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The Silicon Sky Part 2: Planners


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Wonder o’ wonders, your ol’ Unk promises y’all somethin’ blogwise and actually delivers. If you’ll recall, we talked about astronomy computer programs a couple of weeks back, specifically amateur astronomy software for observers. Even more specifically, planetarium programs. When we were done with them, I did indeed promise we’d soon chat about that other style of astro-ware, the planner. Well, here ‘tis.

Everybody, even ol’ Bubba down the way who’s still tryin’ to figger out his Commodore VIC 20, knows what I mean when I say planetarium: a program that simulates the night sky on the screen. “But what’s a planner, Unk Rod?” Think “database.” These softs are essentially big ol’ databases containing tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of deep sky objects and stars. Naturally, they also offer tools for searching through these massive databanks and formatting data once it’s found.

Actually, these things might more accurately be called “planner/loggers,” since their other big draw, and a feature all o’ them offer, is that they let you give up the spiral notebook and number two pencil for your loggin’ tasks—you do keep a log of your observations, doncha? If you don’t, I can promise you’ll be right sorry you didn’t twenty years from now. Me? I’ve written a book or two with the aid of my logs, and my only regret is that one o’ my ex-wives’ Labrador retriever chewed through about ten dadgummed years of my records.

Databases, eh? That sounds like just about as much fun as when the Parson rings the front doorbell just before the Alabama game is due to start. Yeah, tons of fun, nuttin’ like gettin’ all nice and cozy with Microsoft Access. That’s what you’d think, anyhow, but these planners have their charms. No, most of ‘em will not bowl you over with multimedia glitz, but who wants that out on the field after midnight, anyhow? What these programs will do, in addition to letting you record your observations, is make it possible to organize your observing. With a detailed list of what-to-look-ats in hand, you won’t have an excuse for goin’ outside, lookin’ at M13 and M27, deciding you’ve seen it all, and headin’ back in to look at reruns of The Surreal Life on the boob tube. Nope, none o’ that mess. You might actually see somethin’ new with the aid of a planner.

Deepsky

Deepsky is nearin’ grandpappy stage, havin’ been on the scene for over a decade now, mighty old in astronomy software dog years. How good is it? Suffice to say that if Steve Tuma’s program hadn’t done the job for lotsa boys ‘n girls it obviously wouldn’t have lasted this long. Combine an Access-compatible database loaded up with 726,000 objects, very sophisticated search tools, the ability to control go-tos via ASCOM, and an optional image DVD, and it’s clear this is one heavyweight mutha.

What exactly do you do with it? Deepsky or most any other planner works like this: before you head outside you first develop an observing list (which Deepsky calls a “plan.”) tailored to a particular date/time/site. You populate this list with fuzzies culled from the program’s database. You do that by searching one or more catalogs and filtering the results. If you only want galaxies, or only Messier galaxies, or only Messier galaxies in Andromeda, it is easy to apply filters that exclude everything else from your list. Once this list is ready, you can head outside. You can either print your list, or, even better, take the laptop with you. Not only does Deepsky have a red night-vision mode (which, unfortunately, is no better than that offered by any other Win astronomy soft), it allows you to slew your go-to machine to the targets in your list by means of the ASCOM scope interface.

There’s plenty more good stuff to help you out in the field, too. Not sure what NGC Umptysquat ort-ta look like? If you have the image DVD, jus’ click on your object in the list to bring up a POSS (Palomar Observatory Sky Survey) plate for the bugger. Since that there DVD contains up’ards of 400,000 objects, just about any DSO you are after will be there. Need a chart? Oh, I know, with go-to scopes an honest–to-god chart ain’t that necessary, but one can still be nice if you are havin’ trouble figurin’ out which fuzzy is which, or are curious as to what else’s in the neighborhood of the object you just went-to. A detailed chart is, of course, de rigueur if you are star hoppin’. Deepsky contains a reaonsably full-featured star-mapping engine developed by Dean Williams.

