Sunday, June 02, 2013


What this Country Needs is a good Five-cent Cigar…

And a simple and inexpensive computer planetarium that’s as useful for advanced amateurs as a “quick-look” program as it is for novices as an all-round astronomy application. Two decades ago, in those simpler times of the early 1990s, that bill was filled by a program I’ve written about a time or two before, muchachos, Skyglobe.

Skyglobe, and, particularly its most realized version, v3.6, introduced many of us old-timers to PC-centric amateur astronomy. Even in them days, it wasn’t the most powerful or feature-laden planetarium around. That was OK. It didn’t have thousands of objects, but it had enough to keep a novice occupied, and it wasn’t overly pretty, but was legible and was great at showing what the sky was like right now. And man was it fast.

SkyGlobe was a DOS program (the PC operating system that came before Winders and OSX, younguns), and while its author, Mark Haney, tried to transition it to Windows 3.1, producing a semi-working version for the new O/S, the Windows Skyglobe was never fully developed. Apparently, Mr. Haney lost interest before he was completely done. Didn’t matter; many of us continued using the DOS Skyglobe for years and years, till the coming of Windows 7 made it difficult—if not impossible—to run. When that happened, amateurs like me who still admire the simple and elegant began asking “What now?”

Since I am (ahem) well past the novice stage in amateur astronomy and have more astro-ware on my hard drive than humans should be allowed to have, I can use any number of “advanced” programs for quick checks on the sky. Some, like TheSky 6, are admittedly purty quick to load up on modern machines. Still, when something like TheSky 6 Professional is running, I tend to get distracted by all them buttons and widgets. It and Starry Night Pro Plus and their cousins are just overkill; they are considerably more complex than I need or want to get a reading on the current layout of the sky.

I don’t want to hunt among toolbars filled to bursting with tiny icons to find the time advance button. I want big and obvious. I don’t want to have to remember which mouse button to hold down to drag the sky or the key combo I need to use with that. I just want to drag. Even better, I want to push one button to show me the western sky where I know Jupiter is.

“Simple” is now a scarce commodity in pay-for-play astronomy software. Today’s  astro-soft authors seem to have decided the way to make their programs better is to make them bigger, with more stars, more objects, more options, more everything—to include more bucks for the admission price. This even affects the smart phone astronomy market, where the software is quickly heading for the “entire PGC” hills.

There are some outstanding freeware planetariums for PCs and Macs, including what is probably the most popular free software of all time for serious amateurs, Cartes du Ciel. Unfortunately, Cartes, good as it is, is serious software, and had never been overly simple to use. Even a couple of the more middle-of-the road freeware softs when it comes to complexity, Hallo Northern Sky and Winstars, have gone down the MILLIONS AND MILLIONS path. But none of that mattered to me, not as long as I could run good, ol’ Skyglobe.

Set the controls of the WABAC machine to just a smidge upriver on the time stream, four or five years ago. Unk being the cheap sort he is, Chaos Manor South’s kitchen workstation where I do most of my work was an eMachines desktop at the time. Don’t laugh. It was a good PC, running Windows XP rather snappily. SkyGlobe was a dream on it, exploding onto the screen before you could even begin to say “Jack Robinson.”

Alas, somehow Unk had neglected to plug the eMachines into the UPS, and one day when Miss D. and I were off on a trip—to Atlanta, I believe—disaster struck in the form of intense August thunderstorms. When we arrived home, the eMachines was cold iron. No big deal, I figgered. Just a momentary power loss. But what was that smell? You guessed it, campers: fried. Fried, fried, fried, fried, fried.

Well, boo-hoo. But I still had my Toshiba Satellite laptop running XP. Not as convenient as sitting down to a desktop, but OK. Till a couple of weeks after the eMachines gave up the ghost, the Toshiba did too, burning a large hole in the power supply section on its mother board.

Both the Satellite and the eMachines had paid for themselves during numerous trips around Sol. I’d just schlep down to the dadgum Bestbuy and start the task of replacing them, beginning with a new desktop. Which turned out to be an Acer, which turned out to be a rather good computer. It still works to this day, though it has been relegated to the back room upstairs; a tonier all-in-one Toshiba widescreen now occupying the place of honor in the kitchen. Only one “problem” with the Acer: it came with Windows Vista.

