Make Astrophotography Simple – Seestar S50

The Seestar S50 makes astrophotography simple. It’s nearly a push-button tool to take some decent pictures of distant celestial objects even when surrounded by city light pollution. ZWO produces it and it is controlled with their app on Android or iOS via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. All you need is a tablet or phone and a stable surface on which to set the Seestar.

I received mine as a Christmas gift. It costs about as much as a PlayStation at $500 but rolls together features that would normally cost much more than that and require hours of experience processing images to produce similar results. I’ve been using it in my yard and took it once to the local observatory to demonstrate it. I captured a video short of it in action. It’s not super thrilling to watch it move to a target, but it gives an idea of its compact size, portability, and how it looks while in operation.

It weighs only 8lbs and fits inside a small foam case provided with it. In some sense, it’s too compact. During the demo at the local observatory, lots of people kept walking in front of it while it was imaging because they either couldn’t see where it was pointed or didn’t understand what part of it was pointed.

Setting up the Seestar involves little more than attaching the tripod, turning it on, connecting it to the app, and then telling it to align itself so it can go to objects. So long as the Seestar has line of sight with stars, it performs the alignment automatically. This is such a huge time saver over performing manual 3-star alignments with larger computerized scopes and mounts. The app then provides a list of recommended objects for the night but lets you search its library for many more, including comets, which is nice.

It comes with some neat bult-in features like a light pollution filter that can be turned on or off and is mechanical and internal to the Seestar; a built-in dew heater than can be turned on or off depending on how much you want to conserve battery life; a solar filter to attach to the outside of the scope; and the ability to change exposure times from 10s to 20s to 30s. I’ll get more into the exposure time aspect further down in this blog.

As just a telescope, it’s not especially powerful as far as magnification. While it is capable of some planetary imaging, don’t expect amazing results, especially with anything smaller than Saturn.

Jupiter captured by Seestar S50.

It performs great with the Moon, but you’re limited to this perspective. Unless you want to zoom in on the image, you’re not getting any close-up views of other features.

The Moon captured by Seestar S50.

The Seestar, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t perform image stacking on planetary imaging and Moon imaging (and presumably Sun imaging, which I haven’t tried). What you see is what you get when you take photos of those objects.

As far as the deepsky imaging, the Seestar displays a live imaging once it acquires a target. When you’re ready to take an image, it switches over to its live stacking mode. For the uninitiated, this means the scope begins to take picture after picture and combines them by finding the best average of each pixel from the images. This produces fine details and highlights otherwise dim aspects of the images.

Messier 42 Orion Nebula captured by Seestar S50.

Depending on the exposure settings selected in the advanced options, it begins taking 10/20/30s exposures of the target and live stacking them. You can watch the image of a practically invisible object come to life on your phone or tablet screen. After about 5 minutes of data collection, you typically can make out the target. This data collection time can take longer than 5 minutes because the Seestar software identifies star trailing and boots bad images automatically instead of stacking them. I’ve run it on a single image for over half an hour and there does seem to be a limit to how much more detail you can wring out of object. Clearer, darker skies contribute to this, of course.

NGC 2359 Thor’s Helmet captured by Seestar S50.

This is also where the exposure setting becomes important. I’ve experimented with exposure times greater than the default 10s setting, but I keep running into the same two issues. First, it takes forever to capture data because any slight vibration or bump to the scope will cause star trails and the image will get discarded at the end of the exposure. So, a strong breeze or even tapping the controlling tablet if it is placed on the same table as the Seestar can delay the final result another frame. Second, the images get noisy. While you can adjust the sensitivity of the scope/ISO, expect to see lots of those off-colored green/yellow/red hues in your images. Maybe this improves with better skies and less light pollution, but I haven’t been able to take it out to a dark site, yet, to find out for certain.

Messier 31 Andromeda Galaxy captured by Seestar S50.

The Seestar does all the stacking and image captures onboard and sends the final result to your phone or tablet. So, it has its own onboard storage and someone using it heavily will need to connect it time to time and move the images off the Seestar through a USB cable. The benefit of this is your phone or tablet isn’t being deluged with imaging data. Once you end the imaging session or take a single picture, as is the case with the Moon or planets, the images save to your phone/tablet image gallery as a JPG. I’m not certain if the output file type can be changed, but if it can that would be beneficial for photo editing veterans.

The final image also includes borders and branding identifying it as coming from the Seestar. I could see this be annoying for some people but it can be cropped out easily. One benefit of this is the data collection time and object ID are saved on these borders. When I’m not attempting serious, dark-site level imaging of an object and I just want to look at things and take pictures, this saves me the embarrassment of forgetting what I was even looking at and not being able to identify the object.

