Free Internet Software Tools for Astronomy
- This list is certainly not all of the programs and websites that are out there, but includes many that I have found, and by other ASEM members, to be of great help and value (its FREE!) for learning more about, and being prepared for, observational Astronomy.
Last update - December 12, 2011
The "stand-alone's" charting apps which have been around for awhile, are always improving, and cover the various PC operating systems, and can be small apps, specific to planets, moon, etc., to full-feature star charts for everything, that include images and GOTO control for scope mounts (so equipped). The bigger ones come close, or even rival, the expensive purchased stand-alone apps, like the higher end packages from Starry Night. Starry Night can simulate as well, but so can a few free programs, such as Stellarium, which for beginners, this is the program I highly recommended to get first.
These apps are great to use to for planning and review of what has been seen, as well as to keep your interest and knowledge going. This is especially true during poor weather and full moon periods. I find most of this software to be very well done and worth using, while saving your hard-earned cash for scope/equipment instead. The number of web-based applications are growing in popularity too now, and great with the educational base, provided your the connection for downloading is high speed.
A few recommended stand-alone apps are below. There are a lots more out there, of course. Of the ones I have found, you will likely find a Yahoo user support forum that is out there too. Try a few and check them out. You will find one or two that benefit your present level of Astronomy interest and knowledge. Just know beforehand your computer speed, operating system s/w and your download speed - some of these software programs have database/catalog files that are gigantic in file size. Again, these are FREE.
Cartes (commonly called SkyCharts) - http://www.ap-i.net/skychart/start (v3, which has finally been released in Oct 2010).
This is one of the best top end free-bee charting programs out there, and has so much, it may seem a bit steep in the learning curve. As typical with other full featured charting programs, there are large supplemental data files to choose from as well (very helpful here to a high-speed internet connection). I have found that Cartes provides the best technical representation star and objects, given the catalogs installed, of the online free-charts available. Comets and asteroids can be shown as well, but you need to follow the instructions to keep their respective files up to date. The program can control scope/mounts as well, if you set-up the appropriate drivers, typical of other programs as well.
Hallo Northern Sky - http://www.hnsky.org/software.htm
This is easy a basic, quick loading, and easy to learn program that covers just everything you need for visual use/planning, but it is lagging in advanced graphical features compared to other programs now (the lack of features gives it speed of use - a good and bad thing). You can set the opening view as a default, depending upon, say your back door to your house (if facing south, showing the southern horizon at the bottom, N at the top, E on the left, just as one would see as you walked out onto your deck or in your yard. And with a quick click, this view can be changed to show N at the bottom, by hitting shift-N (or E, W, etc.), with E on the right, AND then do a File/SaveStatus. Next time you open the program, there you go. You can add and change catalogs of objects, that you could download from the website, typical of other programs out there. On stars, the base SAO will take you mag. 9.5., the TYCho catalog will go to mag 12 (which should cover most viewing opportunities). Two querks that I have been found regarding display when zooming in on a target: a specific constellation, left or right of your displayed meridian, will rotate to a view referenced to the horizon directly below the constellation. That’s related to the orthographic projection. And if you had object images enabled (FITS), you will have to wait until ALL the FITS are rendered when you are zooming into an object. Other than that, you should find this program very easy to use, very fast, and very helpful. Found this program a great tool to use for star hopping charts/checks and pre-star party planning.
[a side note here for Linux users, I have seen/used "Kstars". Check this directory site out if you are into Linux: http://edu.kde.org/kstars/index.php (there is a lot more apps in there)
This is one of the better ones out there for true moon charts, and has been under-going some significant updates and expansion in 2008. Expect this to be updated again with new images coming from the LRO that was launched with LCROSS in June of 2009. Note, there are now several levels of packages, along with image catalogs and maps, available to download. Unless you are "Lunar Nut" and want it all (nearly a half of gig with the "Pro" version), the "Light" or "Expert" versions will do you just fine. Check it out, this is a good tool to have, since you will gaze at the alluring moon from time to time.
