When is an astronomy program not an astronomy program? When it's ASCOM. "ASCOM," an acronym for "Astronomy Common Object Model," is more a collection of drivers designed to allow "client programs" to interface with go-to telescopes and other equipment (observatory domes and motorized focusers, for example) than it is an astronomy program in its own right. The beauty of ASCOM is that it allows astro-ware to communicate with go-to scopes without their developers having to write drivers for each supported telescope. A planetarium or planner talks to ASCOM, and ASCOM talks to the telescope.
ASCOM is pretty sophisticated under the hood, but we users don't need to know anything about that. This "utility" (for want of a better classification) is simple to use. Download and install this freeware program from its website (Appendix 2), select "ASCOM" in a compatible astronomy application, fill in user-specific details about the scope in the windows that ASCOM throws up, and the work is done. Although ASCOM isn't much of a program when it comes to interacting with users on a visible level, it does offer a simple onscreen hand control and a few other features for supported scopes, if desired.
Some users find the idea of having to install a program to make another program talk to a telescope a little scary, but there's not much to go wrong. The only caveats with ASCOM are that some telescopes will require add-on drivers not included in the basic ASCOM package. These are easy to find on the website, however, and installation instructions are clear. A few programs—Cartes du Ciel, for example— will need to have an ASCOM plug-in downloaded and installed in addition to the main ASCOM program and drivers.
All in all, ASCOM has been a godsend for amateurs. Before its coming, there was no assurance a program would work with a specific telescope. Now, there's usually little doubt in that regard; when a new scope is released, it's not long at all before one of its computer-savvy users writes a driver for it, which is promptly posted on the ASCOM website for everybody to enjoy. Maybe one day soon all software authors will make life simple for everybody and just use ASCOM.
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