Sunday, July 26, 2015


Summer Software Roundup: My Top Ten

Deep Sky Planner 6
The summer deep sky doldrums are still upon us. The clouds are beginning to thin a bit, however, and despite a waxing Moon I hope to get out into the backyard at least for some eyepiece testing over the next week or so. This past week? I’ll fess up:  the heat and the bugs have kept me inside with our new 4K UHD TV. Any observing I’ve done has been of the virtual nature. Which is OK; astronomy software can be fun to play with indoors on these uber-humid, hazy nights. That is certainly true of most of my favorite programs (can’t do much with PHD indoors, admittedly).

SkyTools 3 and Deep Sky Planner 6 (I couldn’t choose)

Both of these are “planners,” which means they are essentially giant databases of over a million objects apiece designed to allow you to build observing lists and log observations. They are so much more than that, though, with abilities like controlling goto telescopes, downloading images, and, in the case of ST3, producing incredibly detailed star charts.

I didn’t completely understand the value of planning software until I began working The Herschel Project in 2009. When I found myself undertaking a project that eventually required me to observe 2500 objects across the entire sky, I knew it would be vital to keep myself organized and informed. What had I seen? What did I still need to see? Could I see a particular object easily with the scope I was using? What would my target look like if I could see it? SkyTools 3 allowed me to do all that. It’s fair to say I’d never have completed the Herschel list in three years without it.

Well, sorta. I’m quite sure I could have done just as well with my other top pick, Deep Sky Planner 6. I just didn’t glom onto a copy until the Project was winding down. While DSP doesn’t generate its own charts, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It allows you to use any one of the most popular planetarium programs for charting. Being able to produce sky maps with Starry Night meant I didn’t have to learn a new charting engine, and that was a good thing. Otherwise? Features right up there with SkyTools. And…I find Deep Sky Planner’s display a little easier to read on a red filtered laptop. Good stuff.

Cartes du Ciel

Good old Cartes. Everybody’s fall-back freeware planetarium isn’t fancy. It doesn’t have photorealistic skies. It doesn’t include a million images. It won’t give you the weather report for your observing site. What it will do is create legible charts that, depending on the options and add-ons you choose to download, will go as deep as anything on the market. It controls scopes easily with ASCOM, and it has animation features that work well and smoothly. You could do a lot worse for a hundred bucks, much less for free.


Stellarium is the other top freeware planetarium, and it, unlike Cartes, does feature nearly photorealistic skies. So why is it ranked lower? For use in the field, it is not quite as good. It includes the entire NGC/IC and a few other catalogs, but does not go nearly as deep as Cartes. It lacks a few controls I find helpful, too, like a button, N,S, E, or W, to quickly select the horizon I want to view. Doesn’t even have a hot key to do that. Still, it is pretty, it is often detailed enough, its animation is crazy-smooth, and it is free.

TheSkyX first Light

As I’ve written here before, I need a “quick look” planetarium. One that loads quickly and shows me exactly what is up in the sky without a lot of fuss. That is TheSkyX First Light Edition. It is as beautiful as Stellarium, actually moreso, but also has the easy to access controls for selecting the horizon view that Stellarium lacks. Want the eastern horizon? Just push “Look East” on the toolbar. So why do I rank it below Stellarium? Mainly because Software Bisque doesn’t make it easy to get. This lowest “level” of TheSkyX is apparently only available as a pack-in with Celestron and Bushnell products. It’s so good, however, that if you can’t find a copy I suggest you kick it up a notch to TheSkyX Student (50 bucks).

Starry Night Pro Plus 6

Cartes won’t give you the weather forecast for your site, but Starry Night darned sure will, and that is just one of its countless features. This mega planetarium really has it all, including a background sky stitched together from CCD pictures. Millions of stars and DSOs. You name it, really. So why am I still on “6” instead of the current Starry Night 7? In its final version, 6 is pretty much debugged—I never have trouble with it. The current owners of the program, Curriculum Simulations, are continuing to work on 7, and I understand it is getting there, but I don’t think it’s quite as clean as 6 yet.