Mars24 - www.giss.nasa.gov/tools/mars24 This is another cool program to follow current view of Mars, mapping, and all space probes. Was just updated to include the Phoenix Lander.
Meridian - http://www.cielnoir.net/Logiciels/meridian/english.html
This little program is quick to load and is very helpful for visual use in checking the current planet surface features visible and location of moons, not to mention a lot of other details, such as apparent diameter, tilt, distance to earth, set/rise times, etc. Yes, some chart and simulation programs can out do this program, but not in terms of the speed to load and present. Sometimes I have found that this is all I need for planet viewing.
Where is M13? — http://www.thinkastronomy.com/M13/index.html
This claims to be a three dimensional galactic atlas, but it is more like 2 1/2 D. Not bad for an easy program (and light on PC requirements) to give you a better perspective of distance/location of DSOs and basic star catalogs within the Milky Way, which is indeed lacking in many charting programs. The top down view of the galaxy can give you a feeling of the extent of the view of amateur astronomy of such objects.
Stellarium - http://stellarium.sourceforge.net/
This is just one awesome free program that gives a sense of being under dark skies and looking up; definitely download this one before any others! And if you don't plan to purchase Starry Night, then be sure to download this program! This is an open source" supported program, and updates are quite frequent and have added more and more details for improving the rendering of the skies and objects, and to give it even a more charting ability as well. Simulations and graphics of the planets, the planet moons, and our moon (including lunar eclipses) are really great. If you missed a lunar eclipse, because of the clouds, as usual here in St.Louis, then use this program to see what the eclipse looked like. Expanded star catalogs have been added as well, and now as you zoom in, the skies are getting very realistic with a richness of stars. In addition, the ISS and satellites are now tracked and displayed, and you can even adjust a feature to have meteors streaking across the skies as well. This is a great tool for group presentations and helping children to understand what is where and what is going on up there. Once you have it installed, periodically check for updates and new releases that add even more features. The program will work on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Celestia - http://www.shatters.net/celestia/
A heavy duty simulator of the solar system and its position relative to the galaxy and stars. Images of planets are rich, be that richness comes at a price of HD and RAM requirements. Have found that it also can provide imaging and views of comets/asteroids in and out of the solar system Comets/Asteroids will require additional files, but is great to visualize the orbit of Comets and position relative to earth.
Digital Universe Atlas (Hayden Planetarium) - http://haydenplanetarium.org/universe/
Another galaxy simulator, not as imaged rich as Celestia (yet), but has more star/DSO object located. You can get sense of Warp drive in this one. Pretty neat. Menu has been archaic in past versions.
NOTE, both Celestia and Hayden's programs are PC intensive; be sure you have a top level machine for these apps.
Google Earth - http://earth.google.com/
An online program, as Google Earth is, be sure to set-up the Sky, Moon, and Mars, in there for viewing and exploring: the planets are very interesting. The level of “charting” in the “Sky” though, to me, seems to be in the “light-weight” category (e.g., the Sky is lacking lines for RA and DEClination, but coordinates are available). None the less, Google is continuing to improve their Astronomy tools and deserves credit for the effort and blending this into their popular Google Earth.
Microsoft's World Wide Telescope - http://www.worldwidetelescope.org/Home.aspx
Not to be out done by Google, Microsoft is pushing into the pack with their version, now available in an online and offline versions. In regards to the Off-Line version, "Warning, Warning, Will Robinson", this is a VERY intensive PC program and wants everything out of your PC: you must have dual core Pentium, lots of memory (2G) and tons of hard-disk space (1G to 10G). Another example of “will Microsoft ever produce a product that is not "fatware" these days? In regards to the online version (web client), you will need to install MS Silverlight. Now I have seen the online, and it isn't too bad, and it takes a little bit getting used (it is very folder and file, or “image-box”, organized for finding and making object selections). The constellation lines are drawn a bit weird in places , but not all charts agree anyway. Bottom-line, they have done a decent outdoing Google with a Google Earth feel, and blending in features I have seen in WikiSky (see below). Worth watching too.
