TheSky6 Professional's virtual sky looks realistic. Starry Night Pro Plus's sky (Plate 65), on the other hand, is real. It's not a computer graphics representation of the heavens but an actual image of the entire night sky comprised of 20,000
separate CCD pictures. Whether zoomed out or zoomed in, Starry Night's Pro Plus's sky is a seamless mosaic composed of some 6 billion pixels. The beauty of Starry Night's display is undeniable; this is what many planetarium fans have wanted for years. It's actually useful; too, You can get a better sense of objects and their context with Starry Night than with other planetariums. If you're in doubt as to whether you're really interested in looking at a particular deep sky object, one glance at Starry Night's sky will often tell the tale.
This is not to say Starry Night Pro Plus' "AllSky" display is perfect. Really enjoying this feature requires considerable computing horsepower, including an Open GL video display adapter with plenty of memory. Despite that, AllSky works well enough with older top-of-the-line computers. Performance issues aside, the only criticism that can be leveled at it is that the resolution available from AllSky, 12 arc-seconds per pixel, is not sufficient for really tight zooms. Zoom in to a degree-sized field, and many deep sky objects become pixilated blobs. All is not lost, however, as Starry Night makes it easy to download deep sky images from the Internet (from the Digitized Sky Survey website). These pictures can be superimposed onto AllSky and automatically displayed during "tight" zooms.
If all there were to Starry Night were AllSky, it would not (along with TheSky) rule the roost when it comes to advanced astronomy software. At heart, it's a well thought out, feature-heavy, and competent planetarium. Beyond the "pretty," which includes startlingly realistic horizons, sunsets, and more (even audio of chirping of crickets) are the features that make any planetarium useful. In addition to millions of stars and the ability to download millions more online, and catalogs full of hundreds of thousands of deep sky objects, SNPP also includes a genuinely useful observation planning module, telescope control via ASCOM, and very cool Internet features (download satellite weather images for the current observing location).
How does Starry Night Pro Plus stack up against TheSky 6 Professional? There are a few things TheSky can do that Starry Night can't. Chief among those is interfacing with other Software Bisque programs such as CCDsoft. Starry Night Pro Plus can, however, work with that other popular CCD camera program, Maxim DL. Starry Night may not allow the user to change quite as many things as TheSky, but it's far easier for most users to make those changes with Starry Night's more user-friendly interface. Like TheSky, Starry Night can interface to any scope imaginable via ASCOM. In fact, Starry Night tended to work more reliably with some ASCOM drivers than TheSky did. (TheSky s "primary" interface is via its built in drivers, not ASCOM). Finally, Starry Night really won me over with its inclusion of an honest-to-god printed manual. It's all gravy, then? Not quite. In addition to the high level of computing power Starry Night requires for best performance, its piling on of feature after feature seems to make it more prone to bugs than TheSky. Most users won't be troubled by the program's (usually minor) faux pas, but they are there.
Like its chief competitor, this flagship program doesn't come cheap—it's $250. For serious amateurs that is not a huge impediment. Some hard-core imagers, for example, think nothing of paying more than $5,000 for a "mid-range" CCD camera, making the admission price for this excellent program seem quite reasonable. For less rabid astronomers, cheaper flavors of Starry Night are available, most notably, Starry Night Pro (no Plus). It doesn't have AllSky but is still very attractive, does include most of Plus's other features, and sells for $100 less. Macintosh fanciers will be happy to know that Starry Night continues to be available in Mac format and that it reputedly runs even better on Apples than it does on Windows PCs.
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