In this Ultimate Guide To The Star Adventurer PRO, I will teach you all you need to know to get the most out of this mount. From the preliminary checks to the proper way to set it up under the stars, Polar Alignment and to troubleshoot it.
The SkyWatcher Star Adventurer PRO is a reputable star tracker that is extremely popular with amateur astrophotographers.
This affordable tracker delivers great performances that are packed in a very portable kit.
From your first starry landscape to your latest deep sky image with a cooled astro camera and guiding kit, the Star Adventurer will not let you down.
In this guide I intentionally avoided discussing advanced topics, such as guiding: before arriving there, in fact, one should first master the use of the Star Adventurer in its basic configurations. Time-lapse capabilities are also not discussed here, as I am focusing on astrophotography.
If you have still to decide whether it would be a good buy for you, I invite you to read our in-depth review of the Star Adventurer first.
Get To Know Your Star Adventurer
To be as clear as possible, I will use the same terminology you will find in the User Manual, and in the scheme below, I have highlighted the parts of the Star Adventurer that are most relevant to this guide.
When You Receive The Mount: Preliminary Checks
Upon receiving your Star Adventurer, you will probably stare at the box in awe for a few minutes and then post the unboxing procedure on your social network.
Next, you will get excited, waiting for the night to test it out… but some sellers know it better.
Luckily, while you are waiting for the sky to clear so you can start tracking stars with your camera, you can get busy familiarising with the mount and the accessories, as well as running a few tests to verify your mount is performing as it should.
Check The Polar Scope’s Reticle Alignment
The Polar Scope is a crucial element of any equatorial mount for astrophotography, as it allows you to align the mount to the celestial pole properly.
A precise polar alignment will let you accurately track the stars in their journey through the night sky.
To align the Star Adventurer to the celestial pole, you must rely on the reticle you see when looking through the Polar Scope, and that is shaped as a clock.
Before heading out under the stars, you must perform a couple of easy tests to ensure the reticle is aligned to both the rotational axis and the Meridian Indicator engraved on the side of the Polar Scope.
Testing The Polar Scope’s Reticle Alignment To The Rotational Axis.
In order to check if the reticle inside the Polar Scope is aligned to the rotational axis, follow these steps:
- Mount the star adventurer on a sturdy tripod using its wedge.
- Look into the Polar Scope and use the wedge to center a distant object on the crosshair at the center of the clock in the reticle. Note that the image in the Polar Scope is upside down.
- While looking through the Polar Scope, rotate the Mounting Platform, and check that the object you centered in the view stays on the crosshair.
The gif below shows you what you should see with a polar scope that is aligned.
If the object wanders off-center while rotating the Mounting Platform, then you need to align the reticle following the procedure explained in Appendix I of the User Manual.
Testing The Polar Scope’s Reticle Alignment To Meridian Indicator
This time, we will check if the reticle is correctly oriented with respect to the Meridian Indicator.
To perform the test, follow these steps:
- Set the Time Meridian Indicator to 0: hold the Polar Scope and rotate the Date Graduation Circle until the 0 is aligned to the Meridian Indicator (see the previous photo).
- Next, let the Polar Scope free to rotate: the Date Graduation Circle will rotate with it. Set the Star Adventurer to Midnight, October 31st, by rotating the Polar Scope until the Date Graduated Circle is aligned to the Time Graduation Circle, as shown in the image below.
Now that the Star Adventurer is set to midnight October 31st for time zone 0, level the mount and aim at a distant object that is vertical, such as the edge of a tall building.
The reticle inside the Polar Scope must be oriented in such a way that the 0-6 line in the clock is vertical. You can easily check this against the edge of the building.
If it is not the case, follow the procedure illustrated in Appendix I of the User Manual to align the reticle to the Meridian Indicator.
Check For Play In The Rotational Axis
Tighten the Clutch Knob and hold the Star Adventurer firmly with one hand. With the other hand, grab the Mounting Platform and try to rotate it back and forth: you should not feel any play or hear any noise.
If you find there is some play, remove it by following the procedure described in the Troubleshooting section.