Sky & Telescope - www.skyandtelescope.com
(go to their OBSERVING HIGHLIGHTS page)
Astronomy - www.astronomy.com
(be sure to check out SkyThisMonth, they also have basic charts in there as well)
If you plan to look at Jupiter or Saturn, and or their moons, both sites have great Java based tools for observational planning. I would tip my hat to S&T and their tools, which I think are bit better than Astronomy mag.'s.
WikiSky - http://www.wikisky.org/
What is unique about WikiSky, is that they have some fantastic images of objects in addition to various selections of recent sky surveys, but even more so, images submitted by professional astrophotographers can be found "stacked" and to scale, allowing one to really see the details the object and its nearby stars or objects. Not too mention, there are more scientific summaries than one would ever want. Enter an object, say M13, then click on the box, you will get a new window/tab with more images and commentary. Go back to the main view, back down the magnification bar (on the left) and then check out the various wavelength views too (from the DSS globe). The commentary can be above ones head at times, but with such imaging, who cares. This is one I reference when there is a question of what one was seeing, the color, and ultimate astro-photography views. This is very interesting site too.
Sky View Café - http://www.skyviewcafe.com/skyview.php
Java based charts, sim to Astroviewer, but with more features. Not bad. Have rarely gone to this anymore with all that the stand-alone charting apps provide.
Astroviewer http://www.astroviewer.com/interactive-night-sky-map.php A quick Java-based 360 chart program showing the basics (constellations and location of primary objects and planets. Not bad, but no zoom in ability per sae. Does have a shareware downloaded version.
Popular Astronomy's website - http://www.popastro.com/
Has a quick loading page of a 360 basic chart, along with other quick tools and news.
Within Orion Telescopes & Binoculars website - www.telescope.com
their "Astronomy Learning Center" has several short and to the point observational articles (and videos, see below), and now some charting. If you missed picking up one of the magazines and want the 360 chart, check this page out:
Click on the picture, or better, click on the categories and then the number. Great aid to learning about Charles Messier and his objects. The images and commentary are kept up to date and includes brief discussion on recent science discoveries and studies
Deep Sky Browser - http://messier45.com/index.html
Charts and statistics on specific Messier objects. This, and SEDS, are both great resources to use when working on DSO lists, such as Messiers.
Art Russel's monthly star-hopping guide: http://education.gsu.edu/spehar/FOCUS/Astronomy/star-hop/Monthly/index.htm
If you are starting into the Messiers, and don't have a GoTo scope, then this is for you (oh yeah, doing it the old fashion way, but yet, you will really know where stuff is at when all said and done). With basic, small charts to guide you around, this will teach you star-hopping techniques, a trick-of-the-trade for non-GoTo scopes. Very well done, and not long to read.
This covers Weekly, Monthly, or Seasonal observational planning of objects
This is an excellent resource for noting best observation times of the ISS, Iridium Flares, and other satellites. Definitely check this forecast before heading out for solid evening. Be sure to enter/setup your observing location (you can enter in more than one, and recall them in future visits). They too have added more astronomy charts and data lately, including comets and ephemeris data of the solar system. Also, check out their page "Spacecraft Escaping the Solar System" – so how far is Pioneer and Voyageur satellities now?
Skyhound - http://cometchasing.skyhound.com/
While considered to be one of the best kept-up-to-date sources for comet information, this site also provides a monthly object list, that can be a good reference when planning a night session. Charts are available too on each current/popular "watched" comet. For smaller scope apertures (8 in ch or less?), you may want to note only those objects with magnitudes 10 or less. When looking for comet data, always check here.
Dave Miller's "The Cosmic Doorway" - http://www.cosmicdoorway.com
When he keeps this site updated (sometimes it falls out of being current), this is a great single-page reference site, with basic chart, monthly lunar calendar, and nice monthly observing lists, events, double stars, etc. Very well done for a private site, and of course, his images are linked in there too.
