Sunday, December 19, 2010



Hokay, where was we? When we last left astronomy-software-crazy old Uncle Rod (not so old, then) it was 1993. I had finally abandoned my beloved Commodore 64 Home Computer and my very first astro-ware, Sky Travel, for the greener pastures of a genu-wine IBM 486 with a VGA video card and Windows 3.1. Astronomy software for this wonder-machine? A little program I’d stumbled across at Books-a-Million, Skyglobe.

As I’ve said before, I was gobsmacked by Skyglobe, which impressed me as none of the (few) astronomy programs I’d used before had. It was a long, long way from the blocky graphics (if you could even call them that) of Sky Travel. It was so purty I just had to turn off the lights and admire all them stars (the whole Yale Bright Star catalog for god’s sake!) and the shimmering blue band of the Milky Way.

It was even useful. Running on my 486, this little DOS application (what came before Winders, younguns) was blazingly fast. Need to know what was up? Click on its icon in the Windows 3.1 window where I had it permanently stationed on my desktop, and I had the sky on my screen in the wink of an eye. Literally. Which is why I continued to use the last and greatest Skyglobe, version 3.6, till my old Windows XP Toshiba laptop died a few weeks back.

Yes, it was useful for quick “what’s up” checks, but how about for locating objects? Not So Much. It would print charts, and it had the whole Messier and a few NGCs, but, while I tried to use its charts to locate stuff at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, they really were not up to that task. Not enough stars and no binning. On its printouts, stars bright and dim were all about the same size, which made the maps hard to decipher under a red light.

So, in typical amateur astronomy fashion, I soon wanted More Better Gooder. But what? The early 1990s was when commercial Astro-ware got on its feet, and there were several choices. Foremost of which was probably Software Bisque’s TheSky. It was reasonably mature, having been around since the 80s, had a lot of features, and was available for DOS or in an honest to god Windows version.

So did I get TheSky? Nope. Then as now, your ol’ Unk was a cheapskate, and TheSky’s pricetag of $129.00 seemed a lot to pay for an astronomy program—or indeed for any sort of computer program—in those more innocent days. Plus, I didn’t know anybody who had TheSky and I was loath to pony up a C-note plus without being able to try-before-you-buy.

I asked the only person I knew at the time who was into astronomical computing, the President of my club, the good, old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (as always, the name of which has been changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike), what he was using. Stargaze, said he. He went on to allow that while Stargaze was not perfect, suffering from performance issues, this DOS program did a fairly good job of printing, had all the NGC objects onboard (!), displayed stars down to 10th magnitude for the whole sky and 16th mag via the Hubble Guide Star Catalog for “selected areas,” and did a fair job of printing. He handed me a print-out that showed Mars as it sailed across the Pleiades, and I was sold. Especially when he told me I could get Stargaze for a little more than half what TheSky would have cost me.

In retrospect, Unk was penny wise and pound foolish; I would probably have been better off with TheSky. Stargaze was OK, but after I got over the thrill of loading an INCREDIBLE amount of data, four whole 3.5-inch floppies worth, I found my bud had been right in his criticism of the program’s performance. It had the clunky feel of the DOS programs of the day that chose to masquerade as Windows apps. Oh, you had a mouse cursor and could overlay windows on windows, but it was kinda slow, kinda unstable, and never worked quite right. The field of view window, which showed a magnified portion of the main chart was a cool idea, just before its time computer software and hardware-wise.

Printing was alright, yeah, but still not clear enough or easy enough to do to allow me to produce charts for use at the telescope. Well, they actually might have sufficed, but by the time 1993 had become 1994, I’d found the real More Better Gooder. When the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze came round, I had stopped using the soft, as I now had an astro program designed to be used for actual observing.

That program was Deep Space 3D. I’d known about it and its author for a while. David Chandler was (and still is) the maker of the best planisphere on Earth, The Night Sky Planisphere. As for DS3D, I’d seen an early version running on an EGA-equipped PC. Despite the lower resolution of the EGA card, I could see DS3D had possibilities.

