Sunday, November 13, 2011


Unk’s Deep Sky Plans

Hey, y’all, ain’t it funny how time slips away? Seemed like ‘twas just the other day I first heard about Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner and resolved to give it a spin. When I stopped and thought about it, though, I realized that was at least a decade back. Giving “DSP” a try was one of those things I kept meaning to do, muchachos, but which for one reason or another kept slipping to the bottom of Unk’s ever growing to-do list.

Oh, I’d had a look at DSP once, sort of. Somebody at a star party somewhere showed me a (crippled) evaluation copy of the software, and I was impressed by what I saw. Then and there I should have called Miss Phyllis and arranged to review her program, maybe with an eye toward including it in the software section of my last book, Choosing and Using a New CAT. But I screwed up. I didn’t do that.

Well, I’ve finally got round to trying Deep Sky Planner, and I sure am glad I did. Phyllis contacted me the other day and asked if I’d like to see a copy of DSP, the new DSP 5. My reaction? “Heck yeah!” Turns out it’s actually a good thing I waited, since DSP v5 is the strongest version of this program, yet.

“Now hold on Unk. What the h-e double L are you talking about? What is Deep Sky Planner, anyhow? I’m guessing it’s a computer program, but what kind of computer program? Is it like, uh, Cartes du Ciel?” Nope. It can work with CdC, but it is not like that famous program at all. If you’ve read many of my software reports here, you know the sort of astronomy program I favor is planners. And that is what DSP is.

What’s a planner? A planner is an astronomy soft that is list-centric. One is designed to help you see lots of stuff by making observing lists, organized lists of objects to view on a given date and time. One can also help you find objects and record your observations when you’ve found them. Some well-known astronomy planning programs are SkyTools, Deepsky, AstroPlanner, and Eye and Telescope. Most planners de-emphasize chart drawing, and some eliminate it all together—Deep Sky Planner has no charting engine. Which doesn’t mean you can’t use charts with it, as we’ll see directly.

Deep Sky Planner is, like a lot of astro-ware these days, available two ways: as a downloadable file from the program website’s store, where it is sold for the very reasonable price of $65.00, or as a CD which will be mailed to you for the also strikingly reasonable sum of $73.95. While I could have downloaded DSP and been using it the very night I exchanged emails with Miss Phyllis, I requested a CD instead. Lots of amateurs, especially older semi-Luddite amateurs like Unk, still prefer a brick and mortar product, and I wanted to go through the whole nine yards of installing from a CD. Oh, if’n I ain’t mentioned it, Deep Sky Planner is Windows only.

After just a couple of days of waiting, the DSP CD came through the mail slot of Chaos Manor South with a clunk, scaring the cats and bringing me on the run. Hot dog! A new astro-soft! Well, sorta. What was on the CD was v5.0, but Phyllis had alerted me that a major update, version 5.1, was in the offing, in just a week or two. I definitely wanted to wait for that before giving the program a serious look. I would install the current version and download the update from the DSP website when it became available.

The first part of the install was pretty much warm milk and cookies. Insert the CD in the optical drive (a USB optical drive I use with my astro-puter, an Asus netbook), click a few OKs and you are done. Like the recently reviewed Eye and Telescope, however, Deep Sky Planner requires online “activation” after installation.

This procedure is clearly explained in the docs that come with the CD, and wouldn’t normally have been a problem. Alas, it was for me. Due to a nasty little bug, the mostly automated activation process didn’t work just right. When it completed, the website warned me that the resulting registration number I would need to enter would not be emailed automatically, and that it might take a short time for it to be sent. Unfortunately, I had the feeling I’d never get the number—I could tell something had hung up somewheres.

I was right. But Phyllis was on the ball, sending me an email right away that advised me to download a program update that would eradicate the nastiness. I did so, re-did the activation business, and shortly had the number entered in the program. Not that it would have been a tragedy if I hadn’t been able to obtain the code number right away. You can use DSP for 30-days before it must be activated. As I mentioned in my initial article on Eye and Telescope, I find the registration/activation process for software annoying, but I do understand the need for it.

