Astronomy Software: Starry Night for Mac

2001 – This is the second 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

The system requirements for all versions of Starry Night (there are at least five) are identical. Pro users should expect 50-75 MB hard drive space will be needed.

Windows

Starry Night Backyard requires a PC with a Pentium or higher processor, SVGA 256 color-capable monitor or better, and Windows 95/98 or Windows NT 4.0 or later (it will not work with Windows 3.1). Requires at least 24 MB of RAM. Starry Night requires QuickTime 3 or later to run on Windows. If you do not already have QuickTime installed, you should download it.

Macintosh

Starry Night Backyard for Macintosh requires PowerPC, System 7.5 or later, and at least 24 MB of RAM.

Overview

Starry Night, a relative newcomer to the Macintosh astronomy scene, has all but eliminated the low-end competition for planetarium software for the Macintosh. It is even a serious competitor for the position held by Software Bisque’s TheSky program, which will be reviewed later in this series, but Starry Night hasn’t achieved quite that level of acceptance at this writing.

Cost

A 15-day trial of Starry Night Backyard is free for downloading at the Starry Night website. Users can upgrade to the registered version by paying the registration fee, which will allow the download to operate for more than two weeks. The MSRP for the various versions is as follows:

  • Starry Night Freeman is included with some astronomy textbooks
  • Starry Night Bundle is included with some telescopes
  • Starry Night Beginner: $29.95
  • Starry Night Backyard: $49.95
  • Starry Night Pro: $129.95

The essential differences between the versions is listed in considerable detail at this web page: http://www.starrynight.com/en/comparison_chart.html, but what it amounts to is this:

  • Free Versions: No tech support or updates available.
  • Beginner: Lets you look at the sky from earth, hides many parameter functions such as observing from other planets.
  • Backyard: Lets you control most basic functions of planetarium software such as location, adding new objects to the database, and increases the number of visible objects.
  • Pro: Gives you full control of the software engine and allows the user to control some telescope types. Adds several important astronomy catalogs to the display database, such as the Hubble Guide Star catalog.

This review will concentrate on the feature set of the Pro version, but users interested in reducing cost at the expense of the reduced feature set should visit the website for more details about the differences between the many (almost too many) versions.

Publisher’s Website

Starry Night is owned by the space interest site www.space.com, which maintains mailing lists, current news, and information of interest to space enthusiasts. The software team for Starry Night also maintains a site just for the program at www.starrynight.com.

Starry Night website in 2016

The Starry Night website in 2016.

Test Activities

Ease of Sky Navigation

All versions of Starry Night feature a toolbar that has a standard grab hand icon, which is used to “push” and “pull” the screen around, effectively changing the user’s virtual direction. This is most useful when just trying to see what is visible in tonight’s sky, but it is of limited use for research activities. You can also see objects by performing a standard Mac “find” operation (Cmd-F) and entering the name of the object or its catalog number. Then the software scrolls around the sky to the object, much like an automated telescope would, finishing with an extreme close-up zoom.

Unlike other programs that have a disconcerting jump without transitions between locations, StarryNight moves you gently from place to place. These functions are even editable in the Backyard edition and higher, so you could control how fast the sky moves, and so on. I found Starry Night’s navigation controls easy to learn and intuitive for a person used to using telescopes. I believe a beginner would find them useful as well.

Mac-like Interface

Starry Night's Mac-like interface

Starry Night Backyard’s fixed toolbar

The interface for Starry Night changes somewhat from version to version, and it is a more subtle change than merely disabling the features not allowed in the Pro version.

Starry Night Pro floating window

Starry Night Pro’s floating toolbar

For example, in Starry Night Pro 3.11, the toolbar is a floating window that can be moved around (left). In Starry Night Backyard 3.11, the toolbar is attached to the top of the current window and cannot be moved (above). I would have thought that Pro users, at least, would have the option of switching back and forth, but apparently you are stuck with whatever the developers believe is the best placement for the audience making the purchase. Within these boxes, you would (as you might expect) simply click on a value to change it, either by typing or by manipulating tiny arrows that pop up each time a variable is being adjusted.

Some of the icons are a little strange. For example, the two bomb-like icons in the Pro panel control one’s altitude above the surface of the current planet. This might be better served with an icon showing the planet beneath and an arrow that points up or down.

Menu item options change depending on the version used. For example, Constellations appears as a menu bar item in Backyard, but not in Pro or Freeman. This shifting around is confusing for users who use more than one version.

Aside from these relatively minor complaints, I found the interface clean and controllable and not overburdened with options (as happens with RedShift 3.0, for example, which is tab-happy.)

Appearance of Objects

Jupiter as it appears in Starry NightThe appearance of Jupiter in Starry Night clearly is superior to the view presented in Redshift. The image is obviously photographic (reduced 50% to keep load time down, mapped onto a three-dimensional model of the planet. [To see the reduced images at full size on a separate page, click here.]

The view degrades somewhat when the user places him or herself in orbit around the planet, such as this view looking down from above:

Jupiter as viewed from orbit

Jupiter as viewed from orbit.

The jaggies along the edge of the planet are more obvious in this view. However, there is none of the blurring of detail to make the photographic basis of the model fit the geometric model as seen in RedShift. Even polar detail, as seen above toward the left side, is marked by fine details never visible from earth.

One important difference between the versions is the way each handles display of deep-sky objects. In Freeman, which I have because my high-school astronomy textbook comes with it, an enlarged view of M101 shows essentially the same kind of data found in a large-print star atlas:

M101

I enhanced the contrast in this view to make sure it appears visible on the Web. Here is the same object from the Backyard version (reduced 50% to keep load time down):

M101 as viewed in Starry Night Backyard

M101 as viewed in Starry Night Backyard.

