Wednesday, January 26, 2011

webspotting 19 - CalSky

As published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of SCOPE, the newsletter of the RASC Toronto Centre. With editorial remarks added later... Slight reformatting. Republished here with permission.


There was talk of astronomical planning tools last  fall. There are a handful of choices for the Windows and Macintosh platforms, including AstroPlanner, Deep-Sky Planner, Deepsky, and SkyTools. For a long time, I considered sophisticated software to speed my evening preparations. 

Research was hampered by lack of availability of these applications. Ideally, I like to try out software before I buy, as I do with shareware. Only AstroPlanner offered a downloadable demo. All the others forced you to pay full fare up front with a money-back guarantee. [That is no longer true of SkyTools; as of the fall 2011 there is a free trial version available.] Still, I had cold feet. I continued to collect data, as best as possible. 

Meanwhile, for an evening's viewing or star party or RASC observing session, I would prepare manually, gathering data from a dozen different web sites, cross-checking in Stellarium or Cartes du Ciel and on my blog and life lists. I'd fill out a custom template I made in a word processor (which, frankly, was pretty good, if I may say so myself) and then finally print that document for use in the field. The problem? It would take hours!

This reached a boiling point in the early summer. When I learned that Ian Wheelband had SkyTools and thought it his favourite program and that he ran it on a netbook, I grew very interested. Still, it was the most expensive of the batch, starting at US$100. When Phil Chow pointed out the club discounts of 25% to 50% off and wondered if others might be interested, he seeded the group purchase idea. The rest is history. Having used it for a while, having read around 389 pages of the 623 page user manual, I am finding it a great tool.

For those who are not convinced yet, not interested, would rather put their hard-earned cash into an eyepiece, there are some good, free options.

Sometimes, as I was manually preparing my observing session notes, I'd conduct a search for a general planning web site. You might recognise Mark Casazza's name. I still use his Clear Sky Alarm Clock tool to receive emails when it is going to be clear. Another astronomical project of his is called Tonight's Sky. While it supports filtering and time limits, I've never found it terribly useful. I enjoyed Sea and Sky's constellation listing by month but thought it somewhat light. Then I discovered CalSky. 

The CalSky site features a calendar tool which will generate a list of targets in a single evening, over the next week or month, whenever. Again, it can filter, according to your preferences. It also will consider your experience level. You can choose to view planets, comets, meteor showers, deep sky objects, double stars, etc. It can detect special events with Jupiter's and Saturn's moons. It will even pull in satellite flyovers. Before you know it, you've got a huge listing. That, somehow, is what I struggled with most, with many of these products: too much information versus too little.

If you're like me and need a plan, a checklist, targets ahead of you, give a try.

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