29 November 2011

Two Great Gift Suggestions for Astronomers

Great gift #1: Deep-Sky Wonders by Sue French

I recently picked up a copy of Sue French's new book, Deep-Sky Wonders, and it has more than exceeded my expectations for an observing guide.

The book is a beautiful hardback production with high quality paper. All of that is justified as the pages are full of Sue's experienced narrative, sky charts that illustrate the positions of the objects, and color photos by some of the world's most renowned astro-imagers. The variety of objects is rich and the artistry is enticing.

There is more to this suggestion than just the book though. Plan files are being completed now for use with Deep-Sky Planner that go along with the book. These plans contain essential information for hundreds of objects mentioned in the book, along with page reference numbers from the book. Together, the book and the plans equip Deep-Sky Planner users to work through observing and logging many of the finest observing targets in the night sky.

This project would not have been possible without the help of Sue French and Deep-Sky Planner user John Sillasen. Thank you both for your gracious help.

Great Gift # 2: SkySafari 3

I recently got a copy of SkySafari 3 for Mac OS X to test importing of plans produced by Deep-Sky Planner. DSP's plan files can be converted to the observing list format needed by SkySafari.

Testing went well on the Macbook running Mac OS X, but what really got my attention was playing with SkySafari on a smartphone. The import feature isn't ready yet for smartphones, but the application itself is amazing! I don't feel that the small device platform will completely supplant use of planetarium apps on a desktop or laptop, but it is a useful aid for observers on the go.

Southern Stars says they will have SkySafari out for Android ASAP, perhaps by the end of December. You couldn't go wrong giving this app to an astronomer that uses a smartphone or tablet.

24 October 2011

Announcing Deep-Sky Planner 5.1

An important free update is available now for owners of Deep-Sky Planner 5. This update introduces the plan document which brings together several of the planning features already found in Deep-Sky Planner, while adding some new ones. This release is the culmination of two major compiler upgrades and 18 months of development and testing effort.

Ease of use continues to be the guiding factor for the user interface. Plans can be built using the familiar drag and drop paradigm, i.e., from a catalog search report to a plan report. Plan report content and screen layout are entirely configurable, accommodating even a small netbook screen. In fact, this release was beta tested on netbook computers. Accuracy and speed guide the underlying processing of plans, even in real-time at the telescope.

Deep-Sky Planner 5.1 ships with several sample plans. Others are available by download from the deepskyplanner Yahoo group. Only licensed owners of Deep-Sky Planner 5 may join the deepskyplanner Yahoo group. Licensed owners are also encouraged to contribute plans for other users to download.

13 October 2011

DSP5.1 Update - Coming Soon!

Testing has gone very well, and we are now working with a release candidate. Test team members are using the release candidate to create observing lists both for personal use during the fall observing season and for sharing with other DSP users. Look for these observing lists to be distributed through the deepskyplanner Yahoo Group until a web application can be built to manage them.

A separate tool (Plan Converter) has been built that converts a DSP observing list file to an Argo Navis User Catalog file which can be uploaded to the Argo Navis using Argonaut. This tool will be available through the Deep-Sky Planner Community on the Knightware website. Knightware thanks Wildcard Innovations for their kind support while building this tool.

A preview video has been posted on the Knightware YouTube channel that demonstrates plan building and use while observing. It's short but highlights the new plan document features.

Finally, an official release date can be revealed - the final week of October. We are aiming for October 25. This will be a free update (download) for owners of Deep-Sky Planner 5. If you don't already have DSP5, you can get it by digital delivery (or on CD) from the Knightware website.

21 September 2011

DSP5.1 Update - Beta 4 is Underway

Beta #4 is a feature-complete build of this free update to version 5. We are now working through testing and documentation (oh, joy). After a bit more testing we should know more about a release date. October looks like a very busy month for Knightware...

