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CN Report: Deep-Sky Planner 4
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Deep-Sky Planner 4 -
Tools for the effective observer
Tom Trusock 3/08
What is it?
Observational planning and logging software for Windows platforms.
How much does it cost?
$59.95 / $44.95 (upgrade from a previous version)
In Deep-Sky Planner 4, author Phyllis Lang has created a program intended to facilitate the planning of your observing sessions. Deep-Sky Planner does not create charts, rather it's an interface to various databases. The program allows you to sort through them to determine available targets based on your observing preferences, time and location and it will sort them by the parameters you choose, including but not limited to; RA, Catalog Number and many others along with my personal - Best Time.
This software is for anyone who has been surprised by clear sky and wondered what you're going to view this evening. It's for observers who are tired of looking at the same targets over and over. It's for people who like to plan their observing step by step. It's for those who wait till the last minute and it's for the note takers among us.
As an observing list generator, Deep-Sky Planner is designed with the needs of the deep-sky, stellar, cometary, minor planet, and planetary observer in mind. With configurable reports it makes generating an observing list an effortless task. This is a full figured planning tool.
Yet Deep-Sky Planner goes further. The software allows you to input your notes for various sessions, and even setup observing sessions for targets you haven't yet captured. Further, although it's not equipped to draw charts on it's own, it interfaces with some of the most popular charting software to print finder charts for your selected objects. It supports Cartes Du Ciel (although it does not appear to support the new 3.0 beta - yet), Red Shift, Starry Night and The Sky. I was a bit dismayed not to find my own personal favorite among this list, SkyMap Pro, but given that Cartes is a free download, there's no reason for anyone to miss out on this functionality. And I can say first hand that it works quite well with Cartes.
Speaking of free downloads, it's worthwhile to note that the upgrades and patches within a certain version number (currently version 4) are all free. Upgrades can be obtained via the "Help"� menu (use the "Check for Updates" option), while the website (www.knightware.biz) offers helpful information and slide shows designed to walk users through some of the more advanced features.
If you're into numbers, from the help file we find the following stats:
Deep-Sky Planner may look somewhat complicated when the program first launches, but really, it's not. All the icons that show up are simply shortcuts for documents that can be created through the menu structure. I found it a very powerful piece of software and yet approachable. You don't need to have a knowledge of SQL to form some very advanced queries, everything is done simply and logically through the menu structure.
The logging portion of the software is a true gem. Like many, I've kept my notes in different formats over the years (when I take the time to actually take them), and have often struggled to find something that works for me - personally, I see computerized logging as a boon. The log allows you to input your equipment before hand, and then simply use drop down boxes for quick entry of the more tedious bits.
It would be nice to see a bit more interrelation between the planner and the log. While you can currently toggle objects you've logged on or off the searches, there does not seem to be a method for going the other way - IE, creating a computer based observing list that you can return to over several sessions. The workaround for this is to print out your sessions so you can keep continuous track. IF you don't have access to a computer at the telescope, this is probably what you're doing anyway - but if you DO have access, it's one more little step. One other minor quibble; the darkness scale is based on 1-10 (presumably for NELM) but with the popularity of the Sky Quality Meter, it would be nice to have the option to enter it in that format as well.
Well, here's both a correction and an update. I dropped the ball on integrating reports from the planner into the log. This IS possible - simply save the search. After you've taken your notes, all objects that you have observed will be flagged and you can simply pick up where you've left off.
As to the darkness meter, Knightware contacted me today and indicated that they will evidently be adding the ability to store SQM readings.
One of the things that I liked most about the program was it's ability to output directly to the web. Here's a sample Messier Marathon we planned in minutes and effortlessly ported to HTML. (Note M102 isn't listed - this is by design and due to the confusion regarding it's true status.) For someone who is fond of posting their lists online this is a killer feature - and one that's as far as I know, unique to Deep-Sky Planner.
Programs like this are all about the data, and Deep-Sky Planner has a very extensive selection of catalogs:
Somewhat surprisingly it's not possible to select from multiple catalogs at the same time. It would be nice to see an option to list items from multiple catalogs in order to generate a more diverse observing list, but it is possible to simply run multiple lists and integrate them by hand. The reasoning, as I understand it, is partly because different catalogs are composed of different types of data. The inclusion of the NGC2000 goes partway towards meeting these needs, but it would also be nice to see the inclusion of the SAC database. In my opinion, the SAC database one most comprehensive amateur databases currently available.
Additionally, in the e-mail I received they also noted they are looking at the ability to do cross catalog searches in a future release. They indicated that they have not added the SAC database as of this point because they have only wished to work with peer-reviewed data sets, a very understandable approach.
I used the program on a variety of computers under both XP and Vista and can report a lack of "issues" with either OS.
While most of my use was for prior planning, Deep-Sky Planner does offer telescope control (via the ASCOM driver) and would be a great resource to have at the telescope - both for it's panning and logging attributes.
Another feature that I'm fond of is the graphical display for darkness. This gives you the ability to - at a glance - easily determine when the best times are for observation. A nice feature for planning road trips to dark sites.
I did run into a few minor issues with the software. Nothing show stopping - more quirks than anything. The biggest has to do with the size of the document window. It rarely, if ever, opened to the correct size. This takes just a second to resize, but after you do it the 10th time, it's a little irritating.
I also have one little quibble with the authentication process to validate your software - although frankly, this says more about the state of the world today than it does about the software. To install the software you need to plug in the CD key you receive with the media, but this isn't the end of it. At this point, the software will expire in 30 days. You need to e-mail Knightware with a code that the software generates based on your particular hardware and they send you back a rather massive character authentication string in return. Thank goodness you can simply cut and paste that puppy into the authentication box!
But don't let my little quibbles give you the wrong impression here - I liked Deep-Sky Planner, frankly I liked it a lot. It's strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and browsing the change log shows that Knightware is sensitive to this and stays on top of things by constantly updating their program. I also thought highly of the Knightware website. Like the program, I found it informative and well designed. If you're considering the program, be certain to stop by and look at the additional screen shots and sideshows - those give you a great idea of just how easy to use this software package is.
This isn't a replacement for charts or guidebooks but it's an extremely handy tool to have as a supplement. It's well featured and compared to other packages it's one of the more reasonably priced options. If you're looking for a piece of software to help you become a more effective observer, Deep-Sky Planner is well worth your consideration.