Astronomy Software

Astronomy software can help you in selecting, finding and observing astronomical objects. Also, astronomy software can help you learn about the objects being observed. The main reasons to use astronomy software is to better utilize your observing session time by developing an observing plan of astronomical objects to be observed before the observing session starts and then reducing the time to locate astronomical objects during a observing session. Other benefits of astronomy software include identifying unknown objects found during an observing session and learning more about the nature of the objects being observed. Astronomy software is organized into seven categories:

 Planetarium Software
 Observing Software
 Electronic Databases with Software Viewers
 Educational Astronomy Software
 CCD Control Software for Astroimaging
 Imaging Processing Software
 Telescope Making Software

The primary purpose and key selection features of each of the seven categories is given below.

Planetarium Software
Primary purpose: Creates sky charts to be used in an observing session that shows the location of astronomical objects planned to be observed. Displays the sky with the astronomical objects as seen with unaided eye views, binocular views, telescope views and astroimaging views at the desired observing time.
Key selection features: Shows night time and day time sky, shows the Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, stars, deep space objects etc., shows the Moon phases, shows artificial satellites positions shows actual object size and orientation - not just a symbol of extended objects (ie. deep space objects), plots the motion of astronomical objects, plots coordinate grids, constellations boundaries and constellations figures, prints out star charts for field use, selects the types of databases and astronomical catalogs to be displayed, (BSC Bright Star Catalog to 6.5 magnitude, SAO Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to 8 magnitude, Hubble Guide Star Catalog, Charles Messier's catalog, NGC - New General Catalogue, etc.) expands the databases with updates, adds elements to describe an objects orbits, controls computer controlled telescopes.
Bill Arnett's Planetarium Software is a good set of tables of planetarium software on the Web.
Observing Software
Primary purpose: Selects best astronomical objects dependent upon date and time. Aids in planning an observing session and recording observing notes.
Key selection features: Types of astronomical databases, easy and power of sorting and selecting astronomical objects, entering observing session notes, sorting and selecting observing session notes, etc.
Electronic Databases with Software Viewers
Primary purpose: Research data of astronomical objects being observed.
Key selection features: Type of objects, database format, format capability with other astronomy software, viewer sorting capability, etc.
Educational Astronomy Software
Primary purpose: Learn about astronomical objects being observed.
Key selection features: Astronomy images, astronomical dictionary, astronomical encyclopedia, view how astronomical objects look from different points in space, explore the nature of astronomical objects, simulate space craft missions, model and animate motion of astronomical objects, etc.
CCD Control Software
Primary purpose: Control, operate and checkout the CCD camera for astroimaging.
Key selection features: Type of CCD camera controlled, automatic multiple image acquisition, image calibration, color wheel operation, quick find mode, focus mode, supports different CCD readout configurations (binned operation), etc.
Imaging Processing Software
Primary purpose: Calibrates CCD images and enhances images to see additional image details and information.
Key selection features: CCD image calibration, image file formats supported, CCD camera image formats supported, color and black/white imaging processing, size and depth of the images, enhancement functions, filters and transformations, may operate the CCD camera, etc.
See Imaging Processing & Astro Artistry for imaging processing techniques and software.
Telescope Making Software
Primary purpose: Design tools to help build telescopes.
Key selection features: Trace light passing through the optics of a telescope, mechanical drafting, etc.

Software Available on Web & FTP Sites
Free Astronomy software that I like and use
Free software Aperture Photometry Tool
Free software Sky Charts
Free software Virtual Atlas of the Moon
Free software Home Planet
Astronomy software is available on the following Web & FTP Sites
Sky & Telescope Astro Software
Software Bisque
Willmann-Bell, Inc

Computer Requirements for Astronomy Software
Care must be given to the requirements to run the software. The first key software requirement is the computer's operating system required, such as Window NT, Windows 95, Window 3.1X, DOS, LINUX, and Macintosh operating systems. The next set of requirements are computer hardware requirements that include CPU type and speed, RAM, hard disk space needed, CD-ROM and its speed, video standards, mouse control, printers supported, printer ports for hardware keys, etc. Make sure you check your computer system's capability to run the software before acquiring it.

Software Price and Distribution
There are several types of software depending upon its price and distribution method. Freeware is free and usually distributed on BBSs, the Internet and sometimes on CD-ROMs. Shareware has a price and is also distributed on BBSs, the Internet and sometimes on CD-ROMs. Shareware programs range from fully functional working programs to programs with key features turned off until payment is made. If payment is not made shareware programs may operate only a certain number of times before they stop operating. The main philosophy behind shareware programs is being able to try the program before you have to pay for it. If the program meets your needs you then pay for the program. If the program does not meet your needs then you should remove the program from your computer. The last type of software is the typical buy it at the store or mail order software.

Software Support
A key feature of any software is its support. Telephone support should be expected for higher priced software and all software vendors should be providing software product support on the Web. At a minimum you want a software vendor to provide minor updates for bug fixes for free on the Web. Also, Web pages with current bugs and possible work arounds would be nice. Some vendors provide addition databases from themselves or customers. Major releases which add new functionality should have an reasonable upgrade price.