Sunday, April 05, 2009


The Return of SkyTools and the New Software Curse

The return of SkyTools? Where the heck did it go? Actually, this popular computer program for observers didn’t go anywhere, muchachos. It just kept on trucking year after year meeting the needs of its legions of fans. Including me.

But there isn't any doubt I got away from SkyTools for a while. This astronomy program, a member of the “planner logger” species, has been a favorite of mine over the four or five years since it came to live on my hard drive. But, Unk being Unk, his computer continues to fill up with ever more astro-ware. Don’t ask me why, but software authors seem to think that li’l ol’ me should review their work. That’s fine by me. I might not really know much about software and PCs, but I do like playing with the stuff. Oh, I’d booted up SkyTools a time or two over the last couple of years, but only to check my facts when I was writing it up for the software section in my Choosing and Using a New CAT.

Till one day I was doing a little housekeeping on the laptop I use at the telescope, and being bored clicked on SkyTools 2’s icon. If I’d forgotten just how wonderful this program is, a little cruising around in it, updating observing lists, and playing with its beautiful “Interactive Star Atlas” reminded me. Soon, good, ol’ ST2 was back by my side on the observing field. At this past year’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze, it enabled me to tick off one Herschel 400 fuzzy after another with my 12-inch Dobbie, Old Betsy, as I cruised through that sometimes daunting list, which I am finally determined to GET DONE.

I used to think SkyTools was mainly for Dob owners, and DSRSG sure reinforced how great it and its deep, legible, flexible charts are for alt-az star hopping. Some planning programs skimp on star charts, but not SkyTools. Its maps are easily as useful as those in TheSky and nearly as pretty as those in Starry Night Pro Plus. A recent outing with my computer-happy go-to-enabled C8, though, reminded me that SkyTools is not just for the bigdobs.

SkyTools' Realtime screeen.
Sometime after I began using ST2, I sprang for the extra-cost add-on, Real Time, which allows for telescope control via ASCOM or with some built-in drivers, and swiftly came to believe that SkyTools is also at the head of the class in astro-ware for go-to scope owners. With Real Time, your list’s objects are constantly updated in, well, real time, as to visibility and are just a mouse click away from your eyepiece or camera.

Yep, Dob or SCT, go-to or not—hell, I don’t care if your “primary instrument” is a StarBlast—Sky Tools 2 will allow you to see more of your universe than you ever dreamed possible. Don’t believe me? You’ll have to experience the program for yourself, then you will believe, pards, I guar-ron-tee, but you may also be interested in reading the review of the program I did some time back.

SkyTools 2 is the CAT’s meow, then? Well, sorta. You see, there’s a new kid on the block, SkyTools 3. Things were admittedly quiet at SkyTools’ publisher, Greg Crinklaw’s Capellasoft, for a few years—on the surface at least. Then, a couple of annums back, I heard Greg was in the process of producing a major update, actually a completely new version, to be called “SkyTools 3.”

Since I was preparing Choosing and Using a New CAT at the time, I got ahold of Bubba Greg and requested a review copy of ST3 for the book. He allowed as how he’d be happy to oblige, but that the program was not close to ready to go. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t quite finished by my deadline, and I had to content myself with mentioning that a new version of SkyTools would likely be on the streets at about the same time Choosing and Using hit them.

Which turned out to be true. Shortly after the book was published, Greg contacted me, and asked if I’d still be interested in looking at “3” as the subject, perhaps, of a review. I answered in the affirmative, of course. I was curious to see if the new one could possibly displace SkyTools 2 in my affections. I was skeptical, I’ll admit, and maybe even a mite apprehensive. I don’t think I’ve ever loved an astronomy program as much as I’ve loved SkyTools 2—well, maybe Megastar comes close—and I simply didn’t see how Mssr. Crinklaw could improve on it. Would the effort to update the program ruin it? Y’all know my motto: The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.

The Chiefland Holiday Inn Express on a rainy night.
As I always am when new astro-stuff arrives, I was mighty excited when the envelope containing the SkyTools 3 CD dropped through Chaos Manor South’s mail slot one afternoon. I ripped open the puppy with trembling fingers and fumbled it into the laptop’s DVD drive. Would my fave astro-soft be changed beyond all recognition? Would I have to spend weeks trying to figger the danged thing out like the time I got TheSky 6 Pro?

