Let it never be said that you can run too many planetarium programs… this week we look at Starry Night Pro, a comprehensive desktop sky simulator. We were lucky to receive this bundled with one of our Earth Science courses in pursuit of our teaching degree with Western Governors University, and it has become a standard short-cut on our desktop. Just how does it stack up against what’s out there?
You may have noticed that Starry Night is one of our faves for creating simulations and graphics for our site. It gives you bold, clear, and accurate still images that don’t look like a black box with a few undecipherable dots when exported to a .jpeg format. The video exports sometimes loose a bit in definition, and can take a bit of divining to get into a proper format. My advice would be to set the video sequence up to be brighter than perhaps you are shooting for, as some contrast is inevitably lost.
Starry Night comes with the full complement of ASCOM compatible controls; this allows you to point the connected telescope at the selected target. Objects are routinely updated from the online database, handy for new comets and asteroids. Occasionally, we’ve had to manually load items in the system; Starry Night allows you to input ephemeris without too much fuss. Satellite Two Line Elements are pretty easy to transcribe and dump in; orbital elements for comets and asteroids may take some interpretation to get correct. This is more a problem with the astronomical community than Starry Night; can we all agree on one easy to translate format for orbital elements? On more than one occasion, a “Rosetta Stone” of sorts has come in handy…
Flying with an earlier version of the ISS!
One caveat is that Starry Night does take a fair amount of computing power to run, the kind you usually associate with intensive routines such as online gaming and Second Life. I generally have to shut down all other applications on the Astroguyz laptop to assure Starry Night doesn’t crash… a nuisance and sometimes a barrier to use when I just want one piece of datum, but such may be the price of simulating the universe.
But Starry Night’s true magic becomes evident in its “Spaceship mode.” Want to hover next to Jupiter? Orbit with the International Space Station? Sit on the surface of Charon and watch the New Horizons spacecraft whizz buy in 2015? Starry Night allows you to set up these simulations, or simply fly around the universe in spaceship mode at many hundreds of times the speed of light. We like to chase after spacecraft and see their current vantage point; one limitation is that the program often “steps up” form a planetary to a solar to a galactic scale. This means no entering, say, the Vega star system and resolving it into any more than a dot. It will, however, show shadows cast by the Moon(s) and the Earth!
Io and Jupiter in “Spaceship” mode.
The program also allows you to hide the daylight and the horizon, as well as create your own customized horizon. The Very Large Array is our current vista, at least until the real thing gets installed in our backyard. The star catalog includes the full complement of USNO, Tycho and SAO databases, as well as the conventional names for brighter stars. I’m glad they didn’t go to hell with a joke by including discarded and exotic medieval names for unknown stars, which seems to be all the rage in astronomical computing these days. Some of the more common options are buried a bit in the menus, such as the stick figure images for constellations (I use this more often to get my astronomical bearings than I knew!) but this is a minor objection.
Starry Night is one of the best planetarium simulators on the market, period. It is a great educational tool, or a good forecaster to plan and control a nights observing. It interface is simple, and above all, fun to use. Starry Night has proven to be an essential tool in our astronomical endeavors, and has provided us with endless enjoyment to simply “cruise the universe.” At $249.95 for Pro Plus 6 down to $79.95 for Enthusiast, it is definitely worth the investment…certainly better than wasting precious computing speed on something like Grand Theft Auto IV. Why not put all that unused processing power to productive use?
Neptune as seen from Despina.