Sunday, December 01, 2013


New Kid Coelix

Hard as it may be to believe, muchachos, we are on the cusp of the 2013 holiday season; as I write, it's just a few days before Turkey Day. Me and Miss D. will be doing our usual non-traditional Thanksgiving at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans (we’ll be back at Chaos Manor South by the time you read this), but what’s happening at The Old Manse right now?

Ain't been too much going on in the wake of DSRSGWe did walk down to the annual Greekfest the other day, but other than that, yeah, "quiet." Astronomically speaking? I’ve got an expedition Down Chiefland Way planned for January, but right now all I’ve got on the agenda is a few trips to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site—if the weather cooperates (ha). I had hoped to get a look at Comet ISON, but the clouds and the trees have prevented that thus far. So, with us kinda in the astronomical doldrums, I was happy to get turned on to a new piece of astronomy software, Coelix

 “The whosits of the whatsits, Unk?” Hokay, gang, let’s start at the beginning. I was twiddling my thumbs for want anything better to do one afternoon, when I idly clicked open Hotmail on the kitchen workstation. In addition to the numerous phishing messages, there was a missive from a fellow amateur astronomer, Peter Gladstein, wondering if I might consider reviewing an astro-soft he had found right useful, Coelix.

When I get an unsolicited email from somebody about software they like, I sit up and take notice, since that usually means there’s something good going on with it. Had a look at the program’s website thanks to the URL Pete included in his mail, and was impressed. Coelix looked kinda like a fancy RTGUI (one of Unk’s favorite freeware astro-softs), but with more emphasis on Solar System stuff and with a built-in charting engine. It looked good enough that I replied back to Pete saying that if he was in contact with the author, Jean Vallieres up in Canada, he might mention Unk was interested in a review copy of the program.

Afore long, I had an email from Jean and had arranged for a CD copy of the program to come my way. It is also—and probably mostly—sold in downloadable form, but for review purposes I always prefer a full-up non-virtual copy. The version I’d be reviewing would be Coelix Apex, the top of the line edition. There is also a basic (freeware) version available, but the price of Coelix, $29.95, is so reasonable I figured most folks will spring for “Apex.”

Coelix is the New Kid on the astronomy-software block to me, but it is already in version 2.099, and has been around for dang near ten years. Why in tarnation haven’t I heard about it, then? Maybe because its nominal language is French. There is a whole world of astronomy software out there besides what’s produced in the U.S. and the U.K., y’all. Including some serious programs like Redshift. We just never hear about it, even though most foreign language programs, like Coelix, have an English language mode.

Anyhoo, while waiting for the CD, I took another look at the website to scope out the program’s features:

“More than 2 million stars up to limiting magnitude 12 from Tycho-2 Catalogue and other catalogues. About 15 million stars to the limiting magnitude 15.6 with the Guide Star Catalogue. More than 100,000 double and multiple stars from the Washington Double Star Catalogue.”

“About 28,350 objects including open star clusters, globular clusters, diffuse nebulae, planetary nebulae, galaxies, quasars and clusters and groups of galaxies.”

“Risings, transits, and settings of the Moon and planets.”

Display about 3000 comets and more than 300,000 asteroids’ orbital elements, and ephemerides in 3D and on a sky map. Download the most recent orbital elements of comets and asteroids from inside the software. Add comets by entering their orbital elements.”

Get accurate ephemerides for selected comets and asteroids already calculated by the JPL and taking into account the gravitational perturbations.

ASCOM telescope control.

“List in chronological order of all the phenomena seen during one night or several consecutive nights: sunrises, sunsets and transits of celestial bodies, eclipses, occultations, maxima and minima of variable stars, phenomena of the satellites of Jupiter, transits of the Red Spot, and so on. You can view a phenomenon by clicking on it in the list.”

I edited some of the above to make the website’s so-so English a wee bit more understandable, but it was clear a lot was being claimed for Coelix. As always, the questions would be “How well are these features implemented?” and “How well does the thing work under the stars?”

