Introductory Price: $399
Have you been wanting to dip your toes into the fun hobby of astrophotography, but are intimidated by the complex equipment choices, high prices and steep learning curve? Well astronomy and imaging equipment manufacturer ZWO has come up with an innovative, reasonably priced way to produce some quality images that you can share on social media and have a lot of fun doing it, and it won’t break the bank. The best part is that you can be up and running in less than 15 minutes, making it perfect for travel or spontaneous stargazing get-togethers.
How do they do it? ZWO is known for producing very high-quality equipment at reasonable prices. Now they are introducing the SeeStar S50 all-in-one telescope, tracking mount, and imaging camera. This piece of equipment is available for an introductory price of $399 and will most likely go up to $499 after its initial release in August 2023.
Even though the price is low, it does not mean that the SeeStar S50 is cheaply made or consists of poor-quality components. The truth is quite the opposite. The telescope is actually a triple-lens refractor telescope, that minimizes chromatic aberration, producing star images without color “rings”. The aperture is only 50 mm, but when paired with the sensitive SONY IMX 462 CMOS sensor, decent-quality images can be obtained in a matter of minutes with the live stacking feature. This means that the unit will take a series of images and automatically stack them in real time to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, gradually enhancing the detail. The sensor resolution is effectively 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels, which is a perfect size for sharing on social media or with the sharing feature on the app. The pixels are 2.9 micrometers square, and the resulting field-of-view is 1.3 x 0.73 degrees, which is large enough to frame the Moon or Orion Nebula perfectly.
Now let’s talk specs. As previously mentioned, the aperture is 50 mm with a focal length of 250 mm. This pairing results in a relatively fast focal ratio of f/5. It comes with a squat tripod and an alt-azimuth mount. This is not ideal for long-exposure astrophotography because of a phenomenon known as field rotation that results from the object’s motion across the sky over time. But because the unit will point and track, a series of short 10-second exposures will automatically be stacked and aligned, taking care of the rotation. Anything much longer than 10 seconds will probably result in elongated star images.
The SeeStar pairs with your iPhone or Android phone through the app and connects via WiFi or Bluetooth and uses the phone’s GPS to determine location. You can select an object from the app’s object planner or from its database. Once you choose a target, the unit will point itself and use plate solving to make sure it really is pointing to the chosen object. A really handy feature is a built-in dew heater to tamp down that pesky dew formation. The company claims a 6-hour battery life and can be charged through its USB-C connector while in use. Images are stored in FITS format, which is a standard astronomy format. It has 48 GB of usable image storage, and images can be transferred to another device if you want to further process the images.
Without filters, I recommend sky conditions that are reasonably free of harsh city lights. This would mean sky conditions with a Bortle classification of 1 through 6. Brighter objects can be targeted in skies of Bortle class 7 through 9, but the results won’t be spectacular. The company has teased the possibility of adding filters, including city light filters in the filter slot, and this would really help improve image quality in brightly lit skies.
- Easy setup suitable for total beginners
- No astrophotography experience or knowledge is required to get nice images
- VERY AFFORDABLE PRICE
- Live stacking and easy sharing
- Easy-to-use app
- Built-in database
- Object suggestions based on the time of year and location
- Lightweight: 2.5kg
- Built-in storage for image transfer and processing
- App features can continue to be improved
- Setup is quick, which allows for spontaneous viewing or travel
- LImited exposure times
- Alt-Az mount (equatorial mount would be better, but adds to the complexity of setup)
- No plans to make hardware upgradeable
If you are looking to get started with astrophotography but don’t want to spend a lot of money, the SeeStar S50 is perfect for you. The components are all high-quality, and you can get crowd-pleasing images quickly right out of the box. The introductory price will not last, though, as the company plans to increase the price shortly after its expected August 2023 rollout.