One of the really neat things about astronomy is that you don't have to have clear skies to get your "astro fix." Several computer programs are available ranging from $15 to $250. Let's start at the lower end and work our way up.
For a $15 registration fee you can get a nice little shareware program called Skyglobe. It will run under any Windows-based operating system, and will give you a more than adequate view of the night sky at any time you specify.It is excellent for visual astronomy, learning the constellations, etc., and even will do an adequate job for a small telescope. It does not have a huge database, so I would not count on using it for a planning session for a bigger than 2" scope. It has some of the Messier objects, but not all are shown, but as for being a good little beginners' program I rate it highly.
From the basic bare bones of Skyglobe, we will move on to more useful observing session planning programs. We'll start with RedShift. RedShift is now in its third incarnation, and each seems to be better than the last. RedShift is both a planetarium program like Skyglobe, and an observation-planning program. RedShift has several filters that will allow you to set up your view to match your scope. Say you are really turned on by globular clusters. You simply call up the view for the time and evening you plan to be observing, set the filters for globulars at the maximum of your scope and write down a list. You can also print out a star chart of the area you are planning on observing for those of us without electronic setting circles. RedShift can be purchased for about $60 when you can find it discounted.
Next up is Project Pluto. Pluto is one of the first programs out that used the Hubble Guide Star Catalog containing about 19 million items. It offers excellent printing mode for those who want to make their own star charts. It does not have all the filters of RedShift, but seems to me to be a little easier to use, and has a much deeper database. (19 million is really deep, people --Really Deep) For sheer numbers of stars, and excellent star charts, it's hard to beat Pluto. Pluto can be bought for about $65.
Next up in complexity and price is Deep Space by David Chandler. Deep Space is an observers' program that will allow you to pick and hunt what you want to see, and then to make a list, and finally to printout a star chart of the areas you are interested in. Perhaps the only real drawback to Deep Space is its lack of a well-written manual of instruction. Chandler is an astronomy instructor, both at the secondary public level and college level, and I for one am very disappointed in the level of his instruction manual. Even if he cannot write it well, he could hire it done. Other than that, Deep Space is my favorite observing program. Deep space can be purchased for about $90.
Finally we reach the Cadillac of programs, The Sky by Bisque Software. The Sky comes in several incarnations, ranging from $119 to $249. For $119 you get 259,000 stars both on disk and CD-ROM. The intermediate level at $189 gets you 1.9 million stars. The top of the line version for $249 is only on CD-ROM and has the Hubble Guide Star Catalog (our old friend with 19 million entries), as well as a complete listing from several popular star catalogs. The Sky $249 version (Level IV) also allows computer control if your scope is so equipped, and will allow you to get much more out of your setting circles. If you are using the little black boxes (electronic setting circles), The Sky is the program I would recommend.
Sky also allows you to interface the Mt. Palomar Sky Survey on CD-ROM if you really get serious about your observing.
Having said a little about the programs, let's talk about what they will do for you in the real world. As the title suggested, there are times when you are going crazy from not seeing any stars. All of the more expensive prgrams have beautiful images on their disks of really great deep sky objects as well as planetary images. RedShift has an on-line dictionary of astronomy terms, as well as several tutorials about everthing from the Big Bang to Planetary formation. The top of the line programs are well worth the expense just for the images available.
For those of us who love a good view of Jupiter, Pluto even has a great little sub-program that will tell you which moon it is way off there to the left, and on those magically clear and still nights, is that really the Red Spot I am seeing, or just an overactive imagination?
However, what about planning? Let's assume you are working on your Messier Object Observing List. Using any of the last 4 programs you can call up the sky for your observing night and time and have it display Messier objects. One program, Deep Space, will then allow you to make a list of those objects you still need that are visible during your night.
All of the more expensive programs will give you an excellent tool for making the most of your limited observing time. Deep Space and The Sky, properly hooked up to your telescope via electronic setting circles will display on your laptop screen exactly where you are looking on your scope and will allow you to much more quickly locate objects for your list.
Will computer programs take the place of observing? NO!!, most emphatically NO!! Will they assist you in getting the most out of your observing time? Yes, they will. Will they teach you about the skies we all love, yes, even the least expensive will assist you in learning the basic constellations, and the more expensive will give you tutorials on such things as binary stars and black holes. Are these programs easy to learn? Not always. Skyglobe seems to be the easiest, but has the least to offer. The more expensive programs are much more difficult to learn and use, but in my opinion are well worth the effort. What program is best? I'll let you make the call, as such factors as what do you plan on using the program for come into play here.
webspinner: Janet Hallmark
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