Then I left the program alone, waiting for the all important update. When I heard via DSP’s active Yahoogroup that the v5.1 upgrade was available, I downloaded and installed it. Somehow, I resisted the urge to dig in and start playing immediately, figuring I ought to have at least an idea of how much horsepower was under the hood. The extensive Help file (which is in the program’s directory as an Acrobat file, too) is really a well-written and extensive manual. Me being me, I didn’t feel like wading through 295 pages at the moment, but I did scan the program’s specs. To wit:

• Over 1,000,000 objects in the database. Many are cross-referenced.
• Sun, Moon, and planet data can be calculated for any instant or over a range of times.
• Same-same for comet/asteroid data.
• Comprehensive logging facilities which are tightly integrated with the program’s database reports.
• Supports the Sky Quality Meter (the electronic widget that tells you how good your skies are).
• Manages multiple observing projects.
• Selective data backup and restore.
• Export reports in .html and other formats. Compliant with OpenAstronomyLog 2.0 standard.
• Provides telescope control with ASCOM.
• Smart integration with TheSky, Starry Night, RedShift, and Cartes du Ciel.

That all sounded cool. It was clear this was no lightweight of a program, and I resolved to sit down with the manual eventually (as I always advise y’all to do with planning programs), but for now I just wanted to mess around and get a feel for how DSP looked and acted.

Clicking the program’s purty icon caused hard drive activity, and after a not undue waiting period with my somewhat speed-challenged netbook, DSP’s main screen appeared. It’s kinda plain, but that is OK; it’s generally good to start with a clean slate, and I sometimes get put-out with planners that try to cram too much stuff on their “home page.”

What you get with Deep Sky Planner is a fairly standard Windows menu bar. You know, “File,” “Options,” “Window,” and “Help.” Naturally you’ve got some astro-oriented choices too: “Observing Log,” “Telescope Control,” and “Equipment.” Below that is an icon toolbar with small but nicely designed pictographs. Running your mouse pointer over ‘em will reveal help bubbles in case you have trouble puzzling out what the icons do.

Where to start? Every astronomy program wants to know about location and time. I pulled down “Options” for a look see. Sure enough, there was “Location Manager.” It was easy to select my little city from the list that appeared when I clicked “United States” on the tree menu. If my city had not been on the list, or if I had wanted to specify a custom site for my exact observing location, that would have been easy enough to do by pushing the “New Location” button on the Location Manager’s toolbar and entering latitude/longitude, time zone, and the other usual things.

Like most planners, DSP also wants to know about your equipment: telescopes, eyepieces, filters, Barlows, and cameras. This setup is accessed by going to the Equipment menu and selecting “instrument browser,” “eyepiece browser,” etc. as required. One slight downcheck here? Most planners give you access to lists of common equipment and all you have to do is click on your stuff to add it to your inventory. You can download some equipment lists from the DSP “Community” web pages (accessible from within the program with Help/Community Page), but these are just static text files. NOT big deal. Equipment entry is something you don’t have to do often, and the process of adding gear is simple.

After I finished keying-in my gear lineup, I entered myself with “observer browser,” and it was time to get rolling with a Plan. No, I still hadn’t got around to reading the instructions—y’all know my lack of patience with manuals, even well written ones like this one. I did think it would be a good idea to get some guidance in putting together my first Plan, though, and watched a video, a Youtube video, on the subject, which is linked from the DSP web page. Big help. Big, big help. If you have the appropriate TV/Blu-Ray/game system, you can even watch Phyllis’ excellent videos on your big-screen TV while sipping…er… “sarsaparilla,” which is what Unk did.

Turned out all I had to do to start a Plan was click “New” on the File Menu, select New Observing Plan, and—bang—I had an empty Plan Document onscreen. Gotta populate that, with objects, of course. I decided I’d put together a Plan from one of Sue French’s tours from her wonderful new book Deep-sky Wonders. After a little head scratching, I clicked the arrow beside the little galaxy on the icon toolbar, which the bubble-help told me was “Deep Sky Catalog Search Documents,” and then “NGC.” There are mucho filters you can apply, but I wanted to see how the program dealt with great big lists, and just hit Search, which would put the whole fracking NGC in my search document.

