Sunday, November 30, 2008

 

A Letter to Santa

To paraphrase Charlie Brown, “Well, another Thanksgiving has come and gone.” What do I perceive? That the great American holiday just ain’t what it used to be. Oh, some folks still go all out with scads of relatives and a giant mutant of a turkey. Even some of us who don’t want or need to put on such a traditional feast do something special. Miss Dorothy and me? We invariably spend the holiday at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter where Unk is more than happy to miss out on all the family cheer and togetherness in return for the opportunity to drink in the Carousel Bar (hey, if it was good enough for Faulkner, it is good enough for the likes of me).

Mostly, though, these days Turkey Day is simply a prelude to the dreaded Black Friday and its orgy of Stuff Buying. However you slice the bird, the Thursday in November also signals it is time to get serious about Christmas. To let The Man in the Red Suit, Ol’ Saint Nick, Father Christmas, KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. I hope y’all have all written and dispatched your letters by post or by chimney flue; time’s a wasting. Here’s MY Wish List (and maybe also my list of current pet peeves).

An Ethos for Everybody

Yay-ah, I purty much got raked over the coals for saying it, but I’ll say it again at the risk of being boiled in my own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through my heart: “The TeleVue 13-mm and 8-mm Ethos oculars are by far the best eyepieces I have used over 40 years of observing.” The shame of the thing is that these eyepieces not only cost so much (about 600 lean and mean George Washingtons and up) but had to come around at a time when too many folks ain’t worrying a whole lot about eyepieces or any other variety of astro-gear; they are wondering how they are gonna put food on the table and buy a few modest gifts for the kiddies. Course you do not need an Ethos to be happy, but (wait for it, wait for it) one sure does help, astronomically anyhow. Badda-bing. I think these things are so good that if I could work my will, there would be a Big E under every single amateur’s tree this Yuletide season.

A CCD Camera for the Rest of Us

After a few—make that quite a few—years of struggle, I am finally confidant enough in my imaging abilities to state that I can make good (not perfect) images with a CCD camera. I can bring back one or two recognizable portraits of deep sky objects just about every time (but not every time) I head to the observing site with computer, scope, and camera. But, you know, it really oughta be easier. Not just for beginners, but for the computer challenged among us, and for those of us who only get out to take pictures a few times a year. Hell, after laying off for a few months, askin’ me to work CCDsoft or Maxim DL is like asking me to take the controls of Three Mile Island during a melt down and do something. Why does it have to be this hard?

It doesn’t. It could be real easy. Meade, of all people, showed what was possible. Oh, they, in typical Meade fashion, didn’t quite deliver, but they were so danged close. What I’m talking about is, of course, their series of DSI camera/software packages. Even I was able to produce color snapshots of deep sky objects, including some scary-faint ones, that pleased the hell out of me. And it was damn near possible to do exactly what Meade said you could and get “beautiful pictures the first night out.” Almost.

The Envisage program that shipped with the cameras had the potential to allow that. It did just about everything, and did quite a bit of hand-holding. For example, not only did it automatically take dark frames, it would remind silly ol’ Unk to “please cover the telescope so dark frames can be taken.” This software and camera combo also eliminated the necessity for some of the steps that had confused and halted me in the past: no bias frames, no flat fields. There was a built-in focus indicator, and the program would allow you to take short exposures that minimized guiding problems and would automatically stack those exposures into a finished picture, throwing out any bad sub-frames in the process.

So why didn’t the DSI get more amateurs into CCDing? Oh, it did--a little bit. The cameras’ very reasonable prices saw to that, but a lot of new owners got turned off in a quick hurry. These folks spread the word, too. The problem was the Envisage software. Yeah, it did a lot, and made a lot of things easy, but the User Interface was wicked bad. So bad that many newbies could never figure out where to go to get to the functions they needed. The manual was, not atypically for Meade (or Celestron), fairly lousy—if not terrible. Finally, the included image processing software, which Miss New CCDer would need to make her pictures look presentable, was at least as hard to figure out as Iris, and couldn’t do 1/100th of the things that daunting program can. Yeah, so close, but yet so far. I’m still hoping, though, that somebody, sometime, somehow comes out with the CCD equivalent of an Instamatic camera.

The Survival of the American Telescope Industry

Reckon I might as well wish for world peace. What killed the mainstream American telescope making industry (which over the last 20 years has pretty much been represented by Meade and Celestron)? It wasn’t poor telescopes. Most of Meade’s and Celestron’s products were competent—most of the time. No, it was us who killed it, aided and abetted by the folks in California. They convinced us and we convinced them that we must have all the bells and whistles, all the go-to gimcrackery in the world, for the same old “two grand for a top-of-the-line 8-inch SCT,” that had maintained for three decades.

What we forgot and what Meade and Celestron tried to ignore was that when the fat finally hit the fire not only were we were paying substantially less or in real dollars for a shiny new LX90 or CPC 800 than we paid for an Orange Tube C8 or a 2080 way back when, the market for amateur level scopes ain’t really expanded much since 1970. Not nearly enough to get production levels high enough to keep prices low while allowing makers and dealers to make a decent profit. Result? C-h-i-n-a, of course. Celestron is Chinese owned now, and, if you axe me, Meade soon will be. Why should anybody be surprised?

What do I think? I think it is likely already too late for telescope making as a major—or even minor—industry to continue here. Oh, a few custom/uppercrust/teeny-tiny manufacturers will likely carry on (AstroPhysics and Obsession, for example), but they ain’t even minor; they are miniscule. I believe that telescope making as a major occupation is gone from these shores and will not be coming back. I mean, it ain’t likely Bausch and Lomb is gonna suddenly slap its collective forehead and say, “Damn, we screwed up. Let’s bring back and update the B&L Pro 8001.”

Eyepieces for People Who Don’t Want or Can’t Afford an Ethos

Yeah, I might wish there was an Ethos under everybody’s tree. Or a Nagler. Or a Meade UWA. But that and two bits will get you a cup o’ java in this burg. There is still hope for something better in the ultra-wide field field, though. Afterall, the high end of the eyepiece AFOV scale is no longer 82 degrees; it’s 100 degrees. Shouldn’t there now be good, bargain “Naglers”? We’ve already seen some, the William Optics Uwans, for example. Yeah, yeah, I know, they are cheap, but not real cheap. When will we be able to buy 80 degrees for 80 dollars? There have been some cheap spacewalkers thus far, like those sold by Anacortes under the “Bird’s Eye” badge, the Knight Owl Ultra-wides, and a few others. Most unfortunately, though, while certainly good values, these oculars do not begin to compete with the Uwans quality-wise; not when you use ‘em in something faster than f/10 (at least). I keep predicting high quality but very inexpensive 80 degree AFOV range eyepieces for one and all, but that prediction is always for NEXT YEAR, and it looks like I’m doing that again this year.

