Sunday, December 06, 2009

 

Eye to Telescope?


Last week we talked about Night One of my Herschel Quest down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I hit it hard again the following evening, that time with the Stellacam 2. Like I said last week, though, we’re all probably ready for a break from The Herschel Project, so, if’n you don’t mind, I’ll leave the skinny on the second night’s haul till next Sunday.

Eye to telescope? Sure. Every chance I get, muchachos, but these days I do I find I like a little help. Not just from go-to telescopes and Stellacams, but, like many of you, from laptop computers and astro-ware. PCs and the astronomy programs running on ‘em have become a common fixture of amateur astronomy, with near about as many computers as scopes on the ol’ star party field these nights.

I like astronomy software, but I really like new astronomy software. Unfortunately, there ain’t been much of that of late. Is the market saturated? Is everybody waiting to see what Bisque does with TheSky X? Or is it just the recession? Dunno, but I was a happy camper when I heard about a forthcoming new release, Eye and Telescope. I was even happier when I was offered a chance to evaluate it. And I was happier still when I heard what kind of astronomy software it was.

But that, in my usual fashion, is putting the cart before the nag. Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? As you’ll hear next week, I worked with a will Friday night at the CAV, making it all the way to 3 a.m., a record for me lately. I didn’t just put lots of Herschel IIs to bed with the aid of the Stellacam 2, I kinda ran out of ‘em. That is, I scored every object that could even be marginally described as a “fall or winter DSO” (deep sky object). Sure, I coulda kept going to the real wee hours and seen some of the springtime crew, but my creaky ol’ bones were ready for some warmth inside and outside via a nip or two back at my warm motel room.

Saturday morning, but not early Saturday morning, thank god, was mostly spent poking around the room. I wanted to get back out to the site and take another look-see at the vendors over at the Nova Sedus Star Party, but there would be plenty of time for that. After a little chow, I thought I’d sit in comfort and do a preliminary check-out of the above-mentioned new astro-soft that had come my way.

Yep, I was right excited to have a chance to preview a new astronomy program. This one, Eye and Telescope, by Thomas Pfleger way over yonder in Germany, was so new that it had not yet been (and still hasn’t been) released in the good old U.S. of A. And, yeah, I was real tickled that this wasn’t just another planetarium program, but a planner.

If you have even a nodding acquaintance with today’s astronomy software, you’ll know programs aimed at serious observers have sorted themselves into two camps: mega planetariums (think TheSky and Starry Night) and planners (like SkyTools and Deepsky). The latter have come to be my faves, since, in addition to doing star charts—if not usually in such pretty fashion as something like Starry Night—they allow me to organize my observing and help me figure out what to look at and when to look. As I’ve noted a time or two, the facilities of a planner of the caliber of SkyTools or Deepsky or AstroPlanner are probably what will make the difference between success and failure with The Herschel (2500) Project. Without my ST3 lists, I’d be well and truly lost.

I prattle on about it often enough that y’all are probably well aware I am a SkyTools fan. It’s become my primary tool for any observing project with any of my telescopes. But just because ST3 is a great thing, that don’t mean it’s the only thing. I’m always happy to discover another goodie, and I had every intent of giving Eye and Telescope it’s place in the Sun…er… “under the stars” on what looked like would be yet another clear night. Before I could do that, I’d have to figger out how to work the thing, though.

To that end I dug around in my suitcase and located the attractive and professional looking package pictured above. Gotta admit I was impressed. How could I not be by the slick looking thing emblazoned with a picture of Sir Willie Herschel’s 40-foot (48-inch) reflector? Despite a decent number of objects in its database, all the NGC/IC, about 100,000 additional galaxies, and the millions of stars of the Hubble Guide Star Catalog, E&T is delivered on a single modest CD. There’s a quick-start guide included, but, alas for this old hillbilly, it’s in German. Luckily, I found all I had to do to get going was insert CD into CD drive and follow the prompts.

Installation went smoothly with my Win XP laptop, and shortly I was clicking on a li’l icon of M51 that had been deposited on my desktop. After I’d got rid of the help file that opened automatically at startup (I soon turned that “feature” off in the Tools/Options window), I had to get the license number inputted so I’d be street legal. There was a little bit of folderol and fiddle-dee-dee involved there, as, in addition to entering the serial number from the package, I had to go to a website and get a license CODE. I understand the need to keep your work secure, but I gotta say that when I have to do stuff like that (RedShift is infamous for this kinda junk) I get annoyed.