There’s no doubt Skytools 3 Professional (the version I received)—or even the “standard” SkyTools 3—has one heck of a lot of new features and capabilities, but when I booted the soft up after the install, it was: “Ahhh…thank the good Lord.” ST3 features a user interface that is comfortingly familiar—nay, almost unchanged, at first glance anyway. After a brief bit of head scratching to cipher-out how to import my “old” object lists, I was back to bidness as usual, and could take my time dipping my toe in the new stuff.

Like I done told y’all, I’m working on a full-up review of ST3, but I know you little boogers, you want to know what’s new now. Might not be a bad idea to visit the SkyTools 3 website, but here’s a list of what I think’s new and notable in SkyTools 3 Professional:

Numerous tools designed for the astrophotographer (“imager” in Newspeak), tools like an exposure calculator.

Visual Detection Model. I don’t know how it works, and I’d prob’ly be too dumb to understand the explanation if I got one anyhow, but the program is able to offer remarkably accurate opinions on how easy an object will be to see with your scope from your site. This don’t just apply to faint fuzzies; the dadgummed thing can also tell you how easy a double star will be to split.

Yeah, SkyTools’ sky simulation has always been pretty, but now it is also “real.” It takes the same things into account that the visual detection thingy does in presenting the way your sky looks.

The program’s Interactive Atlas is purty cool, yeah, but as I cruise across all them fuzzies, I can’t help wondering how they will look in my NexStar 11. No need to wonder no longer, even if the sky is cloudy. The Atlas has a little window you can bring up that shows a surprisingly realistic eyepiece simulation. If I’ve got my scope hooked up at the time, she will follow this window as I drag it from object to object. I don’t know about “in Vegas,” but as Slim Pickens said in Dr. Strangelove, “A feller could have a pretty good time with that.”

We got the scopes our of the vehicles--for a little while.
Automatic list making. Sometimes the sky clears when I don’t expect it to (though it’s mostly been the opposite o’ that this year). I need an observing list and I need it now. I know I won’t see much if I go out without a list, but I don’t got time to sort through SkyTools’ massive database looking for cool stuff. Salvation: this SkyTools 3 will make lists for you, automatically. Showpieces, cool faint fuzzies, you call it.

Let’s say you do have time to generate lists of your own for the weekend’s deep sky safari. You gotta search for them objects before you can plunk ‘em into a list. Like most planners, SkyTools 2 was a little particular about search strings. SkyTools 3 is much less so. I searched for Hercules’ premier globular as “M13,” “M 13,” and “Messier 13,” and ST3 found it every time. That seems simple, I know, but you’d be surprised at how many programs have trouble with this simple thing.

Wondering what’s up with your favorite cosmic lint ball? Don’t feel like squinting at rows of data to figger that out? This program will do that for you. ST3 will generate a synopsis of your target’s particulars for any given evening. Is it a good time for M13? With your scope and your eyepieces from your site? I selected the big ball o’ stars and this is what ST3 had to say:

On this night Keystone Cluster is best visible between 03:27 and 05:38, with the optimum view at 04:45. Look for it in Hercules, high in the sky in complete darkness. It is easy visually in the Celestron NexStar 11. Use the Ethos 13mm for optimum visual detection.

In the following 30 days this object is easy visually from April 4-7, and again from April 14 on, with the best view coming on April 21. Keystone Cluster passes high overhead at Tanner Williams Darksite. It is best viewed from early May through early October, with the best evening viewing in late July.

You tell me, is that cool or what? I know it just tickles me.

Could that be, yes, Blue sky peeping out?!
You want stars? SkyTools 3 has got zillions of ‘em, and not just from the (sometimes) less than optimum Hubble Guide Star Catalog. The program’s “integrated database” consists of, Greg says, “the best” from HIPPARCOS, Tycho 2, UCAC, USNO-B1, WDS, CCDM and GCVS catalogs. Natcherly, the thing is full up with double stars and variable stars too. Speaking of the latter, while I ain’t never been much of a variable star freak, I was absolutely gobsmacked to hear the variable stars in SkyTools 3 actually CHANGE BRIGHTNESS ON THE CHARTS!

Fuzzies? Lots. In addition to expanding its already huge databases, the new version of SkyTools offers improved positions for its catalog of over a million galaxies.

When I use a go-to scope with a PC program, I wanna initiate go-tos from that program. The grass is purty dern green in this regard with SkyTools 3 Professional. Not only is the go-to module, Real Time included now (with ST3 Professional) instead of being an extra-cost “unlockable,” more scopes have been added to its native support list (it still uses ASCOM, too). Gotta Servocat? ST3 will now have yer kitty lappin’ cream.