A lot of updates have happened across the astronomy software community since Deep-Sky Planner v5.0.3 was released in May. The latest versions of these partners' products have been verified against Deep-Sky Planner 5.1.0:
  • ASCOM 6
  • Cartes du Ciel v3.4.1
  • Redshift 7 SP1
  • Starry Night Pro Plus v6.4.3
  • TheSkyX v10.1.11
  • OpenAstronomyLog 2.1
Teaser: Testers are enjoying the latest plan-building feature added in beta 4. A user can drag and drop items from any Deep-Sky Planner report onto a plan. A preview video is the best way to demonstrate this, so we'll try to get one published in October.

06 September 2011

DSP5.1 Update - Beta 3 still under test

Beta 3 is going well. With one usability issue being addressed and two final feature additions pending, this week should end with a fairly solid build, Beta #4. Testers are currently using Beta #3 to develop plans that can be shared with other users once version 5.1 is released. More on this soon.

Deep-Sky Planner plans can be used in some interesting new ways (screenshots below):
  • Plans are being converted (using a temporary tool) into Argo Navis User catalog files and uploaded via Argonaut. Knightware thanks Wildcard Innovations for their kind assistance while developing support for the Argo Navis.
  • Plans are being exported to HTML and viewed on an Android tablet browser.
  • Plans are being printed to PDF format and being shared with non-DSP users. They have also been loaded and viewed on a Kindle.

A Plan in Deep-Sky Planner

The same plan converted to PDF (shown in Acrobat Reader) and HTML (shown in Internet Explorer)

23 August 2011

DSP5.1 Update - Third beta released for field testing

The third beta build is in the hands of a small number of testers now. The number of bugs reported so far is at a comfortably low level. The next beta release (#4) should contain the final feature additions for version 5.1. Early results from that release will give good visibility for a release date. Please stay tuned.

Feature creep for version 5.1 will include support for an imminent update to OpenAstronomyLog (version 2.1). I also hope there will be some announcements soon about other developers adopting OAL support for their products. I've heard from two that are working on it presently.

Logging integration in the new plan document

PS: The Aug 23 earthquake was felt at the Knightware office. Monitors and lamps shook, but no damage. It's been a weird summer...

08 August 2011

DSP5.1 Update - First beta complete, second beta begins

Results of the first beta test period of Deep-Sky Planner 5.1 have been very useful, particularly comments on usability. One issue was highlighted for inclusion in this release rather than being deferred to a later one. Accuracy and stability look good so far.

A second beta is out now and is still focused on usability, stability and accuracy. At present, 3 more beta test releases are planned for an expanding number of testers.

29 July 2011

DSP5.1 Update - First beta released to field testing

Comments have begun coming in from the first beta test version of DSP5.1 that was released to field testing by a small number of testers. We are looking at stability across the entire product, and usability & accuracy in the new plan document, especially in real-time plan processing (see below).

Results of the early beta testing process should give more clarity on a release date - please stay posted.

A plan running in real-time (automatically updating every minute)

19 July 2011

DSP5.1 Update - Object Designation Improvements

A catalog designation for a celestial object enumerates a single object, at least within the context of the catalog. The problem that arises is this: what is obviously 'NGC 100' to one person may be NGC100 or n100 to someone else. The IAU has a rule for this, but that doesn't change common use among the astronomy community. What to do?

Introducing the new object designation pattern matching engine. The engine is being added to Deep-Sky Planner to help change user-entered object designations into the format expected by Deep-Sky Planner. The engine is also being used to develop some sample plan documents that will be included in the 5.1 update. The engine is in final testing now.

To give an idea of how the engine will be presented, the screenshot below shows the new plan document editor which is used to add a celestial object to a plan. In the screenshot, the designation 'n100' is entered.

'Blank' Plan Editor

The second screenshot shows the result of a Lookup - what the engine found in the database and transferred to the editor form.

Plan Editor - NGC 100 found & retrieved from the database

11 July 2011

Deep-Sky Planner 5.1 Update - Accuracy of Positions

Existing documents in Deep-Sky Planner provide accurate reference data taken from catalogs, or computed for solar system objects - asteroids, comets, planets, sun & moon. The accuracy of these data are documented in the appendix of the online help file. Last summer I did some remote imaging using an observatory operated by the University of North Carolina in Chile. During this experience, I needed higher precision positional information to accommodate the imaging system, so I have brought this capability into Deep-Sky Planner via the new plan document.