Spaceweather - http://www.spaceweather.com/
This is a great website to visit to see what "Space Weather" the sun is creating (as in sunspots, solar flares, and Auroras), but also this site reports on all sorts of current and new events that are expected or not expected, including lunar and solar eclipses, bright or close comets and asteroids, meteor showers, recent planet activity, etc. Short articles are available on each major event, along with images uploaded by Astro-Photographer, and links to more. Definitely a great site to check out frequently so you are informed as to what is going on up there.
Monthly Astronomy videos is in the Hubble's website, titled the "Tonights Sky"
Just beautifully done, but sometimes a bit slow and a bit on the light side. Great for true beginners and kids, but once you get going, there are more details video planning videos out there now. Not to take anything away from the Hubble site, that obviously has the best astronomy images “hands-down" around (at this point in time - with all the new satellites going up, someday...). Be sure to check the latest images posted there.
NASA's JPL site
Another one on the lighter side, and maybe topic focus than a general monthly review. And, sometimes it is in the feature box, top right, but if not, look below in their "latest" HD video collections (JPL is busy with making videos too). The HD video is even better if your download speed and system can handle it (they are using Quicktime). And as with the Hubble site, while you are in there, check out the other NASA videos (if there are clouds outside still).
Jack Horkheimer's Weekly “Star Hustler”
Although we lost Jack in 2010, his website and program has been cared forth. While lacking the "zesty" character of Jack, the site is continuing with topic videos for the week. Not bad, but not the same as before. Videos programs are available off Youtube, with links listed for both a short and long program versions. The programs can also be downloaded.
David Fuller's Weekly "Eyes on the Skies"
David Fuller, from the Chicago area, has really improved his personal video programming to the point that he is picking up sponsorship from what I read. You may start seeing him on your local PBS station here and there. He brings that energy and interest to Astronomy that Jack used to have, while being very informative for Amateur Astronomers on observing and planning, for major Astronomical objects and events for the week, both with binoculars and with telescopes. A very interesting and sometimes entertaining video to catch on a weekly basis. It is also noteworthy to note his plug for the cause of light polluted skies, at the end of his video, and his other website resources, such as his star charts, blog, and DIY pages.
You can find videos everywhere, many at YouTube, but I have found two good videos sources on scopes and Astronomy that are worth mentioning here:Within the Orion Telescopes & Binoculars website - www.telescope.com
As noted above, 'Charts and Tools', if you dig deeper in their "Astronomy Learning Center", you will find lots videos. Many give great basic reviews of scopes, recently they have added a lot of "how to" videos on operation and adjustments to the model of telescopes they sell. Definitely a hidden treasure on the web for beginners. If you are beginner, and are thinking about getting a telescope, or want to know more how they work, then I strongly recommend the video titled
The Star Party: How Scopes Work, by Bryan Cogdell.
I found this video very well presented.
After watching that video, then select the 'Video Gallery' link, located just above the video box, to access other videos Orion offers, and if you are sure you want a telescope, but don't know which one to purchase, then be sure to next watch the video The Star Party: Types Of Telescopes. This is another excellent short video that explains the workings of the 3 basic types of telescopes that a Beginner will find off the web, such as from Orion, or used. Orion's instructional videos can also be found on Youtube.
From within the 'Video Gallery' page, you might find interesting other videos they have to offer, such as those In the Field group, that discuss aligning, focusing, and care for your telescope, for starters. Very good quick and graphical instruction for those serious about getting a telescope.
One other video, that is note worthy from Orion, is the one titled The Star Party: Target - Galaxies, Nebulae, and Clusters, within their "Deep Sky" video category, that in my opinion is mis-labeled, since it really explains what telescope optical filters are and how they can improve your observing of those sometimes tough to see "Fuzzies", especially if your backyard is affected by city or commercial lights or what is commonly called "light-polluted skies". If you are just starting into Astronomy, with a new telescope, and live in a suburb, city, or under "light polluted" skies, then you really should consider a filter as an optical accessory for your scope. As the video goes on, the types of filters and their unique purpose will be explained. A filter is an accessory that I wish I had purchased a long time ago.