Good news: the NGC came up quick like a bunny, and scrolling though it was fast and responsive. I really like the program’s “drag and drop,” paradigm, and all I had to do to add objects was scroll to ‘em, highlight ‘em, and drag ‘em into my Plan (I’d used the Window menu to tile my Plan and the search document horizontally to make dragging and dropping easy). You can use shift-click and ctrl-click to highlight and drag contiguous and non contiguous groups of objects.

Want to find stuff from different catalogs without switching catalogs? Mash the little galaxy icon, not the arrow next to it, and highlight all the catalog choices (about 25) in the list window of the Search Document that appears. Then, enter your object’s catalog designation in the “Common Name” field on the right, hit the Go Button (“Search,” natch) like I did with Stock 2, and you will be rewarded. DSP’s collection of catalogs is not crazy-lavish—the star search document couldn’t find Sue’s somewhat offbeat Stein 368—but in my judgment it is way more than good enough. Since you can easily enter objects manually with the “Edit Plan” button, having every obscure catalog is not a necessity. It was the work of maybe five minutes to produce my small Plan of Seven objects.

Was there anything I found wanting in my finished Plan? Y’all know me. I ain’t never found a perfect piece of software. Naturally, Deep Sky Planner is no exception. I could not find a way to display object details beyond the fairly basic data that’s in the plan spreadsheet. I like, for example, to know a galaxy’s Hubble Type. This is not fatal, however. Since you’ll normally be using DSP in conjunction with a planetarium program, you’ll have that program’s object info resources at your beck and call.

Got a Plan. What next? There might not need to be a next. Carry the PC and scope into the field and observe the suckas, clicking the Observed box as you do. But this program is capable of a lot more cool stuff than that. For example, I like to have pictures of my targets available to help identify the harder stuff. Like most other current planners, DSP downloads object images from the Digitized Sky Survey (the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, that is).

Somewhat unintuitively for silly ol’ me, you set up images on the “Localize” tab at the top of the Plan, where you assign an image server and specify image size and other parameters. The program will then paste an image LINK to each object in your plan. You must then download each object individually and store it on the local drive if you want to do that. You can tell the program to automatically download an image for objects without a stored picure, but you still have to click on each object to make it do that.

This image-handling method was one of the few things I did not like about DSP. I would like to be able to download batches of object pictures. If I’m gonna hit a hundred Herschels tonight, I want an image for each of them, and I don’t want to have to click on each one to download its pic. Yes, as is mentioned in the documentation, pictures take up a lot of space on the hard drive, but in these days when humble netbooks have 250 GB drives, that is really no longer a factor. If you, like me, often observe from a site without Internet access, you’ll want all the pictures you need on your hard drive before you head for the boonies. Miss Phyllis, please provide a batch download facility.

What else do you need for a night under the stars? You need a chart. Or you may want one, anyway. Even with a go-to rig and an extensive plan, it’s nice to know what else is in the neighborhood of your targets. Like I done said, DSP does not have charts of its own. But you will not miss them. It works seamlessly with the above mentioned planetariums. I prefer Cartes du Ciel, but heavy hitters like TheSky X and Starry Night work, too.

Why are the charts “smart,” as was touted in the program specs? Because Deep Sky Planner does more than just center the object of your desire (right click on a plan object and choose “charts”) on the planetarium. DSP tailors the field-size of the resulting chart to suit you. You can even tell DSP to size the charts based on the size of the target object. Way cool. Only thing that surprised me? Unlike some similar programs, DSP does not start the planetarium program by itself; you have to have it running first. On the other hand, Deep Sky Planner works with considerably more planetariums than similar programs I know about.

Now you’ve got a plan, pictures, and charts. Ready to go? Not so fast. If you’ve got a go-to rig, don’t you want to go-to objects with Deep Sky Planner? I haven’t tried DSP’s go-to abilities in the field—yet. Hell, I haven’t even connected the program to a real telescope inside the house. And yet, I have no doubt it will work well in this regard. Why? Very simple: it uses ASCOM. That universal telescope driver system purty much makes it a no-brainer that your go-to rig will work with the program.

