Sunday, October 02, 2011


The Revenge of AstroPlanner

Well, maybe “revenge” is not the correct word. “Revenge” is, after all, not a Jedi concept. How about “The Return of AstroPlanner”? The whosits of the whatsits? The return of AstroPlanner, as in the release of the long awaited v2.0 edition of one of my favorite observation planner-type astronomy programs. Confusticated, muchachos? I’d better start at the beginning, which was in August of 2005, in the wake of hateful hurricane Katrina.

Come to think of it, my relationship with AP actually goes back farther than that. Author Paul Rodman sent me a copy of his program shortly after the Windows version got off the ground. AP was the first observation planner for the Macintosh, but Unk was then and still is a Winders kinda guy—though I keep threatening to switch. Whichever computer the program ran on, I was interested in taking a look at Paul’s AstroPlanner since “planning” type programs, giant databases of deep sky objects, had become my favorite sort of astroware.

I found and find that software that allows me to make observing lists, even software that deemphasizes star charts in favor of lists, is more helpful than planetarium type programs with photo-realistic depictions of the heavens. Planners like SkyTools and Deepsky and Eye and Telescope and Deepsky Planner keep me organized and seeing lots of stuff. I tend to stumble around a planetarium soft’s virtual sky just like I stumble around the real sky. I need a PLAN.

I was somewhat impressed by that first version of AP. Paul was obviously a talented programmer. B-U-T. The Windows version was almost there but not quite. The fact that Unk was running the kludgy Windows 98 didn’t help, either. I set AP aside to wait till it matured a bit and my OS was upgraded to the fascinating Windows XP. In due course, I received a new AstroPlanner disk, and was about to give it a spin when Katrina blew up.

Miss Dorothy and I were lucky. Everybody in the Garden District, and indeed our entire little city, was lucky. While Katrina definitely made her presence known, what we got was more of a brush than a hit. Which was a good thing, since me and D. declined to evacuate

Early on it became pretty clear the storm was going to miss us, drawing a bead on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and points west. You can never be sure what these things will do, of course, and I kept a weather eye on the maleficent spiral filling the Gulf, but neither of us was in the mood to jump in the car and light-out for points north. We were suffering evacuation fatigue.

Yeah, fatigue to the tune of two recent and unscheduled trips to Atlanta running from hurricanes. One due to a “mandatory” evacuation (as if the city could have enforced such a thing) of the southeastern part of town. Which turned out to be entirely unwarranted. Muchachos, you have not lived until you have spent a night in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the bleak stretch of I-65 between Mobile and Montgomery. And have had to sit in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Atlanta for three or four hours waiting for a room to become available. So we hunkered down in Chaos Manor South and waited for the wind to change.

Change it did. We turned on the Weather Channel as soon as we awoke on Monday the 29th. Just past dawn, we could hear the winds beginning to howl outside the Old Manse, and, according to the dude on the Weather Channel (probably storm-crow Jim Cantore), Katrina would begin moving ashore before long. Just as those words came out of his mouth, our lights flickered, went out, came back on briefly, and died. That was the last of our electricity for about a week. But we were lucky, very lucky. The water rose in Selma Street, but it never got high enough to pose a threat, the wind blew but at most blew off a shingle or three.

Not that the aftermath of Katrina wasn’t a pain in the butt relatively speaking. One thing you can expect after a big storm? It gets hot, real hot. After a few hours of no A/C, Chaos Manor South, whose windows and storm windows swelled in the extreme heat and humidity until they could not be opened, became an oven. No drinking the water, either, after the city’s pumps had been off for a while. There was also a little craziness—some idiot decided he’d get the last of the gas at Griffith Shell, even if he was at the end of the line, and pulled a pistol to effect that. The cops drug him off, but it looked like it might be a good idea to examine our options.

We spent night one after Katrina at home, and I’m embarrassed to say it was kinda cool. “Embarrassed” because I am well aware of the travails and horrors being visited upon our brothers and sisters to the west at that very time. But, yeah, cool. Our old neighborhood was lit with candles and oil lamps, and it was like you’d stepped back a century or two. The police patrol clip-clopped by on their horses, and even used a formerly ornamental hitching post when they stopped to check on one of our street’s grand Little Old Ladies. I popped into the front yard for a look at the clear and now amazingly dark sky with the StarBlast. The North America Nebula practically put my eye out, muchachos.