Initially, it was focused on displaying comet paths, but its underpinnings were strong and hinted that it could evolve into a Real Good general purpose deep sky program. How about the “3D”? The 3D in the name referred to DS3D’s “gimmick,” its ability to present 3D screen displays or printouts with a 3D viewer. That was cool, but since I wasn’t chasing comets, I temporarily forgot about DS3D.

By 1994, Deep Space 3D was all growed up. It still had the comet features, but it now also had what it needed to make it a full fledged deep sky charting application—it never was a planetarium, eschewing the pretty and the animated. Not only did it include the NGC and IC via the SAC (Saguaro Astronomy Club) database, it had a good number of DSOs beyond that. Otherwise, even for Back in the Day, DS3D was not a fancy program. It was resolutely DOS and eschewed even a mouse. Its strengths made up for that.

Strength One was its ability to build observing lists that contained copious amounts of information about the objects I wanted to observe on any given evening. DS3D even integrated a very useable logging system. I’ve come to trace the lineage of today’s very popular species of astro-program, the planner, back to DS3D.

The big draw for me back then, though? The charts. I had never seen anything the like of DS3D’s maps come out of a computer program. Deep Space 3D was the first software to not only claim to produce “printed atlas quality” star charts, but to actually make good on that promise. The maps this program spat out on my Canon BJ200e inkjet were beautiful and really did look “typeset.” It is not too much to say that DS3D’s charts are still fully competitive with anything computer programs can produce today. I used DS3D heavily, not just at DSRSG 94, but off and on for years thereafter.

The only down-check for DS3D was that it wasn’t very pretty or much fun to play with on cloudy nights. That niche was soon filled by what I used to call “super Skyglobe,” RedShift. This program will always be a sentimental favorite of mine, since it was the first gift Miss Dorothy gave me for my birthday, back in the summer of ’94 when we were dating.

What’s memorable about the program itself? It was a groundbreaker in a couple of ways. It was the first astronomy software I owned that came on CD. Not only did you load it off that newfangled media, the CD held much multimedia glitz that was impressive then: pretty color pictures and (gasp!) even short, small movies. Admittedly, the program wasn’t much use at the scope; its printed charts’ stars were not well-binned and looked a lot like Skyglobe’s, if a lot deeper with the full NGC/IC and zillions of UGC galaxies.

Nevertheless, this refugee from the former Eastern Bloc (its printed user’s manual is dedicated to “the brave men and women of the Russian space program”) was fun and blazed the path ahead for the planetarium programs. Frankly, I’d say today’s mega-pretty planetariums, Starry Night Pro Plus and TheSky X, owe a lot to RedShift.

I was more than happy with DS3D, and it frankly provided all the horsepower I needed for almost any observing program I wanted to undertake with my C8, Celeste, and my 12.5-inch Newtonian, Old Betsy. But by the winter of 1994 this part of the country’s amateur community was all abuzz about the astro-software to end all astro-software.

The astronomy program being embraced by my southron brothers and sisters was Megastar. It wasn’t exactly new in 1994, but it had just recently been issued on CD. The original version, which came on 50+ floppy disks, didn’t seem overly practical to me. I had been a little paranoid about getting Stargaze’s measly four disks to all load properly.

Christmas of ’94, I was just like Ralphie. When Miss D. asked me what I wanted, I blurted “MEGASTAR-ON-A-CD-WITH-THE-WHOLE-HUBBLE-GUIDE-STAR-CATALOG-AND-A-MILLION-MAC-GALAXIES!” It was those last two things that excited me: the whole, not just parts, of the GSC and all them galaxies, the Mitchell Anonymous Catalog, the amazing Larry Mitchell out in Texas had researched.

I remember Rex McDaniel of Rex’s Astrostuff trying to convince me I didn’t need all those stars and galaxies for “just” a 12-inch scope (!). But the truth was that eyepieces and observing techniques were improving at an exponential rate in the 90s. I found that from a dark site I couldn’t just see many of the dim things Megastar displayed, but that I needed that level of depth to profitably navigate some areas of the sky.

