The space industry has quickly become a booming one lately. Unistellar’s Chief Scientific Officer, Franck Marchis, is making it his mission to help young Black boys, girls, and other children of color start looking to stars and helping them develop a serious interest in the world of astronomy with the help of Unistellar and its latest smart telescope.
We got a chance to speak with Marchis, a Planetary Astronomer at the SETI Institute, and is also one of the first Black astronomers to publish first-author papers in Nature. During our conversation, we spoke with him about Unistellar’s eVscope smart telescope — which we also had a chance to try out — and how it is being introduced into classrooms, his push for diversity in astronomy, and him wanting to change people’s perception of what an astronomer looks like.
We even got to ask the age-old question that has plagued humanity forever, are we truly alone in the universe?
Before we step into our interview with Mr. Marchis, we must talk about the experience with eVscope. It’s a truly magnificent device that allows the most novice astronomer to explore the wonders of space with their eyes. Thanks to its Enhanced Vision and Automated Field Detection technologies and a companion app that Frank Marchis provided plenty of input into, you can easily view star clusters, planets, and even asteroids with just a push of a button… literally.
Now, a great piece of technology like the eVscope doesn’t come cheap. In fact, if you want to get an eVscope, it will cost you $2,700. We also touched on that in the interview and whether the company intends to incorporate its groundbreaking technology into a more affordable model.
BUT, if you happen to invest in an eVscope, it would be a great investment on many levels being that it will help you get into a new hobby that you can enjoy while socially distancing.
With that said, peep our interview with Frank Marchis below.
Cassius Life: What made you decide to look to the stars and shoot for a career in astronomy? Can you break down what a day in the life of a Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute is like?
Frank Marchis: So, what brought me to work as an astronomer is the love of science. The love for science the love for solving the mystery of science. I’d always been interested as a kid in science. It could be biology, mathematics, physics, etcetera. And one day, I met an astronomer, and this astronomer showed me that one of the cool things about astronomy is that it’s kind of the poetry of science. It’s not connected really to companies. It doesn’t have a real application, but it somehow opens your mind. And this openness is something that I really like every day when I look at my mail, and I see conversations, discussions about the search for life on other planets. The impact of finding life somewhere once, one day in our universe. Plus, this crazy conversation we have at the moment about the search for technosignatures (measurable property or effect that provides scientific evidence of past or present technology), etcetera.
And it reminds me every day that we are not that significant, true, in the large scale of the cosmos. But we are the generation in our civilization that physically is opening the gate to explore the universe, to explore space. I’m pretty sure that in 200 years, when we will be a space-faring nation or space-faring civilization, I meant, they will remember the 2020s as the years for which we basically started launching rockets on a daily basis, that we started truly searching for life and imaging exoplanets.
That’s basically the golden age of astronomy. I’m very happy to be able to participate in this adventure. So my day-to-day is a lot of emails, a lot of group meetings. Still, my research is mostly about using those very large telescopes glass telescopes
that we have in Chile, in Hawaii, in the Canary Islands, etcetera, to image asteroids, to search for moons around asteroids, to be able to characterize those, those asteroids and know why they form. I discovered the first asteroidic moons in 2005, for example. And since then, I’m continuing this research. But I also search for exoplanets, so planets in orbit around other stars. And when I say I, not myself, it’s a large group of people. I’m a tiny piece into a consortium of 100 people who are working together to use an instrument in Chile to find and image exoplanets. I do a lot of outreach for the SETI Institute, S-E-T- Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
The SETI Institute is basically a nonprofit organization, a private company, which is dedicated to the search for life and intelligence. So, we have funding from NASA, NSF, but also from private funders and private companies.
One of our roles at the SETI Institute, and we’re known internationally, so now we are using, leveraging this fame into outreach. So basically, we have a SETI talk that I organize where we talk about science, and people can attend virtually now. We have SETI Live, which is every week, which is a small conversation between two scientists on the specific topic of research, and I do those small movies, called SETI Bites, where I talk about scientific my scientific research or some scientific results happening in the field of astronomy. So that’s taking me a lot of my time, and then the third part of my time is I’m the CSO of Unistellar, which is the Chief Scientific Officer. And we are developing the network, the Unistellar network for science, science education, and, we have, um, an office here in San Francisco where I manage my group and develop pro-scientific projects with the Unistellar network.
We are the generation in our civilization that physically is opening the gate to explore the universe.
CL: You’re a strong supporter of the need to increase diversity in science and especially in astronomy. Why do you feel it’s time for young Black boys and girls and other children of color to start looking up to the sky and getting involved in astronomy?
FM: So this is one of the reasons I’ve been involved in the Unistellar project. So the company was created in 2015. In 2017 I joined the company as a cofounder by bringing the education, outreach, and scientific application of the network. I mentioned at SETI Institute I do a lot of outreach. I do the outreach because I love it because I think it’s great to be able to talk to the people.