I suppose I could have unloaded Vista and gone in search of a copy of Win XP. That didn’t seem like much of an option, though. Not only was Unk a mite too busy at the time to worry about such things—I just wanted to pull a PC out of a box, plug it in, and keep on trucking—I wasn’t sure Vista was as bad as some of the goobers on the Internet made it out to be. It wasn’t, really. The only programs I never could get to run on it were Starry Night Pro Plus. And, naturally, Skyglobe.

Starry Night Pro Plus is a decent and powerful program, but I really didn’t have to have it on the kitchen computer. What I did need was a fast, simple planetarium. I resorted to using TheSky 6 and Cartes in that role, but neither really suited. They are big and capable, but when I just want to see if Saturn is high up enough over the horizon to bother with, they are more an aggravation than a help. What would I do? What would I do?

I’d heard a lot about one relatively new freeware title, Stellarium. The users of this soft could be found raving about it any day or cloudy night on, yep, the Cloudy Nights BBS. I hadn’t paid much attention to their ravings, not while I could still run Skyglobe. When I couldn’t do that anymore, I became eager to hear about the planetarium more than one amateur was calling “the ultimate in realism.”

Gotta say, y’all, that I was favorably impressed by the Stellarium web-site. I’d already heard most of what was there discussed on CN at length, but seeing the professional looking page and staring at them purty, purty screenshots put a different perspective on things. It was clear Stellarium was not Cartes du Ciel with dozens and dozens of huge catalogs and countless features, but that was a good thing for my purposes. One other thing was crystal:  this was a beautiful program that emphasized a realistic depiction of the night sky. Sorta like Starry Night, but without the layers and layers of stuff.

As you-all can imagine, I was quick to download and install the program. You can read all about the process of doing that here, but our focus this time out is on the usability of Stellarium for my particular purposes. I can tell you right at the get-go that I didn’t much care for the program’s UI, its user interface. It eschews the standard Win menus or even a Mac-like interface (Stellarium is available for Mac, Win, and Linux at this time). In fact, there are no on-screen menus at all. Move your mouse to the left side or the bottom of the screen and icon toolbars appear.

At first I wasn’t just put out; I was ready to dump the program off’n my hard drive. It was running in full-screen mode, and there wasn’t any way to get to other programs or OS functions easily. After a little poking around, I found I could switch Stellarium to windowed mode and save that as a default, so the program was allowed to stay—for the moment. I can’t say I was happy about the icon bars and lack of menus, though. It was different from what I was used to, and when I am in a hurry I don’t like different. I also wasn’t happy with the assignment of tasks to various icons. For example, some set-up things are under the “options” icon and others are under “configuration” without seeming rhyme or reason.

Despite these quibbles, I settled in with Stellarium and it became my “what’s up” program of choice through several years and several versions. It is beautiful, it operates smoothly on any modern machine, and it is useful. While it has quite a few features, like eyepiece field views and even telescope control, they are normally hidden and don’t annoy me.

There is no perfect computer program, and there were a couple of things that kept me from giving Stellarium four full stars. One had to do with those consarned icon bars. Once I’ve got the sky onscreen, it’s not unusual for me to want to advance time to see how things will look later, like after nightfall, natch. Stellarium does that well, advancing the sky smoothly with a rate controlled by the number of clicks applied to the time-forward button. B-U-T. To get to the time-related buttons, I had to use that automatically hiding toolbar (the one on the bottom left of the screen) I didn’t like. More fatally, to change days, months, or years, I had to go to the left side tool bar and hit the little clock icon. Me no likeYes, there were hot-key combos to control time and date, but I had no interest in learning or remembering them.

What most annoyed me, however, were the direction buttons or lack thereof. There are two ways to change which horizon you are viewing with Stellarium.  Most users grab the sky with the mouse and drag it along. That is cool from a programming perspective—it’s so smooth and nicely executed and all. I don’t like to work that way, though—not always. Or you can scroll along with the arrow keys, which is, if anything, more of a pain than click-dragging. I like to have the option of pressing N, S, E, and W buttons. This was a continuing annoyance, but it didn’t stop me from using Stellarium on nearly a daily basis. There didn’t seem to be an alternative, and there things remained. Until last week.

In the course of unpacking my new Celestron VX mount, I naturally ran across the manual. Hell, y’all, I even looked at it. It was OK, but what was more interesting was what was in the plastic bag with it—a DVD. I’d kinda expected NexRemote, but since Celestron now allows free download and registration of that program on their website, I reckon there’s no reason to put it in the box with new scopes anymore. What the DVD contained was a copy of Software Bisque’s TheSkyX First Light Edition (both Windows and Macintosh versions).

