide cameras many of us are used to, like the QHY-5 or the ZWO ASI120M series cameras. I screwed mine directly into a C-mount 100 mm f/2.8 lens that was provided. The C-mount lens combination makes for a very small and light setup, but it can also be attached to a normal guidescope.
The Revolution only needs to have one cable connected to it. This cable connects to a very small “splitter box,” which then connects to your scope’s guide port and to power. There is an optional USB-C port on the Revolution, allowing you to connect it to a computer as well. More on that later.
The first test was to see if it could truly deliver plug and play autoguiding. I quickly realized that this wouldn’t work though, at least not on the first night, because I needed to focus the lens. Fortunately, the solution was incredibly simple. I scanned the provided QR code with my phone, which connected it to the Revolution’s own wifi hotspot. Opening my phone’s browser and entering “my.staraid” revealed an app-like interface. From there, I could click Live View to see what the Revolution sees to dial in focus. Once the “app” was open, I couldn’t help but watch the autoguiding routine figure out where it was pointed in the sky and calibrate itself. The whole process took less than 15 seconds. On subsequent nights, I just plugged it in and let it go, so it definitely delivers on the “plug and play” promise.
As you can see from the screenshots, it uses 20 stars to guide, which mitigates the impact of seeing. If you do decide to check in on it with your phone or computer, it gives you the standard graph and target to track the guiding performance.
Clearly, it’s fast and easy, but is the autoguiding any good? To test this, I set up on two consecutive nights, first with the StarAid Revolution, then with my normal guiding setup (Orion Starshoot Autoguider with 50 mm f/3.2 scope, using PHD2 with basically default settings).
Below are close crops from the first 5 consecutive exposures from each night. These are 300-second H-alpha exposures with a ZWO ASI1600MM Pro taken through a Takahashi FSQ-106ED (f.l.=530 f/5) on an EM-200. The moon was full. The exposures were not cherry-picked in any way, and you can see that the transparency was affected by smoke on both nights from the California wildfires.
Can you tell which was the StarAid and which was guided with PHD2? For the record, the top row is the StarAid, and the bottom row is my normal guiding setup, but there is no visible difference. The StarAid guides at least as well as a standard guiding setup, even one at a longer focal length.
Testing on subsequent nights over hundreds of exposures showed the same results. Anecdotally, StarAid seemed to handle counterweight imbalances better than my standard autoguiding setup, but I can’t say for sure, as I didn’t run both systems on the same night.
Interfacing with Sequencers
As of this version of StarAid Revolution, it is not able to interface with your sequencing software to facilitate dithering between exposures. This feature is promised for the next version. I set up each night of exposures in NINA with guiding and dithering turned off. In my case, this also interfered with the meridian flip. Every time a slew happens, the Revolution tries to calibrate, but since it’s not in communication with the sequencer, those tiny movements can interfere with focus or additional slews. In my experience, this sort of problem only manifested after a meridian flip. It isn’t clear why, but NINA could not resume imaging after a flip with the Revolution attached. It may have been that StarAid is monopolizing control of the mount to do its calibration when NINA is trying to tell the mount to slew. Regardless, with the next version, this problem should be addressed.
The Polar Alignment Tool
In addition to autoguiding, the Revolution’s ability to platesolve and detect small movements mean that it is also perfect for polar alignment. It could replace PoleMaster-type tools, and the routine is easier than PHD2’s polar alignment function. The screenshots here show how easy it is. You are given the option of how much precision you want, with more precision taking more time. Then it solves for its location in the sky and makes some tiny movements of the mount to determine the polar alignment error. The final step shows you a target, and you adjust the altitude and azimuth knobs on your mount to hit the bull’s eye. When you get within 0.2°, it zooms in for you for additional accuracy. It’s very cool, and it only takes a few minutes.
Areas for Improvement
No product is perfect, so where could the StarAid Revolution be better?
Aside from the inability to interface with sequencing software mentioned above, and to be addressed in the next release, it did fail to guide once for me. This was for an object at very low altitude (~20 degrees). I wouldn’t normally even image that low, but I was looking around for test targets and picked M17. I presume the issue was that the fairly wide angle lens was also picking up trees or nearby houses in the field of view. It resolved itself after a few minutes.
The app-in-a-website works well overall (saving me from installing another app on my phone), with the one exception that the live view seems too large to fit on a phone screen. That’s another item the developers will hopefully fix with the next version.
For imagers not using sequencing software, especially those using a DSLR, and those who set up from scratch every night, the StarAid Revolution is just amazing. If I had had this in my first five years of imaging, it would have made nightly setup much faster and easier. Easier setup means more imaging time and better images. For those with a permanent setup who are using sequencing software to control imaging runs and manage meridian flips, it’s a bit of a harder sell, but I don’t think that’s really the target audience anyway.
In short, the StarAid Revolution delivers exactly what it promises: truly automatic autoguiding. This is the next generation of autoguiding, and I have a hard time imagining how it could get any easier.