When the CD dropped through Chaos Manor’s mail slot not long after my exchange of emails with its author, I gotta admit I was kinda unimpressed. This is obviously a garage-type product, a one-person enterprise. The CD, with its CD label-maker label and its Office Depot style jewel case, looked like something old Unk would produce.

Appearance is not everything. Or even much of anything in the amateur astronomy software world. Most of the outstanding programs we enjoy today started as small one-person enterprises, and many have remained that way—SkyTools 3, Deep Sky Planner, PHD Guiding, Cartes du Ciel, etc., etc., etc. I don’t give a hoot-n’-holler that a CD or DVD is not professionally reproduced, I just want to know how well the program works.

Slammed the CD in the drive of the kitchen workstation, a purty up to date Toshiba all-in-one running Win 7 64-bit, and waited…and waited. There is no autorun on the CD; you have to open it up and click on apps to install both the main program and the Hubble Guide Star Catalog. This is not a problem, since the instructions on the back of the CD case’s label are clear as to the installation process. When the installs were done, Windows 7 opined that the programs might not have installed correctly, but it was soon obvious they had.

Clicked Coelix’s icon, and the first thing I had to do was enter my license number. That was simple with neither hiccups nor surprises involved. After that, I immediately got a message that there was an updated version available. A click of “Yes” sent me (automatically) to the website, the new version was downloaded and installed, and I was finally ready to go.

Clicked to open Coelix again, and my first thought when it started was “Rut-roh.” All the text was in French despite me having specified English in the setup. I know a little French, but not nearly enough to get by. In just a second or two, however, the text switched to English where it has remained. Once in a while, the program will display a message in French, but only once in a while and that is not a problem. While the program’s English, like that on the website, is occasionally a little creaky (“Center Time” instead of “Central Time”), it is always understandable. 

What's Coelix's control layout like? In addition to a small Windows menu ("File," "Add," "Preferences and settings," "Help,"), there's a vertical icon bar on the left. A nice, legible status bar on the bottom edge of the display shows location, time, date, and other helpful things. The status bar's elements are clickable so you can change date, time, location, etc. without having to access a program menu. At the top of the screen is a horizontal button-bar to take you other places in the program. 

There were lots of interesting choices on that button bar, like "Sky Maps" and "The Moon," but it appeared I'd need to do the program set up on Coelix’s home screen, The Observer's Guide, before investigating them. The Observer's Guide's display is plain and no-nonsense and is one of the things that reminded a lot of RTGUI. The screen is made up of three groups of buttons on a blue background:  “The Observing Station,” (site specific things), “The Search Engine,” (search for various objects), and “Phenomena not to be missed” (sky events). There’s no manual for Coelix, but it was easy enough to figure out how to set my location, time-zone, and other localizations with the aid of the program's help engine.

I mashed the “Add a new observing station” (observing site) button under Observing Station and was on my way. Possum Swamp was not among the locations Coelix had on file, but it was not difficult to enter my latitude and longitude and specify my time zone. I then bopped over to the next button down “Modify time at the current station.” I selected “Standard Time” vice “DST” and was done.

There are a couple of peculiarities with the program concerning time I ought to mention. One is that it does not take DST rules into account. You have to go in and switch to DST when it goes into effect and turn it off when it ends. The author really needs to fix that. The other odd thing? The program does not track current time from your PC unless you are connected to a telescope. If you want the time to be current in Coelix, you have to click the “Now” icon on the left-side toolbar. This doesn't really hurt anything, but I am still scratching my head about it.

What next? That is it as far as set up goes. This is at heart a simple program. You don’t have enter your scope, or your eyepieces, or your camera, or anything like that (though you can, in the “Fields of View” screen which we’ll get to in a bit). You just start using it. I thought a good place to begin would be to search for a deep sky object, see what Coelix could tell me about it, and generate some charts for it.

Brought up the search window by mashing the “Find a celestial object with the search engine” button (in the Search Engine group), and selected the deep sky tab. What could I search for? The Messiers are in there. So is the whole NGC/IC. There are some additional catalogs or parts of catalogs besides, including the Abell galaxy clusters, PK planetary nebulae, and quite a few others. As a test, I typed in “NGC 7331.” Only NGC (space) 7331 would work, not NGC7331. Same thing with Messiers and other object types.

