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Starry Night Pro Planetarium Software

Posted by Ed Moreno   04/29/2008 12:00AM

“Planetarium Software”… Repeat that. “Planetarium Software.”

Why do I want you to repeat that? I want you to repeat that because I am doing TWO reviews here… The first review is on the software that I purchased, and the second was on software that I WANTED to purchase. These apparently are two different things.

First, the review of the Planetarium software that Imaginova Canada sells. As Simon would say about a good performance: “It’s very nice actually… I rather enjoyed it.” As it turns out Starry Night Pro is a reasonable Planetarium program. It has scads of features that are VERY appealing to people that use Planetarium programs.

Here are some things I LIKED about it.

Controls are numerous and useful. You can control virtually any aspect of the way the screens appear. You can change the COLOR of almost anything. You can include Constellation boundaries, Alt-az coordinates, RA and DEC lines, and just about anything else you choose.

You can tailor up a special display maybe for summer galaxies that has settings that provide you with the optimal settings for that kind of observing. You can save this as a “Favorite” view and pull it up whenever you choose. You can have numerous favorites for different seasons or different kinds of observing routines.

In addition to this, you can also set up you display to your preferences and save a “Default” setup, but I will tell you now that the process for doing this was not intuitive. The dialog to save these settings was under the “Options” Menu, and I had to look around to find it. But find it I did, young Skywalker, and now it starts the way I like it to start.

The layering of display options is really rich. You can easily overlay catalogs such as “Finest NGC objects”, NGC Catalog, and Messier Objects at few clicks of the button. In addition, rather than simply show little colored ovals or squares or circles that designate the space the object appears to be in along with some position angle and relative size, you can also choose to include pictures of many of the objects. The nice thing about the pictures is that they can scale up or down as you zoom in or out, and they can even be adjusted for brightness. I really liked this feature a lot. But at the same time, I had some problems with it. See, there are SOO many options that it is hard to remember which option modifies which behavior… What do I mean by that? Well, as it turns out, when you have some pictures turned on from the different display options and when you hover over an object that is on the picture, you can’t get the details. For example, let’s say you have M42 open with the various picture options turned on. If you go to the Trapezium in M42, rather than give you a pop-up that provides you with info about each star as you hover over it, the detail will be for the Orion Nebula itself. You have to turn off this or that picture to make the objects COVERED by the picture become active. Now to make matters worse, in some cases it seems to behave correctly for some pictures SOME of the time, and not other times. So, maybe this is a bug, or maybe it is basic behavior for some pictures. I simply can’t tell because there are too many different options available to sort out all the combinations. In the end, I wound up using trial and error to get my catalogs and pictures balanced to give me the best usability, but my personal preference would be to always be able to select an object on a picture and get the details. To use the Microsoft Powerpoint analogy, the images should be on the “Move to back” setting, but they seem to superimpose OVER the background stars.

As I mentioned though, the layering is VERY rich, and for many people the ability to show the sky with a very tailored to the individual kind of richness is quite appealing.

Another thing I really like is how fully you can control the behavior of the screen with respect to how labels fade in. In many programs I have used, you can display more or less labels, but Starry Night Pro allows you to vary the transparency and rate at which the labels start to become visible when zooming. This allows you to have the labels for prominent objects displayed for wider angle viewing, but as you zoom, faint labels start to appear as fainter objects come into view. As the objects enlarger or brighten, the labels also brighten and get bigger. This keeps the screen from being cluttered by sizing the labels to match the field of view. I love this behavior because I have been frustrated with previous software in the past by either having labels crowd the sky, or having them only for small telescope showcase objects, with little middle-ground. Starry Nights is the best I have seen so far in this respect.

Starry Nights Pro also does superb planetary rendition in terms of showing you what a planet will look like at any time. When I first go the program, I took my Laptop out and pulled up Saturn. Eyepiece examination showed the brightest moons all in the exact position as Starry Nights said they would be. In fact, the program will even show you shadow transits! Zoom in on Jupiter on the night of May 21st at 11:54 PM, and you will see where Amalthea is in relation to the Jupiter’s disk, but it will also show the shadow on the disk itself! VERY cool. And of course it will show you when the Red Spot is transiting as well. Very, VERY cool. So if you are a planetary observer and really like to see when things like Shadow Transits are occurring, this software will be a great observing tool. Of course the NASA JPL Solar System Simulator will do this too, and it is free.

I might point out that when you START Starry Nights, it will even give you a LIST of observing events for that day, so things like shadow transits will come up in a panel at startup, and if you choose, you can go to the event by clicking on it.

The “Find” feature also deserves mention. Most of the programs I have used will punish you for entering anything other than the complete object name. Starry Nights lets you be more fuzzy in your query, or on the other hand, can produce multiple responses. For example, if you enter “Saturn,” you get a response that shows two objects…The Planet Saturn and the Saturn Nebula. You don’t have to specify an object catalog type, you just put in the common name or catalog number of your desire, and Starry Night will show you a list of objects that fulfill that criterion. Nice.

There is a fly-around option, and I tried it once, but the Hayden Planetarium freeware program (Partiview) is perhaps a bit better to me for this purpose. But I didn’t buy the program for that function. But it is there, and I felt that I should mention it.

