Not everyone likes smart telescopes. Not being able to look through an optical eyepiece to receive photons directly from distant objects means a complete re-think about what amateur astronomy is, should be, and will be in the future. Personally, I think smart telescopes are inevitable and incredibly innovative, though too expensive. So, it’s good to see that the latest smartphone-operated telescope on the market is, at US$2,499, also the most affordable yet. Even better, French company Unistellar’s eVscope eQuinox II comes with a bunch of incremental upgrades that make it hard to resist, particularly for those living in locations that suffer from light pollution.
There is no eyepiece. In its place on this 4.5-inch reflector is a Sony IMX347 CMOS image sensor, which creates images – continually stacked in real-time – shared exclusively with smartphones and tablets connected to its network. A critical change on this upgraded version is resolution. While the original eQuinox mustered just 4.8 megapixels, this one achieves 6.2 megapixels. It’s not as high resolution as its pricier stablemate the eVscope 2, but at US$4,899 Unistellar’s flagship is out of reach of most.
The Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II not just easier to afford. It’s also easier to transport. Telescopes have long been clunky and difficult to set up, but not so this one. Sure, it means investing in a custom-made backpack ($429), but it’s an impressive object and comfortable to wear on a hike out to a really dark place. It’s under such conditions that the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II will produce its best work, though that goes without saying for all telescopes. Yet easily the most convincing use-case for the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II is for amateur astronomers that constantly battle with light pollution where they live. The Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II is able to produce beautiful images of faint fuzzies and even fainter nebula from anywhere. Some of them take a while to render (I left the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II tracking Bode’s Galaxy for an hour to get subtle details of its dust lanes), while others, such as the Orion Nebula, is rendered in gorgeous color in minutes. It’s all thanks to the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II’s Enhanced Vision tech, which takes short exposures and stacks them in real-time to bring out more contrast and detail while suppressing the image noise inherent when skyglow exists. That said, it is best to leave the telescope to its own devices for a while once you’ve locked on to a target. After all, you can check on its progress on your smartphone whenever you want.
This is technically possible, but harder to do than it should be because the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II’s own WiFi Direct network is only accessible from about 10ft. It’s not a deal-breaker – you can just let the telescope and smartphone disconnect and not interrupt observations – but it does make true remote control tricky. It would be better if the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II could be properly attached to a home network and its images monitored on a smartphone and well as on a desktop computer.
A welcome new feature on the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II is its planet mode. Unlike Enhanced Vision, it doesn’t stack images taken over a few seconds. Instead, it uses the “lucky imaging” technique employed by planetary imagers to take advantage of fleeting instances of sky transparency. In my tests, Mars was rendered relatively well (the other planets were absent from the night sky for our tests). The Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II will have a Moon mode in a future firmware update, something made possible by its new, wider 34 x 47 arcminutes field of view. That also makes it easier to capture more of the Pleiades and the Andromeda galaxy.
However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II is the birth of a new app from Unistellar that now includes a baked-in citizen science section. It’s now possible to join an observing campaign – in conjunction with NASA and the SETI Institute – to study asteroid occultations, passing comets, and even help confirm the detection of new exoplanets by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). During my review, I was able to join a campaign for observing comet 2022 E3 (ZHF) – the so-called “green comet” – during which I was given the coordinates at five-minute increments, which were then transferred into the app. About 20 minutes later I uploaded my data to Unistellar’s servers.
I then had a go at imaging the comet myself. Setting up and using the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II is an incredibly quick and polished affair, with the plate-solving tech behind Automatic Field Detection being something to behold. All telescopes will one day align so quickly and effortlessly – a major reason why I believe smart telescopes will come to dominate the market, just as GoTo telescopes did. However, this smart telescope isn’t perfect. It’s got a battery life of an hour less than the previous version, and during our test it didn’t quite reach the 11 hours promised. It’s also worth mentioning that using the Unistellar app does run down a smartphone very fast, so a portable battery remains an essential accessory when using the Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II. Meanwhile, the jump in resolution hasn’t come with an increase in the size of the onboard storage, which remains at 64GB. If you save images in lossless quality, you will have to empty the hard drive more regularly than you might like (which means connecting a laptop or PC to its WiFi network and downloading images via a web browser).
The Unistellar eVscope eQuinox II is huge fun to use, but it’s those of us who live under light pollution and struggle to explore the deep sky that will benefit most from its impressive and easy-to-use astrophotography techniques.