First I had to get Megastar, though. The story I like to tell is that Miss D. called Emil Bonnano, Megastar’s author, and he said “Why don’t we play a trick on old Uncle Rod?” When I unwrapped my big gift on Christmas morning, what was revealed was Expert Astronomer, a “low level” version of TheSky sold by software discounters. I had to pretend to be not-a-bit-disappointed until Miss D. ordered me to open the box. Out came the Megastar CD.

It’s a good story, but not exactly true. Yes, Miss D. and Emil conspired to ship Megastar in an Expert Astronomer box, but Miss Dorothy is way too kind hearted to go through with such tricks, and before I could tear the wrapping paper off she had spilled her guts about her and Emil’s joke. Her innate kindness and goodness is but one of the many reasons I love my wife so much.

And suddenly we were in the modern astro-ware age. Lots of programs have come and gone off my hard drive in the intervening sixteen years, but Deep Space 3D and RedShift and Megastar pretty much laid the groundwork for what was to come. Today’s software has added features and improved its performance and look, but otherwise not much has changed since those three amazing programs pointed the way.

I like top ten lists. Do you like top ten lists? I know you do. Herewith is my top ten from least to most More Better Gooder. Don’t see your fave here? Don’t get your dadgummed knickers in a bunch. This only represents the software I have actually used, most of it for Win PCs, and I ain’t used everything (just near-about). I have used every single one of the following extensively and can attest to their worthiness. Do note this list is restricted to the programs I use for observing the starry sky. There are plenty of other good astro-softs for Solar System workers, imagers, etc., and maybe I'll talk about some of them one o' these Sundays.

Skyglobe 3.6

What more can I say in defense of this little guy than what I said above? If I could figure out a way to run Skyglobe on Windows 7, I’d be using it still. Nothing is quicker or more efficient at showing you the sky’s current condition.


Like DS3D, RedShift, and Megastar, Deepsky is a pioneer. It was the first program to fully crack the planner code. It is a Windows application, of course, but in other ways it is similar to DS3D. With one important difference. Instead of a star chart, Deepsky greets you with a spreadsheet, as all modern planners do. A small change from DS3D, but a very important one. Operating off a spreadsheet/list is a much more efficient way to plan and conduct deep sky observing runs, it turns out.

Deepsky is still around. In some ways it’s been surpassed by more modern planners. The program’s author, Steve Tuma, is working on a new release, however, which may well send this good, old astro-soft back to the head of the pack.


Bob Sheaffer’s RTGUI (“Real Time Graphic User Interface”) is simply named, and it is a rather simple program. A little window that accesses a database containing the whole NGC/IC, and which can be supplemented with add-on databases. Simple, yeah, but so good at what it does. It is blazingly fast, can control go-to scopes, can send you on a tour of the best objects of the evening, and, should you want charts, can bring up Cartes du Ciel, the new v3 Cartes du Ciel, centered on the chosen object.

RTGUI is all I use for informal observing runs with Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX 125, and, truthfully, I could use it for a lot more. The other day, when I heard Mr. Sheaffer was releasing a new version of the program, my reaction was: “OH MY GOD! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!” And…did I mention? RTGUI is FREE.

Deep Space 3D

Honestly, I wish this old warhorse was still with us. DS3D lives on in a shadow existence as a shareware program, but you will probably need a fairly old O/S to run it. What happened? The author never updated it into a Win version, and it inevitably faded into the past. I also think it was unwise to re-title the program “Deep Space,” from “Deep Space 3D.” The older name made it stand out better from the growing astro-ware pack.

I’ve often wondered whether DS3D might still be at the top of the charts if Mr. Chandler had at least built a semi-Windows interface for it as Emil Bonnano did with his program (the early versions of Megastar were that transitional mix of Window and DOS). Whatever. As far as I am concerned, it and its author's place in the history of astronomy software is assured.


I’ve probably said all that need be said about RedShift. Except what became of it. The answer being nothing—or a lot, really. “Nothing” as in it did not disappear, though it has gone from the hands of one production company to the next. But RedShift endures. The most recent version, RedShift 7, can control telescopes via ASCOM and print Real Nice charts. RS never developed a huge following in the U.S., but I understand it is quite popular in the UK and Europe. Long may it wave.


