Marseille startup Unistellar’s lens gives home telescopes power to see galaxies millions of light years away


If any of you were lucky enough to have access to a decent backyard telescope as kids, you might have had the chance to get a detailed glimpse of the Big Red Spot on Jupiter, some faint detail of Saturn’s rings, or the crescent of Venus. That experience is still fresh in the minds of Unistellar’s founders, as one of the founders explains on the company’s website.

“I still remember my disappointment when my 14 years old self first saw the Andromeda galaxy, the most prominent deep sky object in the northern hemisphere,” COO Laurent Marfisi writes. “After an hour of patient recognition of the sky and careful pointing of my telescope, I finally saw a strange misty gray stain appear where I expected to see a vibrantly colored disk of light.

His friend and CEO, Arnaud Malvache, who was on the ground in Helsinki this week for Slush, had an idea to intensify virtually invisible light from telescope-taken photos to enhance images, then apply it to simpler backyard models.

“The colors are there, you just need lots of photos,” Malvache, a researcher in optics and image processing, told Geektime in Finland.

In astronomy, negative magnitude indicates how bright an object is while positive magnitude indicates how dim an object might be. In this case, Unistellar’s technology can pick up things totally invisible to the naked eye and display objects thought only accessible by the world’s major telescopes.

“We count in magnitude, so we can reach magnitude 13, which is what you can reach with a 12-inch telescope.”

Their software takes 50 long-exposure images and stacks them together in order to extrapolate details. Each exposure lasts 5-10 seconds. They also automate some features like noise reduction and contrast enhancement to extract the hues. Once 50 images have been taken, the feed refreshes by eliminating the oldest image and adding the newest.

Based in Marseille, Unistellar was co-founded by Malvache, Marfisi, and CTO Antonin Borot just under two years ago. Only a month ago did they say their prototype started working the way they wanted they tell Geektime, but they have already gotten the attention of some big players. They are negotiating with both Indiegogo and Kickstarter to launch a crowdfunding campaign, they plan to have a full demonstration at CES in Las Vegas in January.

The lens platform utilizes augmented reality with data on the name and background of a given star or galaxy, the type of star, and even an estimate of its distance from the earth. It also includes a “contextual guiding option” that enables visual cues to guide you to certain objects of your choice.

Their lens, for now, would be separate from the full telescope. It’s designed to replace the standard lens with a so-called “numerical eyepiece,” and comes complete with its own hardware and software to manage images via a tablet or desktop app.

“Once we have the numerical image, we can cognate the field of view and display information about it.”

Their software piggybacks off the open source star map Stellarium, allowing them to compare images and filter for “non-objects” or things which may appear to be objects when analyzing faint light but are actually image imperfections resulting from stray light or other factors in certain telescopes. Theoretically, that should also let users quickly identify unknown objects in the sky.

Their site also explains that you can request alerts from partner institutions who might provide new data or alert users to upcoming astronomical events you can observe. You can also send data to one of those partners for analysis.

“It allows seeing vivid images on a standard home telescope,” Malvache continued. “Instead of seeing nothing, you get light amplification that shows fainter objects in space. In terms of luminosity and colors, [it’s] ohms the equivalent of a 1 meter telescope,” which would normally cost €1 million.

They expect the lens to retail around €500 after the crowdfunding campaign. They are also developing their own home telescope with the numerical eyepiece already integrated that should retail for about €1,000.

They count bpifrance, inter-university Incubateur Impulse, local seed-funding organization Dispositif d’Amorçage de Provence (DAP), and Marseilles-metropolitan area incubator network Pépinières d’Enterprises Innovantes as partners.


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