Plus: Starfield recognition software; ease of use; excellent smartphone app
Minus: Low-resolution images; WiFi frequently loses connection; very expensive
A hybrid between a connected telescope and a camera that lets you capture galaxies, nebulae and star clusters, Vaonis Stellina’s (MSRP: $3999) unique design isn’t perfect, but it is surely a sign of smart ‘scopes to come.
A telescope with no eyepiece may not sound like a telescope at all, but there’s something strange going on inside the French-designed Stellina.
Claiming to be the world’s first ‘smart telescope’, the Stellina operates solely off a 10,000 mAh portable battery – the kind you might use to recharge your smartphone – and indeed must be controlled and used with a smartphone.
At its core of this is a refractor telescope, with an aperture of just 80mm/3.15-inches. It boasts a focal length of 400mm/15.75-inch, along with a 1-degree-by-0.7-degree field of view and 50x optical magnification.
However, what really makes the Stellina stand out is its CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) sensor. Sony-made, it records images in 6.4 megapixels in both JPEG and raw file formats. Like a computer, it works on a four-core 1.4 Ghz processor.
This is astrophotography by smartphone. After physically connecting to the smartphone in your pocket to obtain your GPS position, it uses starfield recognition software to calibrate itself. Watching the telescope move on its own to figure out where it is and what it’s looking at is a thing of wonder, though alignment can take 10 minutes.
Considering how complicated it can be for beginners to align old-fashioned telescopes using bright stars they may not be familiar with, automatic systems like Stellina’s surely have a big future. It’s fast and accurate, and within minutes the user can be scanning through the Stellina’s free smartphone app for targets to point and shoot at.
The 24.7lb/11.2kg Stellina, which sits atop a Gitzo tripod, is its own mini observatory. As well as being able to choose from a list of stars, star clusters, nebulae and other deep-sky objects, the app’s catalogue is pre-loaded with specific magnification and focus data, so the user literally had nothing to do aside from choosing what to look at.
Once Stellina is tracking an object – something it slews to and locks on to quickly – it gets into some serious astrophotography techniques. It presents a live image on your phone of what it can see, using real-time stacking (and a light pollution filter) to gradually improve the contrast and clarity of the image. It worked like a treat on the Ring Nebula (M57), a target usually invisible from where I observe from. Ditto the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules (M13).
The only problem during my review was that my smartphone frequently lost connection to the Stellina, and the latter had to be re-initialized, which was frustrating. Aside from that, spending an entire evening doing astronomy outside and yet, rarely lifting my eyes from my smartphone, didn’t leave me with as much a sense of enjoyment as I had hoped.
Of European design, but shipping to the United States and Canada from an American warehouse, Stellina is less a ‘smart telescope’ and more a ‘smartphone telescope’. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an impressive product and surely heralds a new way for telescopes to be designed. Whether you want to be away from an eyepiece looking only at a smartphone is debatable – the Stellina certainly won’t appeal to all – but the way it aligns automatically with the stars is an undoubted advance.
UPDATE: Vaonis has announced their latest smart scope, Vespera, for which they are running a Kickstarter campaign until Oct. 31, 2020.