Archive for the ‘Space Exploration’ Category

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved.MassiminoSpaceman

Title: Spaceman
Author: Mike Massimino
ISBN: 978-1101903544 (hardback)
Published: October 4, 2016 by Crown Archetype
Price: $28.00 hardback/$11.50 paperback/$13.99 Kindle (7/17)
(Reviewing the Kindle version)
Length: 336 pages

Mike Massimino was an NASA astronaut from 1996 to 2014, and he flew twice in the Space Shuttle, both times to work on the Hubble space telescope. Let’s look at his book.

Book Chapters

Prologue: A Science Fiction Monster (do NOT skip this section)
Ch 1: A Perfect Good
Ch 2: Most All-Around
Ch 3: Who You Gonna Get?
Ch 4: The Smart-Kid Olympics
Ch 5: Force Feedback
Ch 6: Human Factors
Ch 7: Disqualified
Ch 8: Yes or No
Ch 9: There’s Mach 1
Ch 10: If You Have a Problem
Ch 11: Spacewalker
Ch 12: Shackleton Mode
Ch 13: Seeing Beyond the Stars
Ch 14: Ready to Go
Ch 15: Weightless
Ch 16: Earth is a Planet
Ch 17: Maybe this is Heaven
Ch 18: The Story of Space
Ch 19: February 1, 2003
Ch 20: Why We Go
Ch 21: From the Ashes
Ch 22: One Last Job
Ch 23: Line 28
Ch 24: Grounded
Epilogue: Around the Next Corner

And now, my review

Don’t skip the prologue, or you will miss some well written material.  Mike’s description of his first time outside the space shuttle Columbia, as they waited to lift off to head to the Hubble, made me feel like I was there:

“The shuttle was making these ungodly sounds.  I could hear the fuel pumps working, steam hissing, metal groaning and twisting under the extreme cold of the fuel, which was hundreds of degrees below zero.  Rocket fuel burns off at very low temperatures, sending huge billows of smoke pouring out.  Standing there, looking up, I could feel the power of this thing.  It looked like a beast waiting there for us.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Prologue

Now that is descriptive writing!

Mike talks about his childhood, seeing Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon, which made him want to be an astronaut.  During his senior year of high school, Mike decided to go on to Columbia for his undergraduate degree.  He interned before graduating and a mentor at Sperry encouraged him to go on to graduate school to find something he was passionate about, to do with his life.  He saw one of my favorite movies, “The Right Stuff“, which made him realize he really wanted to try to become an astronaut.  He decided his best bet to become an astronaut meant he needed to get a graduate degree (or two) from MIT.  He took a job and decided to wait a year or two before starting grad school, but while he was at work he saw the news about the space shuttle Challenger exploding, and he realized he needed to go ahead and start grad school at MIT.  While there, he started working on skills he needed to become an astronaut, which included scuba diving and getting a private pilot license.

After completing two Masters degrees, Mike decided he needed more education to stand out to NASA, so he started on a program Ph.D at MIT.  It was difficult, and he failed his first qualifying oral exam.  He was on his honeymoon in Portugal when he thought about the early ocean explorers that took risks and never quit, so he realized he needed to try again.  I too had issues in college when I was younger, but later in life I returned and earned my undergrad degree in Computer Science.  That graduation ceremony is one of my own personal high points in life.  Like Mike, I encourage people to not give up and continue to try, as accomplishing a major life goal is always worthwhile.

Before reading Mike’s bio, I figured that a man with a Ph.D from MIT that became an astronaut and had two shuttle missions working on the Hubble might be arrogant and full of himself.  I was wrong.  In this book, Mike credits the people around him that helped him become what he wanted.

“I owe everything I’ve ever accomplished to the people around me – people who pushed me to be the best version of myself.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Ch 6

It is inspirational to see someone with such a impressive career be that humble.  You don’t need to be a superman to become an astronaut – you need to work long and hard and with focus to become one.  I should add that Mike prepared differently for his second Ph.D oral exam and passed it.

After earning his Ph.D, Mike took a job with McDonnell Douglas and moved to Houston to be near NASA.  He applies and goes through the astronaut selection process, passing everything but the eye exam.  Now that his vision was a disqualifying issue, he decided to fix it instead of giving up.  He sees an eye doctor and starts vision training.  Working hard, following the advice of his doctor and friends, his vision improved enough and after reapplying, was accepted into the NASA astronaut program.  At last, he was in.

Mike undergoes new astronaut orientation and talks about flying T-38s.  I’d assumed all astronauts are pilots, but that isn’t true.  Mission specialists like Mike fly in the back seat – they get to do maneuvers including aerobatic, as well as handle the radio and navigate, but they don’t do take offs or landings.  Bummer.

“There are a couple of things you do on your first flight, kind of like your initiation.  The first thing is to go weightless.  The second thing you do is break the sound barrier.  When we reached <mach> 1.0, I said, ‘There’s Mach 1,’ in my best Chuck Yeager impression.

I loved flying.  I could not get enough of it.  Backseaters had to log a minimum of twenty-five training hours in the T-38 every quarter.  I was always near the top of my class in hours.  I had more hours than any mission specialist in my group, especially out of the civilians.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman

I’d love to have a chance to ride in a T-38, even just one time, and yeah, I’d take as many photos as my phone would hold (and maybe one or two short movies) to be able to relive the event.  Maybe some day.  Everyone can dream, can’t they?

Shortly after being accepted to the astronaut program, Mike’s father became ill and he asked his fellow astronauts for help and they gave it.  Mike said something about astronauts I hadn’t heard before and feel like I should share it with you:

“If you’ve ever wondered what the right stuff is, that’s what the right stuff is – the real right stuff.  It’s not about being crazy enough to strap yourself to the top of a bomb.  That’s actually the easy part.  It’s more about character, serving a purpose greater than yourself, putting the other guy first, and being able to do that every single day in every aspect of your life.  People ask me all the time what it takes to become an astronaut.   It’s not about being the smartest or having the most college degrees.  The real qualifications for being an astronaut are: Is this someone I’d trust with my life? Will this person help look after my family if I don’t make it home?”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman

Mike’s father recovered and was able to attend his graduation ceremony from Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) to full Astronaut.  The way Mike’s fellow astronauts and friends rallied around when he needed help was incredible – not many companies where you matter so much to you coworkers, especially in this modern world.

When Mike was becoming an astronaut, it was the time we were preparing to build the ISS.  Assembling the ISS would require a lot of spacewalking, so Mike learned that skill.  He covers the details in depth, and I had no idea how much was involved just learning to move about in space.  Fascinating read, chapter 11.  Do not skip it.

One thing the astronauts had to learn was cold weather survival skills.  They went to Cold Lake in Canada, where it was subzero most of the the time they were there.  As a Minnesota transplant, I understand how difficult it can be for warm climate people to be forced to contend with severe cold, and they did well.  During a trip to Japan to help the Japanese Space Agency, he realized something important about his job:

“Going to space doesn’t make you an astronaut.  Being an astronaut means you’re ready to go to space.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Ch 12

The Hubble Space Telescope is simply incredible.  In addition to sharing the same first names, Mike Massimino and I are both impressed with the Hubble as it is a great engineering triumph for humanity.  The research done by the Hubble far exceeds the beautiful images it sends back, and it is indeed a valuable tool for discovering our place in the universe.  Before reading this book, I was unaware the Hubble has 6 gyros that keep it aligned on a target, and that the internals of the Hubble are kept at room temperature even though the outside conditions vary between -200 and 200 degrees F every day.  The Hubble had problems with gyro failure, so two missions were planned: 3A and 3B.  Mike was part of the development process for 3B and he hoped to be part of the actual mission:

“Bob Curbeam, who flew on a couple of station assembly flights (of the Shuttle), used to say, ‘Hubble guys are the Jedi.  The coolest.’  I wanted to be a Hubble guy.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Ch 13

Did he get to go on flight STS-109, mission 3B?  Yes he did.  He talks about the details of establishing the shuttle crew, the dynamics and skills of the people that were mission specialists and the flight deck crew, as well as the Hubble components they were to replace.  The amount of work he and other astronauts do, just to get ready for a mission, is incredible.  It is amazing how well NASA can provide different ways of duplicating conditions the astronauts face while working in space.  They not only have the pool for full size practice.  They also use virtual reality to practice how it feels to move mass in a weightless environment.  The preparation for the mission was lengthy, but finally they launched.  Mike’s description of the Earth from the shuttle is worth sharing:

“We were over the Indian Ocean, which was a beautiful shade of blue with puffy white clouds sprinkled across it.  I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you’re magically floating above everyone else.  I could see the ripples in the ocean, the horizon with the blue atmosphere in thin, hazy line.  It was like all the pictures I’d seen, only a thousand times better.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Ch 15

Mike continues to provide details about the mission, including that they needed to setup the toilet, galley, and exercise bike after launch.  I never thought about them being stowed, but it makes sense.  Again, great details for space enthusiasts as well as prospective astronauts.  Mike’s description of how they needed to get used to being in space was also new.  He describes how it feels to have all the fluid in your body move towards your head, and it doesn’t sound fun.  And I didn’t know that your spine stretches so you grow an inch, but the muscles in your back have to stretch and adjust, so that’s painful too.  And he gives the best description I’ve seen about space sickness:

“Then there’s the nausea.  ‘Stomach awareness’ is the official term.  That whole first day I floated around feeling like I was going to barf at any moment.  Space sickness is the opposite of seasickness,  The effect is the same, the nausea and vomiting, but the root cause is different.  … In space, you’re floating around and this time it’s your eyes that are telling your brain you are moving and your inner ear that’s telling your brain that you’re still, because your inner ear doesn’t move when you’re weightless.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Ch 15

It took three days to catch up to Hubble, so they had time to adjust and to prepare for the mission.  Mike was very nervous, but he remembered details he shares in this book, like how he sounded in his suit:

“My voice sounded different, too, because the sound wave travels differently through the lower atmospheric pressure.  It’s at a lower register.  I sounded like I was about to cut a blues album.”

– Mike Massimino, Spaceman Ch16

Mike and his teammate do their first EVAastronauts install ACS on Hubble and replace one of the solar array panels.  It was an intense process, physically difficult and draining, and the part of the mission Mike was most concerned with.  He was stressed, but Mike says the view of the Earth was worth it.  His second EVA was working with James Neuman to replace the failed Faint Object Camera with the Advanced Camera for Surveys and NASA has a picture of the two mission specialists doing that during the 3B mission.

Astronauts have reported having an epiphany during their missions.  I’ll let Mike speak for himself on his own epiphany:

“I took a moment and turned and glanced over my shoulder at the Earth again. …

The thought that went through my head was If you were in heaven, this is what you would see.  This is my view from heaven.  Then that thought was immediately replaced by another thought.  No, it’s even more beautiful than that.  This is what heaven must look like – maybe this is heaven. …

And my thought looking down at the Earth was Wow.  How much God our Father must love us that he gave us this home.  He didn’t put us on Mars or Venus with nothing but rocks and frozen waste.  He gave us paradise and said, ‘Live here’.”

Mike Massimino Spaceman Ch 17

While he was resting after the mission finished, Mike listened to music and said certain music was better during the day or night.  He liked Sting, Phil Collins, Coldplay and U2 during the day.  At night, Radiohead, plus the soundtracks for Dances with Wolves and Meet Joe Black.

At the end of chapter 17, Mike mentions that their Hubble mission, STS-109, went before STS-107.  Both were Columbia missions.  Mike’s flight came home, STS-107 broke up during re-entry and all aboard were killed, and Mike devotes chapter 19 to explaining how the loss of the crew of STS-107 affected their families and the other astronauts.

We’ve lost too many of our astronauts – the crews of Apollo 1, the Challenger,  and the Columbia – I wish, as a country, we could have an astronaut remembrance day to remember each of these brave individuals that gave their lives exploring space, to make us better as a race.  We should remember them as they deserve: as our heroes.

Chapters 20 through 23 are about the final mission to the Hubble.  After the Columbia was destroyed during re-entry, the decision was made to cancel the last planned trip to the Hubble, as it was considered too unsafe.  NASA kept a planned robotics mission to go to Hubble, and then the NASA administrator was replaced by someone wanting to do something big for NASA, and the mission was back on.  Due to the costs of replacing entire defective systems, the decision was made to repair them in place – something that qualify as the most technically challenging repair ever done in space, on could be viewed as the most important piece of astronomical equipment ever deployed: the Hubble.  The technical challenges they faced, disassembling, repairing and reassembling equipment not designed to be worked on in orbit, were considerable, but NASA being NASA, they were addressed and the mission to upgrade and fix Hubble was on, using the Atlantis shuttle.  In addition to saving the Hubble, one other notable event happened during the flight: the first tweet from space was done by Mike on the Atlantis.

Every good thing comes to an end.  Mike decided against doing any long term Soyez missions, so he was removed from flight status and moved on from being an astronaut, but he is still using social media – I follow him on Twitter, as do many.

I took four days to read this book, because I didn’t want it to end, any more than Mike wanted his time as an Astronaut to end.  A truly great story about overcoming obstacles to accomplish what is important to you in life.  I found three videos plus a ton of podcasts about or by Mike Massimino on iTunesU – go there if you want to see and hear the man himself.  Or you can try episodes of The Big Bang Theory on TV – he’s made a number of guest appearances since the 5th season

Conclusion

I really enjoyed Mike’s bio.  Learned a ton of things about becoming and being an astronaut, as well as understanding how a shuttle mission was planned and implemented.  Like Col. Hadfield’s bio, this is one I will re-read.

I strongly encourage people to buy this book.  Mike Massimino tells a great story, and his vivid details paint a clear picture of his experiences.  He takes you inside the astronaut program and lets you see how hard it is to get in, but shows that you can overcome obstacles if you work hard enough.  I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Only one task is left for me now: I need to track down an autographed copy in hardback for my home library.  I want to read it again and then I will encourage my wife to read it.  I may even buy a few paperback copies to give as Christmas gifts.

Note

I have written book reviews for print magazines in the past.  The largest I wrote was 1000 words, but usually they were 200 – 500 words.  This review is much longer because I wanted to do justice to this biography.  It is well crafted, exciting to read, and reveals more details about NASA and space missions than other NASA bios I’ve read.  I enjoyed the book and hope Mike Massimino has another one planned – if he does, I’ll read it.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved.Product Details

Title: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
(print versions in English, Spanish, German)
Author: Col. Chris Hadfield
ISBN: 978-0-316-25301-7
Published: October, 2013 by Little, Brown and Company (www.littlebrown.com)
Price: $28.00 for hardback/$11.99 for Kindle (7/2017)
Length: 284 pages

Chris Hadfield is a Canadian that decided to become an astronaut when he was young, when Canada did not have a space program.  Chris decided to make education and career decisions that would affect his chances if he could become an astronaut, but would also be rewarding if he failed to achieve that goal.  He devoted himself to learning in school and became a glider pilot at 15 and then a licensed private pilot at 16.

When Chris was young, the path to NASA was open to people in the military (being a jet pilot was/is very important to NASA), so Chris decided to go to military college and he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and then went the jet pilot route awhile before becoming a test pilot.  Like other test pilots, he applied to NASA, and yes he was accepted.  I’m not going to go into more detail as he does a fine job covering his education and military experiences in the first chapter of this book.

This book covers Chris’ experiences on getting accepted to NASA, on riding in the space shuttle, and on riding in a Soyuz. While those mission descriptions were very interesting, I found Chris’ work experience at NASA and in Russia fascinating.  I knew astronauts are always training for missions, but I wasn’t aware how many other roles they have at NASA.  Chris was heavily involved with so many aspects of the space program, that he is one of those people you hope to find that will share his experiences with you.  This book does that, but I’d still love to meet this person and hear from him about his adventures as an astronaut.

Book Chapters

Introduction (do NOT skip this part)
Ch 1 – The Trip Takes a Lifetime
Ch 2 – Have an Attitude
Ch 3 – The Power of Negative Thinking
Ch 4 – Sweat the Small Stuff
Ch 5 – The Last People in the World
Ch 6 – What’s the Next Thing that Can Kill Me?
Ch 7 – Tranquility Base, Kazakhstan
Ch 8 – How to Get Blasted (and Feel Good the Next Day)
Ch 9 – Aim to Be a Zero
Ch 10 – Life on Earth
Ch 11 – Square Astronaut, Round Hole
Ch 12 – Soft Landings
Ch 13 – Climbing Down the Ladder

Every chapter is worth reading – don’t be tempted to skip ahead.  My favorite chapter was Ch 7, about Chris’ experience working with the Russians.  This was fascinating, as we see so little of what goes on in Russia on NASA TV.  The main information I’d seen before was on the ceremonies that the Russians follow before and after a flight.  Very elaborate, and proof that space flight means a great deal to them.  Chris talks about his time there, and it helped me see how much our space program has been helped by cooperating with Russia.  They have helped us build and run the ISS, as well as ferry many people there.  I would hope they are part of our missions establishing outposts on the moon and on Mars.  Both of our countries would benefit from the joint effort.