The plan document still allows users to enter reference data (e.g., positional data referred to epoch J2000.0) and display it. It can also display (topocentric) apparent position data if preferred. Apparent positions are precessed to the epoch of date and include effects of nutation, aberration and parallax (topocentric) as applicable to the type of object. The higher precision calculations should be helpful to users who are using high precision, accurately aligned mounts (particularly those doing remote imaging).

A plan showing apparent positions for the selected date & time

30 June 2011

Deep-Sky Planner 5.1 Update - Preview

The first major update (v5.1.0.0) to Deep-Sky Planner 5 has taken longer to develop than anticipated, but hopefully the changes will be worth the wait. More will appear in this blog over the coming weeks about what to expect in the updated version when it is released. As usual, a 'point release' update like this one will be provided at no charge to owners of the major version being updated (in this case version 5). For the record, the update is not feature complete, but it is in early field testing.

Why so long?

First, the code base has been migrated through two compiler upgrades. The compiler upgrades included support for Unicode which affected all text strings in the program. That one alone took all of last summer. On the positive side, some nice new tools and features came along with the upgrades. For example, a new Regular Expressions library allows greater flexibility in looking up an object designation in the database. A user can enter 'n7000' and get a proper match for NGC 7000. This designation finder isn't a mind-reader, but it allows much more flexibility in user input.

Second, there have been some changes in the office. Thanks to my son, we've built two new computers this spring to serve development and testing needs. Getting these ready for prime time has taken a little time but the productivity improvements have already begun.

What is in the update?

This question will be answered more thoroughly in the coming weeks, but the biggest change will be the new plan document. Generally speaking, the plan document can contain a mixture of objects from any source. Object information in a plan can be entered manually or looked up in the database and transferred automatically. Once a plan is composed, it can be run while observing so that ephemeral data is refreshed automatically. This is an extensive change and will be the subject of future posts.

Summer Double Stars Plan

08 May 2011

Astrophotography Poll Results

A poll has been open for several months on the Knightware website that asks the simple question:

Do you do astronomical imaging?

The results are:

No, never: 21%

Yes, mostly webcam: 7%

Yes, mostly DSLR: 42%

Yes, mostly dedicated CCD: 28%

Yes, film camera: 0%

It is surprising to me that DSLR usage came in first. It is a very accessible imaging device and this must account for its top ranking. Dedicated CCD is the most popular device among my own astro-imaging friends, but obviously not among astro-imagers in general.

The last place finisher is film camera. That is really no surprise. My Nikon FM2 hasn't been used for years on anything, much less astrophotography. I keep it for archival black & white work - just in case.

I expected higher usage of webcams. Most of my imaging friends don't do much webcam work, but I have seen some outstanding results from the few that do. Based on the views we are having of Saturn lately, maybe the webcams need to come out and play!

11 April 2011

Cover Shot and Story in Mar/April ATT Magazine

Last year I ordered a new Dobsonian telescope from Rob Teeter (Teeter's Telescopes) in New Jersey. I met Rob at NEAF 2010 and asked enough questions to be satisfied that he could build what I wanted.

The telescope, a 14.5" f/4.5, was delivered on schedule in October. After testing it for several weeks at my light polluted home (~18.3 mpsas) and at a darker site (19.3 mpsas), I was impressed that most everything I evaluated met or surpassed expectations. Since I documented my findings as I tested, I realized that I could write an article and share my findings. I approached Astronomy Technology Today magazine and they were indeed interested, so I submitted the article with photos and waited to hear about a publication date.

The Publisher of ATT notified me that the article would appear in the March/April issue but I didn't know it would be the cover story. When the digital edition of this issue was released the first week of April, friends notified me of the cover. (I am still waiting to receive a hard copy by mail.) What a pleasant surprise!