and finally, the PBS "Seeing in the Dark" program website
has a collection of videos on scopes and tools by Timothy Ferris as well. Sorry no cool music, but content here is also good too.
http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=ESOobservatory#grid/uploads. While these videos really have nothing to do with beginners and their telescopes, the quality and topics of these Astronomy videos, that do cover "Extremely" high gear telescopes (to say the least), are such that you should see a few, and watch for the latest, even if it is just for getting the old juices flowing and dragging that scope outside, especially on those cloudy nights. If you are viewing Orion's Nebula in the winter months, then take a look at Esocast #14 "Orion in a New Light" to see what you can't see. Just fantastic views here, and should be great on a large flat-screen TV as well.
From my experience in light polluted skies, and sometime dark skies, I found it very helpful have a handy reference, that offers more than a magazine chart, such as adjusting to the current sky view in finding the constellations, star, or object is hiding in that light-polluted sky. Running the software mentioned above on a notebook or netbook could provide such an aid, but if you don't have a notebook or you don't want to drag it out into the humid or extreme temperature nights, here is a list of few items that may help you out:Planispheres - For the beginner, and sometimes the experienced, who maybe under light polluted skies, this is a great non-techy-tool to have for getting your head straight as to where stuff is on any given hour of any given date of any given year! Looking like a circular slide-calculator, there are many out there to choose from. You can make your own from Uncle Al's Sky Wheels - www.lawrencehallofscience.org/starclock/skywheel.html, which can save you a few bucks, by downloading, printing and putting together yourself (I have found this to be a great tool when doing a kid's class on Astronomy as well). And since I mentioned it, there are many published versions out there to purchase, that come in various sizes, for specific latitudes, in various colors, like Edmund's Star & Planet locator, which usually goes for less than $5, to all sorts you will find from many websites and stores. Planets of course can't be charted easily this way, but sometimes a table is given of their location on the backside of the wheel's sleeve. For the serious beginner, I would recommend a vinyl version, so you don't have to worry about damage from dew or spills, such as 'The Night Sky Planisphere' ( www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=2363 ), or even better the 'Miller Planisphere', from Datalizer, shown on Richard Bell's website, www.richardbell.net/starmap.html , which is easier on those dark-adapted eyes with its white text/stars on a black or blue sky background. Both are available at most Astronomy stuff stores.
Monthly Sky Charts - www.skymaps.com/index.html
If you wish to keep your books or magazines inside, the Skymaps site provides a very complete 2 page printout of a monthly evening chart, with lots of help and object lists. This would be great to download once a month, and print-out as needed. If you think you will use it frequently outside thru the month, I would recommend laminating both pages together at a nearby office supply service/store for a couple of bucks.
The Sky & Telescopes Pocket Sky Atlas - www.cloudynights.com/item.php?item_id=1443
Although, this really doesn't fit in the category of "Free Internet ... Resources', I would be remiss'd if I didn't mention it for beginners. This is one of most praised and convenient atlas tools out there. While available from Sky & Telescope, it is also available just about everywhere else, and usually around $20. Its on www.skymaps.com/index.html as well. This is a very handy tool, and is more convenient than fussing around in the night with large hard-copy charts (I know first hand about that). As a review on cloudynights points out, just like most other atlas, don't leave it open or laying around during those dewy nights. By the way, skymaps also provides a great comparison table of popular sky chart publications, as well as pages of books and resources, including kids books on Astronomy, if you are thinking of helping some little one who wants to look thru the telescope too.
Smartphone Apps: If you have a smartphone, then download a star chart app on to it, and when under the skies pull it out and use it to assist in viewing the portion of the night sky to find the object you are viewing. Again, this is technically not an "internet" free-bee, but I would be re-missed again if I didn't mention it. And if you own one of these phones, the apps usually don't cost much to download (almost a free-bee), and there are many to choose from out there, that of course depend upon your phone type and carrier.
