Astronomy is not the most fashionable science around, but it is one of the easiest for an amateur to get involved with. Armed with a pair of binoculars, or even just the naked eye, you can see plenty of interesting things in the sky, as Patrick Moore will attest to. The problem, for the casual observer, is how to figure out what it is you are looking at. Starry Night is the answer to all your wishes, whether you are a casual observer, or an avid amateur. It is simple enough for people to use without any prior knowledge on the subject. All you need to know is roughly where in the world you are, and what time it is.
Once you have these details Starry Night produces a live sky map, giving you all the information you could want on every visible star or heavenly body. Simply hold the cursor over the object of interest and you will see its name, position, and other astronomical data. Double click on the object and you are presented with extra data relevant it. Stars have properties such as colour, temperature, radius and magnitude. Galaxies, asteroids, planets and others all have appropriate information. If, however, you would like to learn even more about an object a button, connects you to www.livesky.com. This is a Web site devoted to astronomical information, and each star, planet or comet is linked to a particular Web page, providing links to still more information. For example, if you spot a satellite circling the globe you can click on it to find its name, double click to find out the path it travels, and link to livesky to see who owns it and what it is doing. This kind of feature makes it possible for anybody, with absolutely no training, to figure out what is going on up there.
One feature that at firsrt seemed useless was the ability to view things from different planets. This turned out to be a really interesting feature, for instance viewing the earth from the moon. When you set the date to August 11, 1999 , at around 11am you can watch the moon cast a shadow across northern Europe. If you missed the real thing this is an ideal, and safe, way to re-run the eclipse viewed from the earth, moon or even the sun.
There are plenty of other features for the more enthusiastic sky-watcher who actually intends to go out at night and look at the stars. First, you need to take the information with you, and you can do that in two different ways. You can print the sky map out, conveniently in reverse colours so that you don’t use up all your sky-black ink in the first print. If you’re lucky enough to own a portable Mac, there is a special feature for using that in the field. When you’re looking at the sky your eyes need to become accustomed to the light before you can see the maximum number of stars.
This state of pupil dilation is easily ruined if you need to look at a bright screen to get your bearings. Those clever people at Sienna have added a feature that makes the screen dim and display red images. This means that your pupils don’t snap shut when you look down at your screen. It may seem dark when you view it in normal light, but the red image holds all the information of the normal screen and is quite clear when your eyes are fully adjusted.
One of the most useful of the new features is the “What’s Up Tonight?” menu option. This links you to a Web site that is like an online version of The Sky at Night, but without Patrick Moore. It gives an up-to-date list of all the things visible and interesting in the sky. Now I don’t want to take anything away from Patrick Moore, but The Sky at Night is only on once a month. The “What’s Up Tonight?” option is like having your own Patrick to guide you through the sky, and you can’t beat that. Starry Night Pro allows anybody to understand what is going on in the universe around us, and I’m sure we are all the better for it.