ASCOM and Nothing But

If you don’t fancy toting a laptop into the field to send your scope on go-tos or assist your digital setting circles, you can stop reading now. While I’m very happy in most ways with most of the multitudinous astro-apps that inhabit my laptop’s hard drive, one thing bugs me: drivers. Telescope drivers to be exact. Telescope drivers for my telescopes to be even more specific. I was thinking the other afternoon, fer example, what a wonderful program Megastar still is. No, it don’t get updated much anymore, but it is still simple to use, blessed with a very clear display, and possessed of one of the most extensive collections of deep sky objects imaginable. I wondered why I don’t use it much these nights. Answer? It won’t talk to two of my most used setups: the ASGT mount and the Atlas mount running EQMOD.

The problem is that Megastar uses built-in drivers, and for that reason can only be used to control scopes the author saw fit to provide drivers for. Megastar ain’t the only offender in this regard neither. Solution? Software authors: PLEASE just use ASCOM. What is ASCOM? It’s the “Astronomy Common Object Model.” What?! In simplest terms, it is an application, a freeware application, that, aided by user and manufacturer contributed telescope drivers, provides a way for astronomy programs to talk to telescopes and frees software authors from worryin’ about such drivers. ASCOM drivers exist for just about any computerized telescope old or new. If a soft can use ASCOM as the middle-man, it automatically supports zillions of scopes. Once installed, ASCOM is pretty transparent to users, too. So why don’t all astro-program authors give up foolin’ with built-in drivers and just use ASCOM? You tell me.

The Revival of the Great American Astronomy Club

I ain’t gonna belabor this to the extent I did a few months back. I’m just gonna say that if y’all out there who belong to and cherish a club want it to survive for the future, it is up to you to make the changes needed to ensure that. How do you do it? It’s simple. Be more friendly, especially to newcomers, and strive to serve the members you already have. What’s they-at mean? Don’t glare at and/or ignore the enthusiastic teenagers who show up at your meeting, and do more at that meeting than read the minutes of the last meeting, argue about the Astronomical League dues, and vent your spleen about the evils of go-to.

A Stronger National Amateur Astronomy Organization for Americans

Speakin’ of the AL… Gosh-a-mighty, I like the Astronomical League, our U.S. national organization, but sometimes I worry about it. Lately I worry a lot. There ain’t no denying the AL does a considerable amount for amateur astronomy. In addition to the ever popular Observing Clubs, they do public outreach, encourage and reward young folks, participate in the battle against light pollution, and more. Trouble is, most amateurs got no idea what they do or what our dues go for. Also note the word “they,” not “we.” While every affiliated club has a League representative, an “ALCOR,” most of us do indeed feel that the AL is a bunch of “theys” out there somewhere that have little to do with us “wes.”

Which is probably why, when time comes for payment of a club’s annual Leauge dues, some of the more curmudgeonly among us tend to jump up and holler, “What for?” I suspect that in these tough times that is gonna be all the more common. A large part of the problem is that most rank and file amateurs have little contact with the League unless they are working on a Messier or Herschel certificate. Oh, there’s The Reflector once a quarter, but good as it has become, it still doesn’t seem to catch ever’body’s attention (one of our PSAS club members, Bubba, due to our mistake hadn’t received The Reflector in three years and hadn’t noticed).

Rubber meets road time? The League is gonna have to try harder. They are going to have to justify their existence, or more properly our funding of their existence. It’s not exactly unheard of these days for club memberships to vote their outfits out of the AL, and in today’s economic crash and burn environment, that is likely just gonna increase. Most amateurs would probably be OK with continuing to subsidize the League for the Observing Clubs alone. Maybe. Just barely, and don’t dare talk about no dues increases. Yeah, like I said earlier the League does a lot more than just Observing Clubs; I know that. But a lot of the things they do are not that important to Joe and Jane Amateur, I’m afraid. More and more of them Joes and Janes, including those who are completely up-to-speed about the AL’s doings, are beginning to wonder and ask what exactly the League does for them, and whether whatever it is they do is worth them extra dollars in club dues.

A path to continued or renewed health for the AL? First, the League folks must do a better job of keeping us dudes and dudettes who pay the bills apprised of what our money is going for. This could be as simple as a monthly email to members. Or as high tech as a periodic Youtube-type video that outlines and explains the League’s current programs and expenditures. Part two is that the AL must do more for its members. A corollary to that is that they must make a sustained effort to determine exactly what amateurs want and need. What does Joe Spit the Ragman think? Are all the current programs important to him? Where is the survey to determine that? Like I said, I support the League. Always have. I just wish it were more successful than it is, more like ham radio’s ARRL or Canada’s RASC.

More Using than Buying

Finally, my wish for you and for myself is that we actually get out and use some of the tons of gear we lust over and argue over on the blamed Astromart Forums and the Cloudy Nights boards ever’ dadgummed day. If you’re like me, your enthusiasm for this magnificent obsession of ours hasn’t dimmed. It’s just that the realities of Modern Times make it harder and harder to do something about that obsession. Me? I resolve in the coming year to get out at least twice a month, weather gods permitting, whether at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, or just at my club’s Possum Holler observing site and actually look at the sky. Yep, a…a…RESOLUTION. But maybe that’s a subject to take up just a wee bit farther down the road.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

 

The Silicon Sky Part 2: Planners

Wonder of wonders, your ol’ Unk promises y’all something 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 trying 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 of 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 South Alabama Jags game is due to start. Yeah, tons of fun, nuttin’ like getting 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 going outside, looking at M13 and M27, deciding you’ve seen it all, and heading back in to look at reruns of The Surreal Life on the boob tube. Nope, none of that mess. You might actually see something new with the aid of a planner.