Check For Tight Spots While Rotating The Mounting Platform
This test aims to verify how smooth the rotation of the Mounting Platform is when the clutch is undone.
Ideally, the rotation should not have tight spots.
A mild resistance in some spots during the rotation is normal and will not have repercussions on the quality of the tracking.
But, If you do have a really tight spot, have a look in the Troubleshooting section for some possible solutions.
How To Properly Set Up Your Star Adventurer
Finally, your sky has cleared up, and you are under the stars with your new mount. What to do next?
Setting up your Star Adventurer for the night means you have to:
- Polar align it
- Frame the target
- Properly set the camera and focus on the stars
There are different ways to set up your gear and to polar align your mount, depending on the kind of gear you use and the kind of astrophotography you intend to do.
For starry landscapes and astrophotography with short focal length, you do not need high precision for the polar alignment, and you can simply use a green laser or the Daytime Polar Alignment mode in your preferred app.
However, when you start pushing the Star Adventurer with longer focal lengths and heavy payloads, you need to be much more precise in how you set things up and polar align.
This is the proper way to proceed to ensure the best results if you are after deep sky astrophotography (nebulae, galaxies, etc.).
- With the wedge on your tripod, make sure the Altitude Adjustment Knob of the wedge is pointing in the general direction of the celestial pole: North in the Northern Hemisphere and South in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Level the tripod (in theory this does not matter, but in practice it can make your life easier).
- Use the graduated scale on the wedge to set your local latitude.
- Check there is no play in the rotation of the Star Adventurer with the clutch tighten. If you have some play, remove it by adjusting the Worm Gear Meshing Adjustment Screw as explained in the Troubleshooting section.
- Mount the Star Adventurer on the wedge and the payload on the Star Adventurer. Prefer using the Fine-Tuning Mounting Assembly with the counterweight to balance your gear.
- Balance the payload slightly “East-Heavy”.
- Frame Polaris (Or Octans) in the Polar Scope and do a coarse polar alignment.
- Sway your camera on the target, focus, fit the heating strip on the lens and connect the intervalometer.
- Perform the final polar alignment.
- If needed, reframe your target using the motor controls and the micrometric screw on the Fine-Tuning Mounting Assembly.
Here is a short video I made while I was setting up in the field.
As you can see, the procedure is fairly quick once you have understood how to perform the steps we are going to detail below.
Learn How To Polar Align Your Star Adventurer
What is Polar Alignment And Why You Need To Nail It
Polar alignment is at the heart of astrophotography and is a crucial step in setting up your equatorial mount or star tracker.
The better you polar align your mount, the longer you can expose the sky while still getting pin-point sharp stars for the best image quality.
How To polar Align In The Southern Hemisphere
In the Southern Hemisphere, polar alignment is done using sigma-Octans, a faint star in Octans. Since I am not familiar with the southern sky, I invite you to watch the video below.
How To polar Align In The Northern Hemisphere
If you, like me, are in the Northern Hemisphere, then you have it easy. In fact, to polar align we can rely on the bright Polaris, the North Star, instead than on the fainter sigma-Octans.
Here an astronomical curiosity for you: how much off is Polaris from the true North Celestial Pole (NCP)? Well, the angular separation between Polaris and the NCP is larger than the apparent size of the Full Moon in the sky.
How To Find Polaris When Looking Through The Polar Scope
Polaris is easy to find at the naked eye. Simply “draw” a line going from Merak to Dubhe, the last two stars in the big dipper constellation, and extend it about 5 times to arrive on Polaris.
The problem is to identify Polaris among the multitude of stars you will see when looking inside the Polar Scope.
Unfortunately, the Latitude Scale on the wedge is rather imprecise, and the times I used it I was not able to frame Polaris in the Polar Scope only by setting my current latitude.
And when in a dark location, I get often overwhelmed by the number and brightness of the many stars I see in the Polar Scope.
So, which one is Polaris?
If you have a bit of crazy DIY spirit in you, you can answer the question using an automatic pencil by turning it into a simple Pole Tube Finder.
Simply disassemble the pencil and remove the inner mechanism from it. Then stick the hollow pencil in the hole you see at the front of the Star Adventurer.
