Unistellar’s eVscope has proven its ability to do serious astronomy, with more to come in 2022.
There’s a revolution underway in how amateur astronomers contribute to modern astronomy. Smartscopes—telescopes controlled remotely via tablets or smartphones—are making there way into the modern amateur telescope market and out into the field. These have the ability to not only bring deep-sky astronomy to light-polluted urbanites, but to lower the bar for entry into deep-sky astrophotography. One of the leading manufacturers of smartscopes is Unistellar. First offered as a Kickstarter project in 2017, Unistellar’s line now includes the eVscope eQuinox, and the new eVscope2.
The Age of Smartscopes
But beyond just providing pretty pictures and a tour of the night sky, eVscope users are contributing to some serious science, in a big way. This is always the hallmark of any new breakthrough in technology: you never know what wild and wonderful directions that people will take it in, once it’s unleashed. We recently caught up with Unistellar’s Chief Scientific Officer Franck Marchis, (also Senior Planetary Astronomer at the SETI Institute), on where astronomy with these unique telescopes may be headed.
“As an astronomer, when you arrive in a control room, everything is ready: you just enter the coordinates, or just the name of the target,” says Marchis. “I always wondered why we don’t do that for amateur astronomers.”
We’ve recently reviewed the eVscope, eQuinox telescope, and the main competitor on the market, Vaonis’s Stellina. Unistellar’s eVscope and eQuinox are built around a simple 4.5-inch mirror reflector. The unit is ultra-portable and lightweight at 19.8 lbs (9kg). Setup is as simple as locking the unit on the tripod, bonding it to the app via WiFi, adjusting the focus, and letting the scope plate-solve its location and pointing direction in the sky.
But it’s the science efforts underway with Unistellar that really set it apart. The Unistellar application has a tab devoted just to science and astronomy campaigns.
One unique effort is looking at asteroid occultations of bright stars. These events feature a background star ‘winking out’ briefly as the foreground asteroid moves in front of it, casting a ‘shadow’ across the Earth. If enough observers can catch and time these cords, we can outline the profile shape of the asteroid. Tiny unseen moonlets of asteroids have also been observed as brief events near the main occultation. Already, Unistellar campaigns have looked at Patroclus, Orus and 11351 Leucus, in support of NASA’s Lucy Mission to the Trojan asteroids.
Next up, Unistellar campaigns have made followup observations of transiting exoplanets. That’s right. Amateurs can now detect the tiny fluctuation in brightness as an unseen world passes in front of its host star, from their own driveway. Already, Unistellar has demonstrated this ability during campaigns to monitor Kepler-167b and HD 80606 b, and sends out alerts for periodic upcoming events.
Unistellar citizen astronomer Kevin Voeller also recently collected data on exoplanet WASP-148b.
Which begs the question of the possibility for users to discover planets as well. Certainly, the ability is there for dedicated networks of Unistellar ‘scopes. The telescope could also be used to monitor variable stars and follow and discover galactic novae and extra-galactic supernovae as well.
Teams have also followed near-Earth asteroids with the Unistellar telescope, characterizing their rotation rate as they fluctuate in brightness. One such recent campaign revolved around the close Earth flybys of asteroids 1994 PC1 and 4660 Nereus. This is all part of Unistellar’s ‘planetary defense’ effort; you can’t have too many telescopes out there worldwide looking for flying space rocks.
And speaking of distant objects, users have recently used Unistellar telescopes to track the James Webb Space Telescope en route to its new home at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point. Nearly a million miles from the Earth, JWST moves like a distant satellite against the starry background. Unistellar has documented 110 JWST observations thus far, and noted the variability of the observatory after sunshield deployment as a 6 hour ‘flash’ or glint, seen mainly due to the rotational position of the observer on Earth.
“Our community is excited that they see this, that they connect to JWST so it’s very good outreach, and good science,” says Marchis. “learning that the ‘glint’ off JWST happens and why it happens could be useful in the future.”
This also raises the possibility of using a Unistellar telescope to track satellites (perhaps even classified, unpublished satellites) in distant High Earth (HEO) or geostationary/geosynchronous (GEO) orbits.
Finally, the eVscope has the potential to track and find comets. Already, we’ve seen users follow the fine apparitions of comet F3 NEOWISE in 2020 and A1 Leonard at the end of 2021.
What’s next for Unistellar? Later this year, the team plans to lead efforts to follow an occultation of asteroid Didymos near Abu Dhabi, leading up to the impact of NASA’s DART mission on the asteroid’s tiny moon Dimorphos on September 26th, 2022. The team also has plans for satellite tracking, to include characterizing the brightness of Starlink and OneWeb satellite constellations, improved access to data cloud storage and more.
“The important part is that we’re not just a company that which is building telescopes,” says Marchis. “We see ourselves as a company that is democratizing astronomy, so people can enjoy the dark sky.”
Just the recent Unistellar user statistics alone are impressive:
2021 summary statistics for exoplanet transits:
-413 observations by 100 different observers in 17 countries, with 92 detections.
2021 summary statistics for planetary defense:
-11 campaigns, by 95 users submitting 290 observations from 20 countries.
2021 summary statistics for asteroid occultations:
-214 occultation events attempted with 395 observations, 106 are positive (for a~27% positivity rate)
With the advent of the eVscope, we may be seeing as big a revolution in amateur astronomy as the introduction of Celestron’s orange-tube C8 telescope in the early 1970s. Having lived through the last half-century of amateur astronomy, it’s simply amazing how much has changed. Watch for more exciting astronomy to come!