While computers and specialized software are not strictly required for stargazing at the amateur level, there is no doubt that the stargazing hobby can be greatly enhanced with the use of computers and user-friendly software. The problem, however, is that there are thousands of applications available today, and it is no easy task to select the ten best desktop applications that will satisfy the needs of all amateur astronomers all of the time. Nonetheless, in this list, we present you with our choice of ten stargazing applications that cover the most ground, from planetarium simulations to an app that automatically searches for near-earth objects. If you don’t have these apps, get them- you will wonder how you ever got by without them.
You may also like to later check out other articles in this series, including one covering free stargazing apps for smartphones, and another the 10 best premium astronomy apps currently available on the market.
AstroGrav is a solar system simulator with a difference. All movements of solar system bodies are based on their gravitational interactions with other bodies, meaning that you get gravitationally correct motions of asteroids, planets, and comets. The software takes the effects of general relativity into account, ad used superb interactive three dimensional rendering that allows you to rotate, and zoom into parts of the solar system while you watch it evolve.
AstroGrav includes a background of more than 100 000 stars, all the constellations, and planetarium-style viewing points from anywhere in the world. Other features include:
• Multiple views that can be animated at the same time with orbits that are calculated dynamically.
• Extensive tabular data with more than 30 editable fields for each object selected.
• Simulation time steps that can be set to fractions of a second, to several thousand years.
• Ecliptic, equatorial, galactic, and horizontal celestial coordinate grids.
• Astronomical, metric, and imperial measurement units.
• Comprehensive editing capabilities that allow for the manual insertion of additional objects, or the importation of any of several hundred thousand comets and asteroids.
Apart from the solar system, you can also explore the gravitational effects of exoplanet systems, the collision of globular star clusters, or even watch the evolution of planetary systems from accretion discs. In fact, almost any situation in which gravity is the dominant force can be simulated accurately.
AstroGrav is available for both Mac and Windows, and a free, but fully functional trial in several languages is available for download.
While there are hundreds of planetarium software suites available, Stellarium is the only free software that is also used in commercial planetaria all over the world today. Stellarium runs on all major operating systems, and in all cases, the rendered views are almost indistinguishable from what would be seen through a telescope, binoculars, or with unaided vision.
The following is a list of features taken from the Stellarium homepage:
• Default catalogue of over 600,000 stars
• Extra catalogues with more than 210 million stars
• Asterisms and illustrations of the constellations
• Constellations for 20+ different cultures
• Images of nebulae (full Messier catalogue)
• Realistic Milky Way
• Very realistic atmosphere, sunrise and sunset
• The planets and their satellites
• Powerful zoom
• Time control
• Multilingual interface
• Fisheye projection for planetarium domes
• Spherical mirror projection for your own low-cost dome
• All new graphical interface and extensive keyboard control
• Telescope control
• Equatorial and azimuthal grids
• Variable star twinkling
• Shooting stars
• Eclipse simulation
• Supernovae simulation
• Skin-able landscapes, now with spherical panorama projection
• Plugin system adding artificial satellites, ocular simulation, telescope configuration and more
• Ability to add new solar system objects from online resources
• Add your own deep sky objects, landscapes, constellation images, scripts, and more
While Celestia is primarily a planetarium program, it does not confine you to the surface of the earth. With this application you get to travel to any one of more than 100 000 stars in the Milky Way in three dimensions, or if you so choose, to points beyond the Milky Way.
All motions in Celestia are totally seamless, and with an exponential zoom, you can effortlessly explore the Universe in a vast range of scales- from galactic clusters to the area you can see from your spaceship window. The basic download includes an enormous catalogue of stars, galaxies, planets, planetary moons, comets, asteroids, and even some historical spacecraft with which to explore the universe, but additional star catalogues and plug-ins are available for download. Celestia runs on Linux, Windows, and Max OSX
Where is M13?
Since views through telescopes are flat and one dimensional, this unique software will help you get a sense of an object’s location with respect to the galaxy’s centre, and/or midplane. In this way, your observing sessions are greatly enhanced, because you get an almost 3D view of the relationship between a viewed object and the galaxy. Where is M13? also provides information on the galactic coordinates, luminosity, distance, and true size and angular diameter of objects. The software also makes a great educational and outreach tool as well, and runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.
Stacking software for astro-imaging are not created equal, and while Photoshop or Registax do well in most departments, DeepSkyStacker was developed to satisfy the particular demands of deep sky imaging. DeepSkyStacker takes most of the pain out of pre-processing, because all you need to do is load all your images before you go to bed. The software does the rest, and by the time you are fully awake the next morning, the images will be ready for post-processing. Files can be saved in both TIFF and FITS formats in either 16 or 32 bits.
CCDStack was developed exclusively to stack CCD images and it does so with extremely sophisticated statistical methods and concepts that were heretofore not available in commercial stacking software. CCDStack runs on both 32-and 64 bit versions of Windows, but due to the particular design of Windows in 32 bits, CCDStack is limited to one GIG usable memory when installed on 32-bit machines.
