Most kids take a passing interest in astronomy, and even most adults can glance at the night sky and pick out the Plough, Orion’s Belt and the Dog Star. To go much further requires a telescope and knowledge – and the latter is where Starry Night Backyard comes in.
In a more basic guise, Starry Night has been available since 1991 and has grown into the premier astronomy package. Now available in two flavours (Pro, reviewed in September 1999, and Backyard), it offers access to heavyweight astronomical data, but in an easily-digestible form.
Set-up couldn’t be easier: select your home location and the screen shows the sky at the current time. Drag it round so that the compass point matches the direction from your current viewpoint, and you have a mirror image of the scene beyond your window.
Stars and planets usually appear only at night-time, but not here. By changing the time-step to one hour, a few clicks on the forward button take you to the evening, or the next day or week – allowing you to make plans for future viewing.
Using a database that includes over one million stars plus all the planets, Backyard is a also very good educational tool. Constellations can be shown as basic ‘stick’ figures, as well as the characteristic illustrations.
But Backyard is far more than just an academic device. Select any planet, or one of its moons, and view the galaxy from there. See the inner and outer solar systems in moving, pictorial glory. Watch the planets trace their paths with the Earth as the static centre. Double-click on a star or planet and go there, watching the movements of the other celestial bodies as you fly, capturing the entire adventure as a movie.
Sienna Software also deserves credit for www.livesky.com, the Web site accessible from within Backyard – just point to an item and get instant information. The site also includes interesting pictures, features and a link to Britain’s Astronomy Now site.
Anyone with the slightest interest in astronomy will find Backyard rivetting; owners of a basic Meade or Bresser telescope will use it as their main source of reference.
If you want a larger star-database, more advanced star charts and constellation information, plus computerized control of a number of expensive telescopes, then look at the Pro version. If not, Backyard is the perfect astronomy companion.