Because with the naked eye, you can only see Polaris when you look in that direction, it is fairly easy to center the North Star in the field of view of your awesome DIY Pole Finder.
This way, you are sure Polaris is one of the stars you see when looking through the Polar Scope.
The triptych below demonstrates the concept using the top of a distant chimney instead of Polaris.
Why the pencil? Couldn’t you look simply through the hole in the Star Adventurer body? The problem is that with the hole is difficult to be sure you are square with it. But being a long tube, the pencil lets you see the sky only if you are looking along its axis.
If you are less adventurous, wear glasses or find it difficult to kneel on the ground to use the method above, you can turn to your smartphone for help.
There are apps for iOS and Android smartphones featuring a simple Daytime Polar Alignment mode.
On iOS, PS Align Pro is arguably the best app out there.
PS Align Pro makes use of the sensors inside your phone to determine in which direction the phone is pointing, and it will guide you towards a decent polar alignment.
This alignment is good enough for starry landscapes and wide star fields: a great way to keep things fast and easy if you are after these kinds of photography.
To perform the Daytime Polar Alignment in PS Align Pro, simply orient the Star Adventurer in such a way that the crosshair is centered in the reticle shown on the screen.
While some phones, such as my old iPhone 5, have sensors that go nuts when metal and electronic devices are nearby, newer iPhones seem to better shielded and can be mounted directly on the Star Adventurer.
A neat solution is to have a QuadLock case for the phone and put a QuadLock Wall Mount on the battery cover to clip the phone to the Star Adventurer.
If you do that, remember to mount the cover on the polar scope, to avoid having the battery cover, and your precious phone with it, fall off the mount 😉
When you are sure you have Polaris in the field of view of the Polar Scope, increase the brightness of the Polar Scope Illuminator until you can only see a few of the brightest stars, the brightest of which will be Polaris.
The final way to be sure Polaris is visible in the view of the Polar Scope is to use a green laser.
To polar align with the laser, hold it at the polar scope, or shine the beam through it, and move the Star Adventurer so that the laser beam goes on Polaris.
This is a speedy and easy way to coarse polar align for starry landscapes and star fields, but there are few drawbacks and precautions to keep in place:
- The use of this kind of laser may be forbidden in your country.
- Batteries are very affected by cold temperature: if you want the laser to work, keep it inside your jacket to stay warm.
- Lasers such as this one are a hazard for air traffic: scan the sky to be sure no planes are flying in the area and NEVER point the laser at an aircraft.
- If you are with children, NEVER allow them to play with the laser or use it unsupervised.
If you are interested in deep-sky astrophotography, your polar alignment must be much more precise than what you can achieve with a Daytime Polar Alignment mode or a green laser.
Here is how you should work.
Unassisted Polar Alignment: Using the Star Adventurer’s Graduated Scales For Deep Sky Astrophotography
The Date and Time Graduation Circles at the back of the Star Adventurer allows you, among the rest, to precisely polar align the mount without the need for external apps or electronic devices.
These Graduation Circles are at the back of the mount, as shown in the image below.
Note that the Time Graduation Circle is fixed on the body of the Star Adventurer, while the Date Graduation Circle (and the Time Zone Scale with it) can rotate with the Polar Scope.
Each mark on the Date Graduation Circle represents an interval of 2 days (3 for the last interval in months having 31 days).
Each mark on the Time Zone Scale represents an interval of 5 degrees of longitude from the Local Standard Time Meridian, LSTM.
But how do you set this scale, and what is the LSTM for your location? It is time we get a grasp on what links the Standard Time to the LSTM.
Earth revolves once every 24hrs (give or take), thus every 15° of longitude from the Standard Meridian of Greenwich (London) there is a LSTM for a time zone: this defines the Universal Time (UT) or Standard Time.
Another system to define time zones is Greenwich Meridian Time, or GMT: London is in GMT+0, Rome in GMT+1 etc. But GMT time zones are also influenced by many factors, such as geopolitical factors.
The world map below shows the actual time zones for GMT and these are far to be regular.