And, but also because I want to diversify. If you talk to a young person and you ask him to describe an astronomer, he’ll probably tell you that it’s an old man with a beard, living alone and being very grumpy and watching with a telescope. So it’s like, astronomers are not that anymore. We are very diverse now. There is diversity in astronomy. It’s slow, but it’s happening. There are more women, more people of color. Not enough, but we are there. We are here, and we want to be visible.
So my work in outreach, it’s also for that. I mean, I want people, young people, young African-American, people of color, Latinos, who are interested in science to think that it’s not because they don’t fit into this Hollywood movie view of astronomers that they cannot be astronomers.
And most of them watch YouTube, most are on social media. So, one of the reasons I’m active on YouTube and social media is also because I want to show them that, yeah, you can be a person of color. You can do exercise. You can be taking care of your body, dress like a cool young guy, a cool young woman but still, be an astronomer and still be smart. You can still have value as a scientist and bring a lot to the scientific conversation. So we are here, and we are here to stay, and we are part of the scientific conversation, so I hope young people will join as well. And at Unistellar, we are still putting together, education, public outreach program, we are setting this up at the moment, and the goal is to work with, community colleges so their teacher has access to the Unistellar network, to the Unistellar telescope and be part of the Unistellar network. So these community colleges are basically a lot of people of color and, underrepresented minorities, and underrepresented groups in the population of students. So that’s the reason we are focusing on that. We want them, those students and their teachers, to be able to do astronomy, to be able to participate in the scientific conversation right away, even when they’re just, like, 18, 20 years old, and they’re learning.
The Unistellar network can do that, and I’m hoping to see more pictures of cool young people with the eVscope in the future proud of showing their recent observation of a supernova or an asteroid. That, I think, is truly the motivation of my work in outreach at the moment.
…we can be cool and smart
CL: Make it cool to be smart. We’re with that idea.
Hey, you know, we can be cool and smart, I mean, it’s, science is a little bit like, art. Doesn’t really matter the way you dress, doesn’t really matter what you think. It’s what you provide, which is important. We don’t have in science all these codes about how to dress, etcetera. We need to really embrace that and make and embrace the diversity that we have here in the U.S. in science as well. And I hope it’s gonna happen.
CL: Since brought up the eVscope, which is, it’s a magnificent device, by the way, can you break down how you contributed to the design process of it?
FM: So, my work was mostly to contribute to the network and the application of the scope. So the design itself, I mean, when I started the work, we had the prototype that we used to call the Frankenstein prototype. Because it was made of pieces of other telescopes that I show around the world. And then we basically, when we started the Kickstarter with basically the idea to have a design, a thick design, so the design of the telescope was, set by the four co-founders Laurent, Arnaud, Antonin, and myself, and we basically also, hired the service of a company that gives us some kind of choices in the design.
We all converged on the same one. In fact, the design of the telescope is basically the view of the cofounder, making an object which is simple, easy to use, and catchy visually. I hope we succeeded. My work after that is mostly to kind of contributing, developing the network, and developing the scientific application of the network.
CL: So you’re basically behind the app when paired with the eVscope, gives you the coordinates to automatically focus on the nebulas and star systems. That’s where you come in?
FM: Yes, exactly. This and the scientific menu that is still visible is gonna be activated in the next version of the app. You will be able to get more science there and more scientific requests. I basically work on the description of the objects, the content of the app, uh, the constellations, etcetera. The science really behind the eVscope, that’s my contribution, the contribution of my team, essentially. And also the communication part.
CL: You provide the details.
CL: When the idea about this telescope came about, was the main focus to lure in first-time telescope users, or was that just part of the mission?
FM: So, the telescope is the first part of the mission in the way that Unistellar is not only designing a telescope. Unistellar is creating a network around these telescopes. We are doing this because we want to create a network of observers, of citizen astronomers. So the telescope came first because that’s the tool, of course.
But the network behind it is in construction. You don’t see all of it yet in the app because we are still working on it. But it’s basically going to develop significantly in the next six months. The goal is, for instance, the user to have an account, to be able to share the images, but also to work together to communicate with each other, to create challenges, to be part of the network and ideas, and share their data. We have experimented with this at the moment. They have a Slack channel, for instance, where they talk to each other, and it is growing. We have people doing science with the telescope that we built and envisioned yet, so. It’s happening.
But the network is really what matters to us, having active people watching the stars and enjoying watching the stars and talking about it.
CL: So, we can’t beat around the bush when it comes to this. It’s very pricey, the telescope. Right now, it’s $2700. You know, that, that could be a little turn off to some folks, especially around now due to certain circumstances. Is there a chance that this technology will ever come in a low-cost model? Something like that where people can also participate that don’t have per se $2700 right now to spend on a telescope or smart telescope?
FM: Yeah. Um, there are different options here we’re exploring. One is to have the telescope at a lower cost or even free through, uh, exchange programs, or loans. And that could come. We are discussing with groups, associations about this, like having amateur astronomers clubs having the eVscopes. And, if you’re part of the club, you can basically have the telescope for, like, a week or two per year. So, things like this. It’s possible.
