Smartphones and tablets have opened the heavens to stargazers, bringing detailed sky maps to our fingertips. But, for the best insight into astronomy, you cant beat the breadth and depth of images and data available on a suitably equipped PC. Inspired by our recent tutorial on Stellarium astronomy software, we decided it was time to catch up with Starry Night, one of the longest-running such programs, available for Mac and Windows. See also: Five free iPhone apps for astronomy
Four versions are now listed, the Enthusiast edition, Starry Night Pro for the advanced astronomer, and a Pro Plus edition at the top. An entry-level Complete Space & Astronomy Pack (CASP) edition is now also offered. Distribution is limited since the product was sold by Sienna Software to Simulation Curriculum, but you can buy direct from the US website, where prices range from $37.46 for CASP to $187.46 for Pro Plus. See also: Five free Android apps for astronomy
The latter features the widest range of time travel to see the universe over a range of history, from 99,999 BC to 99,999 AD, along with LiveSky images from observatories and satellites. Databases are greatly expanded here to all manner of objects like NGC, quasars and galactic clusters.
Most conspicuously different from the standard Pro version is the Pro Plus addition of a complete sky map captured by CCD cameras, grafted into the usual graphical database of 65 million stars and 1 million deep-sky objects.
As you zoom into starfields (using + and keys on keyboard, two-finger scroll on trackpads, or the scrollwheel on a regular mouse) you will see the star maps switch between different resolutions of imagery. At around 42 arc-minutes of zoom, the imaging switches entirely to synthetic rather than captured star maps.
The main interface comprises a large single-pane window that fills the screen, with 12 tabbed drawers that slide out from the left side, along with the usual drop-down application menus from the top in the OS X version. A long bar across the window top includes current time and date - easily movable to another date in the past or future - followed by the time rate from 1x to 30,000x. Then theres the viewing location, by default your chosen home on Earth, although you can readily teleport yourself through space to observe from any of our solar systems planets or moons, for example.
We last tried Starry Night Pro version 5 around 10 years ago. Since then computing technology has moved, but Starry Night has changed little.
The OpenGL graphics, very good for 2005, are looking a little mechanical now, even on graphics hardware that exceeds what was available eight years ago. And theres been no update to the program since OS X was a Snow Leopard in 2011. Full-screen viewing doesnt come from clicking the top-right corner but from hitting F7, where you lose the entire top menu, which we expected to appear when we moused to the top.
For astronomers more practical than armchair based, the Pro and Pro Plus editions include telescope control, allowing the dialling-up of required objects from the program and letting a motorised scope take you there. Fields of view for the main viewing window can also be adjusted to suit whatever telescope or binoculars you use.