June 3, 2020

Adventures with CALSky.

A most excellent ISS pass! (Photo by Author).

Pssst. I’m going to let you in on a secret observing tool of the astronomical pros. Ever wonder how the astro-imaging elite gets those impossible-looking pictures, such as the International Space Station transiting a partially eclipsed Sun? Like everything else these days, “there’s a web-site for that,” and if you’re willing to wade into world of astronomical data a little bit, you too can be taking bizarre astrophotos like the pros… trust me, we won’t get too “mathy…”

CALSky, or the Calculated Sky is a site that allows you to generate a personal astronomical calendar for whatever you deem worth tracking. Supernovae, meteor showers, even eclipses and variations in the tide are all within the preview of this free (although they welcome donations) online application. Once you’ve got your locale pinned down (Google Earth is great for this in lieu of a GPS) you can soon be tracking all things celestial. The lingo is perhaps geared more towards the mid-range to professional observer and may take some dissecting/trouble-shooting for the novice…

Probably the handiest device on the entire CALSky application is its email alert manager system. Many, many sites and programs out there will track rising and setting times and the like, but only CALSky will put a tailor-made target list, sans garbage, in your inbox. What’s on the Astroguyz target list? Well, we like the ability to hunt for flaring satellites and Sun and Moon crossers from our location; we recently caught the ISS for the first time passing in front of the Sun, and we can attest that the CALSky prediction was spot on!

An Astroguyz 1st courtesy of CALSky; the ISS transits the Sun! (Photo by author).

True, CALSky does take some initial tinkering to become a handy tool. One has to also assure a manual updating of locale and settings when “on the move”… perhaps in this era of GPS-enabled everything, from toasters to smart phones, a nifty feature would be an auto-update for your current location. One could also easily conceive of tailor-made Twitter updates from CALSky, such as what’s already offered for the ISS by @Twisst…  CALSky also includes near real-time satellite weather images that can be handy to track down and plan for a night of clear observing.

A criss-crossing of ISS-Moon transits over the UK. (Credit: CALSky & Google Maps).

So, just how well does CALSky stack up against what’s out there? Again, it’s aimed at more of the no-frills, just the information please satellite, asteroid, and comet-chasing crowd; the new crop of casual observers who like to use their Android or IPhone to guide their way around the sky may be turned off by its non-social media interface. And true, many sites give you the same info, such as the next launch worldwide or the current right ascension and declination of the planet you’re after. What I find myself looking to CALSky for are those odd to locate events; i.e. space station Sun & Moon transits and forecasted satellite decays from orbit. You can also generate ephemeris for objects for your location using CALSky, much like NASA’s own JPL ephemeris generator.

But above all, CALSky is just plain fun for the astronomy-obsessed to dig into on a cloudy night. Hey, some folks bowl, this is what me and my friends do for fun! An interactive Moon map is available for the scrolling over, helping to identify and make sense of those close-up crater shots. We’ve found that a good interactive map of the lunar surface as it really appears under current illumination is sorely lacking in the cyber-world… most programs such as Google Earth show a full-on zenith illumination, making lunar features look drastically different and thus hard to identify. Another feature allows the user to track passages of satellites near bright stars or planets, handy when they’re fainter than naked eye visibility. We couldn’t have seen NASA’s “lost tool bag” in orbit without this feature!

Piles of links are included for weather, both terrestrial and space-type, and more. As mentioned, although it seems that I mostly find my way to CALSky for satellite tracking, it just goes on and on in there, Man… this is also probably the only site we’ve ever seen dedicated to tracking weather balloons!

So there you have it, another weapon in your astro-arsenal to assure eyes, both real and cyber, get on target… let us know of your true tales of use with CALSky and other favorite astronomy programs… Next week, it’s on to our very first panel appearance at the eagerly awaited Saint Petersburg Florida NecronomiCon!


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