Sunday, November 30, 2014

 

Unk’s Astroware Top 10


As y’all know, muchachos, I am a confirmed astroware fanatic. I don’t have every single astronomy program ever to come down the pike, but I have more astronomy software on my hard drive(s) than humans should be allowed to have. And while I ain’t got the latest and greatest of every single biggie, I’ve at least got an older version of almost every one.

So what? The end of the year seems like a good time for taking stock and making lists. Herewith, then, are Unk’s top 10 astroware programs. In no particular order. I couldn’t quite cipher that out…

Cartes du Ciel

I didn't try the first release of Patrick Chevalley’s “CdC” as its aficionados fondly call this famous planetarium program. I first heard about it from my late friend and astroware guru, Jeff Medkeff, in the late 1990s, but he said the early Cartes really wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Then, a year or so later, Jeff changed his tune, opining that this freeware program could be big, real big.

And it is. Patrick first got the program off the ground in 1997, and hasn't stopped improving it since. The most significant update since the early days probably being version 3, which came out a few years back and put the program on the level of any commercial soft. Cartes du Ciel was completely rewritten at that time to improve performance and to (somewhat) streamline its User Interface. Two new versions were also released at that time; one for Macintosh and one for Linux.

What can CdC do? Almost anything, if not quite everything. Certainly, anything your old Unk wants to do at the telescope. No, it don’t offer stuff like plate solving, but that sort of thing is way beyond your silly old Uncle. The good news for folks who do want to do things like that? CdC interfaces easily to other programs. It is the favorite “front end,” for example, of the users of the mount control driver, EQMOD.

CdC
“But how many objects, Unk? And how does it look?” CdC features tons of catalogs past the NGC to include the huge PGC galaxy catalog. It can use both the Hubble Guide Star Catalog and the larger/better UCAC star catalog. Cartes’ strength when it comes to catalogs isn't what it comes with, but what can be added to it thanks to its open, friendly nature. Don’t see the catalog you want? If you have the data, it’s easy to build one with the included CATGEN utility. Well, unless you are Unk, who depends on more computer literate folks to do such things.

Looks are admittedly the sticking point for some of y’all when it comes to CdC. It looks OK, but as you can see in the screenshot here, it is plain vanilla plain. But is that always a bad thing? Out on a dark field, “pretty” sometimes also means “not very legible.” Cartes is very easy to decipher with your display a dimmed down red.

Stellarium

Unk was a Stellarium skeptic for the longest time. I kept hearing people going on and on about this new freeware program that was supposedly better than Cartes du Ciel. It was the Big Thing on the cotton-picking Cloudy Nights BBS for the longest time. I was skeptical, yeah, as I always am when it comes to the supposed more better gooder, but I finally got around to trying the program, and I liked what I saw. It’s not better than CdC, and in some ways it is not as good, but it is quite an achievement and is a novice's dream come true.

Unlike Unk’s much-loved CdC, Stellarium is very pretty. While I wouldn’t call it photorealistic on the level of TheSkyX or the upper levels of Starry Night, it is attractive and the comparison between it and the plain Cartes in that regard is like night and day. The program is also very responsive on most machines, and it’s like heaven for Joe or Jane Newbie to be able to grab the sky with the mouse to move around in Stellarium. It’s also heaven for them—and maybe for old timers too—to be able to issue commands from a few big toolbar buttons instead of scratching their heads at Cartes' multiple menus, tiny buttons, and icon bars. If that were all there were to the story, Cartes du Ciel would be history.

Stellarium
But that ain’t the whole story. Stellarium is just fine in the house for quick “What’s up?” checks. And while I don’t doubt casual observers will find Stellarium OK for use at the scope, those of y’all who intend to go real deep may be a bit annoyed with the program’s limitations, as will those who want to control a scope with it.

How many deep sky objects does Stellarium have? Nowhere is that stated. I finally got the chance to ask one of the authors "What's in there?" on the Cloudy Nights BBS. His taciturn answer? "NGC, IC, M, and C." The "M" is no doubt "Messier," and I assume the "C" is "Caldwell," Patrick Moore's (short) catalog. In other words, don't look for PGCs or UGCs or even Kings or Bochums; you ain't gonna find 'em. Unfortunately, there is no way to add more catalogs to Stellarium at this time. Stars are no problem. You can download (from within the program, in nine parts) an unnamed star catalog consisting of millions of stars.