There was what I’d describe as a “semi-bug” lurking here. Not only do you have to put a space between the M and the object number when searching for a Messier, if you are looking for a single digit M like M3, you must put a 0 in front of its number. To find M3, I had to enter M 03.  M 3 returned the planetary nebula M3-43.

Anyhoo, once I had the search parameter entered correctly, Coelix returned the info window shown above in a right quick hurry. The information the program had about NGC 7331 wasn’t what I'd call all-encompassing, but it did have the vitals, including the galaxy’s type, something that is always important to me. It also had the current altitude and azimuth of the Deerlick Galaxy, but  not its rise and set times. Hokay... How about a nice star map?

The first of the program’s three charting modules is “Celestial Hemisphere,” accessed by a button on the horizontal button-bar. It provides a wide field planisphere-like view of the sky for the time displayed at the bottom of the screen. The Hemisphere is attractive and can be animated (in forward or reverse) so you can see the layout for the coming evening. The animation controls are always onscreen (unless you purposefully close the window) and the motions are smooth and responsive. If I have a criticism of Celestial Hemisphere, it’s that there is no live zoom. To change the size of the chart, you push a button on its icon bar and select a pre-set zoom level given in pixels.

Coelix’s main charting engine, Sky Maps, does a purty good job albeit with some limitations.  There are two main ways to access a chart:  from the button-bar's “Sky Maps” or from the object information window you get after a search. When the chart appears—and it will appear quickly—I think you will be happy with it, especially if, like this old boy, you grew up on printed star atlases.

The charts remind me a lot of the print atlases of my youth. They are clear, and at the lower zoom level have about the same amount of detail as good, old Sky Atlas 2000. You can see more stars and DSOs—including a selection of objects from the PGC and UGC galaxy catalogsby going to a larger chart scale (more on that in a minute). The more prominent nebulae are displayed as isophotes (outlines), and fairly standard symbols are used for other deep sky objects. Everything is clear and easy to read on a white sky background. Don’t like a white sky? You can switch to a red sky by selecting the “color mode” button on the left vertical toolbar and enabling night vision. There is no way to switch to a black sky background.

One other thing that makes Sky Maps a lot like a print atlas is that interactivity is limited. You can move around by clicking an object and mashing “center on this object” in the information window that comes up. Or you can use the arrow buttons on the vertical icon bar to move to any location in the sky. Or you can use the scroll bars to move around the limited area of your current chart (or move a rectangle in the Panoramic Tool to do the same thing). But you will not be dragging the sky around with the mouse like with Stellarium. You won't even be dragging rectangles with the mouse to zoom.

Like Celestial Hemisphere, the one major down check I gave to Sky Maps was no live zoom. If you want to change your zoom level, you will have to hit the “New Sky Map” icon on the left side of a top horizontal icon bar (displayed when you go to Sky Maps). A window will then appear where you can select zoom levels of 1x – 16x (and do other things, too). The new map will still show your current object selection, just on a different size chart. Once I got used to this way of working, it was OK, but it was NOT as convenient as, say, rolling the mouse’s scroll wheel to zoom in and out.

There’s a third type of chart available in the program, “Virtual Telescope,” which, like Sky Maps, can be accessed from the button bar or from an object information window. When you bring up Virtual Telescope, you get an eyepiece field display similar to the one in Stellarium. Larger objects look good, almost like photos, and the whole thing is attractive and useful. You can zoom (via a pull-down), flip and rotate the view, and change magnifications and apparent field sizes with tools on the module's horizontal icon bar. A minor quibble I had? You cannot go to 100-degree apparent fields…90 is the limit, sorry ES-100 eyepiece owners.

Coelix’s three charting modes were all a little different from what I’m used to, if not dramatically so. Nevertheless, after a few days of playing around, I found I could do just about anything with them I could do with any other program. And the more I used ‘em, the better I liked ‘em. The sole exception was that lack of live zoom, or at least a more readily accessible means of selecting zoom level, with the Sky Maps charts.