Not that their ain’t some burrs under the Deepsky saddle. I found the program’s output data formatting not quite as flexible as I’d like. Yeah, you can specify which columns to display (I don’t always need R.A. and dec, for example), but you cannot change the order of the columns onscreen. Me? I like to have size and magnitude right next to the object ID, but Deepsky won’t let me do that. Also, while the charts work fine, they are gettin’ a little dated lookin’. I’m not overfond of the way they handle objects, either. You can choose to display all the objects in your list, but not all objects in the program database. This is not usually a problem if I’m just focused on my list, but sometimes I like to get off the beaten path and look at stuff in the area that I haven’t thought to put in the danged list. You can have the program use Cartes du Ciel for charting instead of the Willams charts, but even then you will only see your list objects displayed, not any of CdC’s catalogs--unless you mess around with CdC’s settings after Deepsky launches it (not a big pain, really).

Despite these demerits, Deepsky is undeniably a solid program that will make curmdgeons and starry eyed novices alike happy. At $69.95 for the DVD version, I don’t see how you can afford not to try Deepsky.

SkyTools

Your first reaction to SkyTools is likely gonna be “Ho-hum, not another planner just like all the rest.” Your second reaction is gonna be, “Wait, why is it so different?” In some ways Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools (currently in Version 2 and soon to be in Version 3) looks and works like all the others, yeah. You gather targets from the program’s database (well over 1,000,000 objects) and put ‘em into observing lists. Your completed list is your home base, from which you proceed to the object log, charts, and go-to facilities. But this basic functionality is where the resemblance to other planner/loggers ends.

SkyTools, you see, don’t just change the familiar Windows menu paradigm—you know, file, edit, etc., etc.—it throws it right out the winder. Instead of menus you use tabs, pull downs, and hypertext. Wanna see what kind of special events are due for your site? You click the Current Events tab. Need an ephemeris, you click the Ephemeris tab. Wanna change site? You mouse over to the name of your site in hypertext. Need to load a different observing list? You pull down a menu-list of ‘em. Admittedly, Greg’s system is different and does take some gettin’ used to, but he is a very skilled programmer and has given a lot of thought to ergonomics when it comes to the program’s User Interface. You may find it takes a while to get comfortable with the SkyTools way of doing things, but once you are, you will be very comfortable.

Like Deepsky, SkyTools offers far more features than I could hope to describe here, but I can’t move on without at least mentioning its charts. Most plannin’ programs feature star maps of some kind, and most of ‘em are a long ways from the quality offered by even shareware planetariums. That is most definitely not the case with SkyTools, though. Its charts are every bit as attractive and detailed as I could wish. Hell, many planetariums would be happy to have a charting engine this good. OK, it might not entirely replace a real planetarium, but it comes darn close. In addition to the program’s “Interactive Atlas,” It also offers a “Telescope Simulation” mode. What that means is if you want to see a chart setup to show your telescope’s field of view on a particular object with a particular eyepiece, all you have to do is click on that object and select “Telescope.” This is a dream come true when you are sorting through hordes of Virgo galaxies, for example.

Cain’t I find nuttin’ to complain about with SkyTools? Well, other than, as noted above, that you will be spendin’ some time larnin’ how to work it, about the only thing I can think of to mutter under my breath about is price. The new SkyTools 3 basic edition will sell for $99.95, but if you want to be able to control a go-to scope via ASCOM, you will also need the Real Time module, an add-on that brings the price up to $124.90. If you want the “pro” SkyTools 3, which includes Real Time and a host of “advanced” features, you’ll have to dig down deep to the tune of $179.95. Still, for a program this capable, that’s a B-A-R-G-A-I-N, pards. I’ve spent way more than that on software I thought would help my observin’, but which didn’t. SkyTools does.

AstroPlanner

AstroPlanner began life some years back as that rarest of birds, a planning program for the Macintosh. Not only that, but a real good planning program for the Mac. So good that Windows users soon became attracted to the Win version author Paul Rodman released. Today, while it continues to be the premier Mac soft of this kind, I suspect AP actually has more Win users. And why not? It’s an elegant and skillfully done and reasonably priced astro-ware.

AstroPlanner has just about anything anybody in the market for one of these programs could want: hundreds of thousands of DSOs from hundreds of catalogs, go-to support for many telescopes (the forthcoming Version 2.0 will support ASCOM, which means “many” will become “almost any”), a simple but detailed log-entry system, easy access to images, and a very flexible observing list display that allows sorting and arranging of data to your heart’s content. Two of the things I like most? Paul has managed to put everything you will need for an evening’s observing run on one “home” page. Yep. Once you have generated an observing list, you can send the scope on go-tos, view object data, make log entries, and more without opening windows or clicking tabs. Another Real Nice Thing is its image handling. The program doesn’t come equipped with any pictures, but you can download a POSS plate for any object. Not only that, you can download images in batches. That is, you can tell AP to get pictures for all the objects in a list (which pix will remain available for future sessions unless you decide otherwise). The very best thing image-wise? If desired, AP will display thumbnails of the pictures on the main screen.

I said “just about anything.” What doesn’t AstroPlanner have? The only thing, really, is a charting system. Oh, you can draw maps of a sort, but that is really only practical for eyepiece-field-of-view-sized vistas. The sky map module is slow and not very feature-rich. You can have the program use Cartes du Ciel instead, but we’ve come to expect fairly robust charting from for-pay planners. On the other hand, as I done said already, if you’re a go-to user as most of us are, do you really need extensive charting facilities? Prob’ly not. Anyhow, there is no doubt the tremendous feature-set of the wonderful AstroPlanner more than outweighs this single lack. One thing’s sure: it is reasonably priced. Try 40 bucks for the current release. As I’ve said before, that is crazy. But it is a good crazy.

Deep-Sky Planner

Phyllis Lang’s Deep-Sky Planner, now in Version 4, is maybe a little less familiar to amateurs than the above Big Three, but it definitely deserves to be up in the planner stratosphere with ‘em. Not only is it excellent as a logger and very competent as a planner, it has at least one feature that sets it apart from the rest. While Deepsky and AstroPlanner allow the use of Cartes du Ciel in lieu of their internally generated maps, DSP takes a slightly different path. It does not include any charting engine of its own, and relies entirely on external programs. Bad thing, right? Not necessarily. Instead of devoting resources to develop a star chart system, Ms. Lang does something I’m surprised more authors have not done; she allows the program to interface with a selection of planetariums. Not only can DSP launch and talk to good, ol’ Cartes, it can also work with TheSky 6, Starry Night (including Pro Plus) and RedShift. This facility ensures DSP provides world class star charts.

That’s not all the good here either. DSP is also clearly laid-out, and adheres to the Windows interface as closely as any astronomy program can. It possesses a generous selection of objects (over 300,000 stars and DSOs), has an outstanding logging module, and can even send your scope on go-tos via ASCOM. If I simply must offer a criticism, it’s that its search features are a little elementary when compared to some other planners. You cannot, for example, have the program search multiple databases when building an observing list. Honestly, though, I can’t remember the last time I needed to do somethin’ like that. Sound like you might like DSP? It don’t take much moola to find out: $59.95 to be exact.

RTGUI

Not only is RTGUI, “Real Time Graphic User Interface,” plainly and simply named, it is at heart a plain and simple program. It is small, and it doesn’t offer many bells and whistles. It won’t talk to you. It doesn’t download weather satellite images. It isn’t equipped with a library of millions of objects. Sometimes simple is good, though, and that is definitely the case with Robert Sheaffer’s little program, now in version 8.3. Just like Deepsky, you don’t hang around long if there ain’t something good goin’ on, and there is definitely a lot to like about this freeware planner/logger.

What makes RTGUI most likable for me is, as above, its simplicity and small size. Thanks to its simple nature, I never have to try to remember which button to mash at 3 am, and its small footprint means RTGUI is blazingly fast, even with older “observatory” computers. It’s capable enough, too, that many among us might not ever need nothin’ else. No it’s not burstin’ at the seams with objects, but it has the NGC, the IC, the WDS and more. Charts? It ain’t got none, but interfaces very well with Cartes du Ciel. Display your object in RTGUI’s little window, push a button, and up comes CdC with your faint-fuzzy centered. Plannin’? It has enough search tools to build a serviceable observin’ list. You can search by constellation, object type, magnitude, and elevation. Found the object of your desire? RTGUI offers onboard support for the most popular go-to scopes.

As always, it ain’t completely peaches and cream. The observing lists RTGUI generates are simple Windows notepad text files. You can’t sort, click, or do anything other than look at ‘em and print ‘em. While the program does do logging, this is minimalist at best. RTGUI records the bare details of your session and allows you to enter free-form text as desired. On the go-to front, the program does not use ASCOM, but instead relies on built-in drivers. The author mentions in his documentation that this is to save space since ASCOM and its drivers are large and contain “unneeded” features. That’s true, I reckon, but the truth is, most of us have ASCOM loaded on our laptops anyhow. I wish all program authors would finally throw in the towel, throw out their built-in drivers, and just use ASCOM. That would ensure nobody's compu-scope is left out. A few downchecks, yeah, but obviously this fine freeware program’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It just gits ‘er done without fuss or muss.

AstroByte

Astrobyte, a newcomer, is a full-fledged member that relatively small group, freeware planner/loggers. Scratch that. Oh, it’s freeware alright, but it is really only a logger, not featuring much in the way of planning facilities. I suppose you could use it to help you plan a session, since it features the entire SAC (Saguaro Astronomy Club) database, a renowned “best of” list, and a right smart set of search tools, but it really doesn’t have any list generation features per se. You can print some simple reports, but that’s not quite the same as having an onscreen and customizable spreadsheet of objects. What it does have is a good, full-featured logging system. It even does a limited amount of charting, offering simple large-scale finder charts for the Messiers and its “best of” list. I like AstroByte, and hope its author, Ron Reuter, continues to develop and expand his good-working, good-looking application.

Observation Manager

Observation Manager ain’t really a planner. But it is, like AstroByte, a good logger, and is worthy of notice for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the only program of this type that I know of that is written in Java, and is thus capable of running on practically any computer. It’s, also like AstroByte, FREE, a big plus for your skinflint Uncle. Finally, it writes its log data in the COMAST XML format, a developing standard. Why is that good? If all program authors can be convinced to adopt this standard, it means you’ll never have to worry about how you are gonna import your thousands of log entries into a new program again.

Observation Manager is obviously a labor of love, and I predict a bright future for it. Not that there are not a few quibbles you should know about. First is that, from what I can tell, there is really not much in the way of documentation for the program. Yes, there is a faq, but I didn’t find any step by step instructions for the computer-ignorant like yours truly. That is somewhat offset by a fairly robust balloon help system. You know, run the cursor over an entry field or other item, and a little text blurb pops up to tell you about it. That most often got me out of whatever jam I was in, but not always. What usually caused my problems was the occasional non-standard (to me) terminology. For example, in describing the field orientation of your telescope, you are asked to check whether it is “erected” or “truesided;” that still has me scratchin’ my noggin. Finally, at this time, the database is somewhat limited: NGC, Messier, Caldwell, and Solar System. Again, for many of us the NGC is most often plenty. Also, if you only occasionally need to enter a non-NGC, this program has your covered since it allows you to input your own objects manually to your heart’s content.

I urge you to download and try Observation Manager. You may find it not just “good” but “good enough.” Folks just comin’ off a pencil and paper log who really don’t want zillions of objects and features are likely to be more than satisfied with OM.

So, is that it for astroware? Nosir Buddy. That’s it for the planners for now, but as one of y’all reminded me the other day, there’s a third type of amateur astronomy software, astro-ware for PDAs like the Palm and Pocket PC and, increasingly, for cellphones. That bein’ the case, look for Part 3, PDA Astroware, DIRECTLY (which in Southern Speak can conveniently mean, today, tomorrow, or next year).



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