Now, bear with me: we are almost done. How to set the Time zone scale for your location?
- Find out in which time zone you are.
- Multiply the time difference of your time zone from GMT 0 by 15°: this will tell you the longitude of your LSTM. NOTE: Positive GMT time zones are to the East of the Greenwich Meridian (GM). Negative GMT time zones are to the West to the GM.
- Find out the longitude of your location: this is referred to GM, but you have to set the scale to compensate for the longitude difference between your location and the LSTM you calculated before.
Let’s do a couple of examples.
Consider my location. Since I live in Brussels, I am in GMT+1. Therefore, my LSTM is +1*15°=15° of longitude East.
If you Google Brussels coordinates, you’ll find I am located at latitude 50.8° N and longitude 4° E. This is respect to the GM. Since I am at longitude 4° E and my LSTM is 15° E, I am 11° W from the LSTM, and this is the value I have to set the Time Zone Scale to.
Another example. If I was lucky enough to do astrophotography in Easter Island (Rapanui), I would find myself in GMT-6 time zone: my LSTM would then be -6 *15°=-90°, i.e. longitude 90° W.
Since Easter Island is located at latitude 27° S and longitude 109° W, I will be 19° W from my local LSTM and I would have to set the Time Zone Scale to 19° W, as in the image below
Each mark on the Time Graduation Circle represents an interval of 10 minutes.
To Polar Align using these circles, all you need to do is:
- Set The proper longitude difference from your LSTM for your location.
- Align the day of the year to the current time Standard Time, ignore Daylight Saving Time).
- Put Polaris on the clock of the reticle, where you see the “6”.
Don’t waste too much time yet to precisely polar align. You still need to sway the camera to frame your target and doing this on such a lightweight setup will probably ruin the initial alignment.
The tricky part is to understand how to refine the polar alignment after you have framed your target (more on this later), focused your lens, installed the heating strip, and connected the intervalometer.
How to do so? As usual, an example will help to understand the procedure better.
Let’s say you are imaging at Midnight October 31st, in Time Zone 0 in Greenwich (LSTM=0°), and that you want to image the Pleiades.
What do you need to do?
- Set the Star Adventurer to Midnight, October 31st and LSTM 0. You already know that If you look inside the Polar Scope, you will find the clock oriented with the 0-6 line vertical, the 6 being at the bottom.
- To polar align the mount, manipulate the Wedge Horizontal Adjustment Controls and the AltitudeAdjustment Knob to bring Polaris on the reticle, in correspondence to the “6” of the clock.
- Next, go to frame the Pleiades. Since the Mounting Platform is connected to the Polar Scope, by framing the target, you have rotated the Polar Scope, and the reticle inside it, by a certain amount. This means the “6” of the clock does not mark the proper position for Polaris anymore.
- All you need to do is to calculate by how many degrees you have rotated the Polar Scope. Let’s assume that after having framed the Pleiades, the mark for October 31st on the Date Graduation Circle is now pointing at the mark for 2 a.m. on the Time Graduation Circle. This means you have rotated the Polar Scope by +2 hours.
- Since the Polar Scope will complete a 360º rotation in 24 hours, every hour corresponds to a rotation of the polar scope of ( 360º / 24hr ) * 1hr = 15º. In our example, you have rotated the Polar Scope of +2 hours, which means the clock rotated counterclockwise by 30º.
- After framing the Pleiades, the “6” of the clock moved 30 degrees counterclockwise from its initial position, after the coarse polar alignment.
- Therefore, in order to improve the polar alignment, make Polaris sits on the mark that is 30º past the “6”, or, in other words, place Polaris at 7 o’clock with respect to the clock of the reticle.
The sequence below illustrates the procedure by using a model I built to show you what happens inside the Star Adventurer when you perform the polar alignment.
To help you count the degrees, the clock of the reticle has a thin mark every 5º and a longer one every 30º.
Precise Polar Alignment Using Your SmartPhone And Polar Scope Align Pro (not Daytime mode)
This method requires the use of Polar Scope Align Pro or a similar app and to have the tripod leveled.