The chapter that surprised me was Ch 9 Aim to Be a Zero.  I guess I assumed that, once people made it into the space program, they knew they needed to get along with others in all aspects of missions.  How could anyone not understand that human dynamics is extremely important when you have multiple people crammed together in a small space for a dangerous assignment in space?  Apparently Chris encountered some people that failed to understand that being exceptionally good doesn’t mean being exceptionally self-centered.  Chris offers great advice for future astronauts: don’t try to be difficult or cause issues, and learn how to get along with others if you want to work in space.

Conclusion

Great book, and a fast and easy read.  I’ve started re-reading it as it enjoyed it so much the first time, and this is the first time I’ve re-read a bio. There wasn’t great detail about being in the Canadian military, but that was due to the fact that this book concentrates on Chris’ life experiences that lead him to NASA, and helped him over his career.

If I had any complaint about this book, it was that it was too short at 284 pages.  I hope Chris does a followup book and provides more about specific details about his three trips to space, as well as about the daily experiences of working at NASA.  That might seem boring to people working at NASA, but not to us space flight fans that follow the space program.

I didn’t want to forget to mention that Chris was into photography when he was on the ISS, and he published another book called: “You are Here: Around the World in 92 minutes: Photographs from the International Space Station” – I haven’t seen this one yet, but I will.  To see actual pictures from the ISS would be really wild – kind of make you feel like you were there for a short visit.

Recommendation: Buy this book for yourself, and buy another copy for any space fan (young or old) in your family.  It will make a great gift this holiday season.  I give it 5 stars out of a possible 5.

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Product: SkyFi Wifi to Serial Adapter
Vendor: Southern Stars (http://www.southernstars.com/index.html)
Price: $149.95

Introduction

SkyFi is another fine product from Southern Stars, who sell SkySafari software for mobile devices and Mac computers, as well as other telescope-related hardware products. SkyFi uses WiFi to connect the RS232 control data flow from a telescope controller to an device (iPod/Phone/Pad apps as well as computer applications).

Setup

Figure 1 - SkyFi

Connecting the SkyFi to your telescope controller isn’t difficult. The package includes a couple of adaptors which will work with the mosre common telescope setups. The connection on the SkyFi itself is an RJ11 telephone jack. You can make a cable that connects the SkyFi directly to your telescope controller, use the included adaptors, or purchase a cable specifically for your computer from Southern Stars. Once connected to the telescope controller, you turn it on and it creates a wireless network.Your remote device needs to be connected to this network and also needs to be running software that can send and receive telescope control and data using the TCP IP. The connection scheme is the same as the one in the previous article. The Southern Stars web site has a nice explanation and pin out of the cables you need, in case you want to make one.

The SkyFi device itself is a bit larger then a cell phone. It is powered by 4 double-A batteries and can accept a power brick as well (6 to 12 VDC). There is no on/off switch, but there is a switch that selects either external or internal voltage source. Switching to external voltage source disconnects the internal batteries. (Which acts like a switch). A piece of velcro can be used to attach the SkyFi to the telescope mount, out of the way of motion. It is very light and once running, you won’t need to adjust it at all.

Once on, the SkyFi makes a wifi hotspot available. Firmware on the device controls the IP address and security. There is a standard IP address which is printed on the SkyFi, but you can change this and security settings if needed. I didn’t bother changing the default settings, as they worked well. I could find no fault with the defaults!

Using the Product

Before you begin using the SkyFi, you need to be sure that the telescope control software you use can communicate to the telescope using TCP IP. I Didn’t know some programs do not support TCP IP. On my MacBook, I have Voyager 4.5 and a copy of Sky Safari Beta that will work. The Starry Night Pro Plus that I like using doesn’t do TCP connections to telescopes. The people at Starry Night were unaware of a solution that would work on the Macintosh. For Windows users there are a couple of shareware applications that create a virtual com port that can be tied to the TCP connection, so I imagine this would work with a Window based machine and Starry Night or any other non-TCP controller application.

Figure 2 - SkyFi with a Telescope

If you are controlling with your i-device, you will need the Southern Stars Sky Safari package. (I am unaware of any other astronomy app that controls a telescope). We looked at these Apps a bit in the last article. In the App’s settings, you choose to use TCP IP to connect to the telescope controller. The default address is the same as the default on the SkyFi. (No surprise there!) Select to control the telescope and you are in control using your iPod/iPad/iPhone.

Working with the Voyager software, I had no issues controlling my telescope computer at all. Commands were instant as was feed back. The only issue I had was with me forgetting to choose the SkiFi network rather then my own home wireless network. You also need to make sure the controller software has the same TCP address that the SkyFi has. In Voyager 4.5, there is a box to enter this address. The default address is printed on the SkyFi device, which is another good reason for keeping to the defaults. However, if you need to change it, you can always re-label the back of the unit.

When I first read about the SkyFi, I thought that it was a wireless device and that it would log onto the local wireless network and make the telescope available on that network. It doesn’t do that. Rather then logging onto an existing network, it creates one of it’s own. So I couldn’t use this device to control my telescope with my desktop computer, since it doesn’t have a WiFi card. Nor would one be able to use it to allow access to the telescope from a remote site. You need to be in range of the SkyFi’s wireless netwrok to connect.

Figure 3 - VSP3 Screen

Since the computer you are controlling the telescope with is connected to the SkyFi network, it won’t be connected to your regular one. While observing I usually listen to Internet radio and I will often pop onto some internet site to inspect images and information about the object I am seeking. So I don’t get to listen to the Internet Radio, but I can still do my research by logging back onto my home network, do the research, then re-connect to the SkyFi. Luckily, this isn’t a big issue. Once the telescope is aimed at an object, the onboard controller takes care of compensating for the movement of the earth. Once connected back to the SkyFi, the data stream identifies the slightly changed location and all is well. It is just an added step in the process.

Conclusion

The biggest issue I had with the SkyFi is that it doesn’t come as a package. You buy the SkyFi and then need to find some compatible software. If the software you already purchased isn’t compatible, then you need to consider this as part of the purchase cost. It would be a whole lot nicer if the SkyFi came packaged with either SkySafari or Voyager. However, if you are into astronomy, you probably already have some package that will work with the SkyFi.

Much to my chagrin, I had expected that using the SkyFi would remedy the tangle of cables that I “need” to deal with when observing. However, I found that I still need to bring an extension cord to power the AutoStar (or use the battery adaptor). Since I had the power cord there, I went ahead and plugged in my MacBook Pro, so I still had the extension cord cable and the power supply cord to the MacBook. Thus, the tripping issue wasn’t really resolved. I suppose I could run the Scope on battery and bring the extension cable to the MacBook Pro, but that would cost me a lot in the battery budget.

As far as distance, the SkyFi does pretty well. I walked around the yard with my MacBook and had to get pretty far away to loose the connection. I think I was able to move slightly father then the expected 100 feet from the device. I was also able to put the MacBook on my dining room table and still control the telescope in the yard. I can see this as a real advantage in the winter as it would give me a chance to warm up between observations.

SkyFi is available through the Southern Star’s web site as well as many other astronomy stores. Southern Star also sells Sky Safari for MacOS X in three flavors, the Plus and Pro versions includes telescope controls ($20 and $50 respectively). The version for the iPod/Phone/Pad can be purchased through iTunes store again, you will need either the Plus or Pro version to control the telescope. In the next installment of this series, I will look specifically at the Sky Safari applications for the Macintosh.

Recommendation

Overall, the SkyFi works very well. If you are looking for a wireless connection to your telescope, this is the device you want. I don’t think there are many other options. I had no issues controlling my telescope using the device. If you have an iDevice and want to control your telescope, this is again a terrific solution.

By Tobias Lindemann, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

I was not happy when Atlantis lifted off last Friday, because I thought we would not have a chance to see it here in Europe. I was relieved when a friend told me that there would be a Solar-Transit of the ISS (International Space Station) near our home in Munich, Germany. The day after the launch, I read that the Shuttle Atlantis docked with the ISS, so I knew I had a chance to get the ISS and Shuttle together in a picture.

To verify the possibility, I went to www.calsky.com which is a nice site where you can calculate where the ISS will pass, as well as moon and solar transits for your location. Even if there is a flyby that is close to the sun, this site tells you where to go to see a perfect crossing. I was happy to learn that I could go to a place that is only a stone’s throw from my house.

I don’t own a mobile telescope, so I took my 300mm telephoto lens, a solar filter I built years ago for a solar-eclipse, and my EOS to the observation site. But before I left I had to synchronize the clock of my camera to match an exact radio clock.  Calsky had calculated the exact time for the crossing at 14h 56min 18.2sec UTC, and the whole transit duration was only 0.89 seconds which is fast.  I arrived at the observation location at 14:40 UTC, so I had enough time to find the sun, focus the lens and set the correct exposure time (I felt the best exposure time was 1/6000 at ISO 100 and f/9 with my filter).

IMPORTANT! Regarding the correct filter, it is extremely important that you do not look at the sun even though a small photo lens without a filter. Direct sunlight can seriously damage your eyes!!!

I choose JPEG as the image format because I can take many more photos in this format in burst-mode than taking raw format images.

A few minutes later, the key moment approached and I started the photo shot. I didn’t look at the sun through the finder, but after one minute of exposing the image I decided that the crossing must be over and released the trigger. I went home and transferred the photos to my computer and was very exited to see there were pictures of the sun, with something in front of it. I had about 800 photos to look at, but I realized that I had adjusted the time of my camera with a radio clock, so every photo has a very exact time stamp. It was unbelievable, but there were some pictures with the ISS in front of the sun at the exact time of 14:56:18. Thank you calsky.com; that is what I call that accurate.

The only tasks I had left was to stack the images with Fitswork using the “minimum function”, so that the dark ISS looks better plus reduce the intensity of the sun in the consolidated photo. Here is my photo from that event:

Even when a telephoto lens lacks high magnification, you can see the modules and solar panels of the ISS. Normal ISS passes occur in the evenings and mornings, and I do photograph very often at either time, but this was the first time I took some photos of the ISS in front of the sun, which was very exciting.

– Tobias <TobiasLindemann@iss-tracking.de>

Editor’s Comment

Tobias does astro-photography and shares his photos with fellow astronomy enthusiasts. He recently took a beautiful image of the ISS transitioning across the sun and I saw it when he shared it with members of the ISS Tracking Yahoo User Group. I was impressed enough to ask Tobias to write a short article about it for the readers of this site and he was happy to comply. Thank you for sharing, Tobias.

– Mike

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Product: SkyWire Serial Accessory
Vendor: Southern Stars (http://www.southernstars.com)
Price: $79.95 USD
Shipping: varies according to destination

SkyWire Serial Accessory is a simple cable that makes it a breeze to connect your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone to your computerized telescope and control it with an app called SkySafari. Set up and use is really easy, although you need to use Southern Stars SkySafari version 2.1 app (or later) to take advantage of this cable.

Years ago I purchased a computerized telescope mount (and telescope), and found it was a serious step up for the rank amateur sky observer. Nowadays, rather then dealing with the frustration of using guiding stars to target in on a celestial object, I can now let a computer do all the work. Although the process isn’t perfect, it was an improvement over the tasks I needed to follow to get setup in the past. The Meade Autostar computer controller on my mount has a funky red LED display, which has issues like being completely un-readable when temperatures are in the lower 30 degree F. While it does know the position of a fair number of objects, it is also a bit of a process to select one. Not to mention that, before you begin to search, there is no indication  that an object is currently in the sky until after you select it. It didn’t take me long to look for a more intuitive interface.

From my previous articles here on our Space page, you see that I use my MacBook Pro along with different Astronomy software to make the process even easier. But what if you are starting out like most people today, you may already have one of Apple’s i-devices. SkyWire used with the SkySafari software makes it easy to step a telescope up. Additionally, most of these devices make use of the compass and GPS features, so you can use them to assist with locating the general area of the sky your object of choice might reside.

SkyWire is a cable that transfers the serial data (RS232) signal from the telescope controller to the i-device you are using. The SkyWire cable ends in a DB9 connector. If your telescope controller doesn’t use this connector, you will need a cable to convert the DB9 connector to whatever your ‘Scope” uses. In my case, the Meade LXD75 uses a standard telephone connector (RJ11). It came with a cable that has the RJ11 on one side and a  DB9 on the other, so all I had to do was plug the SkyWire DB9 into the telescope’s DB9 connector and plug the RJ11 end into the AutoStar. Note that I mention all this cable detail because it is specific to my set up. Hopefully there is enough detail so that someone with a different set up will understand what to do.

The current version of SkySafari is version 3, and you need version 3 plus to gain the telescope control features. I was pretty impressed with SkySafari. It is a very comprehensive piece of astronomy software with lots of features. It is a great standalone product and worth considering even if you don’t have an interest in the SkyWire feature.

With SkySafari 3 Plus running on my iPod Touch, I plugged in the standard i-device connector into it and an alert box in the software told me I am connected to the SkyWire. By default SkySafari 3 Plus has the telescope control set to “demo mode”.  You need to go into the settings and select your telescope controller and mount type. This system will work with a wide variety of telescope controllers (those that use the RS232 interface), but some do not. Check the products web site to see if your controller is included.

Once you have selected the telescope controller, bring up the telescope control and select connect. If your controller is on and ready to go it should immediately connect. Now all the power of SkySafari 3 Plus is available to control your telescope. And there is a lot of power in this program!

I have both an iPod Touch and and iPad, so I used both to control the telescope. The iPod Touch is a bit smaller then my Meade Autostar controller but it is infinitely easier to find objects in my sky and slew the telescope to them with this setup. The display is huge compared to the Autostar’s display. Secondly, I am looking at an image that represents what the sky looks like where I am currently located, so by looking at the display I know if the object is above or below the horizon. Using the iPod’s compass feature, I can actually locate the part of the sky tof he object I am interested in viewing, and it is easy to see if there are obstructions that would prevent viewing. SkySafari 3 Plus provides information about the object as well as an image, so I have an idea of magnitude and have data I can read about the object, and can even see what it would look like using a larger telescope. It would be truly cool is there was an easy way to mount and align the iPod on the telescope, so that it could be set to show what was in that part of the sky the telescope is currently pointed toward!

A benefit of any piece of software to aid in observing the sky is its ability to help find objects of interest. Like most astronomy packages, SkySafari show solar system objects, many stars, and puts symbols on the screen where deep space objects are located. It also has two features that point out interesting objects in the current sky. First of all under the search menu there is a “Tonight’s Best” selection, which lists a number of items that should be viewable in your local night sky. You can go through the list and create an observing list of objects you would like to view, or just select one and go to it. The observing list(s) in SkySafari are accessed using the search menu.

The other feature requires an internet connection, it is Sky & Telescope’s SkyWeek feature. This weekly list provides a sky observing task or suggestion for each night of the week. Scroll through the weeks list, choose the correct day and you can read their suggestion. There is also a “View” button that when clicked, centers the object in SkySafari, so you can see where it is.

Using the iPod is nice, but the screen is small. The iPad has a larger screen, and I find this more effective when displaying the night sky. However, it is a bit more awkward to hold up to the sky, (but just only a bit more difficult). One issue I have had with connecting my MacBook Pro to the Autostar is tripping over the cable. The cables I have aren’t long enough to easily string around to protect from an accidental pull and unplug. One advantage of the iPod is that it is small enough to just hang on the telescope mount, so the cable stays out of the way, just as the Autostar cable does.

The SkyWire coupled with SkySafari and your i-device is a cool way to control your telescope’s computer. It is easy to set up and simple to use. I am certain any user will discover that using the data, display, and easy interface of an i-device will be far superior to what came with the telescope. If you have a telescope, and i-device, and want to make the connection, this is definitely the way to go.