When planning to do some observing, unfortunately the weather, especially here in Missouri, must be consulted first, and usually just before you walk out the door, or load up your gear, if venturing farther out than your backyard. Besides the local TV or radio websites, the following links are a few of those I frequently check when planning to observe, a day or so before "getting out there", and here is why:
I have found this forecast to be the most reliable, while yet not 100%, in comparison to other sites/forecasts. This link will take you too the Central (or Mississippi) region. When there, put your cursor on the first time entry within the Sky Cover column, and slide it down slowly, while watching the the shading and percents (of cloudiness) change for region selected. The graphic update will change relative to your connection speed. Use the 'Go to Region' link to change the location, and use the 'Previous' and More' links to change weather aspects. I have found this to be very informative, with more details than other sites, not to mention there is much more in this website, from the top tabs, that you may find interesting and helpful too.
Clear Sky Clock for Broemmelsiek Park - http://cleardarksky.com/c/BrmmPKMOkey.html?1
This link is on ASEM's front page too. CSC consolidates the weather data to key data types for Astronomy viewing: Cloud Cover, Transparency, Seeing, Darkness (the sun and moon), and ground conditions. Detail explanations is in the page thru the links available, and you can look at other locations from selection in the upper right corner. While I really like the format here, I have found, at least for eastern Missouri, that the forecast model for Cloud Cover, Transparency and Seeing seems to be off at times. So I look at the others site first, before I look at this one, and decide if its weather forecast is acceptable or not.
Within the Accuweather satellite webpage, select the Enhanced view and then drill down to you state view by placing your mouse over the image. Notice the selection boxes that will appear. Repeat this process as far as you can go. When on your state or area, then set the image to "Play". I have found their satellite image quality here to offer one of the closest views to my location while presenting a decent contrast of cloud cover especially for the night hours, and with animation.
Accuweather also has an Astronomy Forecast page now too, that provides a convenient forecast chart and weather condition links for the current and following 4 days. Browse over to your city, then look under the 'Forecast' drop-down menu and you will find the Astronomy forecast under the 'Outdoor' items. It really doesn't say anything more that you could already figure out, but it is one of the better 'Astronomy' or "star gazing" weather site forecast pages that I have seen lately, that includes basic moon and planet date, and even some video and image links, that you may find interesting as well. A page worth checking every now and then.
WeatherUnderground - www.wunderground.com
This site really covers it all, real-time date, forecasts, and satellite images, but its the real-time cloud cover that I have found to be interesting, a bit better than others that are out there. I have found that if you allow cookies for this site, and access your city in the search box, it will show that city as a selection in the near upper left corner, and from selection, a very informative weather data and forecast page will be presented with many options, but if you next select the WunderMap, the graphic Google map will appear for your city (it should be zoomed in - if not select 'Local' when there), and if you scroll down and uncheck everything and then check 'Satellite" and scroll back up, you will see your city area and where the clouds are located. The sensitivity can be adjusted below, if that helps. Of course, representation of very thin clouds gets iffy, as with most satellite images, but all in all, this is not bad. In addition, can also get a (what I would call a near) hourly forecast for your city/location from selection of the 'Hourly' link under each day within the 5 day forecast (it is not quite hourly, but not bad either). On that page is also forecast data that you may find informative too.
Unisys Weather satellite images and loops,
for the Central Plains - http://www.weather.unisys.com/satellite/sat_vis.php?image=enh&inv=0&t=cur®ion=cp
This is a quick loading, easy to use, gathering of satellite images and weather data of the continental US and regions with loop selection (the link given is for the Central Plains). While the views do not allow for a far zoom in, I have found the IR images and the loop selection (3 or 12 hours) to be very helpful to see the direction of weather fronts, jetstreams and clouds. Just make your selection from the boxes at the top. Of course, there is a lot more in this website, such as technical forecasts and wind data, if you are interested. Again, for quick check of sat images, this is a good one.
All in all, I would recommend looking at several websites to make your own consensus as to what the weather will be when you want to be under those stars, wherever you are going.
Hope you find these sites and programs helpful in your search for the stars. I certainly did. Will update this list and commentary on a periodic basis. - Tom