Deepsky

Deepsky is nearing grandpappy stage, having 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 go 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, 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 upwards 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 having trouble figuring 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 hopping. 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 a little dated looking. 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 getting 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 planning 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 spending 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 observing, 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 something 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 going 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 nothing else. No it’s not bursting 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. Planning? It has enough search tools to build a serviceable observing 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 scratching 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 coming 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 being the case, look for Part 3, PDA Astroware, DIRECTLY (which in Southern Speak can conveniently mean, today, tomorrow, or next year).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

 

SCTs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This ain’t got nothing to do with Sergio Leone’s urpic spaghetti westerns, but his title seems apt to describe the SCTs us amateurs have been blessed with and inflicted with over the last 45 years. If you eyeball the list, you’ll see we’ve actually been right lucky. The good outnumber either the bad or the ugly. Of course that ain't much consolation if you had the rotten luck to get stuck with one of Meade’s or Celestron’s real faux pas—of which there have been a few.

I didn’t dissect every winner and loser here; I coulda gone on and on with Celestron CGEs and CIs and Meade LXDs and LX3s. If you want the entire Straight Poop--as I see it, anyhow--check out my (free) Used CAT Buyers Guide.

The Good

Ultima 8

No, the Celestron Ultima 8 ain’t got the bells and whistles and computers of modern SCTs. In fact it ain’t got a computer despite the fact that for part of its run it was a contemporary of the LX200. What this classic scope does have is some of the finest optics and the sturdiest mount ever seen on a mass produced 8-inch CAT. Coming off the Halley debacle, Celestron knew it had to get its optics house in order or risk more bad-mouthing by us amateurs and more lost sales. And man did they do that with the Ultima. Not only were the optics good, they featured Celestron’s Starbright enhanced coatings as standard equipment, something unheard of heretofore. Were these optics better than other early 90s Celestron SCTS? Most folks in the know would say “no,” same optics went into the cheap Classic C8 as in the ritzy Ultima 8, but in my experience the quality of the average Ultimas’ optical set does seem a hair better than that of the Classics and Powerstars of the time.

If it were only good Starbright optics, this scope would probably not be remembered so fondly. The “everything else,” the fixins, was even more of a draw. Start with what was probably the heaviest-duty fork ever used on an 8-inch SCT. Add a beefed-up drivebase with a heavy-duty bearing system. Naturally, you’d want to do astrophotography with this dog--err..."CAT"--so Celestron threw in PEC. The hand controller was standard equipment too (you would still need to buy a declination motor before taking pix). The tripod was the Heavy Duty Celestron field tripod, in use until recently, but, unlike the tripods shipped with the NexStar GPS scopes, for example, this version’s legs were rubber armored. NO plastic leg spreader for the Ultima either, nosir buddy. Initially, Celestron furnished the scope with a wedge not much different from the one shipped with the Powerstar. That proved way too light for this hefty U8, though, so Celestron soon upgraded to a modified C11 wedge. The cherry on top? A custom near-airline-shippable case (mine is still in A-OK shape despite having travelled many a mile).

LX200 Classic

The LX200 (most of us amateurs call it the LX200 “classic” to distinguish it from the later LX200 GPS) was not there first with go-to. The laurels for that belong to Celestron and its Compustar series. The LX200 was the scope that made go-to reliable and affordable, however. Combine a computer system that worked consistently and was reasonably forgiving of less than perfect polar and go-to alignments with a near-Ultima quality fork and drive base and tripod and, yeah, suddenly Meade was no longer the SCT-buyin’ amateur’s second choice.

I still remember my first exposure to the LX200, a 10-inch model (by the end she was available in apertures of 8, 10, 12, and 16-inches). I was skeptical, way skeptical, about my friend Bubba’s decision to spend his entire guvmint income tax rebate check on this beast. Go-to? Outside a professional observatory? Forget it. Computers at this price point just couldn’t work right, could they (I had just moved up to a real IBM from my Commodore 64)? He powered up, mashed a few buttons, the telescope hummed (well, more like ground) and stopped on what it said was M5. My skepticism ended when I put eye to eyepiece. Yep, that big-daddy globular was centered and looking real good.

LX90

Let’s face it: even us blue tube fanciers will admit Meade has had its ups and downs product introduction-wise. The LX200 GPS skated on thin ice for a while, and the RCX 400 fell through it. Out of all Meade go-to scopes that have come and went, the LX90 is the one that suffered the fewest growing pains. It just worked. Meade must have been somewhat nonplussed that the 90 was more trouble free than the flagship LX200 GPS, and that was likely reflected in the fact that they always crippled the 90 slightly for astro-imaging. Not only was there initially no PEC or PPEC, the LX90 didn’t even have an autoguider port. The latter could be cured by the purchase of an add-on module, but PPEC never was added (oh, the latest models have PEC, but, strangely, the autoguide port module has now been discontinued). The reason for this skulduggery was clear: despite a somewhat undersized fork, this little scope-that-could had such a good reputation and performed so well that the addition of PPEC would have meant quite a few customers would have chosen this one instead of the (more expensive) LX200 and LX200GPS.

A rather sad postscript to this tale is that Meade is currently having serious drive problems with new LX90s, brought on, I reckon, by their move to down Mexico way. Shame.

Celestron Orange Tube

This is the telescope that changed ever’thing. In 1970 Celestron (Pacific) decided there was money to be made off Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer. Oh, the company had been selling SCTs for a while, its graceful and expensive Blue and White Tube jobs. Nice as they were, these kitties were not priced to appeal to amateurs, though many amateurs, including the not-so-old at the time Unk, wanted one. Bad. The curious thing (like the dog in the night) is it took Celestron as long as it did to decide that, yes, the SCT might be the perfect for the average amateur. By the dawn of the 1970s, more and more folks had to travel to escape light pollution, were interested in imaging, and had to load the telescope into a Ford Pinto or a Chevy Vega. A Cave Newtonian no longer filled the bill. Those big honkin’ scopes were not only a pain to stuff into an oil crisis special like a Ford Maverick, they often had to be heavily modified to support picture taking. The SCTs, in contrast, were compact and imaging-ready (well almost). If only one didn’t cost as much as the Pinto it would be riding in.

A few cost cutting measures (simpler drive system, cheaper focus system, tripods instead of massive piers) and some orange paint and the amateur SCT arrived. This telescope was around for over 12 years, and though it went through a few changes (mainly goin' from the beautiful sand-cast fork to something quicker and cheaper to produce), it remained the most wanted amateur telescope until it was finally dethroned by the Super C8 in the early 80s.

