All hail the second-generation of so-called ‘smart telescopes’ from France that live image-stack to create clear images of deep sky objects, astrophotography-style. For now, there are only two manufacturers of such things, Unistellar (which sells the eVscope 2 and eVscope eQuinox) and Vanois, whose Stellina started it all off. Does the new, smaller, and more affordable Vespera bring digital telescoping to the masses?
Not quite. Sadly the ongoing issues with global supply chains and inflation mean the price of the long-awaited Vespera is $1,000 more than originally announced. However, since it’s much smaller than any other smart telescope at just 11 lbs., it is a unique proposition – a smart telescope made to travel.
Physically and internally it’s a smaller version of the Stellina. There’s the same curved white plastic chassis, the same motorized optical tube, and a smartphone app for choosing targets and inspecting the latest images. It stands just 15 inches tall when on its tripod, a small, tabletop affair that breaks down for travel. It all packs neatly into a high-end, well-designed backpack (which costs an additional $149), but unless it’s going to be used in a place with a wide view of a big sky then a full-size tripod is recommended. Vanois will sell you one for $149, but since Vespera’s underside has a standard tripod thread, any photographic tripod will do.
One annoyance is that its 7,000 mAh internal battery (officially good for at least four hours, though typically five or six) is recharged using a magnetic proprietary cable. It also comes with a tiny magnetic bubble level that must be placed in the charging slot. It would be better if the level was built in.
Optically, the Vespera is nothing special. A 2-inch apochromatic quadruplet refractor with an 8-inch focal length and a focal ratio of f/4, its 1.6 x 0.9º field of view is slightly wider than the Stellina’s 1° x 0.7. Its limiting magnitude is 13.
What makes Vespera a smart telescope is that it has no eyepiece. Instead, it produces images of the night sky using a 1/2.8-inch Sony Exmor IMX462 sensor. Up to five devices (smartphone or tablets) can simultaneously attach to Vespera’s WiFi network to inspect its images via the Singularity app. The app is excellent. A hub for controlling and targeting Vespera, the app is slick, fast, and reliable. It kick-starts the alignment process, with Vespera’s computer using a smartphone’s GPS position and its own planetarium software to plate-solve star fields in about three minutes. That’s much faster than Stellina when we tested it a couple of years ago.
The Singularity app gives the user a bunch of deep sky targets to choose from, including stars, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. Every object in the app comes with specific magnification and focus data, though it is possible to manually tweak the imaging settings and re-focus the optics. Vespera then live image-stacks, taking exposures roughly every 10 seconds to reduce noise and increase clarity and contrast. Some targets require a few exposures while fainter objects benefit from capturing more for up to an hour. While the Singularity app presents the latest image, it’s possible to move a slider back in time and watch a short time lapse of how the image has improved. You can choose when to download images, either to a smartphone or tablet’s camera roll and/or to social media. Unlike Unistellar’s products, the Vespera’s images don’t come with any formatting or extra information or captions; they’re merely output as they are. It’s also possible to go completely manual and image passing comets using right ascension and declination data.
Vespera creates 1,920 x 1,080-pixel images, which equates to two megapixels. That’s a point of difference to Stellina, which manages 3,096 x 2,080 pixels, so 6.4 megapixels. At least Vanois now allows both of its smart telescopes to output two raw image formats (TIFF and FITS) as well as JPEG for post-processing, though getting them off the Vespera does mean attaching a desktop PC or Mac to the telescope’s own WiFi network. That’s a surprisingly clunky solution compared to how slick the Singularity app works.
The images are not the sharpest astrophotos you’ll ever see, though that could change in 2023 when the Singularity app will be updated with a new “Mosaic” feature that will auto-stitch individual frames into a higher resolution, wider image. That will be very useful for the Andromeda Galaxy, the extent of which is too big for the Vespera’s field of view.
What Vespera’s images have plenty of is color and contrast, but the most impressive aspect is its ability to cut through light pollution. Used as is, it’s impressive, with the faint Veil Nebula in the Summer Triangle looking increasingly colorful after about 45 minutes of image-stacking. Ditto the Dumbbell Nebula and the Ring Nebula in the same region. None of these targets are viewable from my urban observing position with a regular optical telescope. The results are even better with the Vespera’s optional light pollution filter ($199), though I didn’t get the chance to test either its dual-band filter ($399) or solar filter ($99). The flipside to its extraordinary urban images of nebulae is that the Vespera cannot be used to observe planets and delivers only very basic images of the Moon. However, if you’re able to afford the asking price for the Vespera then a small planetary telescope to complement it shouldn’t be much trouble.
Smart telescopes are best thought of as a way for urban astronomers to view deep sky objects. The Vespera delivers on that – particularly if the light pollution filter is purchased – and it’s good to see a smart telescope so small and compact for easy travel. However, the slight lack of sharpness and resolution makes this something of a casual stargazer’s tool more than something for serious astrophotography despite the new provision of raw image formats. What really hamstrings the Vespera, for now, is the huge increase in price it suffered from just prior to its launch. Smart telescopes built for ease of use and convenience – like the Vespera – are so impressive under urban skies that they will surely catch on, but not until the price can come down significantly.
Summary: An expensive and highly portable all-in-one solution for casual stargazers after souvenir images of galaxies and nebulae, but not planets.
Plus: Easy to use; travel-friendly; plate-solving software; colorful images; slick new “Singularity” smartphone app
Minus: Low-resolution images; tabletop tripod; lacks sharpness; proprietary charging cable; very expensive
Who Is It For? Urban stargazers that struggle with light pollution and aspiring astrophotographers short on time who want to explore the deep sky and share images.