I am delighted to share my assessment of the quality and detail that Teeter builds into his products with others who are shopping for a truss Dob. I also look forward to writing an evaluation of the optic provided by Waite Research. I can say now that qualitatively it is a very good mirror, but I have not quantified its figure. The seeing in North Carolina over the winter is not good enough to do critical star testing so I am waiting for a night with excellent seeing. I also plan to bench test the mirror with both a Ronchi grating and a Foucault tester.

To Rob Teeter, thanks for building such a fine instrument. I look forward to pushing it to its limits!

13 February 2011

Deep-Sky Planner 5 Update Status

The first major update to Deep-Sky Planner 5 is well under way. It was scheduled to be released at the end of March 2011 but will slip into Q2. This will be a major (but free) update to Deep-Sky Planner 5 not only because of features that are being added, but because the code base has been migrated through 2 major compiler upgrades. Because of the compiler upgrades this update will undergo more extensive beta testing than might otherwise be necessary.

The primary feature that is implemented and headed for field test is a new plan document/report. This will allow you to use the reference data that you see in Deep-Sky, Star, Asteroid/Comet/Planet Ephemeris reports in a single document. You will also be able to add objects to a plan document that are not in the Deep-Sky Planner database. This new document will bring other new capabilities such as automatic refresh of report data as you observe and DSS image retrieval and local storage. Other capabilities are planned but are not yet implemented. These plan documents are designed for easy online sharing and conversion from other formats.

Please stay tuned for more information as work progresses on this important update.

19 January 2011

Astronomical Sketching

A poll has been running on the Knightware website for several months that poses this question: Do you sketch observations?

The response looks like this:
Never: 42%
Seldom: 23%
Sometimes: 28%
Frequently: 4%
While the low number for frequent sketchers isn't surprising, the large number that sketch at all (55%) is.

Sketching seems like a dying art. Before the advent of photography in the 1830s, sketching was the best way to convey one's impression from the eyepiece to other people. Today's digital imaging may have displaced more sketching than any other factor.

Be that as it may, sketching is still an important skill for the astronomical observer for these reasons:

1. Sketching forces the observer to look for more detail so that it can be included in the sketch. With limited experience, this is my most compelling reason to pick up the pencil from time to time.

2. Sketches endure. Printed photographs fade over time, though archival storage helps. Black and white prints are less susceptible to fading than color prints or slides. Digital photographs may have storage problems too, but there isn't enough historical evidence to know for sure. Historians are concerned about the durability of digital photos stored on magnetic media because they definitely have a shelf life. CD-R storage is possibly the least durable medium, and many of us use them. Another concern is that digital images require software to be decoded and displayed. We all know that software and file formats change over time.

If you'd like to know more about astronomical sketches, why not check out Carol Lakomiak's monthly column in Sky At Night magazine? Each month she chooses an object and describes the materials and techniques required to produce a nice sketch.

Addendum - I received this note from Carol Lakomiak following the original post ...
  1. You don't need to be an artist to make eyepiece sketches, just learn and practice a few simple techniques. I'm self-taught and have never had any art lessons. My techniques were learned through trial-and-error... if i can do this, anyone can.
  2. Eyepiece sketches are your observations, not works of art. There's no need to reproduce them in a photo program to make them pretty.. that's what we call 'astro art'. Just concentrate on recording your observations as accurately as possible, and your skill will increase with time.
Thanks Carol, and good luck to all with sketching!

09 January 2011

Deep-Sky Planner 3: The Move to 32-bit Windows

In the mid to late-90s, a lot of 16-bit applications were available to run on the new 32-bit OSes, Windows 95 and NT 4, but not so many 32-bit ones. Deep-Sky Planner 3 moved to 32 bits, taking advantage of new facilities in Windows and making full use of the wider address space. Moving to 32-bit OS was not very difficult, but following the new Windows Logo requirements proved to be a lot of work. The Logo requirements provided the formula for developing a compliant application, thereby assuring users of a consistent 'user experience'. What that really meant was that a user should know what to expect in terms of an application's user interface and its interaction with Windows. To an application developer, that was supposed to mean fewer support questions and happier customers. This tenet still guides user interface and system design in Deep-Sky Planner today.