Celestron Pacficic C10

Like the LX200, this is one of the telescopes I’ve always wanted but never got around to getting. Why I didn’t buy one back in the 60s is, as above, easy to explain: a C10 cost about what you would pay for a brand-new VW beetle. Not that that wouldn’t have been worth it if you had the cash. In addition to its surpassing good looks, this telescope has some features not exceeded in a commercial SCT till the birth of the ill-fated RCX 400. In addition to a good and accurate (AC of course) drive, and a very stable mount and pier (heavy), this scope has one thing modern SCTs don’t have, a zero shift moving mirror focusing system.

Like current CATs, the CP C10 focuses by moving the primary mirror. This was one of the Celestron innovations that made the scope imaging-ready (no need to reposition the primary mirror or spider/secondary before the camera would come to focus as with a Newtonian), and they did it right. Today’s Meade and Celestron mirrors are moved in and out by a single threaded rod screwed into the primary mirror holder. Since the mirror is being pushed and pulled only on one side, it naturally wants to tilt a little on the baffle. The result is focus shift. The Celestron C10 and other White and Blue scopes, in contrast, used three connected focusing "spindles." No focus shift would you see on this dog, Skeezix. Add excellent sweated-over optics to the mix, and you will understand why I’ve been admiring these ground-breaking scopes (and their 8, 12, 16, and 22-inch sisters) from afar for over 40 years. Want the complete skinny on the Blue and Whites? No better place to get that than my friend Bob Piekiel’s wonderful e-book Celestron: The Early Years (check Astromart for his ads).

Meade 2080

I was skeptical about the Meade 2080 when she debuted in 1980. Ho-hum. Just another bunch of dudes like Criterion (see below) trying to cash-in on Celestron’s SCT success. I figgered the scope would be punk if not junk. Surely, nobody could out-SCT Celestron, could they? Somebody could. John Diebel was his name. Like Celestron’s Tom Johnson, he was a southern California electronics engineer who dreamed of producing world-class telescopes. He’d has some success with good but reasonably priced Newtonians, but it was obvious SCTs were the wave of the future, and John decided his little company, not far from the kitchen table stage, would make one.

What came out of Cosa Mesa was something not just as good as the still-current Orange Tube; in at least one way it was better. Lots of amateurs took lots of good deep sky images with the Celestron, but there was no doubt the scope’s drive gears didn’t make that easy. Like all spur-gear drive units, it was a little jumpy. You had to watch not only for periodic error, but for random excursions, making guiding a somewhat hair-raising experience. The 2080 was revolutionary in that the smaller drive gear was a worm gear, resulting in somewhat better tracking and considerably less “noise.” The scope with its gleaming dark blue finish also looked modern, while to our eyes the orange Celestrons were beginning to look “old” rather than “classic

The Bad

Halleyscopes

Most of the telescopes in this section might just as easily labeled “not quite there,” “almost,” or “ahead of their time” instead of “bad.” Not the Halleyscopes. Wut’s they-at? A “Halleyscope” is a Meade or Celestron SCT produced during or following the passage of Comet Halley back yonder in the 1980s. Roughly 1987 – 1992. During the flowering of Comet Halley, both companies cranked-up production to “10,” and consequently wore out their tools and their workforces. Kinda for naught, too, since Halley was hardly the spectacle telescope sellers dreamed of.

Alas, in the lay-public’s eyes, anyhow, the renowned visitor was a big bust, and not long after its less than earth-shaking passage, all the Halley books, shirts, soft drinks, candies, gum cards, bumperstickers and other gimcracks sat forlorn in the bargain bins. Telescopes? Dealers quickly saw the handwriting on the observatory wall and began cancelling their over-optimistic orders with abandon. Meade and Celestron had imagined not just huge sales during the comet, but after. The spectacular Halley would finally take amateur astronomy mainstream. When the dust cleared, M & C weren’t just worn out, they faced some real economic hard times. It took ‘em, in fact, darned near five years to clean up their acts following the comet mess.

What exactly is bad about Halleyscopes? Could be anything. When you rush production like they did, QA goes out the winder. What is most often bad with scopes of this age, however, is their optics, and specifically their correctors. Are all Halleyscopes bad? No. But. If you are considering buying one follow Ronald Reagan’s advice and “Trust but verify.”

Celestron Ultima 2000

The Ultima 2000, known to its fans as the “U2K,” definitely falls into the category of “almost there” or “ahead of its time.” This was to be Celestron’s answer to the ever more popular LX200. Unfortunately, by the time it finally appeared in the mid 90s, the Meade was so entrenched that it would have taken one hell of a lot to dislodge it. Sadly, while an interesting and even endearing scope, the Ultima 2000 was simply not a helluva SCT. What was delivered was, for one thing, not quite what we had been promised. Initially, Celestron had made lotsa noise about an “innovative roller drive” for the scope. That would have eliminated final drive gears and more-or-less banished periodic error. Unfortunately, the C gang could not get that to work right. Instead, it was furnished with a worm drive system no better or worse than what was in the Ultima 8. The final product did have some interesting features, however,.

The nicest of these was that the scope’s position encoders were separate from its motors. What that meant was that you could align this CAT, and then, if you had a mind to, grab the tube and slew it by hand anywhere in the sky without losing your go-to alignment. The Ultima 2000 was also a very light scope; the one we have at the University here is easily transported and setup by smaller women students. The go-to computer system (Tom Johnson’s son contributed to its development) was very simple and non-intimidating for novices to learn and use. Finally, this was the last Celestron shipped with a real case.

If there were no bad, U2K descendents would still be with us today. Instead, Celestron switched gears about five years later with the much more LX200-like NexStars. So what was the bad? There were plenty of aggravations as well as pleasures. Yeah, it was nice to be able to grab the tube and move it by hand, but to make that practical, the scope used clutches instead of locks on both axes, and these clutches had to be adjusted correctly and were finicky in that regard. Yes, the go-to system was simple to use, but Celestron maybe went too simple with the HC, which was much more like a Tangent DSC box than the LX200 controller. Many functions were done by a few buttons and quite a few owners felt like they were always pushing the wrong one at the wrong time.

Last nail in the coffin? The go-to accuracy was more similar to what could be expected with DSCs than with an LX200. And the scope was afflicted with the dread year 2000 bug. Yep, the U2K had Y2K. That meant that after 12/31/2000 the planets would always be "off." Celestron appears to have released a replacement PROM chip to cure this (and one to make the telescope’s non-functional PEC work), but by that time they got around to that, most owners and potential owners had just moved on.

