Sunday, January 21, 2024


Issue 600: Smartscope Revolution?


ZWO SeeStar S50
Issue 600, muchachos?! If somebody had told me 18 years ago that the Little Old AstroBlog from Chaos Manor South would still be around and going strong in 2024, I’d have laughed. Actually, it goes back even farther than that, to almost 25 years ago and AOL’s old blogspace. No, it’s not quite what it was in the go-go days of the amateur astronomy explosion of the 1990s and early 2000s, but, yeah, here we still are more or less...

Not long after I retired, I found for various reasons I had to back off the weekly blog releases I’d done for years and years. For a while thereafter, it was hard for me to buckle down and get a blog out the door every few months. There was one year, 2019, when there was one new entry. For the whole freaking year (one of my excuses is in 2019 I delivered TWO new books to their publishers). Eventually, however, I adjusted to retired life, the Universe, and everything, found I missed doing this, and, yeah, here we are. The last year or so, I've even found I don’t have to make myself do the AstroBlog. I want to again.

Twenty-five years, yeah. Retirement. Getting older with a capital “O.” Your old Uncle put up a brave fight and played Peter Pan up until the fricking pandemic, which kinda took the wind out of me sails. Now, I have to admit age ain’t just a number as some boomers like to say. Hit the big 7-0 as Unk has, and you’ll gain a real understanding of that every freaking morning when you get out of bed. To the accompaniment of more aches and pains.

None of which means I don’t observe or at least want to. It’s just getting harder. A recent Sky & Telescope assignment required me to set up a scope and a mount and a computer and do some imaging, somethin’ I hadn’t done a lot of in the last several annums. It was doable for me mainly because of the stretch of OK weather we were having. Once I got the telescope set up, I could leave her (the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel) outside under a cover for multiple nights.

Not that getting her, an AVX mount, etc., etc. into the yard was a treat. Neither was operating her when she was set up. Not so much because of age, but because of the accident I suffered in 2019. One of my multiple injuries was a compound fracture of my right arm. The docs did a good job of putting me back together with the aid of screws and metal plates. But I noted none of ‘em assured me I’d be as good as new.

Five years down the line, I have regained most lost dexterity. I can get on my Vibroplex keyer and send Morse code at 30 words-per-minute again. BUT…  It’s clear the strength in that arm is not coming back. I can very easily drop something if I am not careful, and the arm will quickly warn me if I try “too heavy.” Ever since the accident I have also, strangely, found my ability to endure the cold much reduced. To top if all off, I have developed a lingering and seemingly unreasoning fear of falling in the dark. None of this a recipe for setting up and operating old-fashioned astrophotography rigs. Or big, complicated telescopes of any kind.

So, what have I done when I want to observe? I’ve mostly kept it simple. I can still get my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, into the backyard if I am careful, take is slowly, and use a hand truck on bad days. Her simple operation means my fuzzy-headedness as the hours grow late (as in 11pm) is not going to cause a major equipment disaster.  It’s not a night when I feel like wrestling with Z? One of my smaller refractors on my SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount serves me well when I get cosmic wanderlust.

Equinox II
I still love my big 6-inch achromat and Losmandy mount. But. The last time I tried to get that OTA on the Losmandy I nearly dropped her and injured myself in the process. I hope to get that big glass out this summer for a stroll through the wonders of the season, but night-in-and-night-out, it’s clearly best if I stay with simple.

Which brings us to our subject this morning, smart telescopes. “Wut’s they-at, Unk?” If you’ve been under a rock the last three-four years, they are a new breed of scope. Most are small-aperture short focal length reflectors or refractors on alt-azimuth mounts. While at least one allows you to view objects with a built-in display, most depend on your smart phone for both display and control. And the big deal with all is something most of us have experimented with:  taking and stacking many short exposures (like 10 seconds) into finished images. All feature goto via plate solving and include the usual frippery like GPS.

 I knew about these scopes almost from the beginning since an old friend and accomplished observer, Jack Estes, was an early adopter and has shared the images he’s obtained with his Unistellar smartscope with me on occasion. I had to admit I was impressed. But, somehow, the whole thing seemed like heresy. Like cheating. I wasn’t quite ready to hang up my Peter Pan duds.  I’d sold my C11. Was I now going to embrace a tiny telescope that sat in the backyard and took pictures for me as I sat in the warm den?

Well, why the Hell not? Would it really be such a come down? The thing is seeing. If that means with a big scope and an eyepiece…or a smaller scope and a Mallincam extreme…or a tiny scope and a digital camera, that’s still seeing the Universe, ain’t it? I never felt like the Mallincam was a compromise; it was just the opposite. It expanded my horizons from the Messier and NGC to the dim and distant marvels that lie beyond them.

Vespera II
The question that remained was whether one of these small scopes could get the job done. From what I’d seen and heard from Jack and from other observers, it was clear these little telescopes can produce deep sky images that please. No, one wouldn’t go as deep as the Xtreme and C8 would in a minute or so. But allowed to stack images for longer, they could go deep. Real deep. And produce images that looked far prettier and more finished than what my analog Mallincams can do. Keep in mind these scopes are mainly for the deep sky. They can produce nice full-disk images of the Moon and Sun, but the image scale is not suited for the planets. 

I began to think all signs pointed to a smartscope as being what I needed to get me observing more frequently again. Then, of course, the question became which one?

So, who do we have here?

