I'm More Connected to the Universe Now Thanks to This Digital Telescope

The computer brains in the Unistellar EVscope 2 makes stargazing more accessible and engaging.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
The Unistellar EVscope 2 digital telescope mounted on a tripod and pointed upward

The Unistellar EVscope 2 uses its own computing smarts to figure out what stars it's pointed toward and tracks their movement with built-in motors.

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My wow moment with Unistellar's EVscope 2 arrived almost immediately after setting it up. As the digital telescope sent my phone a gradually improving image of the spiraling arms of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, I felt a bit of awe realizing that billions of stars had sent some photons across millions of light-years to the deck behind my house.

The image was crude by NASA space telescope standards, but I'd used the telescope to pluck it from the sky myself with no expertise with azimuth and altitude, no fiddling with filters, no setting up motors to compensate for the Earth's rotation. I relied on the telescope's smarts, but it was still so much more immediate than flipping through the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

The EVscope 2 sweeps away all such complications by identifying the stars it's seeing, slewing over to the object you've selected on your smartphone, then tracking it automatically. By stacking multiple frames captured with its digital image sensor, it can take reasonably good digital photos even when competing against suburban light pollution.

Watch this: This Smart Telescope Finds Celestial Objects for You

The EVscope's computing smarts make it relatively easy to find stars, planets, galaxies and nebulae in the night sky. At $3,999, or $4,299 with a custom backpack to carry it and its tripod, it's not going to be a casual purchase. For educators or enthusiasts, though, it's a great option. Its citizen science abilities are icing on the cake.

Serious astronomers might well stick with other designs, but the EVscope 2's software made it apparent that digital smarts can bring otherwise inaccessible technology into the reach of non-experts too. It feels a bit like cheating -- like using a phone app that recognizes bird calls to identify birds -- but exposing more people to astronomy is great.

My favorite subjects were M51 (and the galaxy it's tangling with, NGC 5195); M57, the Ring Nebula; and M31, Andromeda, the neighboring galaxy that will collide with our own Milky Way in 4 billion years to form a larger elliptical galaxy about 6 billion years. I also checked out Uranus, the Pleiades cluster; M92, a globular cluster; M63, the Sunflower Galaxy; M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy; and assorted other galaxies and nebulae. Individual stars weren't terribly exciting.

Henry Throop, a friend and professional astronomer, has used a Unistallar digital telescope during star parties and other public outreach events. He says it's great.

A photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy, a spiral galaxy tangling with a smaller nearby galaxy

A photograph I took with the Unistellar EVscope 2 of the Whirlpool Galaxy, a spiral galaxy tangling with a smaller neighbor. The digital telescope stacks individual photo frames to construct a useful image even if your sky suffers from some noise pollution.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"I can easily look at and image a dozen Messier objects in an hour," he said, breezing through the catalog of 110 prominent galaxies, nebulae and star clusters French astronomer Charles Messier began enumerating in 1771. Unistellar's technology shows off many sights that would be a fuzzy grey blob with a conventional telescope. "So many people have gotten really turned on by what they can see," he said.

The EVscope 2 captures images with a 7.7-megapixel image sensor. You can look through a Nikon-built digital eyepiece on the side of the scope, but I tended to use my phone more often. (Android phones and iPhones are supported.) France-based Unistellar also makes a lower-end $2,399 Equinox telescope with a lower resolution 4.9-megapixel image sensor and no eyepiece.

EVscope 2 hassles

The EVscope 2 is relatively easy to operate, but it still takes a bit of work. You have to level its tripod using its built-in bubble level, something best done in the daytime. You have to install Unistellar's controller app on your phone and connect it to the telescope's Wi-Fi network. Most tedious for me, you have to set the focus manually.

That takes a bit of work. You have to point the telescope at a reasonably bright object, pop a special screen called a Bahtinov mask onto the end of the telescope, then adjust focus gradually until you optimize a sort of X-marks-the-spot view of the star. With practice, it gets easier but not any less tedious.

a Unistellar EVscope 2 mounted on its tripod and pointed up toward a blue sky at dusk

The. Unistellar EVscope 2 is easier to operate than most telescopes, but clouds, city lights and bright moons cause problems. I took this shot in New Mexico, hoping for clear, low-humidity skies, but the clouds rolled in and blocked the stars.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

I encountered some hiccups using the EVscope 2. The Wi-Fi connection flaked out occasionally, and sometimes the telescope's plate solving system just couldn't seem to get its bearings even on relatively clear nights to locate the sights I wanted to see. I usually could fix the latter problem by manually steering it to a random different location and resetting its orientation fixing process. Even though you can run it from a comfortable warm room next door, don't carry your phone off to the other side of the house where it'll lose the network and spoil any photos you're capturing.

The hardest problems for me, though, weren't the telescope's fault. It doesn't work when it's cloudy or when reading my kid a bedtime story put me to sleep, too. The moon seriously hampers observations. Worst was a two-week trip to New Mexico, where I had high hopes for low light pollution, high elevation and low humidity. Alas, it was cloudy the entire time.

Citizen science frontiers

Unistellar telescopes have another major attribute: they can contribute to citizen science projects.

Most notably so far, 31 citizen scientists in nine countries used their Unistellar telescopes to help pin down how fast a Jupiter-like planet called Kepler-167e orbits its sun. The results were published in December in Astrophysical Journal Letters. Their method involved detecting a change in brightness when the planet passed in front of its sun.

A quartet of astronomical photos showing the Whirlpool Galaxy, Ring Nebula, Blue Oyster Nebula and Pleiades star cluster

I used the Unistellar EVscope 2 to take these photos from the Bay Area suburbs in California. Clockwise from upper left: M57, the Ring Nebula; M31, the Andromeda Galaxy; NGC 1501, the Blue Oyster Nebula; and M45, the Pleiades star cluster. Stars aren't much more than bright dots in Unistellar photos, but you can see some of the faint wisps of its dust cloud.

Stephen Shankand/CNET

That kind of work excites Throop. "A truckload of small telescopes can do a lot that JWST can't," he said, referring to the massive James Webb Space Telescope that's orbiting our sun about 900,000 miles away from the Earth. The Unistellar telescopes are "allowing the totally novice amateurs to also contribute."

Unistellar also releases coordinates that let people spot unusual objects like the Artemis 1 spacecraft on its return trip from the moon to Earth. Intriguingly, two observers spotted an as-yet unexplained 4-minute increase in Artemis 1's brightness on Dec. 7.

It's all enabled by Unistellar's smartphone controls, image processing skills and automated system for finding and tracking objects in the sky. It may not offer the image quality more serious astronomers and astrophotographers can obtain with patience, skill and very long exposures, but the EVscope's ease of use makes it useful to many people who otherwise wouldn't bother to gaze at the stars.