Smart telescopes have been a polarizing subject since they first appeared in the astrophotography community. They tend to be smaller and simpler to use than dedicated astrophotography setups, but don't be fooled - these instruments can yield great results if you know what you're doing and know how to process photos. While there is heavy opposition to using smart telescopes in this hobby, the truth is that these little astrophotography devices CAN collect data including faint gases. All we can say is don't underestimate smart telescopes!
Read on to learn how we used a smart telescope to take photos of distant nebulae from our backyard and see the impressive images we processed.
54 hours on the North America and Pelican Nebulae
In the Summer of 2023, we decided to start our longest smart telescope project yet and spend at the very least 50 hours of exposure time on a deep sky object. On top of that, we wanted to get a much wider field of view than would normally be possible and create a mosaic that we would manually stitch later in PixInsight.
We aimed Vespera at the Pelican Nebula for our first panel and imaged the area for 7 nights using the built-in mosaic feature in the Singularity app. That mosaic feature allows you to draw a square of any length and width, and let the telescope do the rest! We did the same thing for pane 2, which was more centered on the North America Nebula.
We originally did not plan on doing a third panel, but decided it would be needed when overlaying our current 2 panels onto our previous wide-field image of the area. As you can see below, the right side is not covered and would be a great addition to the mosaic, it would also give more space to the Cygnus Wall which appeared too close to the edge to our taste.
We then spent several more nights on panel 3 which was just to extend the view on the side so that the objects wouldn't be too close to the edge. We were able to draw a custom rectangle that was vertical and tall so that we wouldn't have to add two individual panels to finish the mosaic.
You can see what our framing was for each panel, along with the result before processing below.
Mosaic Framing in Singularity
As you can see in the screenshots above, the size of the field of view differs between each panel. This complete freedom allowed us to have a nice rectangle final image with just three panels by making the third one vertical and taller.
Results before Stitching
Stitching the 3 Panels into 1 Mosaic on PixInsight
We spent 20 nights total imaging the Cygnus Wall region in three different framings, it was then time to stitch it all together on PixInsight! So far, we had:
20.5 hours on Panel 1 (Pelican Nebula)
21 hours on Panel 2 (North America Nebula)
13 hours on Panel 3 (Edge gasses)
This adds up to 54.5 hours of total integration time, and each pane looks very good! We stitched the panels in three simple steps on PixInsight as we did for our 4-panel mosaic of Rho Ophiuchi a few weeks prior. If you need help learning how to create a mosaic on PixInsight, be sure to read our full guide!
Below you can see what the mosaic looked like before applying a final crop, neat!
Processing the data
For processing, I used our usual processing workflow for nebulae in order to process this image. It consists of approximately 20 steps and always yields great images no matter the target. You can access this workflow here if you are interested.
The main tricky part about processing this specific data was the leftover lines from the mosaic stitching. I was able to fix/hide these lines using a combination of both PixInsight and Photoshop. I am happy that they are not visible in the final image!
Another difficult issue I had to deal with was the heavy noise, which was of course present despite the 54 hours spent on the target. The noise was strong because the sensor in Vespera is uncooled and was imaging for 20 very hot Vegas nights (90F+ at night!).
Doing a combination of NoiseXTerminator and ACDNR helped immensely to reduce the noise in the image to a point where it looked much nicer than before! It looks great considering it's an uncooled instrument in the high temperatures of the Nevada desert during summer.
You can see the final image below. Click it to view it in higher resolution:
Telescope: Vaonis Vespera
Filter: Vaonis Dual-band filter
Exposure Time: 10 seconds (locked)
Number of TIFF files stacked: 20
Number of Nights spent: 20
Total Integration Time: 54 hours
Mosaic Panels: 3
54 hours on the North America and Pelican Nebulae - True Color Version
If you usually prefer true color over Hubble Palette when it comes to nebula colors, we got you covered! Below you can see what the image looks like in true color, with of course a sea of red hydrogen alpha gas.
10 Hours on the Crescent Nebula with a Smart Telescope
Another beautiful image we captured with the same smart telescope and wanted to share here is this shot of the Crescent Nebula! This shows the Crescent itself with all the rich hydrogen alpha gasses from Cygnus in the background.
This image took 10 hours in total, once again with the Vaonis Dual-band filter. It was processed on PixInsight but unlike our shot of NGC7000/IC5070, which is not a mosaic. Well... it is, but only from within the Singularity app and we did not have to do any stitching.
All in all, we think that using a smart telescope is a good way to begin taking pictures of space for anyone interested in astrophotography. The results of the 54-hour, 3-panel mosaic image show that you don't need to have a complicated setup to take photos of deep-sky objects like nebulae. Period. Based on the images above, it's clear to see that smart telescopes can pick up a lot of gas and details. There are folks who disagree and argue or dismiss final images because of the quality of detail, but it's all just a matter of opinion. What is most important is: Can it be done?
The answer: Yes, a smart telescope is capable of collecting data from deep space. While it can also stack the images for you without editing, you can showcase details better by stacking and processing the final image yourself. Eventually, you'll need to learn how to process photos if you plan to upgrade gear, so at least you didn't put yourself into a hole buying a beginner setup you would outgrow quickly or grow to hate. It's the best way to start astrophotography, especially if budget is a concern.
Smart telescopes CAN yield great results, so don't underestimate them just because they're not a full astrophotography rig.