Comes the dawn and the heat, we did some checking via the still-working landline phone. Not only did the University of South Alabama where Miss Dorothy was a Department Chair still have power, the Jaguar Shopping Center MacDonald’s was open. Hot damn! I was not too interested in more Campbell’s heated on my camp stove or another can of Vienna sausage. We decamped for D’s office. Which not only had power, but Internet. Being a Chair, she had a nice large space with a comfy couch. Heaven, relatively speaking.

How to while away the hours? I had brought my laptop with me, a fast Toshiba satellite running that newfangled XP. I spent quite a few hours surfing the web, trying to absorb the depressing facts on the condition of the Mississippi coast and New Orleans. When I couldn’t stand any more of that, I started thinking about AstroPlanner again. That new CD Paul Rodman sent me was in my laptop bag. Why not give it a go?

Why not indeed? I installed AP and lit it off. I was frankly amazed at how well behaved and responsive the program was. In retrospect, that likely had more to do with my now decent hardware and O/S rather than any fixes Paul had had to do. Being free of the “resources” problems of pitiful old Windows 98 allowed AstroPlanner to finally strut its stuff.

What did I find? A fully mature and functional planning program that grabbed me. It did some of the things I had wished for in other programs, but what really got my attention was that here was a planner that didn’t just organize my observing, but which was actually organized itself.

One of the beauties of AP was that I didn’t have to continually bring up different pages and click through hordes of menus. I could literally do anything on the “home page,” the screen that displayed my observing plan (list). There was a lot more to this page than just a list of objects. I could see when the optimum time for viewing NGC umptysquat would be. I could send my go-to scope on a go-to to it. I could get a passel of information about it. I could see a little image of it (downloaded from the Digitized Sky Survey). Hell, I could even fill in a log entry about it without leaving the observing list screen. I was sold from the get-go, and used AstroPlanner happily for a year or two. Till I stopped.

Why did I stop? That had more to do with me than with AstroPlanner. I’d got a new rig, an Orion Atlas GEM mount, which I drove with EQMOD. Yes, AstroPlanner had plenty of built in drivers for go-to scopes, but, alas, it was not designed to work with that universal scope driver system, ASCOM. Since EQMOD is an ASCOM driver, I couldn’t use AP with the Atlas, which was a show stopper.

And it wasn’t just that I had a new rig, but that I had gone back to an old one. I was running through the Herschel 400 with my 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. This little jaunt, which was to eventually evolve into The Herschel Project, was aided by the new set of Sky Commander digital setting circles I’d installed on Bets. Despite the computer, I found detailed charts were a help, especially when dealing with the less than perfect skies round Possum Swamp. Yes, AP, had a charting engine of a sort, but, frankly, it paled in comparison to that of SkyTools.

While I didn’t use AstroPlanner anymore, I did occasionally check in on its Yahoogroup. I was pleased to learn Paul was hard at work on a new version of the program that would, among other things, address my prime problem: no ASCOM. AP, like a lot of other astro-ware, is a one-man production, so I knew good and well it would be a while before 2.0 hit the streets. Mr. Rodman wanted to get it right, I’m sure, and that took a few years, but during those years I never forgot the wonderful nights I had with AP under the stars. I resolved to give 2.0 a spot on my hard drive when it came out.

I’d begun to despair that the new AP would ever see the light of day when, one recent afternoon, our kitchen workstation bleeped the weird Outlook bloop that means “mail’s in.” It was a missive from Paul announcing the release of AP 2.0. You can bet I grabbed up the netbook and quickly downloaded the new soft—well as quickly as you can download 50 gigs. Which really ain’t that big in these days of broadband, I reckon, and which went tolerably fast. To tell the truth, this is a fairly small size for a program with as many features as the new AstroPlanner has got.

Installing AP is easy, even for the more computer-ignorant among us like your old Uncle, whether you choose to purchase a DVD or just download from the website. Why would you order a DVD? Mainly if you would like copies of larger catalogs like the Hubble Guide Star Catalog. Given AP’s fairly limited charting capabilities, I’m not sure having the DVD is a big deal, but if you want a disk, get one; you won’t hurt my feelings.

Once the download completes, installation is as simple as executing the file. Exactly how you do that will depend on which browser/browser version you are using, but it is usually a no-brainer. When the install program begins, you’ll click through the usual windows: Where do you want to install the program? Do you want a desktop icon? Yadda-yadda-yadda. Please note that I am referring to the Windows version. You Mac owners will do your own thing, which you know more about than I do.