So, we already have that option. We’re, of course, thinking about new models. The eVscope is not gonna be the only telescope that Unistellar will build. Unistellar will build more telescopes. Some of them may be bigger and more expensive. Some of them may be cheaper and may be low-cost. We have been considering that. We don’t have a timeline yet on this because we are still debating what’s gonna be the next telescope we design, but we are conscious of the fact that it’s relatively pricey at the moment. But remember, an iPhone was extremely expensive, the first one was very expensive, and then it quickly dropped in price. I think this is going to happen to all these electronic telescopes. They are going to drop in price, the first one is of course expensive. The second one will be less expensive.
Well, we are working on that. This is something like a nutshell, that’s something we do understand, that it’s a limitation. But we are working on finding solutions. So, loans, having the telescope in schools, and having the next generation of telescope that will be for possibly a lower price.
CL: Sticking with the folks who have never been in astronomy before, how would you pitch them on this branch of science? How would you present it as a great socially distanced hobby to get into since we can’t really be interacting like we used to anymore?
FM: So, first of all, astronomy is a great hobby If you like nature. So if you want to go in a park with a few friends and enjoy something unique, looking at the stars, with or without a telescope, you’re looking at just videos and looking at the stars, learning the constellations, it’s a great hobby to have, and it’s something compatible with this idea of socially distanced at the moment.
I think a telescope is better because you learn. You see way more with a telescope than you can see with the human eye. So very limited in brightness. So that’s the reason we invented the telescopes such a long time ago. So that’s one thing. If you want to talk about the digital telescope itself, the eVscope is great because you can observe without being close to the telescope.
You’ve probably seen that you can control the telescope using the app. So in the future, the way we envision this that we have already people having star parties, where people gather into tiny pods with their friends, and there is a telescope in the middle, and they basically enjoy observing with the eVscope, and they can look on the screen if they want to or they can go to look in the eyepiece directly. So you don’t have to be close to people you don’t really know with the eVscope. And that’s also been used by teachers in community college as well right now doing those classes. They basically use the eVscope, and they even stream on Zoom what they see with the eVscope so students who can’t attend because they are a person of high risk and just watch on the screen at home and participate in the exploration night and observe and just enjoy the fact that they can see something happening in front of the eyes and see the object coming and getting clearer and better.
CL: So you mentioned you search for extraterrestrial life. You know, the million-dollar question is, are we alone? Now, there has been some recent video footage shared by the U.S. Government. What were your takes on those videos?
FM: So those are UFOs. And UFOs are unidentified flying objects. Nowhere they say those are alien spaceships. Totally different. So I’m not a specialist in these videos, but people I know and at the SETI Institute who are people who inspected those videos, they found an explanation to what they were seeing.
They say you don’t need to claim that this is a spaceship to be able to explain what you are seeing. Again I’m not a specialist, so I cannot speak up for myself. I’m just repeating what SETI has been saying. Remember, we are a bunch of scientists, a hundred of us, at the SETI Institute. So if this was or could be the proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, I think one of us will have been convinced and already mentioned that.
And that’s not the case.
So, and, you know, I mean, scientists have a lot of great qualities, but there is one thing they don’t have, is the sense of secrecy. So, if this is exceptional evidence of the existence of intelligence, you would have known it from a scientist. Someone will have leaked the information already—someone from the institute or someone from somewhere else. Someone would have said, okay. This is the ultimate proof we needed.
It’s not the case. So, for me, this is not the proof of intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy. And I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m just saying that this is not the proof.
CL: Okay, it’s not the smoking gun we were looking for. Got it.
CL: So you haven’t seen any evidence yet, you said?
FM: I’ve seen the videos, briefly, but. Yeah, that is something complicated to do.
CL: You haven’t personally seen any aliens. (laughs)
FM: Oh, personally, see something? No. No. And kind of surprising that astronomers who have access to a lot of instruments and that can see the sky 24/7 almost, we don’t have a picture of these from our telescopes. And the data is public. So I’m wondering how come this is possible, and… I mean, the people who observe the sky don’t see them.
So that’s weird, no?
CL: That’s a very good point. We never really thought of it that way. All of these telescopes around here, no one has seen one flying saucer fly by at all, like, nothing? It’s a very good point. Really, really good point.
FM: And now, with the Unistellar eVscope, there will be thousands of them. So, and we don’t control the network. Right?
FM: You can take the observation. You see what we see. So imagine you are observing, and you see a flying object. You will mention it and show it to people, but for the moment, nobody at the Unistellar network has seen a flying saucer. Or an unidentified object yet.
CL: Yet. We’ll just put the yet out there.
CL: (laughs) 2020’s a crazy year. So, we’ll just add ‘yet’ to that.
FM: Yes! Exactly. That’s why it is important.