February 22, 2020

Free Tools for the Renegade Scientist.

The motto here at ye’ ole Astroguyz could be “never pay good money for what you can snark for free online”…many a good stone has been spent on tools or applications that can be found, with a little thought, for free online. Some of these many have unorthodox applications that we don’t normally associate with computers. There are plenty of bored software engineers who delight in designing freeware applications in their spare time. Often, especially in such designer fields such as webcam astrophotography, no tools exist on the traditional market, and aficionados are forced to make their own.   If you can think of it, someone’s probably done it and put it up for free online. If not, maybe you’ve just identified a deficit that is looking for some source code. You already paid good money for that shinny new laptop, right? Here’s some ways that that gear can now work for you. This list is not all inclusive, just a bit to get the mental juices flowing. If I covered the program previously, I won’t go over it again here. What ever your interest, be it astronomy (yay!), guitar shredding, or orchid hunting, there are tools of the trade for you. A short list of our faves follows;

1.  Google Earth: Every nerd’s secret pleasure. This isn’t your fathers’ Google Earth; new features are added every day. Overlays now include real time weather, traffic flow, and Google Sky. Google Mars is also worth a peak. I’ve used Google Earth for anything from house hunting by address to measuring out my jogging route. We also pin our search locations from SETI@home onto Google Sky.

2. Meteoracle: A simple freeware tool for estimating the local meteor shower rate at your location. Works independent of the Internet once downloaded and takes into account such variables as moon illumination and sun angle.

3. Guitar Tuner: Our latest score. When the nights turn cloudy, we here at Astroguyz like to jam. However, our 50$ inline tuner is currently in storage; it suddenly occurred to me that such a beast may well be had on the Internet. Sure enough, I now run Guitar Tuner on my laptop; it simply plays the selected tone on your speakers as you tune up. Kinda like the “tuning a guitar by piano” method. Its simple and it works!

4. Graph: “Mom! the teacher says I need a special calculator for my new math class!” Every parent of a college bound hopeful has heard this plea. A graphing calculator can cost upwards of 100$…we here at Astroguyz have the solution: Graph. Is a freeware program that allows your Mac-PC to act as a graphing calculator. You already paid $1,000 dollars for the kid’s laptop, right?

5. Mars Previewer: Back on to the astronomical; I discovered Mars previewer back in the halcyon days of the 2003 opposition. It’s a simple observer’s tool that helps you make sense of what you are seeing. And its fun to play with!

6. Virtual Moon: There are plenty of lunar mapping programs out there; Virtual Moon is one of the best. Want to see the hidden back side of the Moon? Check out Lunar republic.

7. Registax: A must for ad hoc astro-webcam users, Registax is one of those programs we would gladly pay $100 dollars for, and is still proudly free! Its companion program, K3CCD tools, got wise to their popularity and now charges a slight sum.

8. Shadow: This little freeware applet is handy for all you asteroid occultation aficionados out there… wondering if that asteroid’s shadow will pass over your backyard? Shadow lets you spit out a simple text file that can be easily overlaid and manipulated in Google Earth.

9. Google taskbar: I got into Google taskbar after I got my new laptop last year. In the interests of decluttering, I had to limit myself to eight tools. What’s on the Astroguyz’ task bar? We run NASA TV, a checklist, notepad, a news feeder, RSS reader, Google search bar, HDD Life (should be standard on all computers: it monitors your hard drive temperature!), and most importantly, Steel Timer. This is a one hour timer that you set with a mouse click. I originally got it after the timer on our stove died. Again, its simple and it works.

Above is just a short list of how a laptop and the Internet can double as some useful tools; doubtless, you may have your own to add; if nothing else, perhaps it’ll make you think. We have some new ideas here at Astroguyz… will we share em? Wait ‘til the code is written!


  1. If you want more free, high-quality resources for amateur astronomers, check out: Yhe Frugal Astronomer.

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