Uncle Rod’s Astro Blog: Issue 600: Smartscope Revolution?

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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.

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