Monday, November 3, 2008

Applications that watch the sky

So it's evident I'm on an astronomy trip these days. With the telescope cleaned and ready for action, I fired up the astronomy software I've been using over the past year. This application is actually quite dated (it indicates 2000-2003 on the splash screen!), but serves my needs quite adequately when it comes to figuring out what objects are in the night sky, how to pinpoint their location, and even pull up additional information on them. This software is Starry Night Backyard 4.0.5, and was included with an astronomy book my brother-in-law sent me (he took the subject as part of his credits at Davidson College). The thing is, I've never felt the need to upgrade this software because, well, the university doesn't really change in a hurry. Besides, this application pulls down all relevant satellite, comet, meteorite and asteroid information (the bits of space that do change in a hurry) from the Web and keeps itself up-to-date.

Starry Night BackyardStarry Night Backyard is a fantastic piece of software that delivers everything an amateur astronomer might need to get fired up--it provides a beautiful panoramic view of the night sky from your specific Earthly location, and lets you zoom in, obtain information and locate thousands of celestial bodies including planets, stars, satellites, exotica such as nebulae, galaxies, and deep space Messier and NGC objects. To make things easier, it indicates  wireframes of the popular constellations making them easy to locate, and provides a handy planner that shows celestial objects of interest in the night sky on a given date. Locating an object is simple--simply type the name in the Search box, and the relevant entries show up. Select an entry and the view is re-aligned to center on that object. This little software led me to discovering and viewing such fantastic sights as the rings of Saturn, Jupiter and its satellites, and many other treasures of the night sky--it's one thing reading about these in textbooks, and another thing completely to behold them live, in all their wonder: very evocative of an array of existential questions and musings.

Over the past few days, I've been poking around several astronomy Web sites and checking out some of the newer astronomy applications. Among them, I've found two particularly nice ones:

Stellarium Stellarium v0.10.0: This is an open source application aimed squarely at amateur astronomers (though it's also used to control sky domes in several planetariums around the world). This tool provides a simple, clean-looking interface with all of the features described previously in the Starry Night application. Two control panels at the bottom and left of the screen provide easy access to several tools to control how the sky looks, and lets you change a variety of settings such as your viewing location, time and date, field of view, playback speed and other parameters. Best of all, the night sky it renders is gorgeous--complete with twinkling stars and a realistic milky way. Click on a star or planet and its information is displayed in the upper left corner. Also, there are several keyboard shortcuts you can use to navigate through the application--all in all, a fantastic tool to get you going if you're an astronomy buff looking for a quick, clean stargazing application. Read more about it and download the latest version here.

MS WorldWide Telescope Microsoft WorldWide Telescope: Yes, even I didn't know that Microsoft makes these kinds of applications. This one is apparently from a group called Microsoft Research (hmm, I wonder what the rationale is behind them developing an astronomy application). Anyway, after downloading and using this free software, I actually decided it was a pretty cool astronomy tool. It primarily operates on the same principle as Google Sky--it downloads imagery and information on a particular object or starscape in real time. This is both a positive and a negative point: the speed at which the application renders the display is dependant on your Internet access speed--with the amount of visual data involved, this is a demanding application. However, the quality of these celestial objects is stunning, with the visual details added in as it downloads live data. Another cool thing about this tool is its potential to educate--depending on what you are viewing, it displays several contextual suggestions about nearby celestial objects. This makes it easy to learn about many interesting sights within a particular region. There's also a very informative 'Guided Tours' section that offers several audio/video presentations on constellations, the Hubble telescope, astrophotography and more. Download the latest version of this application here.

So which is the best of these? When it comes to general stargazing, I use Starry Night for its simplicity and speed, Stellarium for its gorgeous display and simple interface, and WorldWide Telescope if I need to get deeper into a particular subject. As they say in the motoring world: your mileage may vary. Either way, all have the potential to rev up any latent interest in astronomy.


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