More annoying for some of y’all may be the program’s rather rudimentary scope control system. It has built in drivers, but only for a relatively few telescopes—Celestron, Meade, Losmandy, and SkyWatcher and that is about it. That’s OK for many folks, but if you want to use something other than those scopes, it gets a little hairy. 

You’ll need not one but two outboard programs if your scope/mount ain't on the list. ASCOM, natch, and another separate program that allows Stellarium to talk to ASCOM, Stellarium Scope. Wouldn't it have been best to forget built-in drivers and make Stellarium an ASCOM compliant program? Also, you may find the scope control commands—Press CTRL-0 to go to the currently selected object—a wee bit rudimentary.

Still, there is no denying Stellarium is an incredible achievement. Sitting there watching as artificial satellites streak across the program’s lovely sky (right where they should be) is, for example, not something you want to miss. Even if this does not become your most used program and even if you never actually use it in the field with a telescope, you want it on your box. Like Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium is available for Macs as well as PCs, so there’s really no excuse for you not to have it.

TheSkyX

TheSkyX
Let me preface this by saying I don’t own a copy of TheSkyX. Not the real SkyX, anyhow.  I might someday, however. Perhaps not the rather expensive ($329.00) TheSkyX Professional, but maybe Serious Astronomer, the next click down. How do I know I’ll like it enough to spend just under 150 freaking dollars for it, then? The DVD that came in the box with my new VX mount last year.

On that DVD was a lower than low, lower than the Student Edition, version of TheSkyX, TheSkyX First Light Edition. This was nothing new. Software Bisque has had low-levels of their programs bundled in with Celestron gear for years and years. Sounded purty ho-hum to me, and I almost tossed the DVD in the round file as I was bustlin’ around getting ready for the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage.

Good thing I didn't. Good thing I was a mite bored when my packing was done and decided to insert the disk into the kitchen computer’s DVD drive. As I told y’all here, First Light is now my favorite quick look program. It is better than Stellarium for that purpose—all I have to do is mash a N, S, E, or W. button to immediately view the horizon of my choice. I don't have to waste time dragging the sky around with the consarned mouse unless I want to. First Light is, in fact, the best quick-look soft I’ve used since my beloved and long-lost SkyGlobe 3.6.

It wasn’t just the utility of the program for sky checks that impressed me; it was its totally redesigned User Interface. TheSky6 was in many ways a fantastic program, but it never endeared itself to me because of its overly complicated UI. Yes, I know the higher versions of TheSkyX will have tons more features than First Light, but examining their screen shots and having a quick brush with a buddy’s Professional version shows me Serious Astronomer and Professional share the clean, easy interface of the humble First Light Edition. For you Apple stalwarts, TheSkyX in all its versions is available for Macs as well as PCs.

Starry Night Pro Plus 6

Starry Night Pro Plus
I really do love Starry Night Pro Plus. In some ways that is surprising, y’all. Like TheSky 6, its User Interface is a mess with all the grace of an elephant in ballet shoes. There are tool-bars, and menus, and buttons galore and there is no discernible pattern to anything. There are also a few minor bugs still resident in the final (I presume) update of v6. But I use the program frequently. Maybe even more than dagnabbed Cartes du Ciel.

Why is that? It just does so much, looks so fraking purty, and performs so well. There are not too many astronomy programs, for example, that will pull up the Clear Sky Clock for your current location. Or show you a satellite weather map. I was a little concerned, when I first got the soft, that all those tons of features would make it sluggish. Nope. Drag the sky around with your mouse and you will find smoothness and speed fully the equal of the much smaller and simpler Stellarium.

One huge draw, I gotta admit, is the Real Sky feature of the Pro Plus version. That came from a now dead program, Desktop Universe. Some dudes took many, many medium/low resolution CCD images of the sky and stitched them together to form the sky background of their planetarium. Desktop Universe wasn't much good in most other respects, but its photographic sky background was something to see.

When DTU failed, its remains were sold to the then-owners of Starry Night who folded it into the top version of their program. It is real cool, y’all, to zoom in on the sky and see the heavens in photographic glory. The only minus is the limited resolution. Zoom in too much and everything fuzzes out. But that’s OK; the normal computer graphic stars and objects—which are just as good as those of any other top planetarium—take over then.