Well, almost any go-to rig that has an ASCOM driver should work with an ASCOM compatible program, anyway. There was the unpleasant matter of AstroPlanner and that very special ASCOM driver, EQMOD. AP worked very well with any driver except EQMOD. That isn’t a huge shock, I reckon. EQMOD is, after all, a very complex driver. It takes the place of the Synta SynScan hand control and must do one hell of a lot. Could DSP handle it? I connected to the EQMOD simulator to see.

Deep Sky Planner worked so well and so smoothly with the simulator that I can’t imagine it not working with the real thing (I promise I will give it a try in the field ASAP). Since DSP does not have onboard charts, there is no way to click on alignment stars on a map; you’ll have to put together a Plan list of alignment stars, but that will be easy. I was just overjoyed that it appeared Phyllis’ wonderful program would work with EQMOD. What was super cool? DSP adds a telescope control icon bar to the screen when a scope is connected. These buttons—park, unpark, track, and more—worked with EQMOD! Whoo-hoo!

When you are done looking at your deep sky wonder, you want to log it, doncha? All I need is a place to state the bare facts: object, date, time, and my comments. Deep Sky Planner’s log works fine for that, but it is capable of doing a heck of a lot more. You can record the current weather conditions in detail, for example. Hell, if you have an Internet connection you can get a weather report via a mini-browser built into the log. I’ll probably never do that, but it sure is groovy.

“What else can this program do, Unk Rod?” Sorry, Skeezix. We are well and truly out of time and space for this Sunday. But rest assured this very efficient piece of code has a feature set competitive with anything on the astro-market. I do intend to write a full review of DSP in the near future, and I will keep you posted on that.

The bottom line? I love Deep Sky Planner. Not only does it have lots of features, it has very good bones. It never crashed. It never did crazy things. It just worked. Is there stuff I’d like to see in it that is not there? Well, sure, there always is with any program. In addition to my comments above concerning object info and pictures, I’d like to see a more robust Import function. Yes, you can import data from programs that support the Open Astronomy Log format, but I could not see a way to import Plans/objects from a plain text file.

That is just quibbles. This is a great soft. I’ve had a lot of fun using it already, and I suspect you will, too. So why doncha? YOU CAN DOWNLOAD AN EVALALUATION COPY. FOR FREE. It is limited to the Messier and Caldwell DSOs, but it is fully functional. In other words, with a few mouse clicks you can be enjoying this wonderful program tonight. Go get it, muchachos.

Next Time: Once the dadgum Moon gets out of the way Unk will do some more DSLRing and we’ll talk some more about my fave imaging program, Nebulosity. Till then? Stop by next Sunday and see, muchachos.

Regarding batch download of DSS images: this is a high priority item on the development plan. It isn't in this release because there needs to be well-designed error handling built into the process. I need more experience using these DSS servers to determine the best way to do this.

Regarding Hubble type information for galaxies: this is in some catalogs and not others (e.g. NGC2000). The database is currently built from catalogs from CDS without much massaging by me. I would welcome ideas from users regarding the type of information that they would like to have added for different types of objects. You have obviously contributed the idea to include Hubble Type codes - thanks!

Regarding importing plans, this is also high priority on the development plan. Again, it isn't in this release because I want to get more experience with it before designing the solution. I have an in-house tool that I am using now, and it will migrate into the product.

Thanks for taking a look!
- Phyllis Lang, Author Deep-Sky Planner
Rod as good as you are in reviewing both software
and equipment, it's too bad Meade doesn't drop
off a Meade LX80 Multi-Mount and let you put it
through its paces.

I'm a-willin'...LOL...
I was inspired by one of your images and included in a piece I wrote, attributing it to your blog.

Please let me know if you want me to remove it or attribute it differently.
I was inspired by one of your images and included in a piece I wrote, attributing it to your blog.

Please let me know if you want me to remove it or attribute it differently.
You are more than welcome to do this, Kelly.
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