A revolution in telescopes is bringing deep space to those without deep pockets

A revolution in telescopes is bringing deep space to those without deep pockets

In telescope terms, the best way to describe it is … not a telescope. There’s no eyepiece. No finder scope. It’s really kind of a big white pill, about 15” long and weighing around 11 pounds. The relatively small lens that it uses isn’t even visible when you’re setting it up.

Vespera set up screen
Vespera’s setup screen.

The Vespera is better described as a dedicated space camera. Astrophotography—taking images of objects in space—is a great hobby. However, even more than just setting up a scope and catching a glimpse of something in the night sky, ending up with a nice image can be quite demanding in terms of both equipment and the skill necessary to capture and process an image. The Vespera makes it all easy. So easy, in fact, that those who have mastered all the steps of doing it the hard way are bound to consider this cheating.

To set up the Vespera, carry it to a relatively flat and clear area and level it using the adjustable feet on its small tripod. A small bubble level is included, which makes this simple, but I recommend sitting up the Vespera while there’s still a little light in the sky so you can get a good look at how the scope is leveled and double-check that there’s a clear view in any direction you might want to look.

When turned on, the Vespera generates its own Wi-Fi network. Multiple people can connect to this network and, using the free app, view what’s going on with the scope. However, just one person is actually in charge of “driving” the Vespera at any given time. That person can hand off control to someone else on the network, but not having to fight anyone about where the Vespera is pointing is a Good Thing.

A quick tap on the “Initialize” button is enough to launch the Vespera into a setup routine. It reveals the lens at one end of a mobile, multi-motor controlled arm. Then it swings the arm around, takes a look at the night sky, and checks the stars it sees against an internal catalog of positions. After around five minutes of getting all its elements aligned and software prepped, the app asks for a target, and you’re off.

If you really want to, you can give the Vespera specific directions. It will head for a specified location in the form of coordinates and lock on to anything there. This can be handy if you want to point at a specific star, or perhaps some object not in the device’s extensive library. However, if you do want to look at something well known—the Orion Nebula, or Bode’s Galaxy, or the Hercules Cluster, or any one of hundreds of other objects—things are even easier. The app will help you find what’s in the sky at that time, let you know the quality of the view, and give you a sense of what you might find if you choose to take a look.

Vespera planning screen
Vespera planning screen.

There is even a system that theoretically allows you to schedule a whole night’s worth of viewing, sending the scope from one object to another at times you can set up in advance. As of this writing, that function only works with the Vespera’s big sister—the much more capable Stellina—but there doesn’t seem to be any reason it can’t work with the Vespera a few app updates down the road. What you can do with the Vespera right now is set it on a target and walk away. You can disconnect from the scope’s Wi-Fi, wander back to your car, watch Netflix, then come back in 20 minutes or so to check on the progress. It will be waiting.

Even if it doesn’t currently allow pre-scheduling hours of viewing, the screen is still extremely helpful. It contains a list of practically everything exciting in the sky on any given evening. It shows when they rise, when they set, and lets you know when they’re at their maximum elevation above the horizon. You can filter this list by types (clusters, galaxies, nebulae, etc.) or by brightness, or by several other factors to find the kind of objects you might want to see.

The app will also offer a helpful list of potential “targets,” giving a scrolling set of images and a brief description of some recommended candidates for the evening. One touch that’s generally nice, but also a little frustrating, is that the images included in the app’s catalog are all deliberately blurred and partially blocked by text. That’s nice in the sense that it actually makes imaging the object in question a revelation. It helps generate those “Wow! Look at all the colors!” moments when locking onto a nebula, or make the number of stars in a cluster shocking in the best sense. On the other hand, this can also make it difficult to tell if the object you’re looking at in the app is something you really want to spend time getting a shot of in the first place.

And you’re going to want to know, because what each image really takes is time.

That’s the real trick of the Vespera. Its lens is actually quite small with an aperture of only 50mm (about 2 inches). Chances are, any budget telescope you have hanging around the house is larger (although the lens quality of any scope you’re likely to own is not going to be close). But what that budget scope does not do, and the Vespera does, is snap a 10-second exposure of the object in focus. Then do it again. And again. And again.

That’s the Vespera’s party trick. It takes those 10-second images, over and over, and uses some fairly sophisticated photo analysis to, for want of a better term, add the results together. In general, the longer you leave the Vespera directed at a target, the better the image you’ll get. That Flame Nebula shot at the top of this piece resulted from pointing the scope for around 20 minutes. That was really way too short. A good image of that object would have taken about twice as long, and the result would have looked quite a bit different. Only I took that shot on the first clear night after the scope arrived, and I was anxious to simply look around. (Side note: If your area is short on rain, might I recommend buying a new telescope? We had only two clear nights in the next month after my Vespera arrived.)