It really brings home the idea that these objects exist in nearly every direction of the sky when you zoom in and the photograph appears and zooms in as you go.

Draw an Analemma

Starry Night Freeman has no function for drawing and tracing an analemma, which shows the sun’s apparent change in position when viewed at the same time of day over the course of a year. Tom Hanks’ character in the recent movie Cast Away draws an analemma (which he could not do, by the way, without a functioning watch) in the cave he lives in while trapped on the island.

Starry Night BackYard's Analemma feature

Starry Night BackYard’s Analemma feature.

Starry Night Pro's Analemma feature with Path Date Stamp turned on

Starry Night Pro’s Analemma feature with Path Date Stamp turned on.

Above images reduced 50% to keep load time down.

Define Horizon

Starry Night Pro gives considerable control over the definition of the user’s horizon, allowing the user to place trees and other objects (including a Mars rover, when observing from the surface of Mars) and to adjust the height of the horizon, simulating nearby hills. A nice, easy to add feature for future versions would be to allow the user to import pictures of buildings and other structures which might get in the way.

Show Jupiter’s Moons

Jupiter’s moons are clearly labeled in all versions of Starry Night, and the Pro version allows you to invert the image as seen in many popular astronomical telescopes. The Backyard version also has border markers for binocular and Telrad views (a Telrad is a popular device for aiming amateur telescopes), and the Pro version expands the list to other finder devices and popular eyepieces.

There is no feature available for generating position vs. time charts for Jupiter’s moons (as shown in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines) directly. At least, in the Pro version it should be noted that at least Starry Night allows you to draw the paths of objects with respect to the local reference frame (as with the analemma) or with respect to the background stars (as when showing retrograde motion.)

Measure Angular Separation

An important tool for astronomy educators is the ability to measure the angular separation between objects (say, between the moon and the horizon, or between the planet Venus and the Sun). A direct tool for this feature only exists in the Pro version, which is unfortunate. This function should be included in the Freeman version for astronomy textbooks (and therefore present in all versions.) The lack of a convenient angle measurement tool limits the uses to which the program can be put in an educational/lab setting.

Adding Objects to the Database

Only the Pro version allows users to add objects to the database, by importing text files created externally to the program’s interface. Using the program’s Object Editor, you can even build up a collection of images from other sources other than those included with the program. You could include images you took yourself!

Ability to Remote-control Telescopes

Starry Night can be used to remotely control certain telescopes and read the position of a telescope from digital setting circles on some computerized telescopes.

InfoGenie™ and Astronomy describes a plugin developed to interface Starry Night, a Meade LX200 telescope, and Casady and Greene’s InfoGenie™ program (sold separately). I have not actually performed this interfacing myself (because I don’t own or have access to a Meade LX200 telescope). You need special cables and a Mac with a serial port or a USB-to-serial adapter. The interfacing should be reasonably straightforward if you are familiar with your telescope’s controls and can follow some scattered directions. You’ll need to coordinate your telescope’s manual, the instructions for installing InfoGenie, and the instructions for using the LX200 plugin simultaneously.

Realistic Sky

Starry Night’s sky is extremely realistic, including clouds in the daytime, an admirable sunset and twilight effect, the ability to add light pollution effects, and fine control over the stars’ appearance by magnitude.

Constellations

The constellation Cygnus as shown in Starry Night

The constellation Cygnus as shown in Starry Night.

Starry Night displays all of the standard constellation pictures. The images are mostly based on Bayer’s Uranometria, a 17th century star atlas with drawings many people recognize as the traditional interpretations of the constellations’ shapes.

Cygnus the Swan from Starry Night Pro (right, reduced 50% to keep load time down). Starry Night Freeman only includes these images for the zodiacal constellations, which is nearly enough excuse to upgrade all by itself.

Ephemerides

Starry Night will only export data from the object visible on the current screen, so while you do have some level of control over the data being exported, there is no way to generate simple tables of data such as the visibility of Jupiter over the next 3 months. Redshift 3.0, for example, provides several Ephemerides functions, so that is a feature that the folks developing Starry Night have definitely overlooked.

Sky Charts

Starry Night produces Sky Charts, but the user has limited control over what they contain. They essentially mimic the user’s screen, so useful sky charts will involve having to figure out the field of view of your telescope and superimpose that on your screen. There is no user-configurable setup option for controlling the level of detail in the printout (such as the limiting magnitude or adjusting for a printer’s aspect ratio or printing in reverse for a transparency) so experienced users will find this feature limiting at best.

Other Features

The cutest feature in Starry Night is the “Feet” option: This orients the user to the direction of straight down by displaying a pair of red sneakers when looking at your nadir. This can be turned off if you want a totally blank sky.

An “H-R diagram profile” function fills in a graph of star luminosities and temperatures (spectral classes) with the data for the current display. This is a unique feature and useful for teaching lessons, but it appears only in the Pro version.

As with most packages of this type, internal links in the software can update the program’s databases and take the user to web pages with the latest scientific research on objects, called the “LiveSky” feature in this program.

Star images, traditionally shown to be larger dots for brighter objects on print charts, are adjustable with a “Brightness/Contrast” tool similar to those seen in image editing software programs. This is a nice way to enhance the sky’s already excellent appearance. My only quibble is that under low magnification, planets and other extended objects do not show an equivalent amount of detail as seen in the magnified views. For amateur astronomers, a