Deepsky

Deepsky is the granddaddy of the planning genre, having been on the scene for over a decade. "Planner" almost seems insufficient to describe this program, which is a sprawling observing system that integrates databases filled with 726,000 non-stellar objects, extensive planning and logging features, and an "interactive" charting system. In addition, Deepsky offers go-to control (via ASCOM), Internet links to things such as the Digitized Sky Survey and the NASA Extragalactic database, and libraries of deep sky object descriptions written by renowned observers such as Houston's Barbara Wilson. The Solar System isn't forgotten, either, with plenty of facilities for the comet/asteroid fan. The program has long included a simple lunar map, but it now also interfaces with Patrick Chevalley's Virtual Moon Atlas.

Like other programs in this category, most indoor time with Deepsky is spent planning: searching for objects in the program's databases, adding found objects to spreadsheets, and selecting objects from these spreadsheets to place in an evening's "plan" (observing list). A typical session starts with setting Deepsky s search filters. You might, for example, ask it to retrieve every NGC object in Virgo. That results in a spreadsheet full of 832 DSOs—a bit much for a casual Saturday night run from the Mobile Astronomical Society dark site. To cull this list down, you scan through it, paying attention to object names, brightness, and extended details (retrieved by clicking on objects in the spreadsheet). When you happen on something that looks interesting or is on your lists of "wannasees," you click the "plan" column on the sheet. The object is then automatically added to your observing list. When you're done, you save the completed plan, and you're all set for a night of productive DSO-ing. In addition to its filters, the program provides a powerful and sophisticated search engine that's a big help in retrieving particular objects from the databases.

Out under the night sky with your plan onscreen and laptop connected to scope, you can cruise through your list, clicking one object after another to send the scope on its go-tos. If you want to take notes on a particular DSO, you click "logbook" on the program's side toolbar (Plate 66), and enter all the data you desire. What if you're not sure exactly what you're supposed to be looking at? Deepsky ships with a supplementary CD containing 10,000 images of DSOs for display in the program. Searching out dim little PGC galaxies with the aid of a CCD? The DVD version of Deepsky includes an amazing 410,000 images.

It is not an exaggeration to say you could give up your other astro-ware and do all your observing with the aid of Deepsky alone. That doesn't mean everything about the program is wonderful. Although the charts it plots are OK, they are beginning to show their age, looking more like what's found in Megastar than the state of the art represented by Starry Night. The author calls these charts "interactive," but they could be more so. For example, most planetarium programs allow users to navigate by clicking on the chart or dragging the sky; DeepSky moves are done via direction arrows or RA and declination sliders. Don't like the Deepsky charts? The program interfaces with Cartes du Ciel and will send plan objects to that program with a click of the mouse. One of the program's big draws is its computerized observation logging system; it is very good, even allowing images and drawings to be appended to log entries. The log entry screens could be simplified and streamlined a bit, though. In the middle of the night you want everything to be stupid-simple.

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Plate 66. (Deepsky) One of the first 'planners' to be offered to amateur astronomers, Deepsky provides the tools that make productive observing possible. Credit: Author.

One great thing about Deepsky is that the author (who markets the program himself) has managed to keep the price down. The CD version of this Windows-only program is $53 and the DVD edition a mere $70. A downloadable version with a small library of DSO pictures can be had for an amazing $30.

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