I could keep going, but you get the picture. Visit the website if’n you want to. Wait for my full review if you need to. Or just wise up and order it. Now.

That’s SkyTools 3, but what in tarnation do I mean by “the New Software Curse?” All y’all know about the New Scope Curse, I reckon: buy a new play-pretty and the clouds automatically cover the sky from horizon to horizon. Unfortunately, Uncle Rod found out the same principle apparently also applies to new Astronomy Software. Gotta say I was dismayed. I could understand a sudden gathering of angry-looking thunderheads in response to the recent delivery of a 13-mm Ethos to Chaos Manor South, but legions of dark, threatening, and just plain evil clouds brought on by a new astro-CD? Come on!

I didn’t just wanna play around with SkyTools 3 in the Ol' Manse’s dining room, I wanted to get it out on the observing field to see if this one was just as good as the ol’ one when it came to helping me find and view Good Stuff. I did get ST3 out to my club dark site, just to the west of Possum Swamp in the metropolis of Tanner-Williams, Alabama on a Messier Marathon night, and I did get to use it for about 30-minutes before the clouds rolled in with a vengeance, but I wanted to give it some more time under the stars before setting down to write a review.

And the rain continued to fall...
Since it didn’t look like the clouds would abate any time soon here along the northern Gulf Coast, I started thinking about my favorite remote observing site, the Chiefland Astronomy Village, which is far enough to the south to escape some of the bad weather that routinely affects The Swamp. And not only would folks be down to CAV for hard core observing as on every dark of the moon, Chiefland’s much loved Spring Picnic (star party) would be in full swing during the March New Moon, my proposed getaway weekend.

Only buzzing fly in the butter? The Weather Underground (Wunderground) forecast for that weekend started iffy and got worse. It began with “partly cloudy,” devolved to “mostly cloudy,” and by the time my Friday morning departure arrived it landed with a stinking “scattered thunderstorms” thud.

If I’d known how truly bad the weather was gonna be, I might have gone back to bed. Then again, I might not have, since I have never had a bad time at Chiefland or any other star party no matter how bad the weather. Yeah, one reason I go to star parties is to observe, sure. But I have a decent dark site 45-minutes from home. At star parties I’m also interested in hanging out with my fellow amateurs, looking at and through their scopes, and just relaxing. Something that encouraged me concerning my proposed Chiefland run? I had never, ever been fully skunked at Chiefland. Even those times I had only had two days on-site, I always got in an hour or three of excellent deep sky touring.

I did come real close to backing off a notch telescope-wise. Given the weather predictions and the fact that it was begnning to drizzle e’en as I marshaled the gear in Chaos Manor South’s front hall Friday morning, I thought about loading up my new 8-inch Dob instead of my time-tested 12.5-inch, Old Betsy. The new one would sure be a lot easier to get back into a vehicle if the weather turned from “punk” to “junk.”

I demurred, however. Betsy was already disassembled, and she has one thing the new rig don’t in addition to a bigger primary: a Sky Commander DSC computer. I ain’t forgot how to star hop, but since I’d only have two days max, I wanted to spend my limited time looking, not hunting. My observing companion, Pat, had also decided to head to CAV despite the forecasts, and he’d be bringing the twin sister of my 8-inch. If it looked too iffy to fool with Bets, I figgered I’d bum a peek or two through his scope.

The dome of the 42-inch "Beast"!
The drive down to Chiefland from Possum Swamp is a not inconsiderable one. It’s all of 375-miles from Chaos Manor South’s front porch to the CAV observing field. That is not that much different from the trip to Atlanta, however, and I can usually do that in about 5 – 5 ½ hours. Driving alone, as I would be this time, it does help to have a book on tape to make the drive less boring. 2/3rds of it is on featureless I-10, and not until you get close to Chiefland is there much to look at (eventually, you parallel the scenic Suwannee River with its lost motels and tourist attractions from a more prosperous pre Disney World age).

With that in mind, I loaded up my iPod with an old favorite from Stephen King, Cell. Yeah, I know it ain’t exactly Literature with a capital “L”—I’ve spent enough time sitting in Graduate English courses to know that—but I also know King is a gifted writer and that his creepy Grand Guignol tales sure do make the time pass. The drive would actually have been pleasant, restful even, if it hadn't been for the dadgummed weather.