The only bummer? SNPP 6, as above, is not quite there. The bugs and an unwieldy UI see to that. How about the new kid on the block, Starry Night Pro Plus 7? I am happy to see the current owners of the program (and SkySafari), Simulation Curriculum, continuing to develop Starry Night. BUT…from what I hear the new one was released before it was quite ready and may not be quite ready yet. Would I spend an amount almost up there with TheSkyX Professional for Starry Night Pro Plus 7? Probably not, but you never know. If they can improve on SNPP 6 Plus even a little, I would be awfully tempted, y’all.

SkyTools 3

SkyTools' Interactive Atlas
And with that, we are out of planetarium programs, leastways the ones your old Uncle has, likes, and uses. What’s left? Well, for one thing, planners, programs that help you compose observing plans. I sometimes hear people complain about the “learning curve” involved in getting to know SkyTools 3. Usually, however, these are folks who haven’t spent much time with the soft. Yes, it will do a hell of a lot, but at first boot-up, it is one of the least intimidating looking programs I know of, and one of the easiest to begin using in simple fashion.

When you start up ST3 for the first time, what greets you is a familiar, friendly-looking spreadsheet not much different from the one you use at work to report travel expenses. That is exactly what SkyTools is, a spreadsheet front end backed by a humongous database of millions of stars and over a million deep sky objects (from many, many cross-referenced catalogs).

Yes, the program does a great number of things; everything from telling you when the next lunar eclipse will occur to figuring out how much exposure you will need for a particular deep sky object with your sky, scope, and camera. But beginning to use it doesn't necessitate learning to use all these things—not at first. The program comes with ready-made observing lists, and more are easily downloadable from within the program. Load up the Messiers, click the “observed” field on an object’s spreadsheet entry when you’ve seen it, click “log” to enter your observation, and you are using ST3 productively from the get-go.

How about star charts? Typically, planners have lagged behind planetariums in that respect, and in some ways, that is still the case. SkyTools 3’s sky is neither as photorealistic as Starry Night’s, nor is it quite as interactive, despite being named the “Interactive Atlas.” In practice, that doesn't hurt a thing. The Interactive Atlas is like a cross between a print atlas, albeit one much, much deeper than even Millennium Star Atlas, and a planetarium program. For actual use in the field, I put it second to no other charting system, including the top levels of TheSkyX and Starry Night. When I’m using it, I’ve never wanted for better.

Don’t get me wrong, either; the Interactive Atlas is not ugly. It’s better looking, for example, than poor old Cartes du Ciel, for sure. No, you can’t grab the sky and move it around with the mouse, but the chart controls are smooth and responsive. Best of all, on a dark observing field, SkyTools Interactive Atlas is easy to read.

The greatest recommendation I can give SkyTools 3 is that it is the program that allowed me to observe/image all 2500 Herschel objects in three years, a right good accomplishment given our weather in the Swamp. The program never crashed or misbehaved and never got in my way. It just worked.

Deep Sky Planner

Deep Sky Planner
I could no doubt have used Deep Sky Planner for the Herschel 2500 instead of ST3 and been just as happy and productive. The reason I didn't was that by the time silly old Unk figured out how good DSP is and had glommed onto a copy, the H-Project was well underway and I didn’t feel like swapping ponies in mid-stream.

In most ways, DSP is much like SkyTools—it is a spreadsheet front end for a gigantanormous database. There are differences, however. The program is a little more “Windows like,” using a more standard menu layout than ST3. It is also more mouse oriented, allowing you to drag and drop items hither and yon. I also like the default font size of DSP:  nice and big and easy for poor old Unk’s peepers to read when the screen is filtered a dim red. The big difference between SkyTools and Deep Sky Planner, though, is the charts. DSP doesn't have any.

Which don’t mean you can’t click on a list object and see it on a sky map. DSP just doesn't have a built-in charting engine. The program interfaces to most popular planetariums:  Cartes du Ciel, Starry Night, TheSky, and more. I am somewhat torn about that. I do so love ST3’s Interactive Atlas, but I can set up DSP so that when I click on an object up comes a Starry Night chart centered on my fuzzie. Those of y’all not wanting to learn a new charting system may really like this aspect of DSP.

