27 March 2023

Enhancing the Star Party Experience by Including a Digital Telescope

Maureen Hintz Utah Valley University

Eric Hintz Brigham Young University, Provo

Like many of you, we have telescopes that we pull out for our Astro 101 student and public star parties. They usually consist of some 10-12 inch Dobsonian telescopes and a few other telescopes of varying sizes. All of these have eyepieces that allow the students to look through, and we enjoy sharing the wonders of the night sky with everyone. In 2021 we became acquainted with a digital telescope called Unistellar’s eVScope 2. If you are unfamiliar with this telescope, you can watch an introduction on their YouTube channel. A digital telescope still points up at the sky, but instead of sending the light through an eyepiece, it collects it on a detector. What you see through the eyepiece is actually a display screen projecting the image of the sky.

The Unistellar eVScope 2. Image Credit: Eric Hintz

At first, we were all very prejudiced against a digital telescope. There is something special when you look through a telescope knowing that you are seeing the actual light from that planet or distant galaxy. I recall the first time I saw Saturn with a telescope. While Utah is home to dark skies, the skies above our universities are getting brighter and the ability to see even the brighter deep sky objects (think the Ring Nebula, M13, M42) with a traditional telescope is lessening. Unless sky conditions are perfect, we are left showing "fuzzy" patches that most of the time aren’t even seen; children especially really struggle. 

In 2022 Brigham Young University (BYU) decided to purchase two of the eVScope 2 telescopes to include in their star party experiences. BYU collaborates with Utah Valley University (UVU) and contributed their eVScope2 at UVU’s star parties as well. This blog discusses our experiences with having the eVScope 2 at star parties held by both universities and what we feel makes for the best experience for those attending.

The first star party was held in Eagle Mountain, Utah, at the site of a future public observatory. Members of the Utah Valley Astronomical Society also participated and numerous telescopes were present, including Dobsonians and several equatorial telescopes in the 8" to 10" range. The 4.5" Unistellar was one of the smallest telescopes, if not the smallest. Of course, when many telescopes are present, people go to the larger telescopes first. When first set up on its tripod the 4.5" Unistellar did not look impressive and was not the first telescope people came to. As lines at the larger telescopes grew, people finally came over to ask what they could see through the little telescope. Once the first person looked through the digital telescope, word quickly spread, more people came to look and a line formed. The Unistellar's eyepiece screen does not have the tricky viewing issues of a normal light eyepiece and the enhanced mode turns the fuzzy patch into a recognizable galaxy or nebula. We knew they could see the object because of the "Wow"s and the "Oh"s we would hear as soon as they put their eye on the eyepiece. People would look through the eyepiece, stand up to ask a question, and then look again. We found this behavior unique to the eVScope 2. This pattern of lines and questions was continued at other star parties.

We should mention that we did not use the Unistellar to show the Moon or the planets. It was exclusively used to show deep sky objects (galaxies, globular clusters, and nebulae.) Examples of what is seen on the app are shown below. The view through the eyepiece of the telescope is clearer and brighter than the app image.

Images of the view through the eyepiece of the Unistellar. Credit: Eric Hintz

Perhaps one of the best examples of the benefit of a digital telescope and how the telescopes can be used in conjunction happened at a UVU event. There the Unistellar was pointed at the Ring Nebula, as was a 10" equatorially mounted tracking telescope. The student would go back and forth between the two making excellent comments on how the experience was different between the two telescopes. 

Two main observations came from our early experience with the digital telescope. First, people want to look through a telescope eyepiece. The eVscope2 has an eyepiece that people lean in to look through to see the screen. The Unistellar is controlled with an app on a smartphone and up to 10 people can download the app and see what the telescope is currently observing. We were able to show the images to those in line with what they were going to see. They still stayed in line to look for themselves. We do not promote the exclusive use of a digital telescope. It is extremely valuable as part of a group of telescopes that can show a wide variety of views of the universe. The two in combination can drive a lot of questions, especially if a normal telescope and the digital telescope are pointed at the same object. It illustrates how telescopes work. We find it is best to have all types of telescopes available.

The second observation is that people tend to stay longer and be more active if the digital telescope is used with the other telescopes. This was most easily seen on public nights after planetarium shows at BYU. Many people come to the deck, take a quick look through one telescope, and then leave. With the addition of the digital telescope, we noticed more people staying on the observation deck longer and asking "what's in the telescope now?"

In this era of Hubble and JWST images, we have enjoyed having the digital telescope present at our star parties where people can see a galaxy that looks like a galaxy, but we would never use it exclusively.