Author’s note: In the next review, I discuss Southern Star’s SkyFi, a device that lets you wirelessly connect your telescope computer to your WiFi enabled computer.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Image courtesy of NASA

This morning NASA used a Delta II rocket to successfully launch the Aquarius/SAC-D mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This new satellite will help scientists measure the amount of Sea Surface Salinity, which is important for global climate studies. The mission was accomplished with cooperation between NASA and Argentina’s CONAE Space Agency.

What impressed me this morning was the method I used to follow the launch: watching streaming video on my iPod touch. When the first space missions were launched, people saw the poor quality video on black and white televisions, many with tiny (compared to those available today) screens. This morning the video of the launch on my Touch was in color and in very good detail. I watched the final 15 minute countdown (which took longer than 15 minutes due to a built0in pause to make important system checks prior to launch), and it was great.

To read more about this launch, check out NASA’s website.

Two must-have iPhone apps are the NASA app and the NASA TV app. Being able to look up mission information or watch missions on NASA TV is fantastic for space enthusiasts (count me as part of that group). While I don’t have an iPad, I will add both of NASA’s apps when I do purchase one in the future. I imagine the materials will be better when viewed on larger screens. Anyone with an iPad that wants to share their experience with these apps is most welcome to post a comment.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

The US space program had good news today (February 24, 2011). NASA successfully launched Discovery for its final flight (STS-133), which is a trip to the International Space Station (ISS). A great video of the launch from NASA can be seen here, which shows the take and the separation of the solid fuel boosters when the shuttle is 29 miles from NASA at a height of 24 miles. Wow! I wish that our Piper Arrow had that kind of acceleration and ceiling…

Image credit: NASA TV

 

Photo credit: NASA

The crew of Discovery is shown to the right, with NASA astronauts Steve Lindsey (center right) and Eric Boe (center left), commander and pilot, respectively; along with astronauts (from the left) Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Steve Bowen, all mission specialists.names listed below (thank you for the picture, NASA).

A successful launch is always good news, but this is a bitter sweet moment for fans of the space program. The Space Shuttle era is coming to a close in 2011. After today, depending on funding from Congress, there will only be one or two more Shuttle flights this year, then the US Shuttle fleet will be retired.

For a real treat, watch this video.

The Hubble Space Telescope

I’ve followed nearly every launch since STS-1, and my favorites involve the Hubble Space Telescope. The initial plans called for launching the Hubble in 1986, however the destruction of the Challenger delayed the launch until 1990, when Shuttle Discovery carried and launched it on mission STS-31.

There were problems with the Hubble mirror, so another visit was necessary to effect repairs. Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS- 61 mission was to repair the Hubble, and it was a huge success. The astronauts successfully retrieved, repaired, and redeployed the Hubble, and the before and after images from the Hubble are remarkable. Since the repair, the Hubble has contributed a great deal to new images of the planets and stars in the sky.

There have been four other missions to repair or upgrade the Hubble to prolong it’s effective use exploring the wonders of the universe. The other Hubble shuttle missions were:

  • Shuttle Discovery – STS-82 in Feb, 1997
  • Shuttle Discovery – STS-103 in Dec, 1999
  • Shuttle Columbia – STS-109 in March, 2002
  • Shuttle Atlantis – STS-125 in May, 2009

The Hubble will continue to provide valuable images of the skies for years to come, however it too will be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to be launched in 2014.

This is not the end of US flight, as there are private firms like Space X and Virgin Galactic that are working on vehicles capable of delivering people and supplies to the ISS in low earth orbit. There are other space agencies like the the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) that have sent missions to the ISS. The Russian agency will be the primary agency providing Soyez capsules to deliver and retrieve people in the near future.

It will be awhile before the next generation of US space crafts are ready, so it will be a time to watch the efforts of others – in the private sector as well as other nations. Hopefully we will live to see missions to establish bases on our moon and on Mars, which will be as awesome as our first missions to the moon in the 1960s and 70s.

UPDATE (Monday, 3/7/2011)

Shuttle Discovery decoupled from the ISS this morning at 6AM CST and is headed back to earth. The Shuttle will orbit earth in the vicinity of the ISS for the next 2 days, then re-enter the atmosphere and land on Wednesday. This marks the last time Discovery will visit the ISS.

UPDATE (Wednesday, 3/9/2011)

Shuttle Discovery begins mission orbit number 202, which is her final earth orbit, at 9:01AM CST. The 2 minute de-orbit burn began while the Discovery was over India, traveling at Mach 25. The landing was at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 10:57AM CST today, which was the last of the 39 missions flown in this Shuttle. It is great this Shuttle did so well so many times, yet this was the last time that ship will fly and that is sad indeed.

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

As you have probably gathered, I really enjoy astronomy. I like looking at objects in deep space, gazing at the moon and the planets of our solar system, and sometimes even enjoying a glimpse of a comet. I enjoy using my telescope but often, at my home in New England, the skies are overcast, or the weather is rotten. (Especially this current winter with record amounts of snow fall.) So what does one do to enjoy a little astronomy when the sky doesn’t cooperate? Find an alternative, I say. This is easy for Starry Night users, who can look at the LiveSky menu and select ‘Online Telescope Imaging…’  which opens a browser window to access a site called SLOOH.

SLOOH the Site

Several years ago, I learned about www.slooh.com. The name SLOOH is a play on the word slew, which in Astronomy circles to slew a telescope is to move it’s position. What slooh.com offers is access to large 20” telescopes, via the Internet. The telescope is controlled remotely and moved through a series of targets as the night moves on. The scope stays with each object for a period of time, giving the camera time to collect and even color the light, producing beautiful images.

SLOOH the Software

The SLOOH interface is the user’s window to what the telescope sees. You can watch as the image develops on your screen. Starting with a monochrome, then watch the colors revealed as various filters are applied. You can capture up to three images any time during the exposure, you select when. One of my favorite tricks is to make an image before the colors start, and one just before the end of the exposure. This gives a great comparison of  naked eye viewing versus a time exposure.

Granted, you are not specifically in control of where the telescope points, or how long the exposures are, but a great many of the objects available to see based on the time of year  are on the list. Also, don’t forget, two very important aspects of this telescope: It is large (20” reflector) and the position of the telescope.

When SLOOH started, there was one telescope on a mountain in the Canary Islands, which is close to the equator. This means that it can “see” most of the sky, north and south. Within the past year, SLOOH has added two more telescopes, one in the mountains of Chili and one in Australia. (They recently shutdown the Australia site because the weather conditions there we rarely good and they weren’t getting much use of the telescope.) With telescopes in these various locations, a member has the potential of being able to see any part of the sky.

After you log into your SLOOH account, you are then taken to the “Launch Pad” which gives you access to various features of the site. In addition to the three telescopes, there is a link to the images you have downloaded, banners telling you of “radio shows” the site provides, access to reservation of time slots, as well as a brief list of what is currently being looked at as well as what the next few targets are.

From the launch pad, you can choose which telescope you would like to see, providing that telescope if currently on line. Once you choose a telescope, a new window opens which is your window to accessing the telescope view and information about what is on the screen. This window provides your view of what the telescope is seeing as well as a lot of other information. Take a look at my screen shot.

First of all there is a big circular area which displays what the telescope camera is seeing. As the exposure continues, you watch see it change in this window. A button near the bottom of this circular area shifts the camera view into full screen. To the right of the circular view area there are three buttons that control the view you see. There are three possibilities, High Mag, which gives a view using the maximum magnification, Wide field shows the image in a wider field and with less magnification. (Note that some objects do not use the high magnification, because it wouldn’t make any sense. Looking at a small corner of a large object wouldn’t be of much use). The last view is “all sky”, which is essentially what you would see if you just looked out of the telescopes dome.

The left hand side of the window is the information area. There are several choices of information and settings to choose from. The default is “Mission data”, which offers information about the object currently being viewed. The other tabs provide other features, for instance, you can tune the program to your system and display, check the weather conditions at the dome, or get some help. When there is a radio event on there is usually a chat channel open for members to ask questions/make comments during the show. You can digitally enlarge an image, see how long the current exposure is and how much time is remaining, and more.

SLOOH has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and interacts with Google Earth. There is also a forum to participate in if you like that. With Google earth, you can share your images of the universe with the Google earth (universe view) site. It’s a cool way to share your work!

One feature, I haven’t tried personally, is the ability to schedule a time slot to view coordinates that you are interested in. There are three options for selecting a target, choose from a list of objects, choose by using a catalog number, or enter the coordinates of an object or area of space you are interested in. The schedule window shows slots for the current week. So to schedule the telescope you choose an object and an available time slot. Just be sure that you will be able to view the scope when your time arrives! Otherwise, you will miss the view.

While looking at a live computer image of what the telescope can see isn’t as exciting as looking through one’s own telescope in the backyard, it is very nice. The images that you capture are tagged and dated, then stored for your later perusal or downloading.

The SLOOH site organizes the images you have captured for easy retrieval. The images are organized by category such as Solar System, Globular Clusters, various types of galaxies, and more. When you select a type, you are presented with a list of objects of that type, each object in the list also indicates how many images of that object you have collected. It also tells you the time and date of the most recent image. If you click on a specific object, you are shown a list of your images. Here you can enjoy looking at your images or download them for better processing. As with any astrophotography image, a little digital darkroom works can go a long way! You can also delete images you don’t like.

Besides downloading the image, you can share the image with your friends. SLOOH provides easy links to many different social networking sites.  Images have a SLOOH logo on them, so they get credit for the image, but they are your images to work with. Being a Mac guy, I collect and process my favorite images and have made a photo slide show of them. Mostly I use my favorites for backgrounds on my desktop and as a screen saver.

There are two basic plans for buying into SLOOH. First there is the “Commander Membership”. With this membership you pay an annual fee and can log in and view any of the scopes any time they are up and running. You also have a fair amount of personal scheduling time (When I started years ago the membership included so many minutes of scheduling time, currently it appears that, as long as things aren’t busy, you can use more time. The Commander fee is $50 a year, but I noticed that Amazon.com sells it for a discount.

The other method is called a Credit Membership. In this plan you buy an amount of credits which can be used anytime you log in. When you use them up, you can buy more credits. You can buy credits along with activity books and other things from various retailers. SLOOH links directly to Amazon.com as their retailer, but I have seen the packages at other locations.

I have been a member of SLOOH for several years. My activity varies, but when I have a bit of free time I like to log in and see what’s on the display. As with any telescope, weather conditions can be an issue. Cloudy skies, a full moon, and other factors can make the telescope unavailable. Sometimes the images are spectacular and at other times they are terrible. But this is typical for astrophotography. The radio shows have come and gone over the years I have been a member. It’s great listening to an astronomer (amateur or professional), as they share their insights and thoughts about astronomy.

I truly enjoy this site and the services they provide. I intend to remain a member as long as I am able. I really enjoy this site and have a great time watching the sky through their telescopes. If you want my advice, I’d encourage you to visit SLOOH’s site and see what they have to offer.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Dwarf Body Facts:

  • Number of Dwarf Planets: 5
    • Ceres
    • Eris
    • Haumea
    • Makemake
    • Pluto
  • Sizes: smallest is Ceres and the largest is Eris (maybe…)
  • Orbits: Ceres is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the others are out around Pluto’s orbit (29-49 AUs)
  • Diameters: from 950 km to 2800 km
  • Total Number Moons for all dwarf planets: 7
    • Pluto’s Moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, and P4
    • Eris’s moon: Dysnomia
    • Haumea’s moons: Hi’aka and Namaka
  • Interesting facts: Pluto will be visited by New Horizons in 2015, which will go on to explore the Kuiper Belt until 2022.
  • Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on all Dwarf Planets

========================

1 Ceres (orbital period 4.6 yrs)

Ceres is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and it was classified as an asteroid until 2006, when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. Ceres is the smallest of the five dwarf planets and is located between Mars and Jupiter, making it a good candidate for a future mission if the data retrieved by the New Horizon mission is impressive. All we have to do is wait until 2015, when New Horizons should be within 186 miles of the surface of Pluto – we should get some impressive pictures at that time.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Ceres

===========================

136199 Eris  (orbital period 557.4 yrs)

Eris was discovered out past Pluto, and, due to it being slightly larger than Pluto, caused the discussions that eventually produced the new class of planetary bodies called Dwarf Planets. While I wish they added a 10th planet instead of cutting us down to 8, I understand that there may be a push to reconsider the decision to downgrade Pluto, since more recent measurements indicate Eris may be slightly smaller than Pluto. The atmosphere of Eris is currently frozen, so it is quite bright and there are photos from the Keck Observatory as well as from the Hubble that show Eris and its moon.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Eris

========

Dysnomia

Dysnomia is the only moon of Eris. Not a lot of data on it, except from JPL. Scientists used Dysnomia to measure the size of Eris, and Dysnomia makes a circular orbit around Eris once every 16 days.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Dysnomia

==============================

136108 Haumea (orbital period 284.8 yrs)

Haumea was discovered in 2003, and its orbit ranges between 35 and 50 AUs, so it sometimes is closer to the sun than Pluto. It has a fast planetary rotation rate and its diameter averages 1400 km. It too has moons: Hi’aka and Namaka (not much data on either moon) in Starry Night or from JPL.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Haumea

This image (Courtesy JPL/NASA) is an artist’s conception of Haumea and its two moons.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

===============================

136472 Makemake (orbital period 308 yrs)

Makemake (pronounced mah-kee-mah-kee) is larger than Haumea (average diameter of 1500 km) and the average distance from the sun is 46 AUs.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Makemake
===========================

Pluto (orbital period 247.9 yrs)

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. I already wrote a short article about Pluto – click here to view it.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Pluto

=====

Charon

Charon is the largest of Pluto’s 3 moons, but it was not discovered until 1978. Click here to see my earlier article on Pluto which has additional information on Charon.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Charon

=====

Hydra

Charon is nearly as large as Pluto, but in 2005 it was learned that Pluto also has two tiny moons: Hydra and Nix. This is a screen shot of Hydra from Starry Night. Hydra has an estimated diameter of 20 – 70 miles.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Hydra

===

Nix

Nix is the other small moon of Pluto, and this is the Starry Night screen shot I found for Nix. Nix has an estimated diameter of 20 – 70 miles.

Click here for the Wolfram|Alpha information on Nix

===

P4

P4 is the newest and smallest moon orbiting Pluto, with an estimated diameter of 8 – 21 miles.

Information Sources

NSAS’s website, NASA/JPL-Caltech’s website, Starry Night Pro Plus information, IAU Minor Planet Center.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Product: RedShift 7 Advanced
Vendor: United Soft Media (www.redshift7.com)
Price: $79.90/£49.90 (Boxed), $59.95 (download)
Supported OS: Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000

Ted Bade and I are both amateur astronomers. We’ve both used a lot of commercial and open source products for different operating systems – some which we cover on this site (Starry Night Pro, Voyager, etc) – and since Ted reviewed RedShift for the iPhone/iPad, we felt I should take a look at the version of the product for Windows: RedShift 7 Advanced.

I contacted the product vendor and they were happy to provide a download of the software to evaluate, so let’s get started with the evaluation.

Using the Software

I downloaded and installed the product on the Windows XP partition of my 2.26 GHz dual core Intel processor Macbook (~ 14 months old) which has a 250 GB hard drive and 2 GB RAM. No problems during either phase of this process. The software was installed in the C:\Program Files\Maris Technologies folder.

I began by checking out the UI. First of all I like the Getting Started screen:

This is ideal for the first time user. I checked out all of the tabs to learn how to use the software. Very nice.

Next I decided to take some of the many guided tours included with the software. The tours were good, but the quality of the planets and moons was not what I expected. I poked around and found a few options that looked like they could help (‘Extras/Enable OpenGL’, ‘View/Surface Features/Planets’ and ‘View/Surface Features/Moon’), so I enabled them, then restarted the software and took a few additional guided tours. Now I saw a nice improvement when I took the tour of the 5 main Jupiter moons.

This is the screen shot I took using RedShift 7, which shows Jupiter and 5 of the largest moons. I like the perspective as the orbits are clear and the information (in the box at the top right of the screen) was interesting. Only comment – the text appears center-justified.

Callisto – one of the larger moons of Jupiter, Callisto has been viewed as a potential landing site for a Jupiter system exploratory mission. Callisto is further away from Jupiter, so the closer and larger moon might be a better landing site.

Ganymede – probably my favorite Jupiter moon. This moon is bigger than Mercury, and it was the site of Robert Heinlein’s ‘Farmer in the Sky’ science fiction story about future colonizing efforts of humanity. This moon is closer to Jupiter, but the radiation levels there may be higher than on a moon that is further away.

