Astro Planner

What about Macintosh owners who want a planning program? That segment of the astronomy software audience is being well served by AstroPlanner. Unlike some Mac astronomy programs, this isn't just a "port." It was originally written for the Macintosh and it shows. There is a Windows version, but, for once, that came second. One thing's sure: AstroPlanner doesn't give any ground to Deepsky or any other program, competing with other planners feature-for-feature and often exceeding them.

The software's data specs alone are enough to make obvious the fact that "AP" is one heavyweight program. Off the shelf, it comes with over 100 astronomical catalogs containing an astounding 1.3 million deep sky objects. Stars? In addition to the millions in the Hubble Guide Star Catalog, AstroPlanner can use the USNO star catalog containing data on over 500 million suns. Don't want to pay extra for a USNO DVD? AP can access the catalog online for free.

Data, tons of it, ain't worth a hoot if it's hard to access. AstroPlanner makes searching for dim and obscure objects easy with a powerful but simple search engine. Not only can you search for "NGC 2024," if you can't remember the darned NGC number you can just type in "Flame Nebula," and AP will still find the object pretty as you please. Like Deepsky, AstroPlanner is very image-centric and is capable of displaying photographs for any object in its library. Unlike Deepsky, it doesn't do that with a CD or DVD, but with an Internet connection, downloading pictures for observing lists in batches from the Digitized Sky Survey. What if there's no Internet access at the star party? Download the pictures before leaving home. Unless it's told not to, AP will "cache" downloaded photos so they are available from then on.

Even more impressive than the program's huge libraries and tons of features is the way AstroPlanner's creator, Paul Rodman, has laid it out. He is an expert programmer, and one focused on the user interface and the user. Rodman has made a huge effort to save us from navigating endless menus, which is a nice feature. Most similar software requires users to wade through numerous buttons and tabs just to fill in a log entry for an observed object. Not AstroPlanner. Its main screen (Plate 67) displays logbook entry fields at all times. Not just that, either. Without leaving the home screen and the night's object list, observers can see when the Sun will set, when objects of choice will rise, examine object images, send the telescope on go-tos, and more.

The "don't likes" with AstroPlanner are few. One is its facilities for telescope control. AstroPlanner uses built-in telescope drivers rather than ASCOM for telescope interfacing, so it's not able to support the huge number of scopes ASCOM-compliant programs can. That should have changed by the time you read this, however. AstroPlanner Version 2.0 will "do" ASCOM. One thing some new AP users are taken aback by is the program's lack of charting features. It has some; it will draw eyepiece-sized field charts with alacrity and can even do constellation-sized swathes of sky without much trouble. There's no denying, though, that its map-drawing is slow and

Plate 67. (AstroPlanner) AstroPlanner is a world-class planning and logging program that's available for both Windows and Macintosh computers. Credit: Author.

somewhat primitive compared to something like TheSky—or even Deepsky. But this should not be a showstopper for the program. Most go-to scope users, if they are honest with themselves, don't really need or use extensive charting facilities. When a large chart is a must, AstroPlanner, like Deepsky, can interface with Cartes du Ciel, and AP's native sky map features will undoubtedly expand as time goes on.

One of the very best things about AP is that its author never seems to rest. He is continually adding new features, fixing problems, and taking suggestions from his large and enthusiastic user base. In addition to maintaining a Yahoo group for the program, there's a website where users can share observing lists they've created with the program. These lists can be automatically downloaded by AstroPlanner and are one of this astro-soft's real strengths. How much for this good stuff? AstroPlanner is insanely cheap. Currently, the cost is $40 for the program on CD, $25 for a download, and $30 for the add-on USNO DVD. Surely, you cannot beat that with a stick.

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