With a larger address space available the database expanded to include variable stars, double stars and quasars. The number of objects in the database grew to 5 times its previous number to 155,582 objects. Several report sorting and filtering options were added to accommodate the new stellar catalogs, and a 'best time to observe' sort option was added that put objects in the best observing order based on one's time and place. This became a nice feature for planning a Messier Marathon or a short observing session for any particular night. Font and color selections in the application made reports customizable in appearance while retaining their memory-efficient nature. The context sensitive help system moved to WinHelp 4 - a significant improvement that required a lot of work.

This release was developed primarily with Borland C++ 5.0 and the Object Windows Library (OWL). A few utilities were developed in the new C++ Builder 1.0. This brief experience with C++ Builder demonstrated a great increase in productivity for this developer. It was obvious that the way forward for Deep-Sky Planner would include a move to C++ Builder.

The production cycle for Deep-Sky Planner 3 was really quick. The contract was signed in June 1998 and it was released on CD-ROM the following month. Advertisements began in Sky & Telescope in October 1998. Despite a large investment in development tools, the price held steady at $49.95.

01 January 2011

Deep-Sky Planner 2: The Move to Windows

Fortunately Deep-Sky Planner 1 was successful enough to warrant a version 2. In the mid-1990s, DOS was losing market share rapidly to Windows 3.1 and Deep-Sky Planner needed to make the move. I stayed with Borland tools for the move, adopting Borland C++ 4 and the Object Windows Library (OWL) for the user interface. OWL was well designed and was similar to Microsoft's MFC in its role for developers. Other new technologies adopted at the time included WinHelp for the online help system and InstallShield for the setup program. (I have long held the belief that installation programs are almost as difficult to develop and test as many applications. Installshield helped, but not much!)

Learning the Windows 16-bit API was the major learning experience for this release. I was not an early adopter of Windows - in fact, I did most of the development for version 2 on OS/2 running Windows 3.1 in a virtual DOS machine. It seemed more stable to me than developing under Windows 3.1 but it really taxed my PS/2 model 70 computer at the time. By the end of the development cycle, I moved to a Pentium machine running Windows.

Memory and disk space were still critical design constraints for 16-bit Windows. Version 2 required an 80286 CPU or above, 8 MB of memory and a whopping 3.3 MB of hard disk space. My, times have changed!

Version 2 gained planet ephemeris and events calculations that users had requested. It contained the same 31,418 deep-sky objects as version 1 and nearly the same sorting and filtering options, just presented in Windows. The program took on the usual Windows behaviors: context sensitive help via F1, the familiar main application menu structure (File, Options, Window, Help), multiple report window management (cascade, tile, etc), and customizable toolbars. By making a search query and the resulting report take on the role of a 'document', it was reasonable to make functions like File|Save and File|Print do what a user might expect with a report. This interface design took some time to evolve. It occurred to me while taking my daughter for a morning walk in the stroller - she's in college now.

Version 2 went much more smoothly on the production side. I began a long working relationship with Rick Fienberg at Sky Publishing in 1995, and he was a true pleasure to work with. The first evaluation diskettes went to Sky in July of 1995. The contract was signed in November 1996 and the copyrights registered in December. The first advertisement appeared in the January 1997 issue of Sky & Telescope. Other venerable software titles appeared in ads of that issue, including TheSky v4, Redshift v2, Voyager v2 and Guide v5. Deep-Sky Planner 2.0 shipped on 2 diskettes and went for $49.95.

By March of 1997, I created web content for the product. I wanted to be able to distribute product updates through the web, and Sky accommodated that by providing space on the skypub.com site - another first for the author of a product published by Sky.

There were eventually 2 'bug fix' updates to version 2, so the web page idea worked out well. Version 1 never needed any bug fixes, but Windows was a different beast.

Next time I'll move on to version 3 and the promise of 32-bit Windows, more catalog data and more new features.