Bisque has had a long relationship of this sort with Celestron, packing-in entry-level and sub-entry-level versions of their TheSky planetarium with Celestron gear. I expected First Light to be in the “sub-entry-level” and that is more or less just what it is. It is even less feature-laden than the normal lowest level of TheSkyX, TheSkyX Student Edition. If nothing else, Unk shore was curious. Software Bisque has been a big name in astronomy software, and especially planetarium programs, since TheSky first came out on 5.25-inch floppy disks back in the 80s. I’ve used TheSky 6 off and on for years, but I had yet to try the new one that superseded 6, TheSkyX. There wasn’t much reason I would have.

Even before I began The Herschel Project, I’d been moving away from planetarium programs, astronomy software that draws a virtual sky on your computer screen, to planners, programs that can draw sky maps, too, usually, but which are really more like giant databases, and which are much more useful if you are, like Unk, interested in tackling big observing projects. I had no doubt TheSkyX Professional was good, I just had no reason to mess with it—or pay for it—since I’ve got a couple of real observing planner heavyweights on my drive, SkyTools 3 and Deep Sky Planner 6.

I was idly looking at that First Light DVD and began ruminating on the simple programs Software Bisque has published alongside their magnum opuses over the years. Sometimes under their name, sometimes under other names—like the fondly remembered Expert Astronomer.  I searched for that one for a long time back in the mid 90s before finally turning it up in a cutout software bin in Phar-mor drugs. Expert Astrologer was, naturally, fracking everywhere.

Expert Astronomer was the stripped-down, barebones version of TheSky 4 (I think), and I remembered it as being simple, easy, and even intuitive. If it hadn’t been for Skyglobe, I would probably have been using Expert Astronomer almost every day. Why not resurrect the old warhorse? I even knew where the CD was. No dice. The Win 7 64-bit machines didn’t want to have a thing to do with it. It actually installed on the Vista ‘puter and even tried to run, but the O/S quickly reported General Protection Fault errors and shut the whole mess down. Hokay, that was Bisque’s mid nineties version of a minimalist planetarium. Guessed I might as well try their 2013 take on the same idee since I had the DVD right there in my hot little hands.

Slammed the First Light disk in the drive, loaded it up, and almost immediately went to the Software Bisque website hunting a fix. The program looked right good initially—except. Except it wouldn’t show constellation names. It’s surprising makers of such good software have a website that seems so, well, harum scarum, but that is the way it is. After trying to and finally remembering the password I needed to access the cotton-picking support area (!), I wandered the website for a quite a spell till I finally ran across a rather terse answer to my constellation lines problem on one of the support forums: there was a program update.

The update loaded without incident, the version that came up featured a somewhat streamlined UI (good), and those dadgum constellation labels were finally present. What did I think now that it was running right? Despite being in something of a snit over the Bisque website’s aggravations and the bug in the program, I couldn’t help but be impressed. In fact, if somewhat huffily, I had to admit First Light was what I’d been looking for for years.

Start with pretty:  the program’s sky is every bit as beautifully rendered as Stellarium’s in a somewhat different way. While the Bisques have gone out of their way to make it attractive—the Winter Star Party horizon blew Unk’s mind—they have stayed a little more in the legible camp than Stellarium’s authors. Constellation lines are thicker, and labels and fonts a little more decipherable for my tired old eyes. How long does it take to get this goodness onscreen? Not long folks, not long. It is one of the more speedy-to-load planetariums I’ve encountered in a while.

The things I’d been missing in Stellarium? All there. TheSkyX hews pretty close to the standard Windows UI. Even if you’ve never used one of their products, you’ll find First Light easy to figger out by clicking around in the familiar and comforting File, Edit, Display, etc. menus. The initial version I’d loaded off the DVD had an odd two-part interface:  menus and a “command center.” The finished version, which is what I am calling the one I am using now, v10.2.0, does away with the command center trope, and that is a good thing, I’d say.

How about the view controls?  Just what I wanted: prominent, easy to see N, S, E, and W buttons to mash. You can drag First Light’s sky around, just like you can Stellarium’s, but you don’t have to. And you don’t have to worry about searching through a toolbar menu to save your current view (and configuration) as in Stellarium; that is automatically saved when you exit.