Celestron Compustar

Yep, Celestron was there before Meade with go-to scopes. In about 1987, to be exact. The Compustar 8 (and its 11 and 14-inch companions) hung on into the 90s, but were never real competition for the LX200s. Why not? In this case, “ahead of their time” also meant “expensive.” When most amateurs balked at paying 2000 for a top-o-the-line 8-inch, the C-star 8 demanded 3500 great big 1980s dollars. The SCT was also not quite there technologically. It did have a very nice and functional hand controller, maybe the nicest ever seen on a go-to SCT, but its object finding acumen was sometimes less than stellar. It helped to have a dead-on polar alignment. Which meant the scope could be a bit of a pain to setup for portable field use.

Despite these foibles, a well-maintained Compustar can still impress. Back then? One, in some ways, blew the doors off the early LX200s. For example, the C-star included a library of 8,000 objects vice the initial LX200’s 747. And despite the LX200's good build quality, that of the Compustar was noticeably better. If only Celestron had continued to improve and build-on the Compustar instead of goin’ off the rails with the U2K. But they didn’t.

Meade LX50

Why was there an LX50? Because nobody much liked the LX100, Meade’s non-go-to version of the LX200. Not only would the LX50 be less expensive, it would even offer semi-go-to via the optional Magellan II system. Folks who couldn’t afford or didn’t want real go-to would flock to the scope in droves. Initially they did. There are quite a few things to like about this 90s CAT. The optics, especially 10-inch optics, are almost always good, and the scope features a near Ultima-8 hefty tripod and fork. Sadly, the not-quite-theres of the 50 meant nobody much cared when it was replaced by the LX90.

Warts? The LX50 had plenty. To begin, it “featured” aluminum drive gears which tended to land astrophotographers in PE hell. Meade soon replaced the initial components with better ones, but the bloom was off the rose by then. The declination gear system was also purty lousy—a small (now gone) and well-regarded company, Scopetronix, first entered the bidness as a purveyor of “dec fix” kits for the 50. Magellan II? It sometimes worked OK as a DSC system, but the semi-go-to feature never was completely functional. Semi-go-to? Yep, the DSCs would lead you to within a degree or two of the target, you’d push a button, and the RA and dec motors would drive the LX50 the rest of the way. Why did this not work? Apparently because of conflicts between the firmware in the scope (yes, this “manual” SCT had some), and firmware in the Magellan II hand unit.

Celestron Celestar Basic

I genuinely hate to put this little telescope in the “bad” category. In many ways this latter day non-go-to was nice. It was light, had good optics (most of the time), and was considerably better-finished than Meade’s competing LX10. It was mostly a visual scope, with no dec motor nor hand controller being included, but good pictures were taken with it. The drive, while not a paragon of accuracy with its spur gear set was mostly OK. Unfortunately, Celestron used a stepper motor rather than the customary servo motor. Today, that ain’t a bad thing. On a cheap 90s scope? You could sometimes see the drive “stepping along” at high magnifications. Top it all off? Rather than a separate wedge and tripod, to save money on this successor to the Classic C8 Celestron used an abortion they called the “wedgepod.” That was a cheap, light equatorial wedge with the tripod legs fastened directly to it. Yeah, it was light and easy to carry around, but the only way to adjust it in azimuth for polar alignment was by kickin’ the durned legs to nudge it.

The Ugly

Meade RCX400 (LX400-ACF)

Like the Meade LX6 which follows, the RCX 400 (available in fork-mount apertures of 10, 12, 14, and—supposedly—16-inches) was not a bad idea. It was a very good idea. What you had in the RCX design was an f/8 aplantic SCT design that produced noticeably better-looking stars at the edge of an eyepiece field—or imaging chip—than a “standard” SCT. This good optical design was ably assisted by a fork mount/OTA that provided most of the things we amateurs has asked—nay, begged—for for years: true zero image shift focusing, USB connectivity, a built in corrector heater, and more. What killed this good idea was poor execution and poor QA.

What surprised me about the RCX I had a chance to use? Despite a price roughly twice what Meade charged for a standard scope, in some ways the RCX exuded cheapness. The motors, both on the RA and dec drives and on the focus system had that slot-car-motor sound, and the fork and drivebase looked as if they had been sandcast is somebody's backyard. At least the example I tried worked and worked well. Many RCX buyers were shocked and disappointed by telescopes either dead out of the box (minimalist QA) or which gave up the ghost soon thereafter (cheap components/poor design). The motorized focus/collimation system seemed a particular problem, with malfunctions there being distressingly common.

I’ll reiterate: the RCX400 was a great idea. The telescope had real potential, and had it been better executed or if Meade had had the resources to fix the “not goods” this would no doubt be my—and a lot of other amateurs’—favorite fork mount SCT today.

Criterion Dynamax

I can sum-up the “quality” of the Criterion SCTs simply: I have never, ever seen one that was optically better than “fair.” Why is that? Criterion is a company famous in the annals of amateur astronomy for producing very high quality Newtonian reflectors at reasonable prices. Why couldn’t they do the same with SCTs and provide real competition for Celestron back in the 1970s? The stumbling block was the corrector. The company stumbled in attempts to mass produce correctors without infringing on Celestron’s patents. When the legal smoke cleared, and Criterion found away to do those all-important lenses, they stumbled again. Rather than matching the optics to make sure correctors, primaries, and secondaries worked well together, Criterion just assembled scopes out of whatever came off the assembly line first. That was what killed ‘em, and why these telescopes are nothing more than historical curiosities usually not worthy anybody’s time much less money.

Meade LX6

Like the RCX 400, the LX6 was a good idea, but one that didn’t turn out as planned. The idea was to build an SCT that offered wider fields and faster imaging via an f/6.3 optics set. What make this good idea less than a stellar success? Several things. First, it took Meade a while, apparently, to get the hang of doing fast SCT optics. By the mid 90s they were turning out some f/6.3 LX200s that were stellar performers. That was long after the manual, non-go-to LX6 (much like the previous LX5) was history, however. Also, coming on the heels of Halley, I suspect Meade’s optics department was just not up to the task of doing f/6.3 when they were struggling with f/10. The most amusing part of the LX6 history? Astronomy Magazine, when they reviewed the scope, had to request three different examples before getting one with passable optics. In Astronomy’s defense, at least they informed the reader of this fact. Ah, well.