AstroPlanner is a good planner. But if that were all it is, it wouldn’t be a standout, and it is. What makes it special is that it is, as far as I know, the only world class planning program available in Apple Mac format as well as Windows. Otherwise, it is fully competitive with anything on the market. The current version, 1.6.1, is beginning to show its age, but its author, Paul Rodman, has been working on a new and even better V2. Downside? Several years down the line, work is still underway on the new one. Here’s hoping it eventually appears, since I love “AP,” even on my Windows machines.


I mourn the loss of Skyglobe, but Stellarium makes up for it. In fact, in some ways, this is today’s Skyglobe. Although it will control scopes, and I suppose you could use it in the field at the telescope, it is a little deficient in depth and features for that. What I use it for is what I used Skyglobe for back in the dark ages: “What’s up tonight?” Like Skyglobe, it is one of the most beautiful planetarium programs of the day. Also like Skyglobe, it is free. Freer, actually. Skyglobe was shareware; you were supposed to send in a small sum if you liked the program.

TheSky 6

Yeah, Software Bisque's program is one of the granddaddies of astro-ware, but it has more than kept pace with the times. The "Professional" version has everything anybody will ever need to run an observing session—hell, it’s used by many professional observatories—and it is beautiful to look at to boot. No, I don’t always use TheSky 6, since I like to work from a planner’s spreadsheet/list, but when I need a high power planetarium, this is where I go.

How about the new one, TheSky X? I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, or even see it in person, but I suspect it continues down the path today’s planetariums have chosen to trod, ever more pretty and “realistic” with ever more features. This is hinted at by the fact that I’ve been told one of the developers of the uber pretty Starry Night Pro Plus worked on TheSky X.

Cartes du Ciel

Patrick Chevalley’s Cartes du Ciel, CdC, “Sky Charts,” is my bread and butter. When I use a planetarium, this is usually the one I use. Why? I don’t often need the power and features of TheSky or Starry Night Pro Plus and Cartes is faster. For computer challenged little old me, simpler is usually better, anyhow.

Not that CdC won’t do a lot. It will actually do almost anything you might require of an astro-soft at a telescope or indoors. CdC has plenty of objects, is expandable, controls scopes via ASCOM, and the new Version, 3.2, has a very attractive if not exactly pretty display. Cartes also has some features not seen elsewhere. For example, it can download and overlay a POSS image on its charts. Oh, and did I mention it is still free?

SkyTools 3

I won’t bore you with another paean to my favorite astronomy program. Read my review in the April 2010 issue of Sky and Telescope or have a look at this. No it is not perfect. No software is. I wish its charts offered a bit more interactivity, like the ability to move/center them with a mouse. But there is little to criticize here. If you want to take on huge observing projects, or just want to see plenty of good stuff, this is where you go for computer support, muchachos. Nuff said.

Runners Up

Lessee. I really like Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner, which is just what the title says it is. I’ve yet to be able to use it except in a crippled preview version, but it’s on my to-do list, and I suspect when I glom on to the real thing it will displace one of the above from the top ten.

No doubt Megastar should really be on the list. It's not mostly because of my disappointment that its talented author has apparently stopped developing it. It is now sold by Willman-Bell, and other than a few bug fixes nothing has been done in a long while to keep this wonderful soft up-to-date. Sigh. If you are a hard core deep sky observer who wants to use a planetarium, you could still do worse than Megastar, though it is now definitely looking long in the tooth.

There’s also Earth Centered Universe. It’s like Megastar, but moreso. Near about as much depth as Emil’s opus, but in a more planetarium-like package. Add to that some of the best printed charts on the scene. Downchecks? Just one: the author has stopped developing it. Shame.

The only reason Virtual Moon Atlas is not in the above top ten is that I’ve confined that list to programs I use for deep sky observing. My enthusiasm for Moon watching comes and goes, but I always look at beautiful Luna at least a few times a month. What I wanted for a long time was “a Megastar for the Moon,” a computerized Lunar chart on the level of the deep sky behemoth. Somebody listened, namely Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand. Their VMA is graphically beautiful, displays thousands of features, and will even send your go-to scope from crater to crater. Several similar programs have appeared over the last five years, but none as good or even close to as good as the freeware Virtual Moon Atlas.