The other thing that I think is particularly valuable in a Planetarium program is a recorder that allows you to capture a “Show” so that you can build tours and such… I played with this briefly and found that it worked as advertised.

So as a Planetarium program, I give Starry Night Pro a good recommendation.. I LIKE it. I really do…

Now for the second review. This is the review where I slam the product because it wasn’t able to do what I had HOPED it would do. My fault maybe…But with a name like Starry Night Pro, I figured they were appealing to ADVANCED AMATUER ASTRONOMERS, but instead, it appears that they are appealing more to ADVANCED AMATEUR PLANATERIUM OPERATORS!!!! My bad… I guess I read something into the program that wasn’t intended.

See, I own a C14. And I use it…. And when I hit the button on the controller, I am going to objects that are INVISIBLE in small scopes. I do this all the time. And what I WANTED was a program that would let me EXPLORE some of these objects.

Take the area around the Trapezium for example.. Want to know where the “E” and “F” stars are? Starry Night Pro won’t show you… At least I haven’t figured out how to do it if it does…. Can’t see “E” and “F” In the TRAPEZUIUM???? The “Pro” fooled me here. I would have thought that a piece of software calling itself “Pro” would not only show you “E” and “F,” but might also show you other faint stars that appear imbedded in the nebula that I can see with my C14. Maybe I am MORE than a Pro though.. I don’t know. But what I was looking for was a piece of software that would TELL me what stars I was seeing inside an object. A “Pro” program that won’t even show you “E” and “F” in the Trapezium??? You must be KIDDING me… And to be fair, I wrote TWO notes to Imaginova asking if I was doing something wrong, and never got an answer to HOW I could turn on “E” and “F” (Chocolate??? Dinner in Paris??? ).

This happens with some other objects as well… I just am seeing things with my telescope that I can’t find information about. This is particularly true in objects like the Lagoon Nebula, where I see more and more stars embedded in the glow… Go to Starry Nights Pro, and it only seems to show stars brighter than Magnitude 10 in the nebula. This means that there are only a dozen stars visible there in the program… If you have a big telescope, you go there and tell me how many YOU can see.

Since I bought my C14 over a year ago, I have GREATLY expanded my observing catalog. It seems that NOTHING is keeping up with me in terms of identifying limiting magnitude in a bunch of these objects, or even identifying many of the stars that appear in Nebulas and such (and some Open Clusters as well). I think that many of these programs draw data from sources like the Hubble Guide Star catalog, which actually goes down to VERY faint magnitudes, but it DOESN’T always catalog stars in many bright nebula.

And then there is this.. I purchased the Starry Night Bluestar controller which uses Bluetooth technology to control a telescope. I never DID get it to work.. Several notes to the companies support desk… They had me back level some Apple Quicktime software or something, but in the end, I gave up in utter frustration trying to get it to work, but they seemed to give up much quicker than I did, because they didn’t answer my followup notes.

So in the end, I am giving an evaluation of two different software programs here. The first is for the Starry Nights Pro product that is sold as a Planetarium program. For that product, I give 4 out of possible 5 Stars. Some quirks in behavior and a set of layering controls that are so deep that it becomes hard to remember where to turn something on or off keep me from giving it a higher evaluation, but as Planetarium programs go, it is the best I have used.

But the ADVANCED AMATURE OBSERVER in me is less enthusiastic about this program. For someone that is looking for an intravenous knowledge feeding for serious observing of detail in deep sky objects, like getting limiting magnitude for the faint stars around M57, this program will fail you miserably.

Now to be COMPLETELY fair, nothing else I know of has done any better, though even the Autostar program that used to come with new Meade telescopes did better at providing a lot more faint star data thanks to being able to use the Hubble Guide Star Catalog. It didn’t have NEARLY the flash, but frankly, I did some serious observing with it. For the money, Starry Night Pro seems rather expensive considering that many new telescope come with decent planetarium software included free, and products like Cartes du Ciel are QUITE powerful because of the ability to use multiple catalogs. I had hoped to at LEAST see “E” and “F” in the Trapezium... I mean I know people with 4” telescopes in dark skies that can spot those targets… So if you are a “Pro” and are looking for deep data, I don’t think you will get complete satisfaction from Starry Nights Pro. It DOES offer some excellent utility though (especially with planetary positions and such), so I am going to go with 3 stars out of 5 as a rating for a SERIOUS observing tool. And even after using it for a year, I have to tell you that it is maybe TOO rich with layering. The problem of not being able to click on stars in a cluster when you have the cluster outline turned on is irritating to no end, especially when you can’t remember which of the many layers is in your way!

I will close by saying that this product is NOT being sold as an advanced visual astronomer observing tool. The box clearly says “Planetarium Software,” which is where this review began. Starry Nights Pro is nice Planetarium Software, but if you are a big scope user who has pushed over the limits of commercial programs, it is more Eye-candy than a “Must Have” observing tool. For the advanced astronomer looking for a serious observing tool, my advice is to pass. It’s pretty, but it’s pretty expensive too. A better investment would be the two Volume Deep Sky Observers Guide books and a Telrad finder.

Sorry. I call them as I see them.