That, then is my SCT gallery of fame ‘n shame. Did I step on your toes? Do you love your wonderful LX6? Has your RCX been TROUBLE FREE FROM DAY ONE? That ol’ Dynamax is the best scope you have ever owned? Keep in mind I must speak in generalities. There are certainly good RCXes. I’ve seen some right good LX6es. I even theorize there are some good Criterions out there—somewheres. If your telescope performs for you, and you are happy with it, that’s what matters, not its pedigree or what silly ol' Unk Rod thinks.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

 

The Silicon Sky Part I: Planetariums for PCs

Your ol Unk Rod ain’t gonna pretend he’s the most computer-savvy dude out there. What exactly goes on inside them mysterious boxes that set on the desktop is still a mystery to him. So why in tarnation do I dare write a piece about amateur astronomy software?

I might not know the details of how a computer and a program work their magic, but I darned shore know how to use ‘em—in my simple and simple-minded fashion, anyhow. I’ve been onboard the astronomy computer revolution since the day I was strolling through a mall bookstore and ran across a little program called Skyglobe in a bin of shareware 5.25-inch floppies (you old folks will remember them). I went from that to the late and unlamented Stargaze (ground-breaking in its own way, nevertheless), and, before I knew it, my hard drive was full of more astro-ware than humans should be allowed to have. If it’s a Win PC program, I’ve probably used it, and so, I feel qualified to give you my greatest hits here.

Actually, this will be Part One of my greatest hits. First time out we will take a look at planetarium programs. Whatsits a whosits? A “computer planetarium” is just what it sounds like; a program that simulates the night sky on your computer screen. This may range from a simple display of the constellations and bright stars designed to appeal to the kids, to a gen-u-wine star atlas on disk. Planetariums are not the only style of astro-ware, there’re also the “planners” we’ll talk about here in a week or three, but planetariums are a good place to start: they are what pops into most amateur astronomers’ minds when they think “astronomy software.”

Planetariums and planners, eh? That still leaves open the question of why you’d want to use either. Who would want to drag an expensive laptop PC onto a damp observing field? Sure, zooming around the sky indoors with something like Celestia can be Real Fun, but why would anybody want to fool with computers—or even computer printouts—in the great outdoors?

For those just starting out to conquer the deep sky, Sky Atlas 2000 is more than adequate. At least you’ll never have to worry about its batteries pooping out. But what happens when you get beyond the M31s and M13s? When you find yourself chasing Einstein’s Cross and M31’s multitudinous globs?

Even if you are not quite that sanguine, you may eventually come to the point where good ol’ SA2000 and similar atlases don’t contain everything you want. Or even much of what you want. You can go deeper and stay with "print;"  the magnitude 11 Millennium Star Atlas (MSA) has a lot of Good Stuff in it, but, believe you me, this detail level is where a computer program becomes much more practical. Using a work like MSA involves lots of page flipping (three fat volumes of thin paper). You may spend more time looking for the derned target in the book than you will looking for it in the sky. Even the simplest planetariums have search features that make finding IC Umptysquat a no-brainer. There’s also the fact that even el cheapo planetariums go way deeper than MSA. Yes, Millennium contains 1,000,000 stars and 10,000 deep sky objects. Howsomeever, even the meekest and mildest planetarium may sport 10,000,000 stars and 100,000 DSOs.

You still don’t want to tote an expensive laptop onto a wet observing field? Well, beyond the fact that laptops ain’t exactly expensive anymore, and that a used one more than adequate for running most astro-ware can be had for a cupla hundred George Washingtons, you don’t have to tote your laptop onto the field to enjoy its benefits. If you’ve got a good idée of what you will be looking at or at least where in the sky you will be looking, you can enjoy many of the rewards of the PC astro revolution by just printing hard copy charts and carrying them with ya. Most good planetariums today can print charts of almost typeset quality, and, again, they will go far deeper than the equivalent page of SA2000 or MSA. Do try to print on a laser printer, as the average inkjet output will become an illegible mess in about two heartbeats under heavy dew, even if you’ve got it squirreled away in page protectors.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks for the Best of the Best. These are the planetarium programs I’ve used the most and loved the most.

Cartes du Ciel

I once asked “CdC” author Patrick Chevalley why he didn’t try to make some money off his creation instead of giving it away as freeware. His response? “Rod, I’m an amateur astronomer, and I’d rather see amateur astronomers spend their money on new eyepieces than computer programs.” That oughta tell you something about Patrick’s commitment to the astronomy community. This commitment also shows in the quality of his program. No, Cartes does not offer photorealistic skies; its depiction of the heavens is a simple one, but it is a clear one, something welcomed by me at 3 o’clock in the a.m. It also does just about anything you would ever want a planetarium to do.

The complete program package includes tens of thousands of DSOs, and an almost unlimited number can be added to that. Since CdC has been around and very popular for a long time, just about any astro-catalog you can think of, from the familiar PGC and PK to things like the DWB, has been formatted for this program. Still can’t find what you want? Patrick includes a utility that will allow nearly any catalog to be converted from ASCII to something CdC understands. Stars? As downloaded, the program package (the complete 15 megabyte version) includes the Tycho II, which is often more than enough. Cartes can also read-in the Hubble Guide Star catalog from a variety of different format CDs. Don’t want to mess with or pay for GSC CDs? One of the nicest features of Cartes is that if you have an Internet connection available (which is more often than not the case at big star parties in these latter days), CdC can download GSC stars for the current field as needed.

More and more Kats 'n Kittens want to (or think they want to) connect the laptop to the go-to scope and initiate slews with Mr. Mouse. How does CdC do there? Very well indeed. Seeing as how it uses the ASCOM telescope driver sub-program, Cartes can interface with just about any go-to rig under the Sun.

Stink-it-ups? Not many. Oh, if you want pretty, this is not the place to go, but that is the only majorly bad thing I can think of to say about this time and user tested application. Nits? Cartes is Patrick’s hobby, not his job, so development on Cartes (and his other program, Virtual Moon Atlas) tends to be slow and in fits and starts. The current Cartes release is v2.76, and has been for years. He has continued work on an even nicer v3.0, but it’s still in beta a fur piece down the road (though it’s perfectly usable right now). The fact that this is an avocation for the author does not translate into “lack of support,” however. Patrick runs a Yahoogroup for his program, and is almost always there to answer questions, squash bugs, and address all sorts of user concerns. Were I you, I’d definitely try Cartes du Ciel before plunking down coin for a commercial program.