Just as I finished loading up my modest gear (other than the 12-inch, I was travelling remarkably light), the drizzle increased to a steady rain, and by the time I was headed east on Interstate 10 it had become an unrelieved downpour that followed me for the 275 miles of Interstate. It’s hard to relax when every passing 18-wheeler sends up a sheet of water that reduces your visibility to zero. My five-and-a-half hour drive was extended by about an hour.

As I approached my Exit, I still had hopes. I’ve become accustomed to the clouds beginning to dissipate as I turn off I-10 to US 19 for the last 100-miles of the Chiefland Run, and, by the time I reach the town of Chiefland itself, blue sky appearing. Not this time. When I took the Highway 19 exit, it was raining harder than ever and there was intense lightning to boot. I didn't stop at the good old Sunoco station where I normally refuel and load up on snacks because the power was off and the gas pumps and cash register were dead. So it was with the other filling stations in the area. Luckily, I had more than enough gas to make it to Chiefland.

Headed south on the Florida - Georgia Parkway, the story was the same: torrential rain and seemingly never ending thunder and lightning. When I arrived at my motel, the Holiday Inn Express, the rain had at least slowed down, but I forewent my usual procedure of checking in and immediately heading to the site to unload before returning to town for grub and supplies.

There was occasionally a little Sun--very occasionally.
Instead, I waited for Pat to arrive. We'd be economizing by sharing a room, which might make a total skunking a little less painful, I thought. When he got to the motel, we left his car at the Holiday Inn and took my Camry on to the CAV. It was clear neither of us would be unloading scopes any time soon, so there was no need to take both vehicles. I wanted to gas up the Toyota, too, since I hadn't been able to do that at the Highway 19 Exit.

After making a quick run on the Chiefland Wal-Mart for supplies and then gassing up, we headed to the site, spent some time with our hosts, Tom and Jeannie Clark, and peered over at the Chiefland Star Party Group's star party location on the neighboring New Field. Seemed as we weren't the only astronomers crazy enough not to undeterred by dire weather forecasts. Between the New Field and the old Club Field there were maybe 15 – 20 vehicles and even a few well-tarped telescopes set up on Friday afternoon.

There was simply no question of it clearing Friday night, and not much to do on the field. So, I deposited the bottled water and the Monster Energy Drinks I’d purchased at WallyWorld in the vaunted Clubhouse refrigerator, and Pat and I headed off to find supper.

Which is easy to do, since the tiny town of Chiefland, Florida is graced with several good eateries. Our choice on this afternoon was that perennial fave of CAV amateurs, Bar-B-Q Bill’s. The attraction? Cheap, prompt, courteous, good food, lots of it. After our visit with the Clarks, this was the high point of a dreary day; we spent the rest of it surfing the Internet at the motel before returning to the CAV field for a memorial to a recently deceased Chiefland club member, Rick Donnelly, which was held on the field at sundown. After that, it was more World-Wide-Web, cable TV watching, and ‘Yell drinking at the Holiday Inn.

Saturday dawned and still there were clouds. The morning, which we spent in the motel room, was not wasted, however. Unk busied himself with assembling the printed circuit board for the motor controller for an equatorial platform Pat is home-brewing. I was a little apprehensive, since I haven’t done much electronics construction in a little while. Luckily, soldering skills, like bicycle riding skills, apparently never desert you, and I had Pat's PCB finished in no time. The sky? When I finished with the last resistor, it was still cloudy…but…but…but…was that a touch of blue?

This odd tent/tarp conglomeration was called "the Swamp" by its owner.
Fired up, we headed out to the site, and, for a while, it looked like Unk’s never-been-skunked record would remain unbroken. A strong wind gusting above 20-knots blew steadily, and surely it would, we thought, blow the mess out. Pat got his ultra portable Dob out of his vehicle for a while, but Betsy stayed right where she was in my Camry.

Three o’clock provided the diversion of the Picnic, the FOOD part of the Chiefland Spring Picnic, which was held under Tom Crowley’s (large) RV shelter over next to the New Field. Before lunch, I had the opportunity to visit with long-time amateur astronomer and radio amateur Tom C., who showed off his new and impressive ham station and his equally impressive radio astronomy gear. After our late lunch we meandered around the field for a while longer, keeping a weather eye on the sky, and still hoping for a break.

And so another Spring Picnic was done. The verdict? It was OK. The victuals were good enough and the folks putting on the picnic were nice enough, but some ineffable something was missing. It just wasn't the same as those wonderful picnics of yore held on the old field under the storied club pavilions. "You can't go home again," Mr. Wolfe says, but I do keep hoping.

