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Becoming a backyard astronomer is getting a lot easier. Citizen science has come to telescopes, and Unistellar enables us to look at the night sky with a powerful telescope and see galaxies, star clusters and nebulae.
And machine learning and AI are very useful in removing light pollution from images so you don’t have to travel to remote locations to see some of the wonders of the night sky. This is another example of how AI is changing everyday products and what we can do with them.
I recently verified this from my own backyard as I used Unistellar’s eQuinox 2 telescope to observe the night sky. Marseilles, France-based Unistellar makes it easy, as you connect your smartphone to the telescope and use the phone to control where it’s pointing and view images on your phone screen.
It’s not cheap at $2,500, but the telescope has a lot of technology that makes this casual viewing possible. eQuinox 2 has a star database of 37 million stars and can observe more than 5,000 celestial objects including many star clusters. It’s much more powerful than exposing your iPhone to a dark sky using an app like Night Sky.
Usually, you need to go to a dark place away from the city to be able to see a clear view of the heavens. I did this a couple of times with my son in Hawaii, driving on dirt roads. But with eQuinox 2, Unistellar combines three great technologies in one product.
It uses machine learning to get rid of light pollution through what it calls Smart Light Pollution Reduction technology to reduce image blur. It does this by removing background light that shouldn’t be there, Unistellar Chief Science Officer Frank Marchis said in an interview with VentureBeat.
It also pushes image processing to extend the telescope’s range with enhanced vision, which takes a few minutes to sharpen the image so you can see the stars better. It also uses autonomous field detection capabilities to figure out what it can see and where you are.
On your smartphone, it gives you 6.2-megapixel image resolution and a wide field of view. It has a mirror diameter of 114 millimeters, an optical tube diameter of 144 millimeters and a focal length of 450 millimeters. The tube itself is 549 millimeters. It’s like going around the corner.
Put on a show
You can use the telescope to put on a show for family and friends. The telescope is quite heavy and comes in a backpack. You have to first set the tripod on a level piece of ground and it comes with a built-in level where you have to place a bubble in a circle to make sure it is perfectly level.
You’ll also need to charge the telescope with a USB-C charger. Once you do, it can operate for 11 hours. Then you need to attach the scope to the tripod using two hand-turned screws. It’s a very quick process considering what your options are.
And before you get too excited, there’s no viewing tube you’re looking through to see the image. You connect your smartphone directly to the telescope via WiFi and you see all the images on the smartphone or tablet. This has its advantages. Updating the telescope is easy, as it easily connects to the Internet via a smartphone.
And in the name of being social, you can connect up to 10 smart devices to one telescope at a time. So only one person can view the image at the same time.
Back in May, I attended a viewing event with Marchis of Unistellar at the Peninsula near the San Francisco airport. We were in a hotel parking lot and there were some very high powered street lights in the lot. As you can see from the picture, it was not a great place to view the sky. One guy was so curious about the telescope in the parking lot that he came over to ask us what we were doing.
The wind was also very strong, but it was the only place that night where the clouds were not obstructing. Still, once the telescope wasn’t affected by the wind, we got some good images of the star cluster dubbed M3 as well as an individual star dubbed Arcturus.
Arcturus is 36.7 light years from our Sun. It is a red giant that is 7.1 billion years old. and the M3 (Messier 3) star cluster is 33.9 light-years from Earth and is 11.4 billion years old.
Visible from a downtown parking lot in the Bay Area. not bad
One night, I put on the binoculars and realized that clouds had obscured my view. So I had to reschedule and try again. I was finally able to do it again and updated my app on the iPhone. A fence in my backyard was good for blocking wind, as vibrations can mess with calibration. I had set up the tripod before and didn’t have to do it again, so I was good to go.
I pressed the on button and the light turned purple. Then it turns red to indicate it’s ready to go. Next I opened the Unistellar app and the Wi-Fi connection worked fine.
Once that’s done, I can tap the binoculars icon in the lower right corner of my iPhone screen. At that time, I could place my finger on a gray dot and drag the telescope in different directions to move it in a circle or up and down. I moved the telescope to a 45 degree angle using my iPhone. Then I had to use the wheel on the bottom of the telescope to focus the telescope. I also had to tap a button on the screen to start “orientation”. The motor picks up and repositions the scope as needed.
One of the great things about the telescope and its connection to the smartphone is that it knows exactly where it is on the planet. And then it can tell the user what should be visible from that exact location at a particular time of day.
Then you can zero in on specific stars or planets. You need to know the exact specs if you want to type a number that takes you to a specific spot. Then, once the telescope is on target, you can tap the “Enhanced Vision” button to activate a more accurate mode. This mode layers multiple images captured by the telescope over time to create a sharper image of the object. This often takes a minute. So this means that you cannot move the object from star to star in real time.
You can also tap on the filter dubbed “visible sky area” to view objects based on your location. There are different items that show up based on your area, but you can only tap on them if the time is right to see them. When an object turns purple, you can tap on it. Then the motorized telescope goes into motion and moves to the programmed spot.
There’s a helpful description for you to read so you can understand what you’re looking at and how far away it is. I looked at M13 or the Hercules Globular Star Cluster. And a cluster of 300,000 stars was 22,000 light-years away from me. The stars were 12 billion years old. How’s that for making you feel small?
The company launched in January 2017 and raised $2.5 million in November 2017 through a Kickstarter campaign, Marchis said.
“It surprised us,” Marchis said. “Unistellar’s goal is not to design a telescope, but to bring back the joy and interest in astronomy. We want people to embrace astronomy and become part of the astronomical community. We want them to take it as part of their life. It shouldn’t be complicated.”
Work was hoped to be completed in eight months, but it took nearly two years for the telescopes to begin shipping, the first model being the $4,899 eVscope 2. Then earlier this year, the company launched eQuinox 2.
It then began delivering telescopes in 2019, and had dozens earlier this year. There are now thousands of Unistellar users worldwide and can participate in Unistellar’s Citizen Science Network. They can participate in joint missions such as the DART planetary defense drill and NASA’s Lucy mission to contribute their images directly to science.
All in all, seeing another galaxy or star cluster from your backyard is an amazing experience. Images from the James Webb Space Telescope are nothing like viewing. But I highly recommend it.
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