Next, I checked out some of the space flight tours. I took the Mars tour and liked the quality of the image of the surface of Mars:

The next tour I checked out was Cassini, which was interesting as it was a 6 part tour which shows each phase of the complex flight the probe took. The probe had a complicated route to Saturn. It made several near planet passes to gain speed: twice by Venus, once by Earth, and once by Jupiter (mostly for course correction than for speed) before arriving at Saturn. This was an important mission as we took many great pictures of Saturn and the moon Titan. I would’ve liked to see some mention that the Cassini mission has been extended far beyond the planned life of the mission – this is interesting information and relevant to astronomy students.

I then ran the tour ‘Guided Tours/The Essentials/A comet plunges to its death’ which is a re-enactment of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which broke up and the chunks plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter. The impacts were clear and RedShift has some of the images of those impacts.

There are also spaceflights for Yuri Gagarin (first human to orbit our planet in 1961), Apollo 13 (ill-fated and near disasterous trip to the moon in 1969), Voyager 2 (deep space probe launched in 1977), Galileo (Jupiter mission – launched in 1989 and sent into Jupiter atmosphere in 2003), the Mars Express, and the MER Opportunity and Spirit missions. The Mars Express mission was the ESA’s first Mars mission and it is still active today (January, 2011). The Opportunity and Spirit rovers were sent to roam over the surface of Mars and take pictures. Both are still on Mars, however the Spirit rover stopped responding to NASA after a short while, but the Opportunity rover is still active and is currently parked at the Santa Maria Crater (January, 2011), where it is taking some revealing images.

I was surprised at some missions that were missing, like the Apollo 11 and the New Horizons missions. Apollo 11 was the first manned landing on the moon and is much a landmark as Yuri Gagarin’s first mission into space. New Horizons is on the way to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, which as also huge.

I only had one bad experience using this software. Three times when I was working with guided tours, RedShift 7 crashed with the following error message:

I am running with the most current Windows XP updates on my Macbook dual core CPU laptop. If anyone else sees this error, please contact United Soft Media so they have more information to use to address this problem. This is not a show stopper, and it may not be a problem for other versions of Windows.

Conclusion

I enjoyed using RedShift 7 Advanced. The guided tours are very useful, although a few seemed to take longer than I’d prefer. After getting comfortable with the user interface, I enjoyed using this software.  There is good information, although it would be nice to see more information. I love how the company website is positively loaded with astronomy-related content, which is available to people that don’t have RedShift.

Positives

  • Number of supported versions of Windows – good to see they still support Windows 2000 users, as well as Windows 7.
  • The price is right. A good value for the low-cost of the software, especially the download version.
  • The installed software didn’t kill my drive space. It only took 1.24 GB of space, which is pretty low when compared to other astronomy products.
  • Getting Started screen, which has many features new users will want to access immediately to learn how to use the software.
  • An excellent website to support the product, as well as provide a tremendous amount of astronomy-related content.
  • Guided Tours – very nice. A lot of them to help build interest in astronomy.
  • Number of configurable options – very good. It is useful to be able to specify actions to occur at start-up or when exiting the program. I wish more vendors did this, as most serious users want to have as much control of their environments as possible.
  • Telescope Control support – a must for serious users.

Areas for Improvement

  • The company needs to find and fix the uncaught exception that caused the software to crash 3 times over the months I was evaluating RedShift.
  • Some of the UI controls had an old school feel to them. They did function, but were not as modern as some other astronomy packages I’ve used. I’d love to see the UI updated in the next major release of the product.
  • I had to enable the software to use OpenGL for video, as well as turn on surface features for planets and moons. Both of these affected the quality of the software images and I’d rather be asked at first launch if I want those features enabled, instead of finding them after I look at the software. Initially I was not impressed by the quality of the images, but after enabling these features I was much happier.
  • I liked the tours, but some seemed to go without a lot happening. A nice sound track or slide show with thumbnails of the tour subject would make these more interesting. I’d also like to see planetary tours similar to what is done at http://www.worldwidetelescope.org, which are very informative and visually interesting.
  • Many good space flights/missions, but not the Apollo 11 or the New Horizons missions.

Recommendation

A good value and recommended for astronomy students of any level. The tours are a nice touch for students just learning about the missions and the planets and stars, as well as for older folk wanting to recall the things that so captivated television audiences in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

A new update for Starry Night Pro and Starry Night Pro Plus is available today. Use the ‘Help/Check for Updates’ menu option to download and install the update. I updated Starry Night Pro Plus and did not see any glitches during the update nor after restarting SNPP.

I emailed Starry Night Support for a list of fixes in this update and they responded:

“There was only one bug fixed between 6.4.2 and 6.4.3, but it was deemed critical for several of our education customers.”

  • Planet shadow cones drawing errors were fixed.

=======================================

1/30/2011
Recently I’ve read that some Starry Night users discussing the ‘LiveSky/Show Photographic Image…’ menu option. This option is ghosted (not available) unless you zoom in on a deep space object. Below is a screen shot I took in Starry Night Pro Plus – I was checking out Saturn and noticed M16 (I typically spec the Messier object labels on), so I went there and zoomed in and the included photo (very nice detail) was displayed:

Very cool. I’ve also seen posts where there were questions about the inclusion of the SDSS in SNP. I asked Starry Night’s Support and this is what they said:

“We have not yet included support for the SDSS III (Sloan Digitized Sky Survey 3) because after doing some testing, we found that their download service was not yet reliable enough for us to consider adding it as a feature into SN.”

Good news, and hopefully the download service will improve soon.

==============================================

1/31/2011

For a bit of space-related humor (Mars rover attitude issues), check this out.

==============================================

2/16/2011

Tips regarding using Celestron telescopes and SNP 6.4 from Bob, who had this issue:

Problem: Go to the configure screen, selected Celestron, then tried to go to properties and all he saw was a message, “Failed To Load Driver : Cannot create ActiveX component”. He has a CG-5 which connects just fine to The Sky (using the same computer and cables).

Brenda from Starry Night solved the problem for Bob:
“Make sure you have the latest version of the ASCOM telescope driver platform and Celestron drivers. You can get them here:
http://www.ascom-standards.org

==============================================

2/18/2011

Tip to address an unusual SNP bug known to affect Mac OSX users, courtesy of Kevin Schultz from StarryNight@yahoogroups.com. Kevin recommended this approach to Konstantin, who confirmed it addressed the problem.

Problem: To address an unusual bug in SNP (know to affect Mac OSX users): When updating from inside the SNP program, the Program does not require the administrative rights in order to update the program in the Application folder. SNP tries to download the installer and notices that it can install and then gives you the message you see which is actually not happening!!

To update, try this first.

  1. Start SNP
  2. Check for Updates
  3. Choose just download
  4. Wait for the download to complete (that downloading is in progress in upper right corner of the window)
  5. Quit SNP
  6. Open the SNP folder in the Applications folder(Program) !
  7. Open the folder Standalone updaters
  8. Double-Click on the latest Updater

==============================================

2/22/2011

The azimuth in the HUD is read in hours, not degrees. How is that changed? Per Stan Glaser from StarryNight@yahoogroups.com:

Preferences > Number Formats > Azimuth (hh or ddd° in one of the variations presented)

– Mike

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011-2017, All Rights Reserved.

Pluto Facts:

  • Location: Mostly beyond the orbit of Neptune
  • Size: smaller than the 8 planets, smaller than Eris, and smaller than our moon
  • Orbit: 29 – 49 AU (average 39 AU)
  • Orbital Period: 247.92 Julian years *
  • Average Distance from Earth: 40.7 AUs *
  • Diameter: 2,274 km
  • Discovered: 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh
  • Atmosphere: Little is known, but probably nitrogen, CO, methane
  • Interesting facts: it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006
  • Total number of moons: 4 (Charon, Nix, Hydra, and P4)
  • Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on Pluto

* = Courtesy of Wolfram Astronomy Assistant

I’ve already covered the four gas giants, so now it is time to turn our attention and Starry Night Pro Plus software to Pluto. Pluto enjoyed planetary status from 1930 (when discovered by Tombaugh) until 2006, when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet. There are several known dwarf planets, some in the kuiper belt region and one (Ceres) in the asteroid belt that was previously considered to be an asteroid.

Pluto is so far away that even the Hubble telescope has difficulties getting good quality images. Fortunately the New Horizons mission (click here to read about the location of the probe on 1/18/2011) took loads of great pictures when it passed Pluto in 2015. Launched in 2006, this mission is still exciting as it is on the way to some planets in the Oort Cloud.  While there have been discussions about reclassifying Pluto as a planet, our first visit to a dwarf planet was a major accomplishment for NASA.

Update: July 11, 2017

The first picture I downloaded from the 7-15-2015 approach to Pluto.  It is an amazing image, and the New Horizons probe gathers a lot of data that took over a year to send back to Earth, as there was so much and in such great detail.  We’ve never had images like this of Pluto, and I hope this inspires NASA to schedule another probe with higher definition cameras for the outer planets and dwarf planet Pluto.

Pluto04_NewHorizons_960_7-15-2015

Update: July 20, 2011

A new moon of Pluto was announced by NASA on Twitter today. P4 was discovered using the Hubble Telescope and the picture of it, as well as Pluto and the other 3 moons is shown below:

Update: June 24, 2011

Click here for some excellent information plus a nice picture of the June 23, 2011 SOFIA Pluto Occulation. End of update

This is a screen shot of Pluto and Charon taken with Starry Night Pro Plus 6.4.2 on 1/19/2011:

Since I showed how planets look from nearby moons for the gas giants, I might as well do the same for Pluto.First of all, this image of Charon was taken in Starry Night Pro Plus:

Here is Pluto as seen from Charon:

Here is Charon as seen from Pluto:

The status of Pluto does not detract from the impressive accomplishments of our scientists to send a probe so far away to gather and return data about this mostly unknown part of our solar system. Who knows when we will send another probe out to the Kuiper belt region of the solar system? Space vessel propulsion systems are being examined  – new technologies may result in another mission sooner rather than later. But then, we do need another mission to the asteroid belt, so the future of space exploration looks bright indeed.

=====================

Updates

7-11-2017 – Added new image of Pluto, plus updated content to show New Horizons has passed Pluto and is proceeding on to the Oort Cloud for the next phase of its mission.

6-24-2011 – Added Orbital Period Data, Average Distance to Earth, plus reference to June 23, 2011 SOFIA Occulation.

2-14-2011 – Added names of all moons.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Starry Night version 6.4.2 is available as of today. I downloaded and installed it for Starry Night Pro Plus and had no errors during or after the update.

Per an email I received from Starry Night Support on 1/19/2011, this update has the following bug fixes:

  • Crash when printing on OS X.
  • Graph View problems (OpenGL Init problem. OS X.)
  • Calculation of Delta-T for years -500 to 500 was incorrect.
  • FOV indicators now update/draw in the sky if time flow is off.
  • Image Editor “Background Reduction” slider added. Fixes background reduction not working.
  • Constellation Stick Figures not drawing correctly in 3D space when a single constellation is selected.
  • Removed confusing application update message on startup when no data updates requested.

Click here to see our information on the next release (6.4.3) of Starry Night.

On a separate note, I really enjoy reading the Starry Night Times, which is their monthly newsletter. Click here to subscribe to it.

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

If you have computer-controlled telescope and a decent Astronomy program, it’s a good idea to connect them. Astronomy software makes it easier to search and locate celestial bodies, plus it provides a lot more information about objects you might want to observe. Making the connection between your telescope and software is easy, and the results are rewarding. I will share a little of my experience and hopefully you will to give it a try.

First of all, I have a Meade LXD75 6″ telescope, which includes  a Meade Autostar controller. I use a Macintosh MacBook Pro laptop and for software I have Starry Night Pro Plus. Although the telescope’s computer does include a lot of objects in it’s database, I have had a number of issues with it over the years. The biggest one is that finding an object in it’s database is clunky and it provides little information as to where the object currently is, until you select it and find it won’t be in the sky until next winter!

With Starry Night Pro Plus, you get a simulated view of your sky, as it is right now, or how it will be tonight when you are out with your telescope. You can look at the screen and decide if an object is available for viewing or if it is occluded by a tree, the horizon, or other objects. Using the software during the day to make an observing plan for the night is always a good idea. We will take a look at connecting a Meade Autostar to Starry Night Pro Plus. The process described in this object works with other telescopes and even with other software packages.

Connecting the telescope’s computer to the laptop requires a bit of communication hardware. I expect, as time goes on, this will become easier and easier as amateur astronomy with a laptop becomes more popular. For now, we have to do a bit of engineering, but it’s simple and works well. The issue is that the Meade Autostar computer includes an older serial output while most computers (and especially Macs) only provide USB as a serial interface. The cable connection to the Autostar is a standard telephone connector.

This is an image from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rj25_connector.jpg) This connector provides typical serial communication data (known as RS232). (If you want more detail on RS232, go here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RS-232) On the computer end we have a USB connector. So to make the connection you need to find a way to convert USB to older serial and a way to change the connection to that found on the Autostar. This is easily done.

Note: even if you are working with a Windows machine that includes an older serial connection, you will need to interface the telephone connection on the Autostar to the standard DB9 connection. (For an image of a DB9 connection look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:9_pin_d-sub_connector_male_closeup.jpg ) The description for connecting to the USB port includes all the part you need to do this.

For converting USB to older serial, you can purchase a USB to serial adaptor. Several companies make them. The only important factor is that the computer you are using recognizes the adaptor. They are relatively inexpensive, generally under $30USD. I use one made by Keyspan. You will note that this adaptor has a standard USB connector on one side and a DB9 “male” connector on the other. The next item you will need is an adaptor to connect the DB9 output of the USB to serial adaptor to the telephone like connector of the telescope.

The LXD75 package I purchased from Meade included the adaptor, since the package includes some rudimentary software to connect the scope to a computer. If you don’t have this adaptor, a kit for connecting the telescope computer to a laptop is available from various astronomy supply stores. Alternatively, you can buy a kit that lets you build one and assembly is easy. You will however, need to find out which wires from the telescope computer need to connect to the wires going to the USB serial adaptor. I am not going to try to explain this process, since it can be a bit involved.

This might sound a little complex, but it isn’t. A USB cable from laptop to USB/serial adaptor, module to convert DB9 to telephone, then a longer telephone cable to connect to the Autostar’s Auxiliary connection (It’s the smaller of the two on the bottom of the Autostar.

With cables in hand, it’s time to take the scope and laptop outside for a night of observing. The Autostar will “tell” Starry Night where the scope it pointed,  so it is important to align the Autostar before connecting it to the laptop. For me, this part of setting up the telescope is the most time consuming, because I want it right. It can be frustrating trying to find a deep space object when looking in a part of the sky that is even little off from where it should be.

Note: A professional astronomer would use other means to locate an object, like guiding stars and general positions. This article is intended for amateur astronomers who want to use their Autostar devices with a laptop.

The LXD75 has what is called a German Equatorial mount. The first important step for aligning the telescope is to get it pointed exactly north and make sure it is level, then align the telescope with the sky. The Autostar offers two and three star alignment. I try to use the three star alignment when possible. This can be frustrating to people in the NorthEast US with lots of hills and trees. Often several of the stars the Autostar want’s to use for alignment are occluded by trees or houses. I know my yard and have a few “sweet’ spots that make it easier to align the telescope (at certain times of the year). I suggest that you check out the sky at your observation site before setting up the telescope. You might find a position that favors easier alignment. Other types of telescopes have other methods of alignment.

Once the alignment process is complete, you can connect your package of adaptors and cables to the laptop running Starry Night. After this is done, select the “Telescope” tab then click on the “Configure” button at the top of it’s Setup section. A menu opens asking you to select your communication port and your telescope type. On the standard MacBook Pro, there is a built in Bluetooth port, which will be on this menu. You should also see the USB/Serial adaptor you have plugged in. I see two items on my Mac: one is called KeySerial1 and the other is USA19H1d1P1.1 (This number is the model number of the adaptor). I usually select the USA19H1d1P1.1. Next select the telescope type. The Starry Night list doesn’t include my LDX75, but it does have a Meade ETX Autostar, which works fine with the Autostar on my LDX75. The menu lists telescopes by other manufacturers as well. I keep hoping that Meade will modify this list to either include the LXD75 or change the ETX Autostar to just Meade Autostar to reduce confusion.