Hallo Northern Sky

Hans Kleijn’s program’s name sounds weird (to this ol’ boy’s ears, anyhow), but it works like a champ, and is, if not quite as popular as Cartes, still one of the big three freeware planetariums. With good reason. This is an incredibly capable and mature tool. Like Cartes, there is little any observer would need to do that can’t be done with HNS. In addition to the usual fillips—millions of stars, tens of thousands of deep sky objects, and images for many of these objects—the program presents an even more clear and uncluttered UI (user interface) than Cartes du Ciel. One thing I particularly like is that requesting object information does not bring up a sky-obscuring window; instead details on the target are printed in the upper left corner directly on the sky display in unobtrusive fashion.

So what’s not to like? Not much. If you are concerned about aesthetics, you will find HNS’s sky display not just plain, but positively antique-looking. In addition, while many add-on catalogs are available, including a portion of the LEDA galaxy cat, catalog support for Hallo Northern Sky is not as extensive, from what I can tell, as it is for Cartes. As is the case with CdC, HNS users will need to download and install ASCOM in order to control a go-toer with this program. Once that is done, however, Hallo works exceedingly well in that regard. Verdict? Two enthusiastic thumbs up for this classy and classic planetarium.

Stellarium

If you want a freeware planetarium program and are concerned about aesthetics, HOOBOY do I have the software for you. Stellarium is the third member of the freeware planetarium triumvirate and has gained many, many fans due to its incredible good looks. Hell, the Stellarium sky is actually prettier than my own real (sodium pink) heavens. Now, a lot of folks like the idea of a near-photo-realistic depiction of the sky, but get a little skittish about glomming onto such a soft because they don’t have the latest 8 gazillion gigaflop laptop. Not to worry. Purty as Stellarium is, it still runs speedily even on many older machines. It is quite a trip the first time you “grab” the sky and drag it with your mouse…ahhh, so smooth and responsive.

Despite all the good things above, unlike CdC and HNS, I will not suggest Stellarium can be your sole tool if you are a working observer. Right now, "pretty" is most of it. While the program is well-equipped with stars (600,000 in the default package), it loses steam with the DSOs. Oh, it’s got all the Messiers, and it’s got all the NGCs and ICs (I think it does, but the number of DSOs in the program is not enumerated anywhere), but that is about it. Also, while the Messiers are depicted with honest-to-god images, other DSOs are merely spots. Galaxy symbols, for example, are just that, symbols, that do not depict size/shape/orientation. The program can control a scope with the aid of ASCOM, but this requires yet another add-on module, Stellarium Scope, and the result in this computerphobic ol’ Hillbilly’s opinion is somewhat clunky. Still, this program is beautiful and has come a long way in a short time.

How useful this one will be out in the field in the future depends on which way the authors go with it. If they go just a tad further in the observing direction, lotsa guys ‘n gals will quickly throw-over CdC and HNS for it. However, the developers are hinting they are actually more interested in developing Stellarium into something like Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope or Google Sky than turning it into an observer’s tool. Whatever they do, Stellarium will still be one of my faves, I’m sure—for indoor use at least.

Megastar

With Megastar we come to “play for pay.” Yep, you’ll shell-out just o’er 150 pieces of silver for thisun. Is it worth it? I’ll say it is, if you’re a hardened deep sky observer, anyways. Megastar and I go way back. The first time I heard about it was in the early 1990s. And what I was hearing was impressive. Not only did Megastar have more DSOs than any other computer program (or print atlas) of the day, I was gobsmacked to learn it sported the Hubble Guide Star Catalog—a tool most amateurs didn't dream of possessing back then.

A search of the teeny-tiny ads in the back of Astronomy and Sky and ‘Scope revealed a blurb for Megastar, which, at the time, was marketed directly by its author, Emil Bonano. The only thing that stopped me from ordering it right then and there was the information: “Ships on fifty 3.5-inch floppies.” Fifty? That seemed a bit much to load successfully. What if floppy 39 failed? Luckily, CD ROMs was coming in by then, and it was not long before I was able to order a copy in that format.

Actually it was Miss Dorothy who did the ordering for me; since she thought it would be a nice Christmas present for her new husband. When she talked to Emil, she mentioned that and that scamp suggested they play a little joke on Unk. He shipped the program CD in a box from a program called “Expert Astronomer” (don’t ask). You can imagine how ol Rod struggled to look surprised and pleased on Christmas morn when he unwrapped the sucka. Miss D., sweet as she is, couldn’t bear to keep me twisting in the wind though, and soon said, “Just open it, you silly.” I’ve been happily using this “star atlas on disk” ever since.

Not that it is perfect. While the author has added some planetarium type tools over the years, this is still more a, yes, computer star atlas than a full fledged planetarium. Oh, there’s a horizon line, animation, and planets, but these things take a backseat to the depiction of faint stars and deep sky objects on a screen that is at least as plain as those of CdC and HNS. Also, don’t expect a UI that slavishly follows the Windows standard. This program began life as a DOS application, and has retained some of its old menu structure. It is not hard to learn, but it’s a little different. Frankly, it also looks a little old despite some fairly substantial updating in versions 4.0 and 5.0 (the current one).

Will Megastar’s modernization continue? Don’t look like it. The author turned marketing over to Willman-Bell not long before the current v5.0 came out some years back, and development has been very slow since. Scope control? You’ll be fine if you have a Celestron or a Meade or other popular go-to, but if you have something way off the beaten track, forget it. Megastar relies on built-in drivers rather than ASCOM, so it cannot support the huge number of computer-scopes CdC and HNS do. Despite these minor downchecks, if you are mainly a deep sky observer with a scope in the 12-inch and up range, you would be danged foolish not to give Megastar very serious consideration.

Earth Centered Univese

Like Megastar’s reams of data, but prefer something with a more standard interface and more planetarium-like bones? ECU is it. “Earth Centered Universe,” that is. Like Megastar, this one is busting at the seams with objects including the Hubble GSC and the whole PGC galaxy catalog. Unlike Megastar, however, ECU is equipped with fairly robust planetarium features. Like CdC and HNS, ECU uses ASCOM (defense contractor Unk is, yes, acronym obsessed) for telescope control, and can therefore interface to just about any scope you throw at it.

