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Amateur astronomers have a large selection of software to support them in their hobby. In this review section we aim to provide reviews of some of the most useful software out there.

I'm going to concentrate (at least initially) on software that is free or shareware. There's a number of reasons for this. Firstly we are all working to a budget (no matter how big) and if you can get something useful for nothing (or nearly nothing), that's got to be good right ? Secondly, I'm not going to spend a fortune of my hard earned cash to review software, just to tell you whether it's any good or not. I have a budget as well ! All that said, you will find that there is a good selection of freeware and shareware software out there which can help you. When you've tried all that, then you can consider spending your money on something a bit more advanced (and expensive).


There are loads of programs out there that provide a view of the night sky. Generally these are know as 'planetarium' programs. Stellarium is perhaps one of the programs that could be best described as a desktop planetarium. It stands out from the crowd in several respects.

Firstly, it doesn't give you pinpoint accuracy of star and planet positions, you can't print star maps to take with you observing, you can't control your telescope with it. What it does do is give you a really good quality 'picture' of the sky from your location, including a realistic horizon, and atmosphere effects.

Stellarium doesn't follow the usual Windows programme norms. You get a full-screen display, with no toolbars and menus. Controls are keyboard based. It may be unusual but the programme does work very smoothly though. You can scroll around the sky and zoom in and out with ease.

Where Stellarium comes into it's own, for me, is when you use it as an educational tool. You can show a simple view of the sky, with a press of a button overlay contellation grids, line diagrams and even mythological pictures. Centre Jupiter on screen and zoom in until the planet fills the screen, complete with red spot etc. Zoom out a bit and demonstrate the moons of Jupiter. Move over to Andromenda and zoom in on the galaxy M31. You can illustrate a whole talk just using this program. If you've got access to a PC projector and big screen it is just stunning !

The interface is a bit quirky, and takes some getting used to. I can't find a simple way of entering a specific date and time to display, for example. However, this is undoubtedly and really useful piece of software. The best thing about it . . it's absolutely free !






There is plenty of free astronomy software on the web, but none is better than Celestia for my money (or lack of it !). Celestia is a not a simple planetarium program, it's a virtual universe! Rather than just looking at and zooming in on objects, you can actually go there (virtually of course).

If you've always wondered what Saturn would look like from orbit around it's moon Titan, Celestia can take you there. Start in Earth orbit and with a couple of key presses you can be in orbit around Mars or Pluto or Alpha Centuri for that matter.

You will need a modern PC and good 3D graphics capability to get the best out of the program. If you have a PC older than 3 years or so it may struggle. However, if you have the technology the ride is fantastic !

You can programme your own scripts to take you on a virtual tour, or download one of the many available on the internet. (There are a number of websites dedicated to Celestia - a whole online community in fact). This is another tool that's great for educational purposes, one we often use at our space day events.

You can take snapshots on your journey using the 'screenshot' function and even make your own 'videos'. The level of detail on planets is very good as standard, and if you are not happy you can even download new surface maps for planets and satellites, some based on data from current missions like Cassini.

In summary this is a lot of programme for free. You may struggle with the 12MB download on a dial-up connection, but if you are a society member ask around at the next CAS meeting, someone will be able to lend you a copy on disk I'm sure. Alternatively come along to our next space day to see the program in action on the big screen.





Picasa 2

Firstly Picasa is not and astronomy programme. Why am I reviewing it then ? Two reasons; you will find it useful in connection with astronomy, and it's a very good bit of software for free.

Having given you the conclusion, what is the software? Picasa is an image managment and manipulation program from internet search giant Google. You may well have a image management program already, particularly if you have a digital camera. Most cameras include a software bundle. So why use a free one from someone else?

The main reason is speed. Piscasa is extremely slick. Once installed it searches your hard drive and catalogues all the images it finds, not just photos you've taken but images you saved from web pages etc. Having done that it generates a thumbnail image for each and displays a list of folders on your drive with thumbnails for each picture. Scrolling up and down the list is very fast.

You can add key words and labels to each picture, which is well worth the initial effort, because as you may expect from Google, another key strength is the searching ability. Again this is extremly fast, with the displayed photos being filtered down as you type a search keyword. For example when I'd typed as far as 'satu' in the search box the programme displayed mainly images of the planet Saturn and its moons. This was before I'd added my own keywords, the pictures were identified from filenames and folder names only, many pictures I'd forgotten I'd downloaded. Now you start to see the use for astromony and space topics.

There's much more to the program though. You can crop and edit pictures directly, including adjusting brightnes levels, colours, sharpness, red eye removal and a range of other filters. All changes are done quickly and effectively.

You can save images for web use, email to friends and even upload to online blogs. Some of the features work best with other google related products and services (such as gmail), but most of these are free as well.

If your hobby extends to astrophotography then the program will certainly help you organise your images and share them with others. You may want to use a more sophisticated package for image editing, but the speed and slickness could well tempt you to use Picasa more than you first thought.

Overall it's an amazing piece of software for free, download it now before someone changes their mind !





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