Once the program is installed, you can click its purty little icon to start it up. No big surprises there. I did note AP threw up a window saying I should be patient while some “threads” were running. Even on my little Pine-Trail netbook, however, the program came up fairly quickly. I then got a window that said something about converting old AstroPlanner files, but since I didn’t have AP on the netbook there were no v1.x files to convert. I assume that if’n you’ve got the old one in residence, initial start up will take longer while 2.0 does whatever it does to the 1.x files.

All the details about going from the old AP to the new AP are in the excellent user manual, and let me advise you, as I always do when talking about planners, to read it. At least go through the abbreviated version available on the download page. There’s nothing to be a-scared of, but my experience is that if you are to take full advantage of the features of a planning type astro-soft, or even get one to do much at all, you really ort-ta read the directions.

You AstroPlanner Old Hands will want to know “What’s changed?” Most changes have to do with improvements and optimizations concerning how the program runs on and interacts with the computer. All of which is invisible to the user; it just runs good is all Unk knows. The visible changes are fewer, but important.

The first thing you will notice is that there’s no longer both a tab for observing and a tab for planning. You open catalogs, select objects from them, and move them to the observing list. I was fine with the old way, but I suspect this will be less confusing for AP novices. I also note there are no longer “local” and “global” observations. What were those? Don’t ask me; I never did figure out the difference and will not miss that “feature.”

Not all the changes were welcome. You can no longer make log entries on the “home” observing list screen. You now have to open a tab, “Observations.” Not a huge deal, but not having to go to different tabs while observing was, as I done said, one of the things I really liked about the old AstroPlanner. It ain’t all bad, though. The new logger has some real improvements. You can, for example, now attach images and files to your observations

How about charts? Yes, AstroPlanner does have ‘em, with a “sky” tab and a “field of view” tab. Map drawing in v2.0 is at least somewhat improved in speed, and downloaded images can now be overlaid on charts. Other than that, not much has changed, which ain’t entirely a bad thing. Yes, when I am using a non-go-to scope I do like to have the remarkable maps SkyTools 3 produces. But with a go-to? Not So Much. All I need are eyepiece field sized charts to help me identify objects, and somewhat wider, maybe constellation sized, maps to show me what else is in the neighborhood. AP does both those things with aplomb.

Keep in mind, too, that you can operate Cartes du Ciel 3.0 (and several other planetariums) in concert with AP. This is easy to set up in preferences, and after fumbling around just a little I had Cartes charts centered on my selected AstroPlanner target opening whenever I requested “field of view.” This ability to work pretty darned seamlessly with CdC goes a long way to offsetting any sky mapping deficiencies in AP.

Once you’ve got the program up and running, just as with other astronomy software, you need to configure it. That includes not just location—latitude and longitude—and time and date, but your various equipment setups to include eyepieces, telescopes, filters, and cameras. There are two ways to go about this, the dumb way and the smart way. If you’re dumb like Unk and didn’t read the instructions carefully enough to find out about the new setup wizard, you can click resources on the Edit/Resources menu and go through everything “manually.” If you’re smarter, you’ll let the wizard do some of the work for you.

Even if you eschew the wizard, getting your equipment into the program is easy; there are prefab lists of telescopes and eyepieces to pick from. Naturally, you won’t find everything in these lists. Still using grandpappy’s Clark refractor and his box of Claves? You can enter anything you’ve got manually.

Next step? Catalogs. The download comes with a basic set including the NGC and Messier already installed, but for many of us that ain’t enough. We want MILLIONS of objects whether we have any need for ‘em or not. AstroPlanner is and always has been blessed with an astounding number of astronomical catalogs; everything from the everyday like the PGC to the obscure like the Bernes Dark Cloud Catalog. If you bought the DVD, you can load the catalogs off the disk. If you purchased the download version of the program, you’ll download the catalogs, too. Which is easy and automated.

Open File/Catalogue Manager. You will be shown a long list of catalogs, with the ones already installed being labeled as such. All you have to do is go down this list checking the ones you want. When you are done, you hit the “go” button, “Install,” and the program will download and install your picks. Naturally, big catalogs like the PGC will take a while, but the process is not annoying at all.

Everything set up and installed, you finally get to do something—like build an observing plan. I decided to set up a list of the (near) 2500 Herschel Project objects. Not only is that what I am working on at the moment, it would show whether the poor program would choke on so many DSOs. A pleasant surprise? I didn’t have to import an ascii file of the Herschel Big Enchilada and try to get it to work. There was already a catalog file of all them aitches. Cool! If I had needed to import it, though, the program does have (improved) import facilities.