One thing I really liked about the program was the quality of ECU’s printed output. Many of today’s programs have near-type-set print quality, but this is the only one I have used that produces hardcopy every bit as good—or better looking than—the best print atlas. What puzzles me is why more folks don’t use Earth Centered Universe. Maybe because they haven’t heard of it. The author maintains a modest website, but as far as I know doesn’t run many (or any) ads in the astro-rags. The only way I learned about ECU was that David Levy once mentioned to me that this is what he uses, and I figgered that if he liked it a lesser mortal like me ort-to too.

The above does not mean it’s all gravy with ECU. If you don’t like “plain and simple” forget this one. It makes Cartes 3.0 look like, well, Stellarium. Also, if you decide there are features missing from the current version (5.0), don’t expect them to be added in the next release. It does not appear there will be a next release. The author appears to have stopped development. Which is a shame, since, with Megastar, ECU is my fav-o-rite DSO huntin’ app.

TheSky

Unlike the programs we’ve been shooting the breeze about so far, TheSky is not the product of somebody’s garage. It is a professionally developed application done by a pro company, Software Bisque, and is the product of programming teams, not one dude working in his spare time. It shows. TheSky is beautiful, featuring a near photorealistic sky, but it is also useful. It has all the objects (or more) of a Megastar or an ECU, but with almost Stellarium-quality appearance. Despite its tremendous capabilities, TheSky 6 Professional (the top of the line of TheSky’s various levels/versions), like Stellarium, runs in surprisingly frisky fashion on older PCs. Are you a dyed-in-the-wool CCDer? TheSky integrates tightly with Bisque’s CCDsoft (and their other programs—like Tpoint—as well).

What brings many potential TheSky 6 Professional users up short is that ol’ demon the bank account. Yep, all this power is not cheap. Plan to fork over 250 shekels. On the other hand, the level “down” from “Professional,” “Serious Astronomer” does almost as much and is 150 bucks easier on the ol’ pocketbook. If there’s any bringdown here other than price, it’s simply that, like Megastar, TheSky uses built-in drivers rather than ASCOM. That is not as much of a problem here as it is with M-star, though, since TheSky supports many, many more scopes. There is also a way (somewhat convoluted) to make TheSky work with ASCOM—though it may not behave with some of the more unusual ASCOM drivers like EQMOD.

Starry Night

Want even purtier, and don’t wanna give up them zillions of objects? Want even more features, including things like the ability to download satellite weather maps for your observing site? Think “Starry Night.” And ‘specially Starry Night Pro Plus. Yep, it does tons of things. I’ve been using this one for over a year and it has capabilities I haven’t even begun to exploit—or even try—yet. The thing that sets it apart from every other astro-soft, though, is its "All Sky" display. Some of you may remember a planetarium program from a few years back, Desktop Universe, which used a mosaic of CCD images for its depiction of the heavens. That program was never a huge success, but part of it lives on. Its CCD sky was incorporated into Starry Night Pro Plus. Whether you are zoomed in or zoomed out, you are not looking at a cartoon. You are looking at honest-to-god images of the sky (usually with symbols, text, and other things superimposed).

So this should be the planetarium to end all other planetariums, right? It should be but it ain’t quite. I have enjoyed and benefitted from using Starry Night Pro Plus, but it has some quirks and weaknesses as well as strengths. With all these features and its virtual sky, SNPP is not something you will enjoy running on Aunt Lulu’s 566mhz Celeron. You’ll want the fastest PC with the fastest video card you can manage. Also, the program is intimately tied to Apple’s Quicktime. It needs this program to be present or it will not even run. Changes by Apple to Quicktime have been known to stop Starry Night in its tracks until a “fix” is released. This reliance on Quicktime may also be one of the reasons many Vista users have had trouble running SNPP under that operating system. Like TheSky, Starry Night Pro Plus is in the 250 buck neighborhood. Also like TheSky, however, you can buy lower levels that do almost as much for a lot less money (they do not, alas, feature All Sky). Ground truth? I sometimes cuss at SNPP, but I would not be without it. It simply does things nothing else does right now.

The Mac

“The Mac is back,” John McCain said recently. It turned out he wasn’t, but the Macintosh computer is. It is continuing to claim a larger and larger portion of the user base. So why haven’t I mentioned Mac programs? Simple: I don’t own a Macintosh. I do know that as Apple has increased its user share, more and more planetariums (and other astro programs) have begun to be targeted at the Mac mavens. Starry Night is and has been available for these computers. The new TheSky (“TheSky X”) will be out for Apple Real Soon Now (ahem). There is still the venerable Macintosh planetarium Voyager (recently updated). And even Cartes (the v3.0 beta) can now run on Macs.

Interfacing

A lot of amateurs wanna sit at their computer, click on objects on the planetarium screen, and have their go-to scopes slew to ‘em, so maybe a few words about the delicate art of scope interfacing are in order. What do you need and how do you do it? First of all, you will need to hook scope to laptop. Unless you have one of the late, lamented Meade RCX 400s, that will be via a serial cable. If your laptop does not have a “real” serial port, you will need to provide it with one via either a USB – Serial adapter cable or a PCMCIA serial card. The cable itself? Unless you are running EQMOD to a Synta mount, you cannot use a standard serial cable. You will need one appropriate for your Meade or Celestron or Acme StarDestroyer. Dealers will be happy to sell you one, or you can make one yourself (usually all you need is some multi-wire phone cable and one of them devilish little RJ connectors—check the web for plans).

One thing new go-to/laptop users get confused about is scope alignment. Do you do the go-to alignment with scope or computer? Unless you are doing the EQMOD thing, you will always align the scope “the old fashioned way” with the hand control. With scope aligned, fire up the laptop and all you should have to do to get going is select your scope from your program’s telescope menu (if your planetarium uses ASCOM, it will throw up ASCOM’s scope chooser window). After that, you can point and click your way to deep sky heaven. You may find that using a PC at the scope brings a lot of benefits that negate the aggravation of having to tote out one more piece of gear. Your planetarium will “add” hundreds of thousands of new objects to your go-to scope. Also, having that map displayed is a lot more informative than just staring at the dadgummed HC display: “Hmm…I wonder what else is in the neighborhood of NGC 253?”

So there you have it: my planetarium hit parade. Have I missed any great programs? I don’t think so, but I’d enjoy hearing about your faves, for shore. Is this all there is? Not hardly. In some ways I think the Planner programs, which I mentioned way back yonder at the start of this entry are even more useful to deep sky hounds than planetariums are. I think you will like ‘em too, and we will talk about ‘em “soon.”

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