If everything was done correctly, you now have Starry Night connected to the Autostar. The Starry Night display should change to reflect where the telescope is centered. If you haven’t moved it since you completed the alignment, Starry Night should be centered on your last alignment star. If the Starry Night display doesn’t move, move down to the bottom of the “Telescope” tab and be sure that the  “Follow Scope” check box is clicked. If it is not clicked, when you turn on this feature, the Starry Night display show move to center on the object the telescope is centered on.

Now, you should be able to right click on an object in the Starry Night screen and tell your telescope control to center on the object. In theory at least. Do not think that the alignment is precise. It might be, but more then likely it is close or just in the general area. There are many factors that can go wrong when aligning the telescope and plenty more can alter the alignment after the alignment process is complete. Luckily, using Starry Night is a great benefit when alignment isn’t perfect. So unless you have perfect alignment, the object you seek to observe will be somewhere in the field of view, rarely in the center of the view. Before you start increasing the power of your eyepiece, you should locate and center the object.

Some objects are obvious using a low powered eyepiece. But many fainter ones might not easily be seen until you have a higher powered eyepiece. In any case, when you you are looking for something in the center of the view and it is off to the left, you might never find it! Because Starry Night displays the sky, you can use the image on the screen to guide you to the object you are trying to view. Look at the Starry Night display noting the sky around the object of interest. There are probably some stars making a pattern nearby. If you can find them in the scopes eyepiece, you can make small adjustments to the scopes position to better center the objects location.

One very useful feature of Starry Night Pro Plus is a feature that lets you create different “Field of View” settings. The program comes with some sample ones, but I created a set that includes my 6” Meade telescope and several of my eyepieces. Using this feature I can change the field of view to match the 26mm Plossl that I typically use as the first eyepiece. If I do this, while centered on the object, I can get a view of the sky as it should look through that eyepiece. This makes it even easier to find a guiding star pattern to improve the position of the telescope. Once you do find and center on the object, you can make a correction to the alignment by telling Starry Night that the current position of the scope is really where the object is. The view on the screen will center on the object and future searches will be easier.

During observation sessions, I generally, turn the “Follow Scope” button off. I let Starry Night show me the position of the next object on my list, then slew the telescope to it. Sometimes, I will search the Starry Night display for objects of interest, then slew the scope to see them. One problem with an observing list is the timing. I might have to wait for an object to rise above the trees or a building.

The final aspect of this process, is good observing and creating a log of your observations: another good use for StarryNight. It provides the ability to make an observation log entry which can include your personal thoughts, the equipment you used (as well as the strength of the eyepiece), and the conditions of the sky. It’s fun to keep a log of the objects you view, making note of anything you notice that is special, then comparing this at a later date.

There is a Bluetooth based option which I have seriously considered but haven’t tried yet. This device plugs into the Meade Autostar and creates a Bluetooth connection to the Laptop. The big advantage of this is that there are no cables laying on the ground which you have to remember to avoid when moving about and that the computer controlling the telescope doesn’t have to be right next to the scope. Perhaps someday I will give it a try.

I hope this helps you. If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact me here.

– Ted

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

The Russian Mir and US Skylab space stations were the first space stations used for research done away from the confines of gravity. The news, newspapers and magazine articles of that era showed a bit of what the astronauts saw in orbit, and while the quality of images was generally lacking, they were better than nothing.

Now we have the International Space Station (ISS), which is a near earth orbit (~ 250 miles above earth) space station constructed from components built by the US, Russia, Japan, and Canada over the past 10 years. The first mission to construct the ISS was launched on October 31, 2000, and the ISS is still being updated today. The next major component for the ISS is a tool to help in the search for dark matter, which is scheduled for the last scheduled flight of the space shuttle Discovery in 2011. Modern satellite and cable companies carry the NASA channel, which has live and prerecorded feeds from the space station, and the quality of this material is impressive.

A couple of days ago I looked at the ISS in Starry Night Pro (SNP) 6 and the station was on the far side of the planet away from the sun, so I couldn’t see many details of the station. I left the software running and 15 minutes later the station had returned to the sunny side of earth (makes sense as the ISS makes 18 orbits around the earth every day), so I could easily see the station as well as earth below it. The image below is how the station would appear to a visiting vessel.

By the way, so far there have been 67 Russian, 34 shuttles, 1 European, and 1 Japanese vehicles that have visited the ISS. In the screen shot above, you see the earth revolving under ISS. I like how the station goes from visible to barely seen when it leaves the sun-side of earth. This is a nice way to show students learning astronomy how our planet looks from earth orbit. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Tip: If you want to know the position of the ISS at any time so you can look at it with a telescope or binoculars, SNP has that data. Select the ISS, then select the Info tab and look at ‘Position in the Sky’ to get current position :

I looked at the ISS information in SNP and it is good, but the software also allows user to access online information about the space station from within SNP. I selected the Online Info option for the ISS, which launched Safari and took me to a page in Wikipedia. Now this choice of information surprised me, because most of my undergrad classes expressly forbid us the use Wikipedia as a source for any project or paper. I’m not knocking Wikipedia, but I’ve heard more than a few college professors express mistrust of the accuracy of some of the information.

In a future update of SNP, I’d like to have the ability to add my own links for external information, because NASA’s excellent site and Wolfram|Alpha have a ton of good information on the ISS – size, weight, missions, people that visit, – and NASA’s site also has a lot of good videos and still images, as well as blog entries and tweets by astronauts on the ISS. I’d also like to be able to jump directly to JPL’s and MIT’s sites that have ISS- and space-related content from within Starry Night.

Speaking of NASA’s site, if you’re interested in the space station, you can have a calendar with beautiful color images of the ISS. NASA has one available – click here to download the 2011 ISS calendar.

Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on the ISS (as well as other astronomy information), including the current position of the ISS.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

This post contains information about Starry Night version 6.4.1. Click here to read our post on release version 6.4.2, which was available for downloading the morning of January 18, 2011.

Version 6.4.0 to 6.4.1 Update

January 12, 2011

I contacted Starry Night Support for a list of specific fixes/enhancements for versions 6.4.0 and 6.4.1, and they sent me this information on 12/28/2010. The support center informed me that users experiencing problems starting Starry Night after updating can manually delete their preferences file, which should allow them to start the software. They also believe they found the source of the 6.4.1 bug and intend fix it in the next update.

December 25, 2010

I fired up Starry Night Pro to write a quick post about Uranus this morning and saw there was a new version available: 6.4.1. I installed the update (previously at version 6.3.9) and used it immediately. No errors during installation, although I had to manually restart Starry Night after the update completed.

New features from version 6.4.0 to 6.4.1:

  • address some issues that arose with some OS X users and our new usage of OpenGL.

Note: Everything looks much the same in version 6.4.1 as in version 6.3.9, but I did have one problem. While going through the program features, Starry Night did unexpectedly terminate – can’t recall exactly what I was doing, but it gave an OpenGL error message before quitting.

Note 2: I believe the added Apollo missions (only available for the Pro and Pro Plus versions of Starry Night) were part of the Starry Night Apollo application, which is still listed (12-27-2010) as a free-standing product in the Starry Night store.

====================

Version 6.3.9 to 6.4.0 Update

December 25, 2010

New features from version 6.3.9 to 6.4.0:

  • A number of bug fixes, performance improvements, under the hood stuff.
  • Advanced Particle Galaxy Rendering
  • Hour Angle Lines
  • SkyView Link (Image Editor)
  • Argo Navis Support (OS X)
  • Up to 14 new panoramas (Pro Plus gets 14, Pro 9, enthusiast 5)
  • Minor updates to some db’s like meteor showers

================================================

Preferences Files Locations

March 29, 2011

The preference file problem for Starry Night Pro users running Windows 7 has been repeatedly addressed since January, however Mr Bill of the Yahoo SN forum recently responded why a good solution to fix this issue is to use the Run as Admin solution:

“W7 defaults to running everything in NON-ADMIN mode even if you are the admin. All that is needed – if you are the administrator, which most people who have a single login are, is to right clk the file you want to run and select COMPATIBILITY then select RUN THIS PROGRAM AS ADMINISTRATOR. If it is an older version on SNP also select RUN THIS PROGRAM IN COMPATIBILITY MODE and set it for XP SP3 or whatever runs.”

Thank you for the clear details why this approach is needed, Mr. Bill.

January 17, 2011

If I ran Vista, I’d probably look for a .txt file in the “C:\Program Files\Starry Night <version>\” directory.

The support center informed me that the Preferences file locations for Windows are in different locations, depending on the version of Windows. They prefer that people needing help with the SN Preferences files for Windows contact them at www.starrynightsupport.com.

===========

January 7, 2011

I’ve received a couple of questions about the Preferences file location for Starry Night Pro and Pro Plus. I contacted their support center and this was their reply:

The Mac OSX Preferences are located at:

/Users/<Your Username>/Library/Preferences/Imaginova Canada/Prefs/

The “User State Prefs.txt” file is located in either the Pro or “Pro Plus” folder depending on which version you have.

IMPORTANT! If you can’t find the Prefs file, remember there are 3 potential Library directories:

  • ~/Library – for a specific user
  • /Library – for all users of the computer
  • /System/Library – for system-wide use

================================================

Historical Data on All Version 6.x New Features:

December 25, 2010

All of the newest features in Starry Night version 6.x are:

  • Hour Angle Lines and Vernal Equinox Hour Angle Guide.
  • SkyView Link in Image Editor Downloads Thousands of New Images.
  • Advanced Particle Galaxy Rendering.
  • New minor planets and their moons have been added and updated.
  • Apollo Space Missions: trajectories of the Apollo spacecraft, full models and guided tours.
  • Distance Spheres can now be added to any solar system body with any radius and color.
  • Shadow Cones can be displayed to show the shadows of orbiting bodies.
  • The precessional path of the celestial poles can now be displayed.
  • The circumpolar region, based on your latitude, can now be displayed.
  • Event Finder: Appulse event searching alerts you when the Moon or the Pleiades is near bright planets.
  • Added up to 24 new horizon panoramas.
  • New update technology built directly into Starry Night. Will check for updates automatically if registered.
  • Animated trips between planets now use more visually appealing planet avoidance.
  • Tully database improved to allow for more galaxy types.
  • Saturn’s rings and ring shadows now draw even more precisely.
  • Universal Time can now be displayed and edited in the toolbar.
  • The value of DeltaT has been improved and can now be overridden by the user.
  • All planets now draw with softer edges.
  • Updated LiveSky links and images.
  • Thicker lines on high-DPI displays maintain visibility.
  • More Customer Support Features
  • Spaceship responsiveness dramatically improved.
  • Improved Space Mission rendering speeds.
  • Improved Find feature for multiple objects of same name.
  • Updated mythological descriptions for all 88 classical constellations

OS-specific improvements:

  • Argo Navis support for Mac OS X.
  • Smooth window fading (Win XP and Vista)
  • Transparent floating windows (Vista only)

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Uranus Facts:

  • Location: 7th planet from the sun
  • Size: 3rd largest planet in our solar system
  • Orbit: 19.22 AU
  • Orbital Period: 84.07 Julian Years *
  • Average Distance from Earth: 19.2 AUs *
  • Diameter: 4X that of earth
  • Discovered: 1781 by William Herschel
  • Atmosphere: hydrogen, helium, water, methane, ammonia
  • Interesting facts: the planetary axis of rotation is titled sideways (97 degrees), which is unique for a planet in our solar system; the first planet discovered by a telescope; visited by Voyager 2.
  • Total number of moons: 27 (Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Cupid, Belinda, Perdita, Puck, Mab, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Francisco, Caliban, Stephano, Trinculo, Sycorax, Margaret, Prospero, Setebos, and Ferdinand)
  • Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on Uranus

* = Courtesy of Wolfram Astronomy Assistant

So far I’ve covered three gas giant planets, and now I turn my eye (and software) to Uranus, one of the dimmest and least dense planets in the solar system.

Uranus is unique for several reasons. First, it is blue to blue-green in color, due to the methane content of the atmosphere. Second, Uranus is the only planet that is titled on it’s axis – slightly over 97 degrees. Third, Uranus was the first planet discovered with a telescope. Four, astronomers were able to use Uranus to determine where to look to find Neptune.

What to know what else is interesting about Uranus today, January 18, 2011? Today the New Horizons probe to Pluto is close to passing the orbital path of Uranus and continuing on its trek past Neptune and on to Pluto. Call me an astronomy geek, but I think that is cool.

Now lets get back to our planet of choice. Uranus has 27 odd satellites, and the closest of the 5 large moons is Miranda, so I took a quick trip to look at it. Rather plain, especially compared to some of Jupiter’s moons.

I like the quality of the images of both Uranus and Miranda in Starry Night Pro. They are so much nicer than the land telescope images we had before Voyager 2 made the long trek out to Uranus. I should add that earlier astronomy programs used Voyager 2 images of Uranus and other planets in the solar system, which really enhanced the experience of using the software.

I decided I’d like to see Uranus from Miranda’s surface (a nice feature of Starry Night), and it was a real treat. Uranus is fairly large and clearly visible from Miranda, as you might expect as it is a mere 130,000 km from Uranus.

Why this perspective from the surface of Miranda? Because Miranda has some canyons that are 20 km deep! Impressive. Miranda may be the smallest of the large Uranus satellites, but it’s proximity to Uranus could make it an interesting landing site for a future probe.

Fun, then it was time to look at Uranus and Miranda as they would be seen by an approaching spacecraft. I like how easy that was to setup in Starry Night Pro.

There are a lot of people without astronomy hardware or software, and those people can take advantage of Microsoft’s free WorldWideTelescope.org site to check out some nice digital images of Uranus, as well as the other planets of the solar system:

That’s it for now. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

– Mike

=====================

Updates

6-24-2011 – Added Orbital Period, Average Distance from Earth information.

2-14-2011 – Added names of all moons.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

SpaceX achieved a huge milestone in their pursuit of private industry space travel. This morning they launched their Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, which carried the Dragon spacecraft into a near earth orbit. The impressive fact about this accomplishment is not launching a rocket, but actually recovering the launched vehicle. SpaceX is the first commercial company to recover their payload, which splashed down in the ocean.

Click here to read the SpaceX company press release about today’s mission.

SpaceX hopes to use their rocket and spacecraft to provide supplies and personnel to the ISS after the NASA shuttles are retired. SpaceX is not alone in this venture – Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company has developed a spacecraft that potentially could access the ISS, although the main intent of the company seems more in line with providing rides for tourists.

Personally, I wish both companies nothing but success in their efforts. Both companies can offer low earth orbit services, freeing up NASA’s budget to go to other planets and asteroids, as well as undertake other long range unmanned exploration missions.

I received this press release and wanted to share it since we’ve reviewed their products in the past. Mike

======================================================

We’re Southern Stars – formerly the mobile products division of Carina Software. As a Carina customer, you’re receiving this notice regarding our mobile astronomy products and plans for the holiday season.

SkySafari is a universal app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.

SkyVoyager is now SkySafari

Our award-winning SkyVoyager iPhone app has been renamed – SkySafari 2.0 is only a month old, and it’s our highest-rated version ever! SkySafari adds a gorgeous new Milky Way display, fast OpenGL graphics, support for new telescope types, and a host of new features that you’ve requested. For more information, click here.

SkySafari 2.0 is a free update for owners of SkyVoyager. If you’re not yet a SkySafari owner, or have a friend or child with a budding interest in the night sky, there isn’t an easier – or more affordable – way to get started in astronomy. SkySafari puts 2.5 million stars, hundreds of astronomical images, and an astronomy field guide written by experts, into your pocket for the price of a pizza – or a cup of coffee:

SkySafari Lite Intro version $2.99
SkySafari Pro version with telescope control $14.99
SkySafari Expansion Pack Adds 2.5 million stars to SkySafari $2.99 (regularly $4.99)

All prices are in US dollars. From now until the end of 2010, the SkySafari Expansion Pack is on sale at 40% off! Click here to purchase from the iTunes Store. And while you’re there, check out…

S&T SkyWeek

Sky and Telescope magazine chose Southern Stars, and SkySafari’s engine, to power its SkyWeek app! Check out S&T SkyWeek on the iTunes Store. It’s an interactive, mobile version of S&T’s weekly “Sky at a Glance” column, and the simplest way to stay informed about the changing events in the night sky.

SkyWire is an Apple-approved accessory.
Requires iOS 4 or later.

SkySafari, meet SkyWire!

SkyWire, our brand-new “Made for iPod” accessory, works with SkySafari to turn your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into a 21st-century telescope controller. It’s the simplest and most affordable telescope control solution available for any Apple mobile device! Plug one end into your iPhone, and the other into your telescope controller’s serial port. Voila! You’re ready to drive your telescope anywhere in the night sky.