Unistellar’s instruments, most of which are 4-inch reflectors, go from around $2000 to $5000. The middle of the road is the Equinox II.  Unlike some of the more expensive Unistellars, it doesn’t feature the unique electronic eyepiece technology that makes you feel like you’re using a “real” telescope. Instead, like other smartscopes, it depends on your phone for display of the images produced by its Sony IMX347 sensor, and communicates over Wi-Fi. Seemed nice. But…I dunno. $2500 made Unk skittish despite the fairly impressive pictures I’ve seen from these scopes.

Vaonis produces several different models. The one I’ve heard the most talk about, however, is the futuristic looking Vespera II ($1590 without field tripod or case). It’s a 50mm f/5 refractor, and features the usual things: built-in camera, automatic stacking and—necessary for an alt-azimuth telescope, natch—field de-rotation to prevent star trailing. Various filters that fit on the front of the OTA are available as options. The image sensor is a Sony IMX 585.

Cheap as your old Unk is…investing in a technology I wasn’t sure I’d like to the tune of well over a thousand dollars didn’t seem smart, smart telescope or not. Then I heard about a Chinese company, Dwarf Labs

Dwarf II
The Dwarf II is a rather odd looking smartscope—it looks more like a…I dunno…can opener? Clock radio? —than a telescope. But it was clear to me from the images produced by it that the Dwarf and its Sony IMX415 sensor get ‘er done. And get ‘er done for less than $500.  The only “I dunno” for me being its very small (26mm) aperture. As with the Vespera, filters are available that fit over the objective end.

I don’t know why I was surprised when Celestron announced recently that it’s getting into the smartscope game. Anyhoo, it’s a sign these little scopes are going to be a big factor in amateur astronomy going forward. Probably including Celestron’s not-so-little new one, the Origin. Yes, it really kicks things up a notch. This is a larger Smartscope, based on a 6-inch aperture f/2.2 version of their Rowe Ackerman astrograph OTA.

The Origin is mounted on a pretty standard-looking Evolution mount…but obviously that’s been upgraded with some fancier firmware. The brains are in part from Celestron’s StarSense autoguider technology. Their Smart Dew-removal system is also incorporated—I was impressed by that when I did the S&T Test Report on it a while back. Finally, the mount can be placed on a wedge and used in equatorial fashion with a guide camera, giving it the capability of much longer than 10-second exposures. Impressive specs, indeed, I had to admit.

The images taken by the Origin and its Sony IMX178LQJ chip displayed on the Celestron pages look good. Impressive, even. But…well…the chip is similar to what’s in the other smartscopes, so the Origin pictures are not in a whole other category. On the good side, Celestron says the onboard camera can be replaced by possible future models (I would assume from 3rd party manufacturers, too).

So, did I preorder an Origin? No. It wasn’t so much the 4K price tag that dissuaded me (though, of course, it did), but the fact the Origin is right back in the “getting difficult for Unk to handle” category. It’s substantially larger than my ETX-125, Charity Hope Valentine, and she is pretty much the limit of what I’ll use frequently.

Celestron Origin
Which left a smartscope I’d heard about a lot recently. ZWO’s SeeStar S50. Despite the somewhat corny name, I was impressed by what I’d heard about it, what Dennis di Cicco had written about it in his recent S&T test report, and by the images I’d seen. This is a 50mm f/5 refractor that uses a Sony IMX462 sensor. Unlike any of the others, though, there’s a built-in filter wheel and an included LPR filter. A solar filter is also provided that fits over the objective (third parties make filter holders for your own 2-inch filters), there is an integral dew-heater, and, best of all for your miserly Uncle, the price is about $500. 

I still wasn’t sure…but screwing my courage to the sticking place, I ordered one and wondered if I’d done the right thing or not. I trust ZWO—I’ve used one of their planetary cameras for years—but a smartscope? For me? Really?

And then…and then...  We are out of time and space for this morning, and Unk is waiting for the ZWO to arrive as he writes this. I will be back with the big reveal in a week or three, after I’ve had some time with the new telescope.

Great that you are still using your ETX-125. Although I have a permanent observatory with a Meade 12" LX600, I occasionally still like to use one of my much smaller telescopes. But age is catching up with me, unlike you youngsters. Looking forward to learning about your experiences with the SeeStar.
I've had my Seestar since late November and love it! It's so easy to quickly setup and the images are remarkable especially for a 50mm aperture. I agree with Dennis' review. I look forward to your review.
The Seestar 50 is quite the item at our astronomy club. Very popular. Looking forward to your review, Unk.
Great article! I can certainly relate to everything you have mentioned!

I cannot wait to hear of your experiences with the new scope!

I have ordered one also. I am just waiting for warmer temperatures and some clear nights.

Good choice, Rod. I was a crowd funder for Unistellar. I love my eQ1, and we bought a very popular one for the EAAA as well. I also crowd funded the Dwarf 2, and love its wide field of view, portability, but found it difficult to use and at first, a very limited object library; the new update recently added many more objects to its catalog, but still most difficult of the group to use. You will soon love ZWO's See StarS 50. It is the easiest to et upand use by far, and its star atlas will be a great asset for any beginner to leqrn the real sky. WE now have six of them in the EAAA, since I got mine bck in August.

AT 75 nd with Parkinsons, I sold or gave away at Starline 10" f/7 dequatorial newsonitan, ACelestron C-8, a Criterion RV-6, and 6" Quantuum Mak. All too heavy for me to set upand use safely. Thinking I might be able to handle a Celetron Origin 6" RASA for Christmas, but very Satisfied with eVscope eQ1, Dwarf II, See Star, Lunt 60, and SkyWatcher Mak 102. All light, portable, easy to set up and store. Thnk I will take the Dwarf II and See Star to Arkansas in April.

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