- Level the tripod and set the Star Adventurer to midnight, October 31st, in Time Zone 0 and for on LSTM 0 by using the Graduation Circles.
- Check the reticle inside the Polar Scope is oriented exactly like the one displayed on your phone.
- Do a coarse alignment by placing Polaris according to the app.
- Frame your target and check to which mark on the Time Graduation Circle the mark for October 31st is aligned to. Calculate by how many hours and minutes you have rotated the polar scope.
- In PS Align Pro, tap on the icon next to the one with the light bulb and set rotation. Now the orientation of the displayed reticle is changed to match the one you see in your polar scope.
- Put Polaris where indicated on the app.
Other Methods To Achieve A Precise Polar Alignment
If you don’t see Polaris (or Octans), you can still polar align by using the so-called drift align methods, and one of the most common is the DARV Alignment.
You can also do electronically assisted polar alignment, using a computer, some software and a camera. The most common options are the Omegon StarShot P1 and the QHY PoleMaster.
You can also use a guiding camera connected to a computer running software such as SharpCap Pro.
More in the spirit of astrophotography on the move, is the ZWO ASIAIR PRO: this raspberry computer is controlled via WiFi from your phone or tablet and can be used to Polar Align and to guide your star adventurer, but also to image with astro cameras or a Canon/Nikon DSLR.
Use A Right Angle Viewfinder For A More Comfortable Polar Alignment
To make polar alignment more comfortable and to avoid kneeling on the ground, you can get a right-angle viewfinder for the polar scope.
How To Balance The Payload On The Star Adventurer
Balancing the payload will improve tracking and reduce the stress on the mount.
As a rule of thumb, you should balance the right ascension slightly “east-heavy,” so to reduce the slack between the gears in the mount and the threaded worm.
With the clutch undone, place yourself to the side of the polar scope: since North is in front of you, make sure the balance is slightly heavier in the east direction (your right).
With heavy payloads, it helps to balance also in the declination. You can do this by mounting your gear on a prism rail combined to a clamp on the Fine-Tuning Mounting Assembly.
How To Frame Your Target
How To Frame Your Shot With The Fine-Tuning Mounting Assembly And No Ball Head
What they do not realize is that with two degrees of freedom, namely the right ascension and declination, they can point the camera in any direction they need.
If the gear is mounted using a lens collar or tube rings, one can rotate the camera, thus regaining control over the camera orientation.
A ball head not only is superfluous for deep sky and planetary astrophotography, but it also introduces flexures and makes it difficult to balance the payload, thus reducing the tracking performances of the mount.
How To Frame Your Target By Using A Hot Shoe Red Dot Star Finder
Now that you know how to frame any point in the sky, you need to know how to find your target. The easiest way to do so is when your target is visible, or it sits “next” to a visible star.
While “invisible,” the Horsehead Nebula is easy to frame even with long focal telephoto lenses as it is “next” the bright star Alnitak, in Orion’s belt.
Often, all you need is an affordable red dot star finder to mount on your camera hot shoe.
To frame your target, look through the star finder and move the payload so that the red dot superposes to your target (or the region where this is).
How To Frame Invisible Target By Taking Advantage Of The Date & Time Graduation Circles
With the help of your smartphone running an app such as Stellarium (Android, iOS) or Sky Guide (iOS), if you add a graduation circle to the Fine-Tuning Mounting Assembly, so that you can measure changes in declination, you can frame any target you want, visible or not, large or small.
As usual, an example will help to understand the procedure, so let’s assume you want to photograph the Heart Nebula, near Cassiopeia. This nebula is not visible with the naked eye.
In Sky Guide, you can select the nearest bright star in Cassiopeia, epsilon-Cassiopeiae, and check its current right ascension (01h 55m 50s) and declination (+63º 46′ 22″).
In the same way, the same app can tell you the current right ascension and declination for the Heart Nebula: 02h 35m 09s and +61º 31’ 02”, respectively.