There is no doubt one of the biggest draws of Coelix is its planetary functions, which are accessed through, yep, “Solar System” on the button bar. You can do just about anything you could possibly imagine here from displaying a chart that shows the Martian hemisphere that is currently visible to showing the positions of Uranus and Neptune’s Moons. You can also produce detailed ephemerides of Solar System objects, search for comets, and draw comet paths. It is all rather well done and useful.

The Moon has her own set of functions on a separate screen that you get to with a “The Moon,” button on the button-bar, natch. These include an ephemeris generator, a lunar phase calendar, and other cool stuff. The only thing I didn't like? The Moon Map, which doesn't have enough detail to be even minimally useful. I also thought some of the functions could have been combined. It would be nice if you could, for example, click on a date in the phase calendar and get rise and set times and other info instead of needing to go to a separate screen.

The next two buttons on the button-bar, “Celestial bodies tonight” and “Graphic Almanac,” display charts for sky events not unlike those in the centerfolds of the astronomy magazines each month. There isn't anything new or original here, but  the graphics are nice and clear and easy to access.

What else is on the button bar? “Field of View” lets you customize and view fields for particular camera/eyepiece/telescope combos centered on the object selected in Virtual Telescope. Finally, there's a strange thing, y’all, “Games.” Mash that and you are presented with a word jumble game that has you rearrange letters to form the names of constellations. I am still trying to figure out why Jean felt moved to include this. It’s cute, I reckon, but I don’t need foolishness like that at 3 a.m. on the dadgummed observing field.

Which leaves one last biggie, telescope control. Since Coelix uses ASCOM, getting your scope set up is a nobrainer; it is much the same as doing that with Cartes du Ciel or SkyTools or any other ASCOM compliant program. The rubber-meets-the-road part of it is how easy the program makes it to issue go-to commands. I set out to see about that one recent Saturday evening.

That's what I set out to do, anyhow. I had big plans, and for once this autumn, the weather was cooperating. Clouds were forecast to move in, but I was pretty sure I'd have till at least midnight. In addition to checking Coelix's goto functions, I'd fire up RSpec and take some stellar spectra. That done, I thought I might see how my little planetary cam, the ZWO ASI120MC might do on the deep sky. I've been seeing some amazing ZWO DSO pictures on Facebook.

As I neared the end of my 25-mile journey to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site, I was practically whistling a little tune. Everything was just going so right for once. Then it hit me. My laptop was sitting in Chaos Manor South's den. Without that, there wouldn't be no imaging. 

Well, I'd do visual, then. Of what, I didn't know, but it looked to be shaping up to be a pretty night. Then the second whammy hit me: I did not pack the eyepiece case. Didn't seem to be any reason to. I'd be CCDing all night long. I do always keep an "emergency" eyepiece in the cases with my scopes, but the one in the C8, Mrs. Peel's, case was the execrable 40mm Plössl Celestron shipped with her. But I figgered I'd be able to borrow an ocular or two from my PSAS buddies. On such a lovely night, surely I wouldn't be alone.

Guess again, Skeezix. Full dark came, and Unk was still all by his lonesomewell except for the friendly tomcat who lives in the airstrip's hangar. I reckon the fact that it was Thanksgiving weekend kept the gang away. So, all I had was that 40mm (which "features" an apparent field of view of about 40-degrees), a 2x Barlow, and a 3x Barlow.

I sat there waiting for darkness, trying to think up a plan to keep the night from being a total waste. Hmmm...I'd been wondering about the Celestron AllStar polar alignment procedure. The AllStar routine in the HC has you center a star using the mount altitude and azimuth adjusters to achieve polar alignment. It works well, but I've had a question about it. Since you physically move the mount to polar align, do you need to do a new goto alignment after AllStar? Some folks say "yes," some say "no," and Celestron waffles on it. Maybe I could find out, which would make the night something other than a complete loss.

Did a rough polar alignment through the hollow bore of the VX, offsetting Polaris a little bit to get close to the real pole with the aid of SkySafari running on my iPhone. Did the Celestron 4+2 goto alignment, and when I was done chose Deneb Algedi as my AllStar star. After I centered the star with the hand control following AllStar's initial slew off it, the mount slewed away one last time and I recentered Delta Capricorni using the altitude and azimuth adjusters. The star was still in the field of the 12mm reticle eyepiece (160x) after the VX's slew, so that was easy to do. Apparently my bore-sighting of the North Star had got me pretty close to the pole.

