Astronomy Software: RedShift 3.0 for Mac

2001 – This is the first in a series of reviews of planetarium software for the Macintosh, with emphasis on its use in schools. Planetarium software, at a minimum, simulates the appearance of the night sky given certain parameters such as the date, time, and observer location.

System Requirements

  • PowerPC Mac, 90 MHz or faster
  • 16 MB RAM
  • 4x CD-ROM
  • 680 x 480 display, 256 colors
  • Internet connection for full functionality


At one point in time, RedShift was the premier planetarium program for the Mac or the PC, offering the most versatile feature set and the best looking simulations available. Flaws in the earlier 1.x and 2.x releases were corrected in the 3.0 release – but good luck finding a copy of the program. Maris has completely abandoned the Mac platform.

RedShift used to be included in the Apple education software packages, but it has since been replaced by Starry Night. If you can find a copy of RedShift 3.0 for Mac on eBay, it’s a good value if you pay less then $10 for it. While the mechanism for Internet updates still seems to be in place, I was never successful in getting it to display any data due to lack of response from Maris’s outdated and slow Web servers.

Why review an obsolete program? Because RedShift for the PC is currently on sale at version 4, and is still being marketed. This review is of the latest Mac version in existence, version 3, last published three years ago in 1998.


Maris no longer publishes RedShift for the Mac as far as I can tell (see below). To purchase this product you will need to search for it on eBay and can probably get it for $10 or less.

Publisher’s Website


Note: Netscape 4.x loads the pages slowly due to background graphics being Netscape-unfriendly. Explorer loads normally.

The links to purchase the older versions of the software do not work. If the vendor is identifiable, a visit to the vendor’s site shows they do not carry the product. (This is a problem for PC users wishing to find an older version as well.) In general, the website is poorly maintained, slow loading, and offers no way to immediately purchase the product. It is implied that older versions are still available, but no mechanism is available to purchase them. Furthermore, RedShift is at version 4 for the PC but is stuck at version 3 for the Mac. Maris is not planning (or even thinking about)a port of the version 4 software to the Mac, in either Classic or OS X mode.

Test Activities

Ease of Sky Navigation

This function is improved somewhat with a more versatile and controllable interface for moving one’s position, direction, and so on. It takes an annoyingly large number of clicks to get from one place to another or to change modes, obviously a holdover from the program’s PC origins. The find object feature works well but lacks any animation to show you how the point of view shifts; you simply click OK and you’re there.

Mac-like Interface

Although greatly improved from the 1.x and 2.x versions of the software, the interface still requires users to memorize a series of icons that look alike to be able to control the program. Many buttons appear to be 16-bit drawings similar to what appear in many DOS games, and it takes time to learn to interpret them. The controls window is now more configurable and takes up less screen real estate overall than the old version.

It is more difficult to switch to “follow planet” mode, which still makes you lose all current settings. The function still exists, but unfortunately it does not recognize the undo command, so you can still send yourself off to deep space without knowing how you got there or how to get back. Overall, the program’s interface is obviously a faithful port of a Windows application, complete with all the negative connotations that brings along with it.

Appearance of Objects

Jupiter as it appears in RedShift 3.0This illustration of Jupiter shows that RedShift’s handling of extended objects is dated. This static image of Jupiter’s surface clearly shows the Great Red Spot (lower left), but the fuzzy area just to the right of center is where the digital image used to make this model of the planet didn’t match up quite right so they blurred the image to avoid having a line stand out. Also, the image of the planet in full-screen mode is almost lumpy, which is definitely not the case with real photos of the giant planet.

Draw an Analemma

An analemma is a relatively obscure astronomy term referring to the figure 8 shape the sun makes in the earth’s sky if observed every day at exactly the same time of day. These figures were often made on the side of older globes. In order to draw an analemma, you must be able to trail behind images of the sun relative to the horizon over the course of a year. All trail images in RedShift 3 are relative to the stars, regardless of any other settings you may make, so it is not easy to draw an analemma in the sky relative to the horizon with this version of the software. I have successfully done this with earlier versions, however.