Anyhoo, once the program was up and registered. I stopped for a few minutes and (GASP!) read the (.pdf) manual. My experience is that while it’s easy enough to figger out a planetarium program by fiddling around with it, the same don’t go for planners. Take my word for it, read the manual or help files. You’ll save yerself a lotta frustration and maybe even some grief. The Good Thing here was that the manual was only 24 pages long and was reasonably well-written and translated.

I was rarely brought up short by oddly translated phrases in either the program or its documentation. I ran across a few slightly “different” expressions, “galactic nebulae” instead of “emission nebulae,” for example, but I found nothing that sounded weird or even overly clunky or which I couldn’t figure out with the help of E&T’s excellent Help files.

Before I could do anything practical, of course, I had to do the initial setup all astronomy programs demand. You know: enter location, time zone, telescopes, eyepieces, etc. Nothing caused me any trouble there, leastways none I couldn’t get out of by reading the directions.

Where to start? Well, I spied an icon with the bubble-help title of “New Plan.” Sounded like that might be just the thing. Shortly, I was peering at a window with a pane for a list of objects, a pane that was currently empty. I also noted there was a blank field at the top paired with a button labeled “Insert.” I typed in M13 experimentally. Sho-nuff, The Herc Cluster appeared in the list pane and its vitals were displayed to the right. Cool enough, but seemed like that would be an awful slow way of gathering objects for an observing list.

After only a modest amount of muttering and cogitating, I recalled that the “guided tour” in the instruction manual had suggested starting with a Filter document instead of an Observing Plan document. Mashed the “New Filter” icon, and began setting object types, constellations, catalogs, and other filter parameters to bring me all the open clusters in Cygnus. Double clicking one of the resulting DSOs brought up a Plan Document, and punching the Insert button put the cluster in the list. I still wasn’t impressed, though. Still seemed like an awfully slow way to gather fuzzies.

A little more looking around in the instructions and in Help showed the way, edumacating me about one of the program’s best features: you can do a lot by copying and pasting, and often by dragging and dropping. I highlighted all them clusters in the filter document and simply dragged and dropped ‘em into the observing plan.

In some cases, you can import objects from from text documents and other programs by copying and pasting them into E&T. Doing that, I was able to get a fair number of H2500 objects into the program without too much cussing. Unfortunately, Unlike SkyTools, it doesn't have an honest-to-god “import” function, and E&T refused to accept anything beyond just object designations. “NGC 7331” worked fine, “NGC 7331 Galaxy Pegasus” failed miserably. Still, it didn’t take too long to edit out everything but names in my text doc, so it coulda been worse.

Alrighty then, we had a Plan constituting a goodly number of H fuzzballs. First thing I did was save the new plan—mama didn’t raise no fool. Now I could play around with my list and see what was what. At first I was right impressed. In addition to the bare list containing object names, altitude, azimuth, and best time for observing on the date in question, there was a big and cool-looking window to the right. Which sported a bunch of interestingly titled tabs: Catalog Data, Perceptibility, Visibility, and Notes.

The first tab, Data, includes alternate catalog designations, magnitude, size, and suchlike. More interesting is the space at the bottom, “Neighbors,” which displays nearby deep sky objects (you can set max distance from the main object). I think that is really swift, as it gives you a reading of what else is in the area without having to squint at a chart. You can drag and drop the neighbors into the plan, but, unfortunately, clicking ‘em won’t deliver a data window. The Neighbors list does give size, magnitude and a couple of other data points, howsomeever, so that ain’t a show-stopper.

Perceptibility yields an eyepiece-field-sized chart of the selected object and its immediate area tailored to a chosen ocular. There’s also text that uses things like surface brightness, exit pupil, etc. to give a read on “how visible” the fuzzie will be.

Visibility, conversely, is about Sunset, period of darkness, and stuff like that. There’s a picture that shows the object’s placement in the sky for a given time, and which changes background color to indicate sky brightness.

Finally, there’s "Notes!" Don’t ask me what the exclamation mark is for, but this is a nice resource. What it is is log entries for over 8,000 DSOs from observing guru Steve Gottlieb. As I’ve mentioned concerning Deepsky, I find the notes of fellow amateurs often incredibly useful and am very glad to have this here.