Nebulosity

While much of the computer software amateurs are using is designed to draw sky charts or compose observing lists, applications for astrophotography are a close runner up. Since I use a DSLR most of the time, I need a program that will allow me to acquire and process images with my Canon, and Nebulosity is that program.

Nebulosity
While the soft supports quite a few astronomy-centric CCD cameras, I would guess most of the folks using Nebulosity are shooting the sky with Canon DSLRs. Why do you need a computer to image the sky with a DSLR, anyhow? Why not just hook up a remote release and fire away?

You could do that, but using a program to run your camera is more effective. “Tethering” (as we call it in the terrestrial photography biz) your Canon—Canons are the only DSLRs currently supported by Nebulosity—to a PC or Mac helps in a couple of ways. First, you can focus with the big screen of your laptop, which beats the tar out of focusing with the camera’s small screen or—horrors—through its dim viewfinder. Nebulosity also allows you to store your images on your hard drive rather than on the DSLR’s memory card and saves them in the astronomy-standard FITS format.

It doesn’t end there with Neb; it contains some awesome stacking and processing tools. It's excellence in that regard means you may want the program even if you use a DSLR other than a Canon. Bottom-line-a-roony-o? Unk ain’t much of an astrophotographer, but Nebulosity allows me to be all the astrophotographer I can be. Nuff said.

Registax 6 and AutoStakkert and FireCapture

No, this ain’t Unk’s sneaky way of getting a couple of extras into the top ten. Not entirely. For planetary observers, these three go together like red beans, rice, and sausage. Registax 6 was for years the unchallenged king of planetary image stacking. A little over a decade ago, amateurs discovered the way you make high-resolution lunar and planetary images is to take many frames with a high-speed camera and stack the best together to form a final image. There’s more to Registax than stacking, however. Its image sharpening tools, its “Wavelet” filters are unmatched for working magic on your images, for bringing out more detail than you imagined was there.

Not long ago, I began hearing about another one, another freeware program like Registax. This one, Autostakkert, was reputed to produce even better results. Could that possibly be? Yep. Not only do the image stacks I produce with Autostakkert seem slightly better—better registered with maybe a better frame selection—it is a bit easier to learn to use than the somewhat daunting Registax. Registax ain't left out of the party, however. Once you stack with Autostakkert, you will still want to run the result through Registax's sweet wavelet filters.

Registax
In order to process planetary images, you gotta have planetary images. The best program I’ve found for image acquisition is the (free) FireCapture. Despite its name, it works with USB connected planetary cameras and webcams. See this here for a fuller description of the program’s crazy-good features and tools, but let me say rat-cheer that I’ve been doing webcam/planet cam imaging for nigh on a dozen years, and no program has worked as well for me for image capture as FireCapture.

Virtual Moon Atlas

Unk, as you may know is a confirmed lunatic. I am also a frequent Moon observer and have been since I began in astronomy dang near fifty years ago. When computers hit amateur astronomy big-time twenty years ago, I began wishing for a “A Megastar for Moon observers.” That is, I wanted a lunar charting program with the depth of the old deep sky powerhouse, Megastar. Took a while for that to happen, but eventually Patrick Chevalley, CdC’s author, teamed with lunar expert Christian Legrand to do that very thing.

The result was VMA. It’s like somebody stuffed the Rukl Lunar Atlas into a PC, but didn’t stop there, adding more features, more details, and tons of images from professional lunar references like the Lunar Orbiter atlas. There are several other computer lunar atlases, including a commercial one for PCs and several for smart phones and tablets, but nothing has realized Unk’s wish as fully as VMA. Like CdC, Virtual Moon Atlas is free and available in a Mac version—and believe me, y’all, you’ll dang sure want to run this one on your Mac.

RSpec

Now for something completely different. I’m pretty sure most of us amateur astronomers occasionally dream of contributing to science—or at least getting a taste of what it’s like to go beyond “just looking.” RSpec will dang sure allow you to do the latter, and may even let you do the former. It is designed not just to allow you to obtain and analyze the spectra of stars and other objects, but to do that simply and well.

