Amateurs Are Aiding the Pros with the Unistellar eVscope

In collaboration with the SETI Institute, a network of amateur astronomers uses the Unistellar eVscope smartscope to collect data for scientific research. Credit: Unistellar

A ‘tech arms race’ has always existed between amateur and professional astronomy. As apertures got larger and image processing techniques more sophisticated in the late 20th century, capabilities to go deeper and fainter trickled down from professionals to the amateur community. Now, the new crop of smartscopes may add a worldwide network of astronomical eyes to the amateur arsenal.

The Potential for Networking

Leading this push is Unistellar’s new smartphone-controlled eVscope. We recently had the opportunity to put an eVscope through its paces, and were impressed with its ability to tease out faint deep-sky targets, under even bright urban skies. But Unistellar wants to do more than just produce pretty pictures; the company wants to put the capability to do real science in the hands of users.

A network of eVscope users has now been created in collaboration with The SETI Institute. SETI sends out alerts for events based on geographical location beforehand.

Some of the observing possibilities for a smartphone-controlled network, with promising early results, include:

  • Asteroid occultations. When an asteroid passes in front of a star, a brief dimming event known as an occultation occurs, as the ‘shadow’ of the space rock sweeps across the Earth. If enough observers can document the precise disappearance and appearance time of the star, a shadow profile of the asteroid can be constructed. This technique was dramatically validated as NASA’s New Horizons confirmed the twin-lobbed structure of 486958 Arrokoth in 2019, a fact first hinted at by amateur observations during an occultation campaign prior to the flyby. Steve Preston maintains a site listing dozens of asteroid occultations of stars each month . The Unistellar network nabbed the occultation of an +8th magnitude star by asteroid 2000 UD52 in early April 2020.
  • Asteroid hunting and characterization. The network can also be used to hunt for Near-Earth asteroids as the software looks for out of place ‘wandering stars’ moving against the background of fixed stars. Users have already observed occultations of distant stars by Near-Earth asteroids to determine their size and shape as part of a planetary defense effort. Mapping-asteroid light curves also determines their rotation rates.
  • Exoplanet transits. One of the leading modern methods to discover exoplanets is watching for a slight dip in the brightness of the host star, as the unseen exoplanet transits across its disk as seen from our line of sight. This method was utilized by the Kepler space telescope and is currently used by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Unistellar has used the eVscope system to perform follow up observations of transiting exoplanets, including an observation of exoplanet Qatar-1 b. This also raises the tantalizing possibility that a smartscope could be used to discover a transiting exoplanet… from your backyard.
Light curve of Qatar-1 b showing the dip in light caused by the exoplanet blocking a bit of its star’s light as it crosses in front of it. Credit: SETI Institute

This also raises other possibilities for a worldwide network of smartscopes.  Such a network could, for example, monitor variable stars, to include cataclysmic variables and known recurrent novae for outbursts. It could also be on the lookout for new novae and comets, by comparing background stars in its plate-solving program, looking for new objects. The same automatic comparison could be done while users are causally observing galaxies, by comparing the current image with an archived one looking for new supernovae.

Some current sky survey networks such as WASP and Super-WASP (The Wide-Angle Search for Planets project) use commercially available, off-the-shelf hardware. In the case of WASP, the detectors are made up of a simple configuration with multiple Canon DSLR cameras equipped with 200mm lenses and 200 mm lenses. I can envision a similar array of eVscopes in small fixed mini-observatories in the near future, patiently patrolling the sky.

Professional competition is coming right up, as surveys such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) are set to up the game early in the coming decade. It will be exciting to see what sort of new and wonderful discoveries are made, once the new batch of smartscopes see first light.

SETI Institute:

Unistellar eVscope:

About David Dickinson

David is a freelance science writer, frequent contributor to Sky & Telescope and Universe Today, author of several astronomy books and long-time amateur astronomer. He lives with his wife Myscha in Norfolk, Virginia.

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