By 5 p.m., it was becoming all too obvious the sky was not going to throw us a bone any time soon. Clouds as far as the eye could see. We spent a while helping a fellow amateur disassemble his field setup, a big tarp-covered trailer-tent affair known as "The Swamp," and in the process were nearly blown away when the wind caught one of the big tarps we were folding. A look around the field showed more than one die-hard was throwing in the towel. Pat's scope went back in his car and we headed back to C-Land to play the wait-and-see game, resolving to head on back if/when the weather changed.

There are times to head for the observing field, and times to stay at the motel. 
I’d like to tell you it did, that the skies cleared magically at sundown as they are sometimes known to do at CAV, but for once it didn’t. The timing was just a little off. A phone call to Miss Dorothy revealed that by mid-day Saturday the weather had turned beautiful up there. Down where we were, in contrast, the bad weather was just finding its legs, with the prediction being that conditions would not change till mid-day Sunday.

Unk usually plays the weather optimist but not this time. Saturday night, hanging out at the motel, Pat was determined to hop in his car and return to the CAV at the first sign of clearing, no matter how dark or late it was when the clouds finally dispersed. Me? I did not believe they would depart at any reasonable hour, and was not overly sanguine at the prospect of making my way out to the site in the dark and trying to set something up on the wet field.

Maybe I was just off my game or off my feed. Normally I would have said "HAIL YEAH!" But when I'd stepped outside not only was it still cloudy as 6 p.m. came and went, it was still raining like crazy.

I was tempted to stay an extra day, but the thought of teaching my Monday evening class after a long night of observing Sunday and a long drive back Monday morning discouraged me. We continued to surf the Web with our laptops, taking frequent peeps out the door to see if the sky's threatening appearance had changed. Nope. We filled the the remaining hours of our Chiefland stay by visiting just about every astro-web-site you can imagine, spending a long while down on memory lane at the Classic Telescope Catalog site.

At 11 p.m., I had had it, turned ASTROWIMP, and grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator and the blessed Yell bottle out of my bag. Pat tried to remain hopeful, and didn't seem too happy with my throwing in of the towel; that was OK. I'd have been perfectly fine with him heading to the CAV,  but I was keeping my butt at the Holiday Inn. It was nasty out, and even if a sucker hole appeared, observing on a saturated field with the bugs and humidity was not my idea of Saturday night entertainment. I could see the cards on the table: for once we was well and truly skunked.

But, yeah, as I reflected on the drive home Sunday morning, I’d had a good time nevertheless. Good friends, good food, got that motor controller assembled, and, most of all, I was not at work. One takeaway? My experience this time just reinforced my opinion that two nights in Chiefland is not enough. With three nights, you can be fairly assured of getting a few hours in. Four nights is even better. Two is asking to make friends with Mr. Skunk. This was the last time I ever did less than Thursday-Friday-Saturday at the CAV.

I’d not been able to cruise the spring galaxies with Betsy and ST3, but that would come soon, I promised myself, if not at Chiefland, at least at the club dark site. I just needed time to let that gull-derned New Software Curse abate. Maybe it will help if I burn my old floppy disk copy of SkyGlobe 3.6 as a sacrifice to them cruel, cruel weather gods.

Next Time:  Of DVDs and Binoculars...

2020 Update

You will be pleased to know SkyTools is very much alive and remains one of the most  capable astronomy resources available. It's now in Version 4, and has been split into imaging and visual editions.

Unfortunately, these days rain and clouds seem ever more common down Chiefland way in the spring and summer. However, at the time this one was written, I had three terrific Herschel Project summers in Chiefland ahead of me.

If not for the clouds, this probably would have been the first official night of the Herschel Project.

I believe this was the last time I attended a star party with someone other than Miss Dorothy. And that is a good thing. I am not as tolerant of the foibles of others as I should be, have plenty of faults myself, like to have my own way, and prefer solitude on the observing field. It takes a saint like Dorothy to be a good star party companion for Unk. 

I am trying to figure out how you get from Mobile to Chiefland by heading west on I-10.
We do do things differently down here. LOL

Good catch, thanks!

Well, I am from Alabama and spent the last 12 years in FL, so had some local knowledge. Just moved to Las Cruces last week and drove I-10 from Jax to LC (stopping in Mobile last Tuesday night).
Well, i understand the sky tools, but i have never used it, so after reading your blog i will check.
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