Cartes du Ciel

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For new astro-ware users, this is the place to start. Switzerland's Patrick Chevalley has been working steadily for over a decade to improve and enhance his freeware program, Cartes du Ciel, "CdC" (Plate 62). Today, there's very little CdC can't do and do well. Many of its users wonder why anyone would pay money for a planetarium program when they can download the Sky Charts section for free (Appendix 2).

What exactly can CdC do? All the things any good planetarium can: show the skies for any date, time, and location; control a go-to scope (with the aid of the ASCOM telescope interface program); print detailed charts; display hundreds of thousands of deep sky objects and millions of stars; and even show Earth satellites. Actually, CdC will do some things many other astronomy programs, even the more expensive

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Plate 62. (Cartes du Ciel) Cartes du Ciel, amateur astronomy's number one freeware planetarium program can do anything commercial software can — and more. Credit: Author.

ones, can't. Most planetarium programs provide dimmer than magnitude12 stars by using the huge Hubble Guide Star catalog (GSC), which goes down to about magnitude 16 and fills up most of a CD ROM. Manipulating this massive catalog can be a problem for an older computer, which many amateurs use in their observatories. CdC can work around that by downloading fields full of GSC stars from the Internet as needed. It can also download pictures of deep sky objects from the Digitized Sky Survey or superimpose user-generated pictures on its charts.

As always, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Being a freeware offering, Cartes du Ciel is only available via Internet download. In order to get the entire program, including the Tycho 2 star catalog that takes the program's star display to magnitude 12, a prospective user will need to download nearly 50 megabytes of data, which will be a show-stopper for someone without a broadband Internet connection. An Internet connection will also be needed any time the Hubble GSC stars are accessed. The program can read GSC stars off a CD, but it's up to the user to locate a copy of the catalog in a compatible format. Finally, this program won't win any beauty contests. Oh, the display is attractive enough, but it is certainly not photorealistic. Despite these quibbles, this is a fine program and, again, is all many people ever need. It's so good, in fact, that it was used to generate the star charts used in my last book, The Urban Astronomer's Guide.

Cartes du Ciel's current release, version 2.76, is only available for Windows PCs. Chevalley is currently at work on a new version, however, CdC 3.0, which will be Linux compatible and therefore able to be easily ported to OSX (Macintosh) computers. It's in an advanced "beta" stage of development at the time of this writing and has already been compiled and run on Macs. Although CdC is not the fastest-executing planetarium program, it runs respectably well even on older PCs like the 566 MHz Celeron.

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