Desktop-based planetarium programs have really come into their own in the past few years. From their early evolution in the 1980′s with computer programs written in Basic that would show you stick figure constellations, planetarium programs are now full fledged sky simulators that allow you not only to control your telescope and plan your observing sessions more effectively, but allow you to travel through space as well as time. Some are even compact enough to run on your favorite palm-held mobile device. I admit that I’m somewhat of a planetarium program junkie, having utilized the gamut in observatory, backyard, and desktop situations and now run no less than three (HNsky, Stellarium, and Starry Night) on my laptop. I recently added a review copy of Redshift, and have been utilizing it for the past month to see how it stacks up against the competition.
Redshift has been around in the astronomical community for some time now, and is one of the leading commercial astronomical software platforms. Created by Maris technologies, downloads and updates are also available via their web site. This is handy, as new comets and asteroids are being discovered all the time. I ran my review version of Redshift Premium on my Toshiba Satellite laptop PC utilizing Windows Vista; minimum system requirements are 512 MB memory with a 1.5 GHz CPU, and the program is fairly lite by today’s standards, only taking up 450 MB of hard drive space. At the time of writing, it does not appear that Redshift is available for Mac’s… the program runs from 14.95$ for the stripped down lite version to $79.90 for the premium version. A down-loadable version is also available for $59.99. I found the program was fairly unobtrusive to run, and it didn’t crash my laptop as Starry night sometimes does. Light, medium, and full installations are available, although you’ll need the disk to access USNO catalogs and the like if you opt for the lite install, as I did. The program will also run in red screen mode, which is a great eyesight saver in the field. My only minor complaint is that once night vision was engaged on my particular laptop, I had to manually go into my ATI graphics program to turn it off! Of course, given the state of my laptop, I can’t totally blame redshift…
Redshift also has the full compliment of ASCOM drivers for real time telescope operations. Due to my current ‘scope situation, I was unable to hook this up to my old Celestron C8, but I have used an earlier version of Redshift as a telescope operator at the Flandrau observatory in Tucson, Arizona and can testify to its handiness and accuracy when finding faint targets under light polluted skies. I remember that at high screen zoom in, we could even see the periodic error of the scope drive slowly oscillating the view!
Beyond scope control, I find planetarium programs useful for two applications, education and planning observing sessions. Redshift has several handy simulations, and a through tutorial of how to operate them and download more from their site. 3-D flight is also an interesting mode. A classic time killer strategy for me is to see how the sky looks from other vantage points in time and space. To this end, Redshift even allows you to export quick-time movies in a simple (we love simple!) manner. As a quick test, I made the following flick showing what the New Horizons flyby of Pluto and Charon would look like from the surface of its tiny moon, Hydra, on July 14th, 2015;
Redshift performed admirably, showing the tiny ambassador from Earth whizzing by at the appointed time. Closer to home, meteor radiants are displayed and are a nice touch, and local moonrise happened here at Astroguyz headquarters right when Redshift said it would, 5:29 PM local.
Real images of Messier and Caldwell objects are included, our you can personalize these heavenly bodies by adding your own. But I believe the true versatility of Redshift would be in its capacity as an observational planning tool. Every moment under dark clear skies is precious, and Redshift has a Sky Diary which allows you to see what’s happening of interest at your locale tonight, or plot a custom listing of events to come, such as planetary conjunctions and the like. Like any software, Redshift isn’t without its quirks or idiosyncrasies, but as with anything technology based, the more you use it, the more proficient you get with it. In terms of planetarium programs, I would put Redshift at the front of the pack both for versatility and ease of use. A budding sky enthusiast will find it an invaluable tool to get to know the night sky and the universe, and it can grow as the love of astronomy does, and control that robotic, 30” telescope in a personal automated observatory that we all dream of…but I digress. Buy Redshift as an indispensable tool, or just use it as a guilty pleasure to zip around the simulated universe with!