Planetarium Software

This is what most amateur astronomers think of when they think about astro-ware. A planetarium program creates a graphic representation of the night sky on the computer's screen. This may be a simple depiction with dots and lines to represent stars and constellations and small symbols for deep sky objects, or it may be a near photographic—or photographic—representation of the sky with stars in their proper spectral colors and deep sky objects that are photographic images rather than symbols. Some of the more "prettified" programs even go so far as to allow users to superimpose digital pictures of a particular observing site's horizons onto the virtual sky's horizon.

Almost all top-of-the-line planetarium programs seem to be going this route, competing to see who can produce the prettiest graphics. That's not a bad thing for educators and armchair astronomers. Projecting one of these programs' skies on a big screen with an LCD projector can provide a breathtaking experience for students. Unfortunately, what's amazing in the classroom can be annoying on a dark observing field at 3:00 a. m. For example, when the display is zoomed out enough to show a respectable portion of the sky, those beautiful DSO images become nearly invisible gray spots. Most pretty planetariums can be customized to improve their legibility in the field, but there's no denying that for the working observer simpler is sometimes better. Luckily, quite a few of the smaller players in the planetarium field have stuck to simple and legible.

Which particular planetarium program is best? That depends on you, your scope, your observing habits, and how much you want to spend, but the following programs have been tested extensively and have been judged suitable for most astronomy tasks.

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