Virtual Moon Atlas
Do you remember the old commercial “So easy even a caveman can do it!”? This program, amazingly, is so simple even Uncle Rod has been able to use it to take spectra of bright stars. Rspec can take you much farther than that, though. Coupled with a diffraction grating or an honest to god spectrograph, folks with a lot more talent than Unk are using it to do things like measure the redshifts of distant galaxies. If you are wanting to try something different, RSpec just might be it. It is also inexpensive and as professionally done as any software—astronomy oriented or not—I have ever used.

Runners Up

Not every contestant, no matter how beautiful and talented, will be standing up there onstage when the new Miss America is named, and not every program can be in the top ten for Unk’s astroware beauty pageant. These are the ones that I like a whole, whole lot but ain’t quite good enough to be in the top ten.

EQMOD, is the ASCOM driver that allows you to run your Synta SynScan (Atlas, EQ6, etc.) mount without a hand controller, and do it better than with the “real” hand control. It is a runner up only because it is not really a program, but just a driver. But what a driver. It is a staple of 21st Century amateur astronomy. Got an Atlas or a Sirius? You want EQMOD.

NexRemote is like EQMOD, but for Celestron branded mounts. It is a fantastic program I’ve used for over a decade. It simulates the NexStar HC on your PC (only) and does things the NexStar hand paddle cannot do. Why is it down here, then? Because it is apparently no longer supported by Celestron. There’s now a Plus NexStar HC, an improved hand control, but over a year down the road, there’s not been a peep out of Celestron about a Plus NexRemote or even an update to the existing version. Damn shame.

RSpec
HeavenSat is for folks like Unk who’ve been space crazy since they were younguns. It’s also for people who just want to view and identify artificial satellites. There are plenty of programs, including plenty of other free ones, that will make satellite predictions, but few are as easy to use or feature such beautiful displays as HeavenSat.

Lunar Phase Pro is now in Version 2, but it doesn't look much different to me than my version 1.10 copy. And that is a good thing; the program is perfect just the way it is. This little soft just keeps chugging along year after year informing us lunatics as to the current circumstances of the Moon—phases, eclipses, libration, rise and setting times, and more. It’s attractive and fast and inexpensive and if you are a Moon observer this will be a bread and butter program for you, I guar-ron-tee.

AstroPlanner is, natch, a planning program and a very good one. If there’s a single down-check to it for moi, it’s just that it’s really best on a Macintosh in my opinion, and I ain’t got a Macintosh. Certainly the Windows version ain’t nothing to sneeze at, neither, and has got many fans—as it should.

Deepsky is also a planning program, and it was one of the first programs of that type on the market. By all rights, it should be up there with the other two. Unfortunately, it’s been badly in need of attention—considerable updating—for a while. I hope its talented author, Steve Tuma, does that, since this program still has some features nothing else does.

Eye and Telescope is yet another planner, and it is at the other end of the spectrum from Deepsky; it is on its way up the ladder, not down. It’s a few years old now, and while it still needs just a wee bit of tweaking, I would not be at all surprised to find it in the Big 10 next time. I know I liked it from the first.

PHD Guiding is famous and it is great. So why is it a runner up? Simply because it’s, well, kinda simple. All it does is guide your telescope for long exposure imaging, but it does that like no other soft. Not even the most expensive pay-to-play programs, like Maxim DL. Need I say more?

And that is it for this time. I don’t know that I’ll make this Top Ten Pageant a yearly affair, but maybe. Depends on how many astroware authors let me know about their new stuff and how many of you, muchachos, tell me about your faves that I overlooked. Hell, you can even preface your comments with, “Uncle Rod, YOU BLOCKHEAD!”

Next Time: More My Favorite Fuzzies...



Comments:
Thanks for this excellent round-up. There are a couple of titles I'll check. I have a little, simple favourite called Where is M13? Have you tried it? Handy for visualising where stuff is...
 
That is a very nice little program that I have used with my astronomy students in the past. Wish the author would continue to develop it...
 
Nice review! Has provided me with some valuable information regarding image capture apps and post processing. Thanks,
 
IMO, you have done ST3 a disservice by suggesting that Deep Sky Planner (DPS) is similar to ST3. ST3 is an order of magnitude more feature/function rich (e.g., integrated database, nightly observing list planner, extensive observing lists, visual sky simulation charts, current events, special events, etc), than DPS.

 
Both are great programs with plenty of features. THAT'S _my_ opinion. ;)
 
OK...Have you tried Stellarium? It is easy to get going and easy to use as well (and free)...
 
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