The time controls are some of the simplest and most elegant I’ve seen in a long while. Normally the “Computer Clock” button is engaged and you are running off PC time. Want to see 9 o’clock this P.M.? Right next to the computer clock button is a digital time display. Click your mouse on the hours (for example), roll the mouse’s scroll wheel, and the hours advance and so does the sky, smoothly and beautifully. Same is true for the date display right next to the clock. I love it. 

You can also change date and time, increment time, and do other things from the Display menu’s “Date and Time,” which will show a sidebar with calendar, animation controls, etc. If you don’t want to bring up that sidebar, tape-recorder style icon buttons to step ahead or back in time and animate the sky are on the icon bar (always present, no disappearing act) at the top of the screen.

Let’s say you’re a novice who is after a simple program that will nevertheless get you started observing. There’s plenty here for you. I didn’t try to enumerate deep sky object counts, but it’s clear there are more than enough for Joe and Jane Novice—a check of M13’s field showed up cute little NGC 6207 right away, and there were IC sprites lurking nearby.  Brighter objects like the Messiers are accompanied by substantial information, and sometimes even photos. Hell, First Light even has a mini-observing-planner built-in.

So it’s all gravy with TheSkyX First Light Edition? Not quite, campers, not quite. The problem is getting it if you aren’t in the market for a new Celestron rig. I thought I’d seen it advertised for sale online, but apparently that is the next version up, TheSkyX Student Edition. According to a statement I (finally) found on the Software Bisque site, First Light is only available as a pack-in with (Celestron) scopes. Oh, you can find it available for free download online, but not only is that illegal, visiting those sorts of sites can put your computer at great risk.

So what do you do? Well, you can haunt Cloudy Nights’ classifieds and the Astromart. I see First Light disks for sale there frequently by owners who don’t realize there’s gold on that there DVD. Most of the time, they are only asking 10 – 15 bucks. Or you can upgrade a notch to the Student Edition, which has more STUFF, true, but is still very much in the spirit of “simple and unencumbered.” Is a program of this type worth the 50 bucks Student costs? If you are like me, muchachos, desperate for that good five-cent cigar of a planetarium program, it dang sure is.

Next Time:  Mrs. Emma Peel Part II… 

"I like to have the option of pressing N, S, E, and W buttons."

As a ex-SkyGlobe 3.5 user myself, I'm glad I'm not the only person who has been screaming this for the past fifteen years. :D

--Michael in Texas
I just dug out the dvd that came with my Celestron 8se and installed The SkyX First Light Edition. Went searching for the update as you did, but apparently the update is only for Windows. I couldn't find anything Mac-specific. Guess I'll have to live without the constellations. Disappointing as it sounded like something I'd use too.
I always liked Skyglobe myself, never has been any better electronic planisphere. BTW, Expert Astronomer was written by a fellow in Dallas. First name Brian, last name lost in brain-fart. I knew him personally so that's how I know. We were both members of the Dallas club.
I was not a SkyGlobe user, but it still can be ran and on recent computers too:

Btw, I enjoyed your recent article in Sky & Telescope.
As a SkyGlobe fan here in New Zealand for many, many years I, too, have long been searching for a replacement. This one is ideal! Thanks Rod for bringing it to our attention...I've had the CD on the shelf for about a year untried!

A cheap way to get it is to buy a Celestron FirstScope with it's accessory kit (the CD is in the kit) and for about $60US you get a basic but useful portable table top scope and SkyX First Light CD. If you didn't want the scope, the accessory kit alone with the CD is only $15US and has 3 basic eyepieces, a moon filter and simple finderscope!

BTW, my version had the constellation labels working right out of the box.
Sorry, bit of an version (10.0.2) only has the constellation lines and figures but not the labels.

The other great thing about the program is that you can customise the horizon to fit your local situation.
Can anyone help a non-nerd like me? I just want something simple like my old SkyGlobe (which I have on a hard floppy, but there's no slot for such disks in my new computer)? I'd like a free connection with something that tells me what planet or stars I'm looking at, on any given night.
Mr.GSD [@]
Two easy possibilities...

Google Sky, which is part of Google Earth.

Microsoft Worldwide Telescope

Fred replies: I tried both "Google Sky" and "Google Earth" also
but neither one showed me a map of the stars and planets at the present time (or tells me what I saw last night).
After Uncle Rod's lengthy discussion, we're left with a recommendation for a replacement for SkyGlobe that you can't have unless you purchase a telescope.

Although I use Win. 7 64 bit now, I kept my old Win XP computer just so I can use SkyGlobe.

I'll keep looking for a suitable replacement.
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