You can watch the image being put together as the data comes in, and this is really the fun part—especially with several people watching on a nice evening, maybe one that also involves getting out some binoculars or that budget scope to glance at a waning moon. When looking at a distant galaxy or nebula, the first 10 seconds may produce only the faintest smudge. A minute later, a shape starts to form. Five minutes in, and you can see what’s coming. Then every minute after that only adds more detail, more color, and more spectacle.

Pinwheel galaxy, 50 minutes, Vespera.

There are limits, of course. This is not the Hubble Telescope. It’s also not the more expensive Stellina or another high-end device like Unistellar’s eVScope. The Stellina carries a larger aperture and more sophisticated optical system. Perhaps most importantly, it carries a considerably better camera element with a Sony IMX178 sensor that captures at 6.4 megapixels. In comparison, the Vespera captures a relatively puny 2.1 megapixels using an older Sony IMX462.

This is not a bad bit of kit at all. The IMX462 was the heart of some of the most expensive amateur gear not so long ago. But its 1920×1080 resolution definitely limits the ultimate quality of any image. Don’t expect to be blowing these shots up to poster size unless you’re fond of pixels. On the other hand, if you want to impress folks on Twitter, they will definitely do the job.

One other thing to keep in mind is that while the light-gathering capability of the Vespera and its spiffy software is almost infinite, its magnification is not. You can certainly image the moon or the planets (and the software will help you find any that are in the sky, just like other objects of note), but they are not going to impress the way you might hope. You are not going to pick out shadows of moons crossing Jupiter or spot the divisions between Saturn’s rings. You can get a good, clear image, of a really small disc with moons showing up as bright points.

This system is really designed with deep sky objects in mind. Nebulae, clusters, and distant galaxies are where the Vespera shines. If what you want is to see the ice caps on Mars, you’re looking at the wrong instrument.

The same is true if you’re looking for something that is going to produce professional-quality astrophotography, or even extend into doing some amateur research. You’re going to want something that costs a bit more. If you want someone to say “is that yours, or NASA’s?” buy a Stellina, or start assembling your own rig from all the cool parts that are now available. Oh, and let me introduce you to Vaonis’ 61 million-pixel, starts-at-$45,000, super-advanced Hyperia wonderscope. It’s near the top of my “If I win the lottery” list.

What the Vespera will do is allow you to throw a telescope party even if it’s the only scope on the field. You can set up in minutes, collect great images from the moment the sky is fully dark, and never have to sweat anything more complicated than “what do I want to see next?” Plus, everyone loves to watch Vespera do its thing, whether that’s unfolding from its giant capsule form to swing the motorized arm at the sky, or unfolding an image in 10-second bursts on the screen of your phone or tablet. It’s just… cool. And that’s a big accomplishment for something as intrinsically geeky as a telescope.

It will also allow you to see things—like all those galaxies and nebulae—that are really hard to see with your usual backyard scope. Remember when I said that the first 10 seconds of an image might be nothing more than a smudge? That’s the best you’re likely to see with your eye to the lens of even a fairly hefty instrument.

The Vespera is anything but a typical telescope. But with the way it manages light and images, it can take you hundreds of thousands of light years across the universe to see things you might not believe are really right over your head.

Cons

  • Not designed for taking good images of planets, or detailed images of the moon.
  • Bubble level is detachable and easy to lose (trust me on that).
  • lacks afield derotator, which means that some long images can get noisy (especially near the horizon).
  • 1920×1080 limit on image resolution.
  • At $1,499, the post-Kickstarter price is still somewhat painful, even if it is something of a bargain for the quality of components.

pros

  • Ease of use.
  • Ease of use.
  • You thought I was going to say ease of use again … and you’re right.
  • Good images from a tiny scope.
  • Extremely helpful app that makes selecting targets and recording images a breeze.
  • Surprisingly tolerant of light pollution, making it useful from the average suburban backyard.
  • Small enough to stick in the car, or in a backpack, when you want to transport it to somewhere with real dark skies. (Vaonis also promises that a special backpack is coming).
  • Relatively powerful built-in network that can connect to several people at once and that extends a good distance. On one particularly chilly evening, I discovered I could actually connect to the Vespera’s network from my house, allowing me to select targets in toasty comfort. That was nice.

Summary: It’s not the Hubble telescope, but it is a very neatly packaged personal observatory that can image distant galaxies and nebulae with surprising quality.

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