Finally, the plan window also sports some buttons, “Into Log,”“Map,” “Planetarium,” and “Images.” “Into Log” brings up the logbook entry system. I ain’t played with it much, but looks like most of what I would want is in there.

Map” starts the program’s fully functional interactive star charting system. No, it ain’t Cartes du Ciel, but sometimes it may be all you need.

If it’s not all you need, you can always mash “Planetarium.” What thisun does is light-off your favorite planetarium software with the DSO selected in E&T centered. There was some stuff in the manual warning that the planetarium should be running before you push the button, but I didn’t have to do that with TheSky 6. Clicking “Planetarium” brought up 6, and after only a brief wait it centered on my fuzzy. Only downcheck? Cartes du Ciel 3.0 is not in the list of planetariums E&T can be configured to use (2.76 is).

At the end of the row is “Images,” one of my fave Eye and Telescope features. Push it with an object in the list highlighted and you’ll be rewarded with a screenful of nice images of the DSO. Since the program contains pictures for 9,000 cosmic lintballs, you’ll probably never have to worry about Internet access when you need a pic. Unfortunately, it don’t look like there’s a way to download POSS plate—I couldn’t find one. If 9,000 objects ain’t enough, according to the program’s author a DVD full of pictures is available.

Was I now ready to hit the CAV field? Hell no. I was troubled. I did not like the Observing Plan layout. Yeah, it was nice to have all that glitz—the pictures and charts and all—but I was not impressed by the DSO list itself. Out on a dark field, I don’t want to have to poke around with windows and tabs. I want to scroll through a list of objects that contains all the vital data right there. This just wasn’t good enough. There wasn’t even a constellation column so I could sort on that and observe constellation by constellation, which is how I usually work. I was just about to hit the X in the E&T winder and terminate the sucka when a voice in my head (some folks would say ONE of the voices in my head) whispered, “Slow down, pard; take one more look at the instructions.”

When I did, I found there is a third type of Eye and Telescope document, “Observing Project,” more suited for large lists encompassing multiple star patterns. Once I glommed onto that fact, it was easy to copy the DSOs in my plan and paste them into a new Observing Project I started with the click of an icon. As you see on the left, this looks an awful lot more like what we are used to in a planner. Double clicking an object brings up the same data available in a Plan document. Given that Observing Project is so familiar and works so well, I began to wonder what good the Plans were. Till I discovered something groovy.

You can print the object list shown in the Observing Project window just like you would with any other program. Click the little printer in the toolbar and away you go. I noticed, however, that that icon was grayed out when a Plan document was onscreen. How the heck do you print a plan, then? You don’t, not directly. You export it to an .html file for printing if you wish.

Until I tried it, that just seemed dadgummed silly. Nope. If you have a fairly short list, this is sweet muchachos, mighty sweet. The Export function does far more than just dump your list to an .htm file. The resulting document is beautifully formatted and each object is hyper-linked. Clicking a link scrolls you to the DSO’s data, which includes Steve G’s log entry and a field drawing from the Perceptibility tab. If you don’t want to lug a computer into the field, exporting and printing a Plan is the bee’s knees.

Out on the field as the Sun was finally setting, I felt plumb confident in my ability to operate this complex astro-soft. For a few minutes, anyhow. Till I discovered I couldn’t find my reading glasses anywhere. Without them, I’d be sunk. I wouldn’t be able to read Eye and Telescope’s small fonts, and, as we saw a cupla weeks back, your old Unk wouldn’t even be able to make out NexRemote good enough to get Big Bertha, my NexStar 11, aligned. Twarn’t nuttin’ for it. They just weren’t anywhere, so I sprinted to the Camry, sped back to the Holiday Inn, grabbed a spare pair out of the room, and made it back to the field just as the first stars were winking on.

Actually, it turned out I needn't have hurried. Them consarned clouds that had played with my head Thursday night were back and didn't scud off for the better part of an hour. Oh, and as you might have guessed, I reached into my jacket pocket and—yep—promptly fished out my “lost” glasses. I swear they weren’t there a half hour previous. All I could figure was…CONSPIRACY! Bigfoot, Mothman, the Little Gray Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II, and the Skunk Ape (who frequents this area of Florida) MUSTA been playing a trick on your hapless ol’ Uncle—surely he couldn’t be that silly on his own.