All you have to do to frame the invisible Heart Nebula is:
- Center epsilon-Cassiopeiae in the frame using a red dot star finder;
- Check which mark of the Date Graduation Circle is aligned to the mark for midnight in the Time Graduation Circle;
- Move the payload so that the mark of the Date Graduation Circle that was aligned to midnight rotates counterclockwise of 40 min;
- Reduce the declination of 2º;
- Take a test shot, and you should have the Heart Nebula centered in the frame.
Astrokraken sells a neat 3D printed scale for the Fine-Tuning Mounting Assembly of the Star Adventurer.
Simple, fast, and without the need for complicated setups for real-time plate solving.
The Star Adventurer is a low-budget mount, and as such, you may expect some compromise in the building quality.
Quality control feels a bit random, with units performing great while others having all sorts of annoying problems: stiff rotation, loose dials, etc.
And then there is the normal maintenance, like removing the backlash to improve tracking accuracy and re-greasing.
If you are experiencing problems with your Star Adventurer, have a look at our maintenance guide.
This maintenance guide targets all the Star Adventurer PRO models (black, red, and white/green), the new Star Adventurer 2i, with Wi-Fi capabilities, and the Kenko SKYMEMO S, which looks exactly like the older Star Adventurer PRO.
Use A Sturdy Tripod To Get The Most Out Your Star Adventurer
The Star Adventurer is a very capable little mount that can sit on any photographic tripod, making it a convenient choice for astrophotographers on the move.
But a tracker is only as good as the tripod on which it is mounted on, and stability is king.
When you choose the tripod for your Star Adventurer, prefer beefy ones, with maximum payload well above the actual weight of the equipment you will put on it.
This also guarantees vibrations are dumped quickly.
This video below shows the effect of focusing a 600mm lens with the Star Adventurer mounted on a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod and on the Skywatcher Stainless Steel Photographic Tripod.
If you do not need extreme portability, the SkyWatcher Stainless Steel photographic tripod is arguably the best tripod you could put under your Star Adventurer.
Affordable, this tripod weighs 6kg and has an impressive maximum payload of 30kg. Vibrations are dumped very quickly too.
If you need to backpack with your equipment, you probably want something lighter than the Stainless Steel tripod.
Good photographic tripods such as the Manfrotto 055XPROB and the Benro TMA 37-A can give excellent results if you care to fully extend the legs, to keep them low and stable.
To further stabilize your tripod, you can hang below it your camera bag or other heavy items.
It is important to hang your weight with an elastic cord and to let the weight touch lightly the ground so that it will not swing midair.
If you are on soft ground, you can hammer in the ground a tent peg and tension the elastic cord between the tripod and the peg, as shown in the image below.
3D Print Your Own Accessories
As I said before, the Star Adventurer is one of the most common trackers out there, and many people are working to improve the user experience and the usability of the tracker.
If only a few years ago, one had to rely on what manufacturers made available on the market today, with the diffusion of 3D printers, everyone could design and create their own range of accessories, adapters, brackets, etc.
Thingiverse is a website where you can find 3D printing projects, many of which can be freely downloaded for personal use to 3D print what you need. And a good number of projects are related to the Star Adventurer.
Among the others, my friend Steven Doye also has some interesting projects for the Star Adventurer, such as:
- Glow in the dark polar scope illuminator
- Adapter for QHY PoleMaster
- A set of tools for maintaining the Star Adventurer
If you need something you cannot find on the market (or it is too expensive), but you have access to a 3D printer or a 3D printing service, remember to have a look for suitable projects on Thingiverse and similar websites.
Astrophotography With SkyWatcher Star Adventurer
Once you make sure your Star Adventurer is well-tuned and you have put in practice the tips for its setup and use we have discussed in this guide, your photography will move forward in giant leaps.
Here are some examples of what an amateur like me can get with the Star Adventurer.
As usual, you can find many more images taken with the Star Adventurer by looking at what people using this tracker have posted on astrobin.
The SkyWatcher Star Adventurer is a high performing star tracker, but to squeeze the most out of it, you need to spend a bit of time to get to know it.
In this guide, we have discussed how to verify everything is working correctly, how to take care of it, and how to do maintenance to keep it performing well.
We have also learned the proper way to set up and use the Star Adventurer for the best results possible.