Gears & Gadgets

The $3,000 eVscope makes stargazing easy and fun

When you work with the world’s best space reporter, it’s hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm for the starry skies. Unfortunately for me, light pollution in my Chicago suburb makes stargazing, watching the Perseid meteor showers, and checking out other cool astronomical phenomena a dicey proposition. Even if we get a clear night, the sky is bright enough that watching the nighttime skies is an exercise in frustration.

So when I got an email touting the Unistellar eVscope and its ability to cut through light pollution and give a clear view of the heavens no matter where you are, I was intrigued. Even better, I had the ideal test setup: my home in suburban Chicago and my family’s place a few miles outside of Shelbyville, Illinois (about 70 miles from Springfield). I could stargaze from a suburban backyard and the edge of a cornfield to see if the eVscope lived up to the hype.

An accumulation of light

The eVscope emerged from a Kickstarter campaign launched in late 2017. In an attempt to “give the sky back to all of us,” Unistellar promised a “compact, intelligent, and powerful telescope” that was not only simple to use but could also enable city dwellers to see objects like galaxies and nebulae that couldn’t be seen through traditional telescopes.

Unistellar claims that the eVscope’s “Enhanced Vision” is a hundred times more powerful than a “regular” telescope. On the hardware side, this is accomplished with 50x optical magnification and 400x digital magnification. The eVscope has a 450mm focal length, a 4.5-inch (11.43mm) mirror, and a focal ratio of f/4. For my testing, I was happy to find it to be easily transportable: including the tripod, it weighs in at 19.8lb (9kg) and measures 25.6in by 9in (63cm by 23cm). Unistellar claims a battery life of 10 hours. While I didn’t measure that directly, I had the telescope for eight weeks, used it several times, and only had to charge it once.

Watching the sky

Inside the eVscope box is a USB-C charger, tripod, and instruction manual, along with the telescope. You’ll need to download the Android or iOS app, depending on what kind of smartphone you have, as the telescope is operated entirely via the app. Setting the eVscope up is very easy—all you really need is a relatively flat surface. The tripod has a built-in level—it’s important to set it up as level as possible, as being even slightly off-kilter will affect the eVscope’s accuracy when you tell it to zoom in on a celestial object. Once you have the tripod in position, line up the base of the telescope mount with the tripod, tighten the screws to hold it in place, and you’re all set. It’s ridiculously easy.

There is not much in the way of controls on the telescope itself, just a power button, status light, and adjustable live projection system (an eyepiece with a small display inside). That’s where the app comes in. Once the telescope powers on, a new Wi-Fi network will show up on your phone. Connect to it, launch the Unistellar app, and you’re ready to stare at the night skies.

The first thing the eVscope needs to do is figure out where it is. That happens via a combination of a built-in compass, GPS from your smartphone, and a clear view of the heavens. Using the digital joystick on the app, point the telescope in a direction with a wide-open view—not a problem in central Illinois; tougher in suburban Chicago. Then adjust the focus via the massive focus wheel at the base of the telescope (if you’re so inclined, you can also use the Bahtinov mask embedded in the lens cap for further tweaking). Let it know if you’re in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, then press the auto-alignment button, and the eVscope will take up to a couple of minutes to orient itself with its patent-pending autonomous field detection. Once that’s done, you’re ready to look at cool stuff.

Manual or automatic

The first thing I wanted to look at was Mars. I could see it in the eastern sky the first night I used the eVscope, so I used the app to manually swing the telescope around. The motorized altitude-azimuth mount made a quiet whirr as I maneuvered the scope, watching the stars blur by on my iPhone screen as it homed in on Mars. I was rewarded by the sight of a dusky-red, slightly blurry dot. Zooming in and out is performed with the two-finger pinch familiar to anyone who has ever used a smartphone.

It’s a lot easier—and more rewarding—to use the built-in navigation features of the eVscope. Head over to the Explore tab at the bottom of the app and you’ll see a long list of celestial objects viewable from your location. They’re grouped by category: galaxies, nebulae, planets, clusters, and so forth. The Unistellar app helpfully recommends objects that offer the best viewing experience, a list that changes based on the calendar, your location, time of night, and other conditions.