Define Horizon

RedShift 3 does not allow one to create a customized horizon to show local geography, buildings, or trees.

Show Jupiter’s Moons

Jupiter's moons as seen in RedShift 3.0
RedShift identifies Jupiter’s moons using its filter panel. The moons’ labels are easily read and can be used to identify the moons in a small telescope. However, the images in a telescope are often reversed from what they appear to be in the sky, and there is no option to simulate a telescopic view in RedShift. Neither can you generate a chart over time similar to what appears in Sky and Telescope each month, providing positions plotted against time.

Measure Angular Separation

There is no function in RedShift for measuring the angular separation between objects or for selecting two objects simultaneously, an essential tool in using simulator software for generating data for simulated experiments.

Adding Objects to the Database

RedShift 3, unlike its predecessors, allows the user to add asteroids, comets, and satellites to its database so you can keep the database current or experiment with orbital parameters. This is a great improvement over earlier versions, but it does require some technical expertise to use correctly.

Ability to Remote-control Telescopes

RedShift has no ability to control telescopes or follow their motion by remote control. In all fairness, such functions only became widely popular after this version of RedShift was published.

Realistic Sky

Sunrise and sunset effects are improved, and zooming in on objects now reveals photographs instead of drawings in many cases. While not the best sky simulator on the market today, RedShift at least gives you a feel for what the sky is like.

constellations as shown in RedShift 3.0Constellations

Constellations are depicted as either lines or drawings. The drawings are crudely executed, in contrast to the images of the constellations displayed in the program’s opening splash screen. The images often overlap, as shown in this illustration of Cygnus, the Swan.


The ephemerides, or tables of data, provided by RedShift for an object contain all the usual things like coordinates and time of day. A new feature is helpful charts showing the change in position over time. Ephemerides are printable, which is useful for simulated experiments. There is, however, no feature allowing one to either export or select and copy that data.

Sky Charts

While the Sky Charts function prints a useful header at the top of each page, the ability of the user to control the look and feel of the charts is severely limited. This is an essential function for planetarium software, as one of its primary uses is for planning a night observing. For example, in my test print the sky came out white with black stars, with apparently no way to control the background or print the inverse.

Other Features

Compared to most other software of this type, RedShift inherits its CD-ROM origins by being mostly self-contained. Extensive tutorials and online resources such as the Penguin Dictionary of Astronomy still provide useful information, although of course the software does not reflect the very latest discoveries in astronomy.

PC Version Differences

The version 4 update includes more and expanded star catalogs, some new calculation algorithms, and updates to the various disk resources such as the online astronomy dictionary. However, the basic functionality of the program appears to be unaltered. Since there is no Mac version of this software in version 4, I had to settle for the information listed on Maris’ website.


I have included RedShift in this series of reviews only for the sake of completeness and because many schools may have the earlier version and may consider attempting to upgrade.

What used to be my favorite sky simulator for the Mac has now become my least favorite. After only three years, RedShift’s feature set lags far behind other modern astronomy simulation packages. Maris’ complete lack of understanding of the Mac user, plus its limited view of “interactive” astronomy education, limits the usefulness of this product in a modern classroom. Although my school has a classroom set of the version 1.x disks left over from our initial opening, I will probably only use them as a last resort, as Starry Night and other software does a much better job.

I cannot recommend you purchase it if you can find it new. If you find a copy for a few bucks at a garage sale or wish to pursue it on eBay, it is not totally without value, particularly its online tours, dictionaries, and photo gallery. It is certainly a cut above many of the free packages manufacturers dump in the box with cheap telescopes and easily bests the crude PC software found in the tumble-bins at CompUSA.

If Maris is serious about the educational market, however, it should revise this program to bring it up to date with its competitors and make the interface more intuitive, provide for remote telescope control, and add the tools that amateur astronomers and educators need to make this the one program they have to have, for both Mac and PC users.

Astronomy Software Reviews

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