How exactly do you make a list? Easy as pie. You can go simple, which was all I had to do: Mash file/new to start a new list, select “Show Catalog” from the row of buttons toward the bottom of the screen, open the Herschel, select the whole list of fuzzies (click on the first object, shift click on the last), and push the “Add Selected” button to add ‘em to the plan. I could have selected targets one at a time with a simple mouse click, or non-contiguous groups with control-click.

You can go complex in your list making, too, searching multiple catalogs and filtering to your heart’s content. Does making a list bore you? AP has quite a lot of ready-made observing plans, most of which were contributed by users. To start downloading this good stuff, go to File/User Contributed Plans and have a ball.

What can you do from the list page once you’ve composed or loaded one? You can’t log from here anymore, but you can do quite a few other things, like view images from the POSS and numerous other resources. Once downloaded, these pictures will be automatically displayed on the right side of the list when you click on an object for which there’s a picture. You have to get the images, first, of course. Open the Image menu on the toolbar, select, “Download Images” and you can grab pictures for individual list objects or for the whole thing at once. Having these (which are cached for future use) on the observing list has often been a huge help for me.

There’s also AP’s visibility tools. On the left is a nice graphic of the selected object’s visibility throughout the night; on the right is one that shows the DSO’s status throughout the year. Nothing to complain about here; perfectly legible and useable. There’s also indicators that show telescope azimuth and altitude, and a new visibility tool that shows the selected object pinpointed among the stars of its constellation. Unfortunately, on my netbook this graphic is a wee bit small to be of much use.

If you intend, like Unk, to send your scope to targets with AstroPlanner, you need to set the program up to work with your go-to rig. Go to the resources/telescope menu, pull down the “computerized mount” menu, and select your driver from the many built-in ones listed there. Or, you can now run your scope with ASCOM. Pick ASCOM from the driver list, click “ASCOM configure” on the window that appears, and set up the driver of your choice in the usual ASCOM way.

I had high hopes for this, but I had the sense to try it with the EQMOD simulator indoors before dragging the whole works out to the PSAS dark site. Sad to tell, it almost worked, it wanted to work, but AstroPlanner would inevitably lock-up when used with EQMOD. It’s possible this might work on a computer with more horsepower, or that Paul might be able to squash whichever bug is causing this behavior when he gets a chance. Other, more “normal,” ASCOM drivers work, but I can’t help saying, “Well, shoot. AP plus EQMOD woulda been SWEET.”

The bottom line? I still like AstroPlanner. It’s improved, but it is still the program I used so happily for so many dark nights. Criticisms? Not many. If I had to make one, it would be that, compared to similar programs, it seems a little slow. It takes longer to boot up, and some things, like charting, seem to keep me waiting longer than I would expect. Do note that thus far I have only tried AP 2.0 on my modest netbook. If you have an even marginally faster machine, which you probably have, your impression may be different. Be that as it may, it is still more than good enough on my Asus.

One very impressive thing? Despite preserving AstroPlanner’s many features and adding more, Paul has managed to keep this program reasonably user friendly. Yes, you need to read the manual, but you’ll find a quick browse is enough to get you started. The menus are fairly intuitive and standard and the amount of time you’ll spend learning “the AP way” will be minimal. I have not tried the Mac edition, but I suspect the same will be true there. Maybe even moreso.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about AstroPlanner 2.0? Paul Rodman almost gives this power away. I mean, 45 bucks for a download and 60 bucks for a download plus a DVD must be the the most reasonable prices ever for a program with this kinda horsepower. In other words? Go get it muchachos. Even if you have never used a planner before, you will like this one.

Thises and That’s: For those of you who’ve so kindly expressed concern about the health of dear Miss Dorothy, you’ll be pleased to learn all the surgery is now behind her. Her chemo port is history and she is well and truly on the mend.

Will there be Christmas telescopes this year? They have been absent from our Wal-Marts for the last couple of Christmases. And there are not any there yet despite the nearness of the Christmas season—which seems to be moving to the start rather than the end of October. I do see the CVS Drugs on Dauphin Street is wall-to-wall with 60mms. No, they ain’t likely very good telescopes, but they are telescopes, and contrary to what the curmudgeons down to the club will tell you, can provide tremendous enjoyment and start some lucky boys and girls on the road to amateur (or professional) astronomy. Long live the Christmas scope! Even the Christmas department store scope!

Next time: By the time you read this, Unk will be back from nearly a week at sea onboard San Diego, LPD 22, for her sea trials. If I got back in time, am not too tired, and the weather gods cooperate, I might do some observing. If not? MORE SOFTWARE, as in the new Eye and Telescope.

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