Nebulosity 3

I like to take deep sky pictures. But mainly in an informal manner with a DSLR, not a high-faluting CCD camera. Nebulosity 3 (4 is out now but I haven't tried it yet) is really all I need. It not only lets me control my DSLR from the computer (“tether” it), it features excellent processing tools including a deep sky image stacking program that is the best in the business. To be honest, if I ever move on to a “real” CCD camera, I will still use Neb with it. 

PHD Guiding

You know a piece of software is good when it’s what just about everybody including your old Aunt May uses. That is PHD Guiding, a program designed for only one purpose, guiding your mount during deep sky imaging to keep your stars round. Yeah, that’s pretty much all PHD and its open-source successor, PHD 2, do, but it is enough. Man is it ever. Even with my inexpensive Atlas and VX and CGEM mounts, this program just LOCKS ON and guides. Never a problem, never a worry.


Deepsky is, like ST3 and DSP, a planning program. In fact, it was the first program of that type I ever used back in the mid-1990s. I liked it then and I like it now. So why isn’t it higher up on this list? Time has kinda stood still for it. It needs a few new features and some upgrades like the ability to rearrange column order. The sky charting module is old and tired-looking and only shows the deep sky objects in your current plan—nothing else. The user-interface could stand some tuning, too. Despite those things, I still use Deepsky; it has some features nobody else does, like a library of log entries from observers like Barbara Wilson that I find very useful. I hope Deepsky's author, Steve Tuma, gets back to work on it in a serious fashion someday.


This one is another blast from the past. In its heyday, especially down here in the South, Megastar was the near-invariable choice of serious deep sky observers. It was the first program to use the Hubble Guide Star Catalog, which is what attracted many of us to it early in the 1990s. It also has a very useful catalog nobody else does, the MAC, the Mitchell Catalog of Anonymous Galaxies developed by ace observer Larry Mitchell. Alas, the program’s author, Emil Bonano, apparently lost interest in Megastar and sold it to Willmann-Bell, who have continued to keep it running on new versions of Windows, but have not done much other development on it. Shame. But it is still good and I still like it. A program can look like a refugee from MS-DOS and still be useful, you see.


Like PHD, Celestron’s NexRemote is a program that just does one (relatively) simple thing, but does it incredibly well. In this case, the program allows you to run Celestron’s hand control (NexStar) firmware on your laptop PC. Your laptop is then able to take the place of the telescope hand control. Simple, yeah, but a joy.

This is another soft that really helped during the Herschel Project. When I was using a deep sky video camera, I could sit under a tent canopy with the monitor and DVR and run the NexStar 11 GPS or the CG5/C8 completely from the PC. That meant I was out of the dew and cold and could go as long as it took to bring home the 100 – 200 objects per run that the H-Project demanded. NexRemote also allowed me to move the scope and do other things with a Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad, which was really, really cool.

I’d got the idea that Celestron had abandoned NexRemote (it is now free), and that would be a shame. I was pleased to hear the rumor recently, then, that Celestron is testing a new version designed to offer some of the features peculiar to the popular VX mount. I hope that is true, because even though the H-Project is history now, I still use NexRemote almost every time I set up a Celestron mount.

And that, then, is it. Is there an astro-program I should have considered for this best of the best, but ignored? I’d be happy to hear from y’all about that. Otherwise, I hope to actually do something other than armchair astronomy by next Sunday. Excelsior!

SkyTools is the best planner I've ever used, and the eyepiece chart views are accurate enough to let me positively identify many of the open clusters that litter the H and H2 lists. I don't know how people positively ID many of those objects without such a chart, or a photo. Anyhoo...

I'd throw a plug for Sky Safari 4 on the Mac for the "quick look planetarium" software. The Pro level is quite capable, and not very much money ($60) which gets you remote telescope control. If you use Sky Safari on a mobile device you can share data, as well. I have to say I am using Sky Safari the most these days on the desktop as well as the tablet and phone.
I would add Backyard EOS/Nikon to your list of camera control software. It's inexpensive and easier to use than Nebulosity.
Deep Sky Stacker!

I know lots of folks swear by DSS; I've just never had much luck getting it to work as well as Nebulosity for stacking. Undoubtedly pilot error... LOL
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