SkyWire requires zero configuration, and unlike other “iPhone serial cables” advertised on the internet, you don’t have to jailbreak your device to use it. SkyWire ships in mid-December, 2010. You can reserve one today at special pre-release pricing of $79 (USD), along with free shipping or a free telescope serial cable. Click here to do so.

In fact, Southern Stars offers two different telescope control solutions for your iPhone, iPad, or Pod Touch! SkyFi, our award-winning wireless telescope controller, is still available, but selling out quickly. To order, click here.

The Moon gets its holiday colors four days before Christmas this year.

Enjoy December’s Night Sky

As the holidays approach, keep your eye on the crisp, clear winter skies. This is a great time to catch the fading Andromeda Galaxy, the sparkling Pleiades, or the wispy Orion Nebula.

And mark your viewing calendar for the night of December 20th – 21st. This year’s winter solstice features a total lunar eclipse – a holiday spectacle ideally timed for hundreds of millions of viewers across North America. A “christmas eclipse” this good won’t happen again for many years – don’t miss it!

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Astronomy Buffs might want to check out the Galaxy Zoo site to lend an amateur hand to astronomy research. The concept of this site is similar to other Internet-based corroborative research projects, many people work together to analyse information. In this case the information concerns astronomy.

Galaxy Zoo is a part of the Zooniverse Project which is an organization that used the time and eyes of volunteers to analyze information that a computer cannot deal with.  There are a number of projects currently going on in the Zooniverse. In the Galaxy Zoo project one answers questions about an image of a galaxy they are shown. In the Moon Zoom project, one answers questions about moon surface images. The newest project is one called “Old Weather” where you help classify information about weather observations made by Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I.

The human mind, believe it or not, still surpasses the computer’s abilities when it comes to analyzing images. You can look at an image and say it has this or that feature, even though the image itself doesn’t fit any of the classical standard shapes. I guess the best example of this is security words used on some web sites.  They present a word or set of numbers rendered in a weird blobby way. Few computers are capable of deciphering what the letters are, but a real human would see it in an instance. So this site takes advantage of our amazing cognitive abilities, by showing the images to several “organic” computers and letting them provide information, and then organizing the answers so that research scientists can makes use of the data. Pretty neat!

The information asked for is pretty basic. You aren’t expected to have any background on the subject. You are simply asked to look at an image, and answer some basic questions about it or make some comparisons. What is so cool about this is that the Internet gives the people doing scientific research access to thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of eyes which reduce an almost insurmountable project to analyze millions of images to a simple project. Now that I think about it, it’s almost like the Matrix Movie universe….

All the projects below provide links to papers written using the data of the project, Blogs with more information about what is happening with that project, and more. Which is a great way to see how the information you have helped create is being put to use.

In the Galaxy Zoo  project, you are shown an image that is part of a data set made up of a million galaxies imaged with the robotic telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  You then answer some simple questions about what you see. The questions are simple enough that even a person with only a very basic understanding of Astronomy can answer them. For instance the first question set is to determine what you are looking at, is it a smooth galaxy, one with features like spiral arms or a disk, or is it simple an artifact (some smudge, or defect that the computer through might be a galaxy but obviously isn’t).

Then based on your first answer, other questions are asked. The second set of questions is always the same for the same first answer. Your answer might lead to subsequent question sets. The question paths are always the same, the more you experience the site, the easier it becomes to move through images they provide. It really isn’t very difficult to answer the questions and you might be the first person ever to see this particular image! Although, I am sure several different people see the same image, giving a project to cross reference any one answer. In half an hour of looking you will go through quite a number of classifications.

The information provided by members is analyzed and organized and then made available to research scientists to help the do research and study the workings of the universe.

In the Moon Zoom project, there are two programs  to take part of. In one, you are shown an image of  the moon’s surface, (take from those created by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), then asked to locate craters in this image, bolder traces created by the impact, exploration hardware, and other interesting features. This project uses some interesting tools to help you click on and define the objects that you see in the image.  Another part of this project is called: “Boulder wars”. In this study you are shown two images, and choose which has the most boulders.

Again the information provided by members is analyzed and made available to scientists studying our Moon. The information created by this project is used to study the moon, its age, the effects of impacts and more.

The newest Zooniverse offering a is the Old Weather project. This project seeks to pull weather data out of log books of a variety of ships that sailed around the time of World War 1.  Participants are presented with a digital copy of one page of a log book. You locate the date, location, and weather information written on it, and enter this information. The log entry might also provide some other observations, which you can point out, but mostly they don’t.

The information you pull from these log books help climate scientists create a profile for the weather at sea during this part of history. Having a better view of history makes it easier to create wether trend profiles that can more accurately predict the future and analyze climate changes over our history.

I personally like the idea that I can spend some of my free time, or time when I am forced to cool my heals, to help further our knowledge of the universe. I applaude this project and hope that many of our readers take the time to participate.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been an amateur astronomer many years, and my schools taught that our solar system has 9 planets. Back in 2005, CalTech Professor Mike Brown discovered Eris, a Pluto-sized planet 9 billion miles from the sun (twice as far away as Pluto) and about the same size as Pluto. This discovery raised the issue of the definition to accurately describe planets. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) met in 2006 and decided the criteria that determines if a body is a planet (original text available from the IAU website) is:

A celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

In the words of the IAU, Pluto and Eris fail to qualify as planets and so they are now classified as dwarf planets. I went to the Wolfram Alpha website and did a search on dwarf planets and received a list of 5 that includes Pluto:

There is a lot more information about the dwarf planets than is shown in this screen capture. Stop by the Wolfram site and check it out here. You might also notice that 1 Ceres, formerly viewed an asteroid in the asteroid belt, is now listed as a dwarf planet. I can handle promotions better than demotions.

Why rehash old news? Because there was a new article by Mike Wall that was published yesterday at Yahoo News (see it here) that asks if the decision to classify Pluto as a dwarf planet is correct based on information we have today. A nice piece (also by Mike Wall) provides new information on Eris’s size and it is available at Space.com’s website.

Personally, I think we should reclassify Eris and Pluto as planets. Maybe there are more Pluto-sized bodies further out in the Kuiper Belt. So what? If we can reclassify an asteroid in the asteroid belt, why can’t we add more planets when they are discovered?

What do you think? Should Pluto be returned to the list of planets in our solar system? Chime in if you have an opinion.

Here is a picture of Pluto as it would appear if you were on Charon, a nearby moon:

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Neptune Facts:

  • Location: 8th planet from the sun
  • Size: 4th largest planet in our solar system
  • Orbit: 30.06 AU
  • Orbital Period: 164.79 Julian Years *
  • Average Distance from Earth: 30.1 AUs *
  • Diameter: 49,532 km
  • Discovered: 1846 by Adams and Le Verrier
  • Atmosphere: Hydrogen, helium, methane
  • Moons: 13, Triton is largest (radius = 1350 km)
  • Interesting facts: it has rings, internal heat source
  • Total number of moons: 13 (Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, Proteus, Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Psamathe, and Neso)
  • Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on Neptune

* = Courtesy of Wolfram Astronomy Assistant

I enjoy using astronomy software to explore the universe, and lately I’ve concentrated on some of the planets in our solar system. I’ve already covered Jupiter and Saturn, so this post covers another gas giant in our solar system. Neptune is the 8th (and last) planet in our solar system. Neptune is the 4th largest planet (in diameter) and is around 30 times further out from the sun than Earth.

Neptune was discovered in 1846. It has a predominately hydrogen and helium atmosphere, with traces of methane that help give it a blue hue. Voyager 2 flew by it and took loads of pictures back in 1989.

This is a screen shot taken with Starry Night Pro 6 today:

There is a lot of data about Neptune in Starry Night, or you can select Starry Night’s “Info” tab and select “LiveSky.com” beside the “Extended Info” field to get data on Neptune from Wikipedia.

This is a screen shot of Triton (taken with Starry Night today), the largest of the 11 moons of Neptune:

Here is a picture of Neptune as it would be seen looking west on Triton – perhaps from the window of a visiting spacecraft:

This is an excellent screen shot of Neptune taken with the Red Shift 7 astronomy software:

This is a screen shot of an image of Neptune (magnified to 400%) retrieved with Mathematica 8:

There is more data available on Neptune using AstronomicalData (introduced in Mathematica 7), which returns properties on planets, moons, stars and galaxies. Check it out at the Wolfram website.

This is an image of Neptune from NASA‘s website:

There are many sources for astronomers – amateur and professional – besides telescopes. In this age of the internet, we has so much data available that formerly was only found in libraries. Take some time away from television and video games and explore the wonders of the sky. You have the ability and resources, you just need the motivation to see that space is more than Star Wars and Aliens.

=====================

Updates

6-24-2011 – Added Orbital Period, Average Distance from Earth Information.

2-14-2011 – Added names of all moons.

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Vendor: United Soft Media Verlag GmbH
Price: $11.99
E-Mail: info@usm.de
Product Site: http://www.redshift-live.com/en/

Introduction

RedShift is an astronomy application for the iPod touch/iPhone/iPad. This program offers the features you would expect from an astronomy title and has a couple of useful unique options. It also makes use of the device’s built-in compass to act as an information window to the sky.

This is the second Astronomy app for portable devices that I have reviewed here. So I am going to make references to my previous review of Distant Suns for comparison reasons. Redshift has all of the basics. You tell it where you are located and it will show you the sky, adding labels to identify the objects. You can increase or decrease the Field Of View (FOV), using a gesture. Tapping on a star or other object will provide more information about it. The program includes a huge database of objects, but is more designed for naked eye viewing of the sky then as an assistant for telescope viewing.

Getting Started

When you first start Redshift, it loads and then plays a neat animation of your view, moving from a point off the earth and flying down to the location you have set as your home location. Then the sky is filled with stars. When you D-tap on an object seen on the screen, a red hued information bar appears on the top providing links to the program’s built in database of information, a link to the Wikipedia entry for that object, a rocket icon that lets you take a “flight” to that object, and a lock for locking the object in the window. The Wikipedia link is pretty neat, the Wiki page for the selected object opens in a window over the app screen. Whatever information and pictures the page has can be scrolled to. You can click on the links within the Wiki page, to see even more information. Essentially you are using a very basic web browser within the application. To return to the view of the sky, there is a “back” button. The biggest issue with this feature is that there is no way to navigate back and forth between pages in the simple browser window. The Wiki page offers links to lots of information. When you click on one, it loads the page. But Redshift provides no means of getting back to the previous page. The “back” button only brings one back to the main Redshift window. This makes a potentially terrific educational feature simply a good feature.

Another really cool feature on this information bar is a link to the devices compass feature. If you touch it, arrows on the screen direct you to move the device back and forth and up and down, until you are facing the object! So not only can you look at the simulated sky, but you can use the application to actually find where an object is in the real time sky. Making this a truly terrific way to learn how to identify what is up there. If you don’t select an object, and turn the compass on, Redshift will show the sky you are facing with names and constellations shown – a neat tool.

Side note: I didn’t have a compass device when I did my previous review of Distant Suns. I now have an iPad and can make use of its compass. Distant Suns also makes use of the device’s compass, and I will make an effort to include extra information in the previous review.

There are some options for labeling the sky in Redshift, although not as many as I would like. You can change the star density up and down using a slider, which decreases and increases the magnitude of stars that show as a dot. Another slider increases or decreases the density of labels displayed on the screen.  But this mostly affects stars. Other types of objects are in the database, but Redshift doesn’t provide symbols or labels to show their location unless the field of view is small enough to show the object. If you go to the extreme density of labels, some deep space objects will appear, but the screen is way to cluttered with information to be of use. Which means Redshift isn’t a good choice for locating objects that require a telescope to see.

However, the objects actually there. Some larger objects, like the North America Nebula, can be seen graphically on the screen, and a label for it will appear if the FOV is small enough. I know other objects are represented because, as I was perusing the sky of Redshift, I saw a pixel flicker. I thought there was a defect in the program, so I tried to figure out what was causing it. It turned out to be the crescent nebula. The program was trying to represent the image of the crescent nebula with one pixel, as the angle of view to the object changed, the light of the image changes, so the one pixel representation flickered. When I shrunk the FOV down enough, a very nice image of this nebula appeared then grew. All deep space objects in Redshift are represented by photo-realistic images, which can be see when the FOV is small enough.

Redshift offers basic search features for locating objects that might not be visible, or that you might want to see a better image of. There is a feature called “Observatory” which lets you choose from one of four categories (Solar system, Stars, Constellations, Deep Sky) to search in. Selecting one provides an alphabetical list of well-known objects. Selecting an object first centers the sky on its location then changes the FOV until the object is visible. There is also a magnifying glass icon on the screen that lets you enter a text string to search for an object. You can search in any of the four categories or all of them. A history of your recent searches is kept so you can return to them. The text search is useful, but it is very basic. It browses names rather then looking for keyword matches. For instance, when searching for the Saturn nebula, you enter Saturn, and see two hits, one for the planet and one for the nebula. However, if you are looking for the little dumbbell nebula, enter the keyword dumbbell won’t find it, but entering “Little” will.

The photo-realistic image of the sky is very nice and this makes it easier to compare to the real sky. If you take it out at night and are concerned about night vision, Redshift has a button to instantly enable night vision, giving everything a red hue, which should not reduce your night seeing abilities while still being readable. You can also turn on or off the effects of daylight, giving you the ability to see what is going on in your day sky. A few images are provided to fill in the area below the horizon, which show to occlude the space below the horizon. If the Daylight effect is off, this image is translucent, allowing you to see through it. Markers on the display the altitude and azimuth of the screen center.

To zoom in on a part of the sky, or in more astronomy parlance, to change the FOV, you use the pinch and expand hand gesture. You can also use the rocket ship feature to zoom in on a particular object. It the object is a planet, you can simulate an orbit of it, a very nice effect. Zooming in is a lot of fun, but zooming out, back to the standard FOV using gestures is a bit of work. Luckily, there is an icon on the screen to restore the display. One issue I had with this feature is that it restores both the time and the view. I often find myself considering this evening’s sky at lunch. So I set the application’s time to evening and poke around a bit. When I use this button to return, I have to remember to reset the time to the evening, or I will find myself perusing the daytime sky! I know they can reset the view without resetting the time, because a simulated rocket flight to an object offers a reset which doesn’t reset time, just the view.

Redshift can make access of the devices location services and compass. If you let it, it uses location services to determine your location on earth. Since I am new to the iPad and I have the base model, I am skeptical about the function of its GPS. Luckily, RedShift used a neat model of the earth, showing a dot on the image of the earth representing your home location, as well the Lat/Long. Between the Touch and the Pad, Redshift has me somewhere in the vicinity of where I live, which is a whole lot more accurate then say, choosing the nearest major city, which is many miles away. You can also zoom into the image of the earth, and if you know your relative location, tap on the image to set it.

Conclusion

The only thing that I find lacking in programs like this is real time event information. For instance it won’t tell you the name of that satellite you see flinging across the sky, but more importantly, it can’t be used to help you find that neat comet that is there either. While I realize keeping track of thousands of satellites might be an issue, this program has a lot of power and should be able to at least offer some information about current events, things to see, and interesting conjunctions. There is no need to keep track of events that are not currently happening and all it would require would be to download somer data on a regular basis. That’s my wish for Redshift!

Overall Redshift is a pretty good astronomy application. I like some of the features and the image it shows of the sky is very nice. It is a good choice as an astronomy title for your device. It worked flawlessly for me. You won’t go wrong if you decide to give this a try. Personally, I don’t put this on the top of the list astronomy apps I have tried. Not because there is a problem, it’s my overall experience and preferences. I do like this program and give it a very good rating!