However, on 64-bit machines, CCD stack will use all of the memory it can access, making the process of stacking images much faster than was possible before, but bear in mind that the process is governed by the amount of available memory, so the more memory you have, the faster the process becomes.
With this software, you get all the tools required for precision image stacking and processing, and features include the following:
• Dark, Flat and Bias frame calibration
• Star Bloom Removal
• Image alignment and registration
• Re-sampling of registered images
• Image normalization
• Advanced Data Rejection
• Image Combine
• Gradient Removal
• Real-Time DDP Display
• Deconvolution and Sharpening
• Full LRGB Color Capabilities
Auto-guiding software is a requirement for astrophotography, but the problem is that while there are many auto-guiding applications available, there are very few that are free, and even fewer that provide the accuracy and sharp focus of adaptive optics.
MetaGuide however, is both free and in the adaptive optics league. It is based on video imaging, and provides precise collimation by using the in-focus diffraction patterns of stars. I addition, the software employs several novel approaches to auto-guiding that results in real and significant insights into the optics of any given telescope, as well as the tracking behaviour of the mount used. The following is an extract of a review of the software by an experienced observer:
“MetaGuide allows me to obtain sub-2″ fwhm stars with a Celestron CGE and 11″ SCT at 2800mm f.l. and 0.45″ per pixel. The key is an accurate and low latency centroid that can be chased aggressively to overcome gearbox and bearing noise. This pushes auto guiding of a mid-range mount into a realm of performance that normally requires adaptive-optics.”
MetaGuide is free, extremely user-friendly, and fully compatible with any telescope, and almost all video cameras. However, for the auto-guide to work, you must provide either an ASCOM connection, or some other mode of mount control such as GPUSB, TOGA, AstroGene, or LPT.
Additional requirements to run MetaGuide:
• MetaGuide requires only a video camera and Windows 7, Vista, XP or 2000 computer (not Win98, ME, NT, Mac, or Linux) with recent DirectX installed to perform the core diffraction analysis of a star. MetaGuide and its install package are compatible with Win7/64.
• Most video cameras are supported – of any size – along with analog video cameras (NTSC/PAL) with a simple video2usb converter. The user can specify any resolution the camera supports. The main requirement is that the camera have a DirectShow video driver
• Modified web-cams are not supported; MetaGuide relies on streaming video to correct for seeing.
• For the guiding features of MetaGuide, a connection to the mount is needed. The mount must be either equatorial or on a wedge, and for ASCOM it must support PulseGuide.
• A view of the diffraction pattern requires high power and a stable mount, so a Barlow and good tracking may be needed. The guiding and collimation aspects of MetaGuide will work with any f/ratio.
System requirements for MetaGuide courtesy of- http://www.astrogeeks.com/Bliss/MetaGuide/
OpTaliX is the last piece of software you will ever need if you are thinking of making your own telescopes. It offers extensive support in the design of both basic and complex optical systems, as well as thin-film multilayer coatings on optical elements. Some features include the following: Geometric and diffraction analysis, lens optimization thin film multilayer analysis and refinement, non-sequential ray trace, physical optics propagation, polarization analysis, ghost imaging, tolerance analysis, extensive manufacturing support, user defined graphics, illumination, macros, and many more.
Available in three versions, called OpTaliX-Pro, OpTaliX-Edu and OpTaliX-LT, the app is certified to run on both 32-, and 64-bit versions of Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows Vista.
Peranso is a must-have app for amateur observers of variable stars, or other objects that vary in brightness. The user friendly app allows in-depth analysis of light curves and luminosity periods. Data can either be large, multi-session sets, or a single observation, making this the most accurate and productive data analysis tool for amateur observers available today.
This app offers too many advantages and features to be listed here, so click here for an overview of features and requirements. Note that although Peranso was developed to run on Windows, it is possible to run the product on Mac and Linux machines by using appropriate Windows emulation software.
On Apple Macintosh machines, use Parallels Desktop For Mac or the WINE emulator, which is available free of charge. For machines running Linux, use VMWare Player, or the WINE emulator. Both emulators are available free of charge, and have been running Peranso successfully on Ubuntu.
Asteroid Data Hunter
With this app from NASA any amateur astronomer can do some real science, and help protect Earth from asteroid impacts, to boot. According to Jason Kessler, the program executive for NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, “…The Asteroid Grand Challenge is seeking non-traditional partnerships to bring the citizen science and space enthusiast community into NASA’s work, [and it] has been successful beyond our hopes, creating something that makes a tangible difference to asteroid hunting astronomers and highlights the possibility for more people to play a role in protecting our planet.”
Essentially, the program involves amateurs to take images of any part of the sky, and to use the free app in desktop computers to analyse their images in a search for previously unknown asteroids and near-earth objects. The application will notify a use if a record for any objects found exists, and if there is no record, suggest the best way to report the find to the Minor Planet Center, who will archive the discovery.
The app requires Windows 7.1+ or Mac OS 10.10.2+ to run, but an installer for Linux Ubuntu is in the planning stages, and should be available soon, if it is not already. Download the app at http://topcoder.com/asteroids.