…continuedThe Universe on Your Computer
The top of the shareware and freeware listing has links to several software directories on the Web that do their best to summarize all astronomy programs (commercial too) for all manner of computers and various purposes (planetarium, charting, educational, and more).
So which to choose? Just like our article about selecting the right telescope, you have many variables to consider. Thus, it’s a lot like picking your perfect car. The situation is comparable for better or for worse for software. The issue, however, is primarily style, not substance. Astronomical programs have common core features, but their presentations can differ. For example, the necessary input of your observing location could be handled in several ways: a built-in list of cities, a world map, or longitude and latitude that you type in. Furthermore, some software includes only stars visible with no optical aid; others go deeper, beyond the faintest stars you could see with a large telescope!
The astro-software field is led by several strong commercial contenders, such as the popular TheSky by Software Bisque, RedShift by Maris Multimedia, and Starry Night by Imaginova. Years of design by talented programming teams have made all of these into powerful and fun applications.
Many other programs began as home-grown efforts by dedicated people determined to create software the way astronomers would want it. The result became their business. Excellent examples include Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools and William Gray’s Guide. The Internet has allowed easy distribution of software, so many programs can be used on a trial basis, such as EquinoX and StarStrider.
Furthermore, besides these desktop-planetarium and sky-charting programs, you also have your choice of utilities for specific needs. For example, in just the past few years several groups have created outstanding software specifically for lunar observing: Lunar Map, LunarPhase, Virtual Moon Atlas, and Lunar Calculator. Each one is different, of course, with options for showing the Moon in various ways, searching for lunar-surface features, and printing customized maps.
Shrinking the Sky
Despite regular updates and improvements, I can’t help but feel that all these and many other programs and Web-based utilities are so . . . last century. A progression of technological advances has brought PCs beyond desktop and laptop models, making it possible to nestle a powerful computer in your hand. If you never go anywhere without your PDA, then you can literally have handy software whenever you need it. Among the growing number of astronomical programs for Pocket PCs are a version of TheSky (already mentioned above) and the shareware Pocket Stars. If you keep a Palm PDA on your hip, then you might like Planetarium or 2sky, to name a couple.
S&T’s Mobile Sky Chart, so you’ll never be without celestial information. Other programs have popped up on the scene too, such as picoSky by Bubba’s Bits and Sabine Plunder’s MicroSky. I’m sure the tide of mobile-phone astro software is just beginning.
And someone's probably already working on star charts that will run on an iPod!