The rest of the evening was purty anticlimactic. Once Bertha was go-to aligned, I connected Eye and Telescope to NexRemote’s virtual port. Since E&T uses ASCOM, there really wasn’t much to it. Only slight irritant? The program needs a prominent go-to button. As is, you have to right-click on a DSO and select “go-to” from the context menu that appears. Oh, there’s a pretty little icon at the top with a picture of a telescope on it that looks like it ort-ta send you go-toing, but which instead opens a new Plan document.

That sorted, me and my girl Bertha didn’t just rock, we ROCKED, doing all the H2500 objects in Aquarius and most of ‘em in Cetus and quite a few others besides, probably 80 – 100 all told (I still need to transcribe my notes) before I decided it was time to get some shut-eye in preparation for that dreaded drive back to the Swamp. Eye and Telescope behaved fine all night. Didn't crash. Always sent my scope where I wanted. I liked the observing notes and the pictures and the object data.

‘Course, despite its status as Version 3.1, this is still a fairly new application, and Mr. Thomas continues to work on it. Other than the few nits I’ve picked already, what would I like to see? Above all, a library of ready-made plans/projects. Given that you’ll have to do some work to import your lists, it sure would be sweet to have an online repository to draw from.

“That all sounds right nice, Uncle Rod. How do we get this here program?” Well, muchachos, you can’t. Not yet. But that will change soon. I’ve just got word that it’s gonna be published worldwide in cooperation with Cambridge University Press in the spring of this coming year. Yeah, you’re gonna have to wait a while, but I do believe you will find that wait worth it.

What’s the scene at good, ol’ Chaos Manor South? Other than working on some writing projects and surfing Cloudy Nights and Astromart, not much. Miss D. and I will be going out to the theatre tonight, Friday as I type, and I am gonna see if I can convince her to indulge me and spend an hour or three in the Cannon Brewpub after. Astronomy-wise? It’s clouding up, there’s a winter storm warning in effect, and we may get sleet or even SNOW (shudder) late tonight or early tomorrow. My brand new Orion StarShoot guide camera sits lonely on the dining room table, and will probably stay that way for at least another week. Dagnabbit.

Comments:
Wintertime is a great time to evaluate astronomy software...this new program looks like a winner.
 
I hope I am not patting myself on my back too much here and I know other programs are much better then mine, but...

About six years ago I was working on my Messier Certificate and found my search was very unorganized. Not knowing about planning software I wrote a little Delphi App that kept the Messier List in a database and calculated when each object would rise and set and printed a little report sorted on how many hours the object would be up when the Sun wasn't. I have recently rewritten it in Lazarus and released it as Open Source. Its neatest feature is that it can talk to SkyChart and show where the object is. Patrick Chavellet gave me some guidance on getting that feature to work. The program is only tested on Linux as of yet and it only has small databases and is only available as source code. But if anyone is interested it is at http://sourceforge.net/projects/messier/
 
For those of you that are curious: you can downlaod a demo version from this URL: http://www.oculum.de/oculum/download/eundt-demo31.zip

To install, please extract the archive to a directory without blanks and run SETUP.EXE from there.

The demo is restricted to work with the Messier objects only. To reduce download size, it comes with a smaller star dataset than the full version.

Don't be afraid: the current website of E&T is in German, but the .com site will be in English once the software is available internationally. The demo comes with an english user interface, manual PDF and help system, of course. The only thing that's missing yet are english demo and tutorial videos. But I'm working on this and the release will ship with videos in both languages.

Thomas Pfleger
 
I'm also a Beta tester, and in a small way, one of Tom's co-conspirators on E&T. I volunteered to hack through the help files to make them a tad more regular English-y (and thanks to Rod for the nod on that effort!).

If you've been thinking of getting SkyTools, you may want to hold off for the release of E&T. It's going to be major competition for SkyTools, and may be a better value since scope control is part of the standard package, not an extra-cost add-on.

Rod sort of sped past one of the best points of E&T: it filters objects so that, with your telescope and at your site, you have a list of things you can actually successfully see! That is, you don't get a grab-bag of everything out there. Instead, you get a list tailored for success with your telescope and your site.

With E&T, you'll get software that's been field tested through its earlier, German-only releases. Tom's work is great, and E&T 3.1 is a solid performer. There will be a learning curve (there has to be for any decent planner), but as Rod found, the included help will get you up and running pretty fast.
 
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