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Saturn Facts:

  • Location: 6th planet from the sun
  • Size: 2nd largest planet in our solar system
  • Orbit: 9.54 AU
  • Orbital Period: 29.44 Julian Years *
  • Average Distance from Earth: 9.58 AUs *
  • Diameter: 120,536 km
  • Discovered: 1610 by Galileo
  • Atmosphere: 75% Hydrogen, 25% helium
  • Interesting facts: visited by Pioneer 11, Voyage 1&2, Cassini. it has rings, internal heat source.
  • Total number of moons: 61 (Tarqeq, Pan, Daphnis, Atlas, Prometheus, Pandora, Epimetheus, Janus, Aegaeon, Mimas, Methone, Anthe, Pallene, Enceladus, Tethys, Calypso, Telesto, Polydeuces, Dione, Helene, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus, Kiviuq, Ijiraqm Phoebe, Paaliaq, Skathi, Albiorix, S/2007 S2, Bebhionn, Erriapo, Siarnaq, Skill, Tavros, Greip, S/2004 S13, Hyrrikkin, Mundilfari, S/2006 S1, Jarnsaxa, Narvi, Bergelmir, S/2004 S17, Suttungr, Hati, S/2004 S12, Bestla, Farbauti, Thrymr, S/2007 S3, Aegir, S/2004 S7, S/2006 S3, Kari, Fenrir, Surtur, Ymir, Loge, and Fornjot)
  • Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on Saturn

* = Courtesy of Wolfram Astronomy Assistant

One of my favorite hobbies is astronomy, but I’m currently without a decent telescope so I take advantage of computer software and the internet to satisfy my desire to explore the heavens.  I have two favorite astronomy packages – Starry Night and Voyager – both are loaded with features and very good for people with passing interest in the stars and planets, as well as more serious hobbyists.  Right now I am testing and reviewing Redshift 7, another astronomy package for Windows, and I’ll post my review here as soon as my evaluation is complete.

This evening I started Starry Night up after booting my Macbook and took a quick jaunt to Jupiter and Saturn. My last astronomy post dealt with Jupiter, so let me discuss Saturn tonight. Saturn is a gas giant, is the second largest planet in our solar system, and is the 6th planet from the sun. Most people know about the rings surrounding Saturn, which are made of ice and rocks.


As you see at the left of the screen, we’re looking at the Starry Night Find tab and see some data about the planet and moons. If we want more data then we need to switch to the info tab and select the More Options button.

Quite a few options. If you need more information about this gas giant, select the Extended Options button, which launches Safari and looks for information on Saturn in Wikipedia.

Now for a view of Saturn as seen from the surface of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn and one of only three outer solar system bodies (in addition to Io and Triton) where we have been able to observe an eruption:

When I think of the first astronomy program I used on a computer (an open source program), I am amazed and pleased how far this genre of software has evolved over the years. Instead of sitting out in the cold and hunched over a textbook to glean data about dim astronomical bodies, we can learn about the planets and stars in our classrooms, homes, and as we travel.

The current generation of people in high school and college will have the opportunity to travel into space on one of the commercial space craft now being developed. I imagine that same generation will be able to travel to the moon and maybe even to Mars. If this interests you even a little, take the time to set aside time spent watching TV or playing games and see some of the wonders in the skies above you. The images of planets and stars now available to people is impressive, and what you see now may be something you see in person in the future.

I should also mention that people using iTunes should check out iTunesU. Professor Nemiroff at Michigan Technological University has posted all of his lectures for PH1600, a college-level introduction to astronomy. They are informative, easy to watch, and absolutely worth the time to download and view. There are other astronomy courses at iTunesU, so take the time to check them out.

Until then, be well.

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Updates

6-24-2011 – Added Orbital Period, Average Distance from Earth Information.

2-14-2011 – Added names of all moons.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Sir Richard Branson is the CEO of Virgin Galactic Airlines, a company dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of people wanting to take a suborbital commercial space flight. On July 19, I posted this short piece about SpaceShipTwo. October is a month of important milestones for Virgin Galactic.

October 10th – WhiteKnightTwo (the mothership of VSS Enterprise) launched VSS Enterprise at an altitude of 45000 ft, and it made a safe landing at the Mohave Desert runway. It was an 11 minute unpowered flight, but it was successful. I believe the engine was not tested, but expect that in the near future. Sir Richard was kind enough to post a YouTube video of the October 10th flight VSS Enterprise flight – check it out.

October 18/24/25, 2010 – A National Geographic documentary is run on Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan. Click here to see a promotional video about this documentary.

October 25, 2010 – Virgin Galactic opened Spaceport America in Upham, New Mexico. The sole runway is 2 miles long and the surface is 3 1/2 feet think, so it was intended to handle any current spacecraft flying right now. This is huge, as it gives government spacecraft a viable alternative in the event that other landing areas are unavailable due to bad weather. Spaceport America’s primary tenant is Virgin Galactic. Go here to see the official press release.

Sir Richard’s company marches into the history books with milestone after milestone successfully met. The airlines is expected to start regular commercial in 2012. I don’t know about the rest of you readers, but I certainly know where my next “extra” $200,000 is going. Wow!

For more information on Virgin Galactic Airlines, go to their website.
For information on Spaceport America, go to their website.

Voyager 4.5.7 Sky Simulator
Carina Software (Phone: 1- (925) 838-0695, Mon – Fri, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM PST)
Website: www.carinasoft.com
Price: $179.95 w/DVD, $129.95 w/2 CDs, w/CD download $99.95
Upgrade prices and educational discount information available at Carina’s website.

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

Astronomy buffs or anyone looking for a solid astronomy simulation program should take a serious look at the Voyager Dynamic Sky Simulator software package developed by Carina Software. It offers a good user interface, easy to understand controls, along with the ability to control computer driven and certain motorized telescopes. Voyager provides a huge sky catalog, complete with images and a variety of ways to view the skies. It will satisfy just about any amateur astronomer’s needs.

Let me qualify myself on the subject of Astronomy before I begin this review. I am a true amateur, who enjoys employing technology to make observing the sky more fun and informative. I own a decent computer controlled telescope, (6” Newtonian), and I live in southern New England (USA), where light pollution and overcast skys are the norm. It is important to me to own a good sky simulation program, so I can plan for those few nights when the sky is clear and I can actually use my telescope to view the sky. It’s also important that the program can help me learn what my sky would look like if the clouds (and light pollution) weren’t there.

My experience with Astronomy software packages has been using Starry Night Pro and an earlier version of Voyager (3.x). My apologies to those people who have written shareware programs, I have not taken the time to give any of them a serious look, (but I am open to doing that).

I would like to explain what a sky simulation program does, for those of you who might not be familiar with this type of software. We are all familiar with planetariums, an auditorium with a domed ceiling on which is projected a simulation of the sky. Although they are used mostly for entertainment, their real purpose is to allow us to study the motion of stars. Combining what we have observed in our short history with the laws of physics and motion, scientists can predict the motion of the stars, and be able to simulate where they have been and will be at any time. Using this technology, a program can display what the sky looks like from any point on the earth at any time in the future or in history. Obviously, the simulation cannot predict unexpected events and is limited by the mistakes we have made in calculations. But it is pretty accurate and I doubt I will ever observe a mistake in my lifetime.

System Requirements

Voyager runs under Mac OS X or Windows.

Mac Mac OS X

  • Mac OS X 10.4 or higher
  • PowerPC or Intel 1 GHz or faster processor (2 GHz or faster recommended)
  • 700 MB of hard disk space (4.2 GB for DVD version)
  • 512 MB of memory (1 GB recommended)
  • 1024×768 display with 32-bit color
  • CD-ROM drive (for CD version) or DVD-ROM drive (for DVD version)

Windows Windows

  • Windows XP or Vista
  • Pentium 1 GHz or faster processor (2 GHz or faster recommended)
  • 700 MB of hard disk space (4.2 GB for DVD version)
  • 512 MB of memory (1 GB recommended)
  • CD-ROM drive (for CD version) or DVD-ROM drive (for DVD version)
  • 1024×768 display with 32-bit color
  • Adobe Reader or similar software to view on-line User Guide in PDF format

Using the Software

With this software, you can see what you sky will look like tonight, next year, or even a thousands years ago. You can view what the sky would look like from many locations, your back yard or places you might never visit like Australia, the north or south pole, or even the moon! While it is not currently available in this version, I expect in the future advanced features should let you explore the surface of planets and moons that we have data on.

I am not going to try to analyze the validity of the star catalog and other astronomical information provided in Voyager. I am no expert on this subject and I trust that a reputable company like Carina checks the data. The program can check for updates that give the latest information and ephemerides (orbital data) for comets, asteroids, and satellites. It also will check for updates to the application. I am reviewing specifically version 4.5.7, which is the current version as of this review.

Voyager’s main window is the Sky Chart. This is your view of the sky. You can have more then one sky chart open at one time. A reference line near the bottom of the window represents the circle of the horizon around where you “stand”. In the program the line shows the cardinal points (N, NE, E, etc.) and is also marked in degrees, with North being zero. When you click and hold on the screen you can move the view around the horizon or up and down. As you do, the view of the sky changes as if you were moving your head to look at different parts of the sky. Additionally, when you click and hold, small windows pop up displaying the current altitude and azimuth of the center of the screen a great feature to let you know where you are, especially in more zoomed views.

How much of the sky you see on a single screen is controlled by the Zoom window. The default is set to about what a human would see standing outside. You can zoom in or out from this view using the zoom controls. Zoom in far enough and you will see the object as if looking with a powerful telescope, zoom out enough and the view of the sky becomes a bowl.

The star field you see will be what you might see if the sky were perfectly clear and dark. Voyager falls a bit short on simulating light pollution, for those of us who would like to see an image of the sky as we see it. You can choose to show a “Natural Sky” which brightens when the sun is up and darkens as it sets. But there are no controls to simulate the effects of the lights of a nearby city. You can control the minimum brightness of stars to display. If you know your local limitations, this can be used to show only those stars or objects that you could actually see wit ha naked eye.

In the real world, you cannot see below the horizon, so you can chose to fill in the areas below the horizon. Voyager offers different options from just opaquing the area below to using a photo. Since most users don’t live in an area with 360 degrees of unobstructed horizon, the images obstruct a little above the horizon as well. The program comes with a handful of photos to use. My home location includes a lot of trees that block a good portion of the lower sky. I was pleased to find that you can create your own image, if you have the time and patience to do it. Instructions are provided with the program, but I didn’t give it a try.

Voyager does a lot of things, offering many ways to simulate the sky and the objects one can see. There are many very useful tools included in the package. One could easily write volumes about all the things that can be done. For this review, I am going to hi-lite some of the features I found especially useful. If I don’t mention a feature you think is important, check with Carina Software to see if Voyager does that.

Voyager lets you easily turn on and off all types of labels and information related to the sky. A name label can be shown for every object that can be shown on the screen. By default the popular name (if one exists) is shown, and there are plenty of options for selecting a specific list or catalog number. There are a lot of stars and other objects in the sky. If you turned on all the labels, the sky would be covered with the labels. Voyager offers a couple of options for limiting labels. The best one for naked eye observations is to limit labels to those stars of a certain magnitude or greater, which can be adjusted by the user. There is also a very nice option to show spectral colors for stars.

Planets and moons, when observed from earth, might be seen as having phases. You can choose to show the phases or not. What this means is that when looking at the Earth’s moon, the program will display it with the same phase as it currently has. In addition to moons, you can show asteroids, comets, and satellites on your simulated sky. There are options for how these show and how they are labeled.

I found the comet options especially useful. At the time of this writing a comet was passing our night sky (103P Hartley2). The comet had a magnitude of 5.3, which means it might be visible to the naked eye or a good pair of binoculars. On the screen it shows as a typical comet symbol. Using Voyager, I was easily able to locate where to sight my binoculars to see the comet in real time. I was also able to plan the best time to go out for the observation, ensuring the comet was above the trees in the open sky.

There is a lot of stars and other interesting objects in the sky that are not visible to the naked eye. You can tell Voyager to put symbols on the screen showing a symbol for the object at the location and even the name of the deep sky object. This is very useful for creating a list of objects to observe. What I did was set Voyager to the time and date I planned to take my telescope out, and then use the symbols to locate objects in the sky. Knowing the limitations of my telescope and sky, I could then select a variety of objects to try observing.

If you mouse over any star or object, it’s name (if it has one) or star designation appears on the screen. If you left click on it, an information window pops up. The pop up window provides various bits of information about the object depending upon what is available. The information window offers information, images, and some controls. Getting the mouse on the correct point was relatively easy for stars, but a lot more difficult for the symbol of the comet, since the point you have to have the cursor on is significantly smaller then the symbol.

Voyager does a great job of simulating the sky. It offers many images of popular objects. One thing that is especially interesting is the ability to link to another sky chart, allowing you to see a simulation of an event from two different locations at the same time (provided you have enough screen space!).

Conjunctions are very popular viewing events, since they generally can be see without a lot of special equipment. Also, some major historical events occurred along with significant conjunctions. Voyager includes a “Conjunction Search” tool that will search a range of dates for Solar Eclipse, Lunar Eclipse, or Planetary conjunctions. The range of dates you can search includes 498000 BC to 502000 AD. The search creates a list of events indicating what time and date they occur and whether they are visible from the location of the sky chart you currently have opened. Voyager doesn’t provide any information to help if the event isn’t visible from your current location.

Another nice tool is the “Planetary Report”. This tool provides various information pertaining to planets in our solar system and some major moons.  A pull down menu offers many types of information including distance to the object, phases, rise and set times, apparent magnitudes, and more. Some very useful information for the backyard observer. For instance, you can plot a chart showing where the major moons of Jupiter will be, so when you observe, you will know which is which. Along the same lines, there is another tool that plots the orbits of specific man-made satellites from a giant list of choices. After looking at this list, I was amazed at just how much stuff is up there!

Other tools Voyager provides are more scientific in nature, although they can help with observing as well. The Binary Star Orbit tool lets you choose a known binary star system from a huge list. Choosing a system brings up a graph, many of which can be animated to show the secondary orbiting the primary star. This tool offers a number of ways to organize and search for the binary system as well as facts about the stars. You can even center the chosen binary on the main sky chart, to see where it is in the sky.

There is a Star Survey tool, which provides a graph of information concerning the stars in the program’s database. Options are Star count by distance or magnitude, Color magnitude diagram, and Mass-Luminosity. The tool lets one select from all or various sets of stars.

There are three tools to simulate views off the earth. The solar system gives a view of the solar system from 1 to 200 AU (Astronomical Units *1) out.  The Solar neighborhood chart that simulates a view with our sun at the center, showing the universe from 20 to 4000 ly (light years *2), and a Redshift Distribution Chart. All these charts are interactive and simulate a 3D view. You can use sliders to change the orientation of the chart. The first one also lets you see the orbital motion in large time increments. Each of these charts provides a bunch of information related to the topic. A lot of fun and a great tool to use to learn about the stars.

*1 – An Astronomical Unit equals the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, which is approximately 150,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles). Mercury is 1/3 AU from the Sun, while Pluto is 40 AUs from the Sun. AUs are typically used for measurement within the solar system, and light years are used to measure distance between the Sun and objects outside the solar system. – Ed.

*2 – A light year is the distance that light travels in 1 year, which is 9,500,000,000,000 kilometers. – Ed

Voyager and Telescopes

Voyager 4.5 can control a variety of telescopes with computer controls. There is a large list of options, including controlling a telescope that has just drive motors and no computer. I found connecting to my Meade LXD75 to be very easy. All options to set up the program for working with a telescope are in the “Telescope” menu. To turn on the controls, you first need to know and set up the specifics for your type of telescope. This includes the type of telescope you are using, (there are over 30 options for many popular manufacturers), the correct communication port, Baud rate, and telescope mount type. Choosing the telescope type doesn’t automatically select the standard mount type. For instance, my LXD75 comes standard with a German Equatorial mount, byt Voyager defaults to equatorial fork. Which means you need to consider all the choices before making the connection.

Since this is a real time connection, you cannot do much with it until you have hardware connected. For instance, I use a serial to USB interface to make the connection. This option doesn’t show up until the interface is actually connected between the telescope computer and the MacBook. However, you do see other communication ports that the MacBook has. Align your telescope if necessary before making the connection to Voyager.

Once the connection has been made a telescope window pops up, showing some information about the connection. The view of the sky also changes to align with the orientation of you telescope. Since the program has no way to know what eyepiece you currently have in the telescope, the field of view remains where every it was. I like keeping the zoom level the same as normal eyesight. This way, I can look at the screen, and then at the same area of the sky, to make sure there isn’t an obstruction before slewing the telescope to that location.

Assuming your telescope is properly aligned, you can select anything you can find in the Voyager program and slew your telescope to that object. The alignment process for lower end scopes (like mine), isn’t an exact or easy process. Even with a very good alignment, the scope is off by a little bit. But a little bit is a lot when you consider the effect a small error has when trying to find something thousands of light years distant! After the scope has moved to where it thinks an object should be, one normally fine tunes the position to center it in the viewfinder. Once it is centered, there is an option in Voyager that lets you feed back to Voyager that this is where the object really is. By doing this with several objects, one hopes that this improves the alignment of the scopes computer making it easier to find objects as the night goes on.