I then embarked on a series of gotos covering the whole sky, including objects at the zenith and in areas near the four horizons. Every DSO was somewhere in the field of the 40mm eyepiece, which I'd paired with the 2x Barlow (100x). 

What did I conclude? I'm still not sure whether a second goto alignment is called for after AllStar. My gotos were good, sure, but I was close enough to the pole from the start and I didn't have to move the mount much during the AllStar procedure. I suppose I'll continue to do a second goto alignment if I have time, but it's obvious moving the mount a little bit (maybe half a degree on this night) did not hurt goto accuracy much.

After I finished my go-to testing, it was still way, way early, so what did I do next? I hadn't a clue what I ort to do, so I mashed the "tour" button on the NexStar HC and spent half an hour visiting old friends, including M76, who looked very fine even in the icky 40mm, and NGC 253, which was in some haze and low in a light dome, but which looked sweet nevertheless. I was surprised the loose globular, NGC 288 (not in the Celestron tour; I backed out of it to punch up 288), which was just a little higher than the Sculptor Galaxy, broke into a little cloud of stars with ease. I was also surprised M74 showed off a little spiral detail to averted vision despite being barely out of the light dome. It didn't look like it did at the 1994 DSRSG with Old Betsy, but it was nice anyhow. After The Phantom, I looked at a few other things, but not many. 

This wasn't the first time I'd pulled this exact same bone-headed stunt. Not that that made me feel better. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was right disgusted with myself.  Packed up and headed back to the Old Manse where Rebel Yell and Svengoolie awaited. Assuming we get some clear weather next weekend (How likely will that be after I wasted a good one?), I'll give Coelix a check-ride and begin testing RSpec in earnest. Otherwise, we'll visit a cool DSO as per below.

Believe it or no, there’s still more to Coelix than just its goto functions, campers, but, alas, we are about out of space and time for this morning. Before I go, is there anything I would like to see added to Coelix’s copious feature set? More catalogs, like the full PGC. That wouldn’t be hard to do, and for many of us that would move Coelix from the “good” category to the “great” one. It would be nice to have a true observing list generator, too. You can retrieve objects from the catalogs based on a fair selection of filters, and you can save those lists as text files, but you can’t open them from within the program.

The number one want for me, however,  is an easier to use zoom function for Sky Maps. Once I glommed onto the Coelix way of doing things, I didn't miss an easily accessible zoom control too much, but I did miss it.  Finally, some of the screens could stand a little updating. Many of ‘em would be right at home on Unk’s 80386 MS-DOS computer appearance-wise.

This is an insanely nice program for 30 freaking bucks. A copy of Coelix, maybe a freeware logging program like Observation Manager to go with it, and you would be ready to rock—and do a lot of good work. The “pro” software houses don’t want you to know it, but you do not need to spend two or three hundred dollars for an astronomy program that will do everything but make the biscuits in the morning. Coelix is proof of that, muchachos.

Next Time: My Favorite Fuzzies:  M5...

Interesting review and report, Uncle Rod. I am not a user of equatorial mounts, but theoretically I see no other use for the step in the All-Star procedure when you re-center using the hand control than for the mount computer to use the displacement so learned to re-calculate the go-to alignment to compensate for the subsequent equal displacement made with the manual alt-az controls. This does not mean of course that it is actually done, only that in all likelihood someone on the R&D team had the idea of doing it ;) One would need to test the go-to accuracy before and after the All-Star to find out.
HI Ivan...I believe that is what's happening... but like I said...not sure. Last night was inconclusive. Goto was good...but I didn't have to move the mount much. I may do more experimenting when I get a chance.
Hi Unk thanks for the heads up I downloaded the free trail version and printed off one of the star charts and I must so im very impressed this could be the ideal companion to Skytools 3 I think im most definitely going to order the full version after I've had a little more play with the demo :)
Thanks Unk
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