Messier 51 Whirlpool Galaxy captured by Seestar S50.

To summarize all of this, I like the Seestar but I’m of two minds about it. While it makes astrophotography simple and approachable for so many people, it’s not suited for people that want to get into the hobby seriously or are already veterans. For them, it’s a toy. Also, if this is the only scope someone has, there is something lost by not being able to see the night sky optically and not on a tablet screen. It creates a layer of unreality, like taking a virtual tour of a location instead of visiting the location.

NGC 2175 Monkey Head Nebula captured by Seestar S50.

However, the Seestar is the best way to bring space to the masses. Schools, observatories, libraries, etc., can use this tool (with a little A/V work) to show people the things in the sky they can either no longer see due to light pollution or could never see with just their eyes. People can learn about the different objects, the seasonality of some of them, and how things in the sky move.

The device also appeals to many of us that want to check out what’s happening in the night sky but don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a full astrophotography rig or driving out to a dark site. You can plop this little thing down in your yard (Christmas lights/streetlights/parking lot lights be damned), sit on your porch, and sip a beer while you watch it image a galaxy.

Behold The Power of HyperStar!

Within recent months I got a really great deal on a Celestron CPC 1100 with Edge HD Optics from a former member of the local astronomy society. This scope is an 11-inch monster and weighs 55lbs mounted in its GPS-enabled fork mount. It’s the kind of scope I would never have purchased for myself new, given the cost.

But as excited as I was for the upgrade and was amazed by the images it could return even from my streetlight-lit front yard, I couldn’t mount my trust Canon EOS RA to the back of it and just start taking pictures. The reasons for this are technical and involve focal length and the need for extender tubes and such, but the primary issue is the fact a fork mount doesn’t rotate with the sky as it follows a target, so the far edges of your framing get shifted out of frame over time. And such a mount doesn’t work with autoguiding software, so the scope won’t stay on an image with the same degree of “stillness” you can get with an equatorial mount.

Veil Nebula. Images taken late October of 2022. My first deepsky imaging attempt with the HyperStar and the CPC 1100. Definitely room to improve, but it only took 20 minutes or so of exposure time.

The fixes for this are both pretty expensive. The first I looked into was getting a “wedge”. This hunk of metal would allow me to attach the scope and fork mount to it on the tripod (would be a lot of heft), effectively turning it into an equatorial mount. But it’s finnicky and I was warned against it by the people I spoke to about it.

The other way seemed so strange and counterintuitive to me and was equally expensive. I could purchase a Starizona HyperStar designed specifically for my telescope and camera. That’s the real limiting factor as it will only work on these two pieces of equipment. I can’t just swap in a new camera or use it on a different scope.

Fireworks Galaxy and Cluster, NGC6946 and NGC6939. This pair was low to the horizon when I started shooting in late October and they’re relatively small, but this was the result of maybe half an hour of exposures.

The device itself is a metal tube with lenses that doesn’t attach to the rear of my scope with the focuser but instead swaps into the slot where the secondary mirror lies. It looks strange at first as I’m basically blocking part of my view at the very front of the scope with this tube and then attaching my camera to the back of it and letting a USB cable dangle to the ground, but the effect is negligible on the image the scope returns. Compound this with slotting a metal rod into the scope’s focuser to act as a counterweight and it definitely feels weird.

The HyperStar works by boosting the light gathering being transferred from my scope to my camera. It effectively speeds up the exposure time by a factor of 25x. Now when I take a 10 second exposure with it and my camera, it’s the equivalent to taking a 4 minute and 10 second exposure the old way. An object I would spend hours shooting and risking batteries going dead, alignment issues, random light pollutions, airplanes, etc., I can now do in half an hour with far less of a risk envelop of something ruining one of my images.

I also had to shift to using Astro Photography Tool to control my camera, which required some learning and I’m still figuring out the best configurations of exposure time and ISO settings. But the results have been pretty great so far. I tried capturing the Orion Nebula again, since that’s what I use as my site’s main image. This new image suffers from some light pollution the first one didn’t have, but it also consists of nearly double the images. I captured roughly 100 light frames compared to maybe 30 or 40. Far more detail and nebulosity comes through and it’s exciting to think what the image could look like when redone at a proper dark site.

Orion Nebula. Taken from my light polluted (the greenish-yellow on the left side) backyard late November 2022. Consists of about 100 light frames with (I think) 20 second exposures.

If you can afford it and have a scope and camera setup that supports it, consider grabbing one. It’s probably the best astrophotography tool I’ve purchased. You get fast, quality exposures. And you have no need for managing an autoguiding camera, software, and mount connections. Let your scope slew to your target and start shooting. That’s it.

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