Eye on Space


Space: Bringing It All Back Home

Dec 22, 1999

For generations, astronomers gazed at the Heavens and recorded their observations. It has been, and still is, largely an enormously complex scientific discipline and a painstaking craft. New technology is now democratizing astronomy: bringing this science down to Earth! A galaxy of new software titles, powerful Web sites, and astonishing museum displays are putting the Universe at your fingertips.

I had the pleasure of recently speaking again with Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, the noted astrophysicist and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's American Museum of Natural History. In February, Neil and his colleagues will open the Rose Center For Earth and Space with a new planetarium that promises to be "unlike any other such facility in the world. In the top half of the Great Sphere, the most technologically advanced Space Theater in existence will use advanced visual technology (including a customized, one-of-a-kind Zeiss Star Projector) to create shows of unparalleled sophistication, realism, and excitement. With this high-definition system, the Hayden Planetarium will be the largest and most powerful virtual reality simulator in the world." The powerful computer displays of the Milky Way Galaxy promise to make astronomy even more popular and accessible to the public.

Twenty-five years later, I still vividly remember Neil's fascinating discourses on the prevailing theories on the creation of the Universe (and on the then-controversial theories about the existence of "black holes") when he and I rode the bus together to high school in the Bronx. Though years have passed, Neil has remained determined to popularize study of the Cosmos.

In our recent conversation, Neil pointed out that the decades of data astronomers have collected are now widely available to the public on a variety of powerful new pc-based software tools that are fairly easy to use. A myriad of web-based resources are unlocking NASA's treasures and allowing the public to participate in scientific projects, like SETI@HOME, which harnesses the power of hundreds of thousands of usually idle personal computers to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. By downloading this hugely popular screen-saver " ca participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. There's a small but captivating possibility that your computer will detect the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth."

Below are some of the software tools and links we discussed:

Starry Night

It's a treat for a novice astronomy buff to sit outside on a moon less night with a telescope and Starry Night in my laptop. With this powerful and simple software, it's easy to get an excellent sense of the stars visible in the night sky... then compare what you see with the telescope to the rich database of images of the planets, stars, and galaxies. An introduction to the stars, with 70,000 astronomical object catalogued, Sienna Soft's Starry Night software comes in a variety of "flavors": Backyard (for beginners like me) and a more deluxe package for advanced amateur astronomers. (They have a "free" demo download, so check it out!)
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Starry Night Software

The Sky >>>>

For more advanced amateur astronomers, The Sky, from Software Bisque, is astonishingly rich: with over 550 full-size photographs and thousands of smaller images... plus rich catalogs of millions of celestial bodies...connections to the Internet, etc. The Sky comes in various "levels" as the amateur astronomer's skills grow. One of the more fascinating plans of Software Bisque is to allow "astronomers at home" access over the Internet to powerful telescope fields.
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The Sky and other astronomy software from Software Bisque

by Daniel Dubno

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by Daniel Dubno