That first night, the Omega Nebula popped up in the recommended objects, so I touched its icon and the telescope began its movement. As the telescope located and homed in on the Omega Nebula, a process that took around 90 seconds, I read a description of the nebula the app helpfully showed me. Omega came into view, but it was off center, so I fiddled with the virtual joystick until it was centered and then hit the Enhanced Vision button. With EV activated, the eVscope “collects” light, so the celestial object gets brighter and clearer over time. The result is almost jaw-dropping—the kind of detail that is just not a part of everyday experience.

And it’s easy to share the amazing views. Unlike a conventional telescope, where everyone takes turns looking through the eyepiece, the eVscope supports up to eight users at once. One person is designated as the operator and everyone else can watch the stars on their smartphones in observer mode. While I did check things out in the eyepiece, I found the Unistellar app was really the way to go. You’re seeing essentially the same thing in both places. And there’s no need for a camera adapter, as you can save images directly to your phone’s photo library from within the app.

Enhanced Vision is not the best option when you want to look at other planets, as they will look blown out. In addition to the red planet, I checked out Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. By manually adjusting the contrast and brightness, I was able to get the bright blobs to resolve into dimmer and slightly blurry planets. I would’ve liked a clearer view of the planets, but the eVscope doesn’t do anything that a conventional telescope can’t do when it comes to looking at our neighbors within the Solar System. Where the eVscope really shines is looking at the far-away stuff.

Beyond searching and gazing at the skies, you can also do some citizen science. Unistellar has partnered with the SETI Institute so users can connect to a network of citizen astronomers and participate in worldwide viewing events.

Suburban skies

It’s easy to stargaze out in the country, but what about in the suburbs? The toughest part of setting up the eVscope in my backyard was finding a level enough place that had a relatively open view of the sky. I eventually settled on a piece of sidewalk about halfway between our house and detached garage. Looking at the light pollution and the paucity of stars, I was not optimistic as I powered up the eVscope and told it to do its thing. I was surprised at the result.

Andromeda showed up on the Explore tab, and within seconds of locking in on the far-off galaxy, its features began to resolve on my iPhone XS Max. I left the scope locked in on Andromeda for seven minutes, and the image became clearer and brighter on my phone as Unistellar’s Enhanced Vision did its thing. Aside from the restricted field of view due to trees and houses, using the eVscope in suburban Chicago was just as rewarding as in central Illinois.

Conclusion

This is an expensive piece of gear, no doubt about it. After all, you can get a more basic telescope for less than one-tenth the price of the eVscope. There are also cheaper telescopes with built-in GoTo functionality, with some retailing for as little as $ 500.

Where the eVscope shines is in its ease of use. The time from opening the box to gazing at some beautiful nebula can be minimal. The smartphone app is well thought-out. One night in Shelbyville, my wife, two kids, my parents, and our neighbor were able to marvel at sights we’d never seen before outside of a planetarium or documentary—all at the same time on our own smartphones. We were able to have a similar experience in our suburban backyard.

More importantly, with its digital sensor and onboard image processing, the eVscope makes it possible to see sights that remain hidden from much of the lesser-priced competition. And the ease of use cannot be overstated—Unistellar’s tag line about enabling citizen astronomy rings true, especially for beginners. Is all of that worth $ 3,000? That’s up to you.

The Good

  • Well-designed, informative, and easy-to-use smartphone app
  • Getting the eVscope up and running is a snap
  • Celestial object database makes finding and viewing celestial bodies easy
  • Up to nine people can stargaze at the same time
  • Works about as well in light-polluted areas as it does in the country
  • App updates bring additional features.

The Bad

  • GoTo function is slightly off if telescope isn’t level
  • Focusing via the Bahtinov mask is fussy.

The Ugly

  • The $ 2,999 price tag—but if you’ve got the cash for this sort of purchase and an interest in astronomy, you won’t regret it.

The Beautiful

  • Seeing the majesty of the night skies in a way I had never experienced before.

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Tech – Ars Technica

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