There is an option to turn on “night vision” when connected to the telescope. This feature dims the screen and gives it a red hue. Doing this is similar to using a red flashlight, you can see it, but it doesn’t reduce your night vision ability. This effect extends to other applications you might have running, in case you switch to them. I will often listen to internet radio when I am out with my telescope and sometimes will have a need to check something on the internet. By affecting all applications, this means that switching to another App doesn’t kill your night vision.

By default, the Voyager screen is locked to the view of the telescope. This can easily be switched off, allowing you to scan the skies as shown by Voyager, for an object to visit. Once an object is located, select to move the telescope to it. Pretty easy.

If you are organized and plan your night session, Voyager offers an observing list. Before your nightly session use Voyager to plan what objects in the sky you intent to observe. Add the ones of interest to the observing list. When the telescope is attached to Voyager, there is an option to “Go To” the object on the list. The observation list provides other options as well. You can jump to the objects information screen, show the object on the sky chart (a flashing circle appears around I for a few seconds), or move the telescope to it.

Issues

The only issue I had with Voyager’s interface was that the telescope command is at the bottom of the standard object right click menu. It is a long list, and for most objects many of the standard choices on this menu are grayed out (not functional). It’s a minor issue, but still inconvenient! This leads to another complaint: this menu isn’t contextual, so the same menu is shown for every object, whether any of the options are valid or not and there are many that apply to only planets. While non-valid options are grayed out, they still take up menu space.

Conclusion

There is a lot more that one can do with this program. As I mentioned, I discussed only a few of the items I found most useful. Voyager is a true encyclopedia of the sky, with many options for accessing and viewing the data it contains. One could easily spend hours just perusing the skies Voyager simulates, looking for interesting objects, learning about them as well as looking at some very nice images. It’s a terrific program.

This version of the Voyager Sky Simulation program is a great tool for learning about the skies above us and a useful tool to help people interested in astronomy and observing the sky with both the naked and enhanced eyes. I am not sure I could easily choose a favorite between Voyager and the other commercial applications I have tried. All the information is available in these programs, but the methods that the information is made available or accessed is different. I have been using Starry Night Pro plus as my telescope assistant tool for a number of years. As I tested Voyager, at first I was put off by these differences, but as I continued using it, I realized that some of the differences actually make sense as well as streamlining the process. I doubt I will be able to make a final choice until I have used Voyager for a lot longer time.

Recommendation

If you are considering buying a sky simulation program that provides many tools to help with your observations of the night sky, you should definitely consider Voyager. Price-wise it is competitive. Choices include a DVD version (with a lot more star/object information) for $180, a two CD version with less information but all the important stuff for $130, and an option to download the CD version for $100. The boxed versions come with a printed manual (a nice feature these days). I highly recommend giving this program a close examination; it will be worth your time.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Jupiter Facts:

  • Location: 5th planet from the sun
  • Size: largest planet in our solar system
  • Orbit: 5.2 AU
  • Orbital Period: 11.86 Julian Years *
  • Average Distance from Earth: 5.26 AUs *
  • Diameter: 142,984 km
  • Discovered: 1610 by Galileo
  • Atmosphere: 90% Hydrogen, 10% helium
  • Interesting facts: visited by Pioneer 10&11, Voyager 1&2, Ulysses
  • Total Number of moons: 63 (Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, Thebe, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Themisto, Leda, Himalia, Lysithea, Elara, S/2000 J11, S/2003 J12, Carpo, Euporie, S/2003 J3, S/2003 J18, Orthosie, Euanthe, Harpalyke, Praxidike, Thyone, S/2003 J16, Iocaste, Mneme, Hermippe, Thelxinoe, Helike, Ananke, S/2003 J15, Eurydome, Arche, Herse, Pasithee, S/2003 J10, Chaldene, Isonoe, Erinome, Kale, Aitne, Taygete, S/2003 J9, Carme, Sponde, Megaclite, S/2003 J5, S/2003 J19, S/2003 J23, Kalyke, Kore, Pasiphae. Eukelade, S/2003 J4, Sinope, Hegemone, Aoede, Kallichore, Autonoe, Callirrhoe, Cyllene, and S/2003 J2)
  • Click here for Wolfram|Alpha data on Jupiter

* = Courtesy of Wolfram Astronomy Assistant

I’ve been an amateur astronomer all my life, and I’ve been fortunate to use some of the best non-professional astronomy packages on a variety of platforms. Two of my favorite Windows/Mac astronomy applications are Starry Night Pro 6.x and Voyager 4.x. I’ve reviewed Starry Night for several UK magazines – MacWorld and Software Latest – and Ted Bade recently reviewed the Voyager 4.5.7 software.

This afternoon I ran Starry Night on my older G5 iMac and, as always, it showed the daily events for today. There were four, so I selected the first that was of Europa in transition around Jupiter. I liked it well enough to take a moment to grab an image so I could share it with you readers. Jupiter is my second favorite planet in the solar system, not because of the size but because of turbulent gases that make up the atmosphere and the many moons that surround it. Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and a bunch more.

Jupiter as Seen with Software

Europa transitions Jupiter - 10-16-2010

The shadow of tiny Europa on Jupiter

After seeing the shadow of tiny Europa on Jupiter, it might be a good idea to see how Jupiter appears to someone on Europa:

Jupiter as it appears from Io, the closest of the large moons of Jupiter:

Finally, Jupiter as it is seen on Ganymede:

It is so easy to change viewing locations in Starry Night. Just use the Options/Viewing Locations menu option and select the location to use for home, then press the Go to Location button. Simple.

Now an image of Jupiter while in Starry Night’s Spaceship mode (a fun way to play space explorer), on course for Jupiter:

The keyboard shortcuts are in the upper left area of the screen, while speed/distance/acceleration are by your target. I tried the Captain Sheridan thing (diving into the Jupiter atmosphere like he did to avoid the Shadow ship in ‘Messages from Earth’ Season 3 of Babylon 5), but hitting the atmosphere of Jupiter just puts you on the other side. Bummer! I should also add that some of the shortcuts (Roll, Pitch, and Yaw) don’t do me a lot of good on my Macbook, but I still love this feature of Starry Night.

Starry Night always makes my top 10 list for students of any age, and I can’t wait until they release the next major update. Please take the time to look over the various versions of this software at the website of Imaginova. And also take time to check out Carina Software’s site – the company that developed Voyager. Carina’s mobile versions of their products were known as Carina Mobile, but are now known as SkySafari and SkyFi and are available here.

Jupiter Moons as Seen by Probes

1. IO

Check out the coolest picture ever taken from a Earth vessel: an erupting volcano on distant Io:

Image courtesy NASA

This is a new image of IO shows incredible surface details. I find it as impressive as the erupting volcano image above.

Image courtesy NASA

2. Europa – from ZDNet 5/16/2011

Europa’s surface does not look inviting, at least if one planned to explore it on foot.

Image courtesy NASA

3. Ganymede – from ZDNet 5-16-2011

When I was young, I read Robert Heinlein’s ‘Farmer in the Sky’, a novel about humanity colonizing Ganymede. Heinlein didn’t have the images and scientific knowledge we possess of Jupiter today, but he wrote an interesting tale how we might live there.  This is an image taken on the last Jupiter mission by Galileo.

Image courtesy NASA.

4. Callisto – from ZDNet 5/16/2011

The surface of Callisto appears as inviting as that of our moon, however the view of nearby Jupiter would be impressive.

Image courtesy NASA

Astronomy is interesting, and while it is fun to catch shows on the science channel, the computer is the ideal media to really get into the subject. There are a number of good open source astronomy packages like Celestina and WorldWideTelescope.org that are available for cash-strapped people that are interested but unable to afford the cash outlay for more software.

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Updates

6-24-2011 – Added Orbital Period, Average Distance from Earth information.

5-16-2011 – Added 3 new images of Jupiter moons taken by Galileo.

2-14-2011  – Added names of all moons.

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And for something completely different…

On an aside, I first tried the Starry Night software because my favorite painting of all time is Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which was the inspiration for Don McLean’s song called “Vincent”, which can be seen below:

Take care and be well.
Mike

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Distant Suns 3 is a nicely designed astronomy program for the iPhone/iPod Touch. It includes lots of information, images, and easy navigation of the skies. It’s an excellent choice for an astronomy buff.

This application, which was originally designed for the Commodore Amiga computer in 1985, has been updated to take advantage of all the power packed inside our modern portable devices. Don’t worry about how long this program has taken to reach your finger tips. 25 years is less then an instant in the life of our universe! There are 130,000 objects in the App’s database, 6000 you can see in a good sky and a lot more that require a telescope to see. A lot of information is packed into this App. In addition to the coordinates of all those objects, there are images, text descriptions, and other information about many interesting objects.

If you are an astronomy buff, you might have looked at a few of the many astronomy programs that are available for the iPhone/iTouch family. I know I have. There are several things I like about this App including easy selection of objects one can see, images of objects, Easy means of turning on and quickly off labels of objects, and easy to see cardinal point markers. Since it was designed for the iPhone which has a nicer display, GPS, and compass, there were a few features I was not able to test nor take advantage on my Generation 3 iPod Touch.

Distant Suns can take advantage of your device’s location services to determine where it is (even using WiFi) or you can tell it where you are by entering nearby city names or coordinates (longitude and latitude). If you have an iPhone, your GPS would also be able to tell it where you are. You don’t have to use your local coordinates, if you want to see what the sky might look like anywhere else in the world. This App will also use the compass feature included in some iPhones, so as you move, so will the view.

After the App starts, you are presented with a slice of the sky facing north at the coordinates that you entered for a location. The time starts with that of the iPod and you can change the time and/or date to anything you like. Your point of view can be easily changed by swiping along the screen. Cardinal point markers scroll along the bottom of the screen to keep you oriented. The sky below the horizon can be visible or invisible. If you like, an image can be used to cover the areas that would be below the horizon. The image also gives a realistic view of the sky, since few of us are blessed with a clear horizon to horizon view.

For more information on any object on the screen, you just tap the screen twice, a new cursor appears, now moving your finger on the screen moves this cursor. When the cursor moves over an object on the screen, it locks on the object for a moment and basic information about it appears on the bottom of the screen. Leave the cursor on the object and click a button labeled “More” to bring up a lot more data about the object, usually including an image. The App includes images of a great many of the deep sky wonders.

There are a number of preferences that control how the information on the screen is displayed. Here you can tell the App to show names or numbers for a variety of different objects like stars, galaxies, nebula and so forth. You can also turn on or off constellation information. A very useful button turns off all labels, in case you need to see a natural sky, but doesn’t change the preferences. Which means a second click of this button turns everything quickly back on.

The bottom of the screen provides three different sets of functions that let you control Distant Suns. Quick movement to the major cardinal points, compass information if your iPhone has that feature, and a tour guide (more on that below). The next set has links for setting the clock, various preferences, and more. A feature called “What’s Up”, gives a quick chart of which planets/moons are currently above or below the horizon. The final set provides search functions.

The tour guide is a very useful tool for observing. It shows where, in your sky, the current best viewed objects are to be found. After you start the tour the image centers on the first item. Just as if you selected the object, a small window appears at the bottom with some basic information and a button linking your to a lot more. If the tour object is a constellation, it shows the classical drawing and the names/numbers of the major stars. When you click on the next (or back) arrow, it moves the view so the next object is centered, arrows on the screen hi-lite the location of the object.

The search section of this program is limited, but in a very effective way. Here buttons provide links to menus for the moon, our  Sun, the planets, constellations, and “other” (deep sky wonders). Select one of these items and you are presented with a menu listing related objects. For instance, selecting planets provides a list of planets and their moons. Click on the name to show the planet on the screen, select a rocket ship icon to go to a view near the object, or click on the arrow for more information and a picture. For other types of objects, the choices are related to the object. For instance, you don’t get to fly to a constellation, but you can get a view of it and the classical image associated with it.

Of course, you can explore the sky manually, by turning labels on and off to see what is located in various parts of your sky. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with dark skies you might even see some of the brighter objects.

While you can shift the device into a landscape view, when you do you loose all the menus and controls. In this mode, you can scroll the sky but not change time or select an object, etc. I like this view better, but the lack of menus hampers it.

Overall, I think Distance Suns 3 is a very good choice for an astronomy App. I really like the fact that it provides not only a lot of information about objects, but an images as well. This could be enhanced, of course, if links to sites with even more information were provided, especially now that multitasking makes it easy to switch back and forth between the browser and an App.

If you are considering an Astronomy app for your device, definitely consider Distant Suns 3.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

I have followed NASA’s site since the first day it became available on the internet. I like how the people there  go all out to get information and news out to fans of the space race. NASA’s site covers more than the ISS and satellites. It also covers future missions, one of which that should tweak your curiosity is exploring Mars. NASA came up with a site (Be a Martian) that is absolutely worth visiting.

Why go there? To explore Mars! This is an educational site for ages 8 and below or 9 and above. This site seems focused on teaching as well as keeping people interested in the red planet. We humans will go there in the future, and students in class today will be the ones to take that daunting journey.

Why go to Mars? Are you kidding? Why did we go to the moon? To explore ‘a strange new world’ (thanks to Gene Roddenberry for that phrase), and Mars is a lot further away and it may hold answers to scientific questions we cannot learn on the moon. It has a higher gravity than the moon, but still much less than here on Earth. I look forward to the day when our astronauts step out on the surface of Mars and demonstrate we humans can and will push ourselves to travel to the planets and beyond in the near future.

To get started, you need to sign in and create a user name and password. Next, you need the current version of Silverlight to use the majority of the areas on the site, and that is checked for you and you are automatically moved to Microsoft’s site if you need to upgrade Silverlight. This was the only part of the site I did not like. I’d rather not install Silverlight but I did so I could see the animations. The image quality not a problem, but I’d rather use other existing products to see animations and wish NASA would add support for those products in the future.

There are a lot of places to explore, so after restarting my browser I looked around the site and was impressed. Excellent UI and graphics, great educational tool, and just plain fun. I also want to mention that there is a link on the main page where you can go to the Mars Exploration Program site, which is also worth a visit. They have a ton of excellent pictures taken by Mars explorers and the quality of the images is excellent.

POSITIVES

  • A good educational tool loaded with interesting information about Mars.
  • Well designed – excellent graphics and a nice user interface.

NEGATIVES

  • Uses Silverlight instead of Flash.

RECOMMENDATION

Check it out at http://beamartian.jpl.nasa.gov/welcome. It’s worth the time to see the sites and maybe, just maybe, be inspired to consider a career in the aerospace industry so you could be ‘the one’ to actually go to Mars. What a thought.

by Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

I’m an amateur astronomer. I had a refracting telescope long before I owned a personal computer, and I used my telescope  to take more than a few photos of solar eclipses as well as planets in our solar system.I don’t own a telescope right now, but have my eye on a nice Celestron when the budget will enable me to make the purchase without raising the ire of my supportive wife.

What is an astronomy fan to do without a telescope? My preferences are to watch shows on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel or use computer software. I’ve been a long time fan of astronomy software for computers and have used and reviewed a lot of different products on a wide variety of platforms. One of my older favorites was Distant Suns, which I used on my old Amiga 3000. A couple of newer products I use on my Macbook and PC laptops are Starry Night and Voyager 4.52, both excellent products and absolutely worth the cost of the software.

Why all the background? Because we now live in the age of the internet, where data and  data access is far greater than any time in the history of our culture. Some recent uses of the internet have been of special interest to students, namely Google Earth and Microsoft’s WorldWideTelescope. Most people are probably familiar with Google Earth, so let’s spend a few minutes talking about WorldWideTelescope.

What is WorldWideTelescope? A browser-based (or Windows client) product from Microsoft that provides impressive images of the planets in our solar system, as well as guided tours of nebula/galaxies/planets/black holes/star clusters/supernova. It is easy to select an item to examine, and there are a number of ways to view the images. Once you select a planet or stellar object to visit, just double-click on it to move in for greater detail.

One negative point about the tours. I took the Mars tour, which streamed from wwt.nasa.gov. The audio was either out of sequence with the video, or the speaker’s voice was drowned out by the musical soundtrack. The video also was not smooth, but it was watchable. I also saw the video on extrasolar planets, and the audio and video were much better than the Mars tour.

Why bother with a web-based astronomy product? It is 1. An excellent way to learn about space, and 2. is free. Stop by and check it out here.