It would be ridiculous not to mention Starry Night. It has thousands of fans, and when it comes to detail and attractiveness it doesn’t get much better than Starry Night Pro Plus with its background sky formed from real CCD images. It’s just that it’s very large with zillions of features, and, as I done said, I prefer “simpler.” SNPP has a few liabilities, too. It is heavily dependent on an external program, Quicktime, and can be hard to get installed and running. I never did get it going on my Vista machine.

It’s a long way from Sky Travel to SkyTools 3, but it’s been a fun trip. And not just fun. I have no doubt that ST3 and CdC and Megastar have allowed me to see more and deeper than I ever would have without their assistance. New to the game? Go get Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium right now and get your astro-software mojo working.

Next Time: Lucy insists it’s “HO-HO-HO AND MISTLETOE AND PRESENTS TO PRETTY GIRLS!” As has been the tradition here for the last few Decembers, the blog will appear on Christmas Eve rather than Sunday, and will likely be shorter and even more sentimental than usual. Happy holidays, muchachos! See you then!

Excellent top ten list and breakdown of what each software actually brings to the table...(I mean telescope). And, like yourself...FREE always gets my attention! Thanks for the insight. Now I am off to check out Cartes du Ciel.
Dear Unk,

Unk is damn right. I follow what Unk does.

In my experience, there is no software to beat Cartes Du Ciel. I have loads of software - SkyX, Voyager, Starry night pro, stellarium. But I end up using Cartes for most of the time. It is the best for running my Em200 Temma 2m along with another diamond - Chuck's tak driver.

Love u unk.

There is a great software that is made by Jean Vallières, a pioneer in the world of amateur astronomy here in Québec (50+ years of experience). It is called COELIX (or more properly, CŒLIX, but I don't know if it will display properly).

Unfortunately, the website to present it is in French, but I think that the software itself is available in other languages.

The download site is on this page (just click "Télécharger" to download).

Cartes du Ciel is awesome. There is a large array of add on features from the PGC galaxy catalog. to a multi-gigabyte star catalog (I forgot the title!)--I think the mag limit is 15 for that on. I loaded it on my laptop that I use for imagine and it works wonders while hunting down star fields where faint fuzzies live.
I tried to d/l Deep Space just to see if I could get it to run. But they have password protected the directory the demo version is in??? (SEDS ftp site.)

I use Cartes Du Ciel (SkyChart)a lot, especially since I wrote a planning program that talks to Cartes Du Ciel. I am apparently the only one using it, but it works for me.

Great top ten list BUT what is missing is the FANTASTIC charting program called GUIDE 8.0 from Project Pluto by Bill Gray. Has been around since the old DOS days and quit similar to MegaStar but does a LOT more. Check it out at I've been using it since Version 2.0
Ben H Stephenville, TX
I am aware of Guide, and have always heard good things about it...but, alas, I've never been able to try it. I believe I enquired about a review copy a long time back but never heard back, or at least never got a copy of the program for a review I wanted to do.

Uncle Rod
Rod, I've used and owned nearly all of the software mention, with the exception of StarGaze. When not using SkyTools V2, it's Guide 8 that I pull up for Solar System info and Deep Sky objects for printng. Use VMA for lunar info and viewing. TheSky 6 for displaying graphics of comets and asteroid.

I know you would like Guide 8.
John Sabia
Dear uncle Rob,

You may have had this comment before, but what the heck. You can use the SkyGlobe darling again on Vista/Win7 by installing this FREE utility: DOSBox (

Happy SkyGlobing:-)

Here's how to run in win 7 (tested) with Dosbox. Put Skyglobe in some folder ex. c:\Skyglobe\program. Add Dosbox files in c:\Skyglobe\ , add these lines in the end of dosbox.conf under [autoexec]:

mount c C:\SkyGlobe\program

then just run DosBox or make run.bat with this line:

dosbox.exe -conf "\dosbox.conf".

Thanks...but I guess my SkyGlobe days are over. I found a modern program that does the things I used to do with old skyglobe 3.6...TheSkyX First Light. :-)
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