Smart Scopes and the Future of Amateur Astronomy

Vaonis Stellina. Credit: Vaonis

I have seen the (possible) future of amateur astronomy.

We recently had a chance to put a Vaonis Stellina smartphone-controlled telescope (MSRP: $3999) through its paces. The rig was amazing: from our light-polluted observing site atop a parking lot garage in downtown Norfolk , Virginia we were actually able to go after deep sky objects, under a sky where you could barely make out the familiar shapes of Leo or the Big Dipper… and hey, it just worked straight out of the box, with little troubleshooting and technical problem-solving, another first for the dozen-odd telescopes we’d used and purchased over the years.

Old Ways…and New

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a long-time visual observer and well-practiced starhopper from way back. I actually prefer the old method of slewing across a star field through memorized groupings of stars to a target, and I still advise new observers to learn how to do the same. I can find the Messier 13 globular cluster and the Ring Nebula in Lyra as fast as any GoTo telescope, thank you very much.

But it’s a new day, and we love to tinker with new tech like any other amateur observer. We’ve often looked at the current crop of commercial telescopes and wondered: why are they still using tangles of cords? Why do telescope control displays still look like something from a 1970s desktop calculator, instead of sleek touch screen interfaces? Commercial television tech has had wireless infrared remote control since the 1980s… why can’t 21st-century telescopes incorporate the same?

There’s an argument to be made that telescope tech needs to catch up with the times… but are ‘smart scopes’ a good thing? Like many ‘tech-heads,’ I’ve built telescopes and observatories, simply to incorporate features that weren’t available commercially. This approach has its place too, and gives you an intimate appreciation for how things like optics and telescopes work. I once built a Newtonian telescope out of a stovepipe, just to have something to observe Comet 17/P Holmes while it was in outburst.

Still, I’m no Luddite when it comes to new tech. I can see a place for smart scopes, along with a few downfalls. Probably the biggest leap offered by Stellina – and other start-ups in the field such as Unistellar and Hiuni – is as a gateway into deep-sky imaging and observing. Many a first-time telescope owner starts with observing the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn… and simply stops there. Finding (and let alone imaging) faint galaxies and nebulae are steep learning curves to surmount. Smartphone-controlled scopes make this process as easy as downloading an app and pushing a button.

Still, a few aspects of this brave new world of amateur astronomy give me pause. For sure, the quick .jpg stacks of deep-sky targets offered by Stellina aren’t “Astronomy Picture of the Day”-polished quality, and a skilled astrophotographer would probably opt to buy lots of other tech gear for the same price. Also, my experience with Stellina was like lots of tech these days, in that the telescope is simply a ‘magic box’ that guides the user through a pre-determined experience, without much user exploration or input. But probably our biggest fear is that it simply regulates the wonder of looking up at the night sky,  to simply staring down at yet another app.

But perhaps, that shows my age. In about half a century of observing, I’ve seen apertures grow, and imaging chip sizes shrink. The film vs. digital controversy of the early 21st century is now long over, and we now routinely delete astrophotos for the slightest flaws, images that would have been beyond textbook quality just a few decades to go.

But there is hope for the future of amateur astronomy. My advice to the manufacturer of the next smartphone-controlled telescope is to make their software open source, and to encourage users to come up with all the weird and wonderful things we just haven’t thought of yet. For example, it was early planetary imagers that gutted desktop webcams to make their own ‘cookbook cameras,’ and pioneered desktop image stacking software about two decades ago… simply because this aspect wasn’t yet commercially available.

I can envision a legion of automated scopes and mini-observatories in backyards worldwide, patrolling the skies for comets, tracking variable stars and monitoring occultations.

It’s a new day (or as it were, night), and who knows where it’s all headed. But one thing is for certain: we’ll never tire of looking up and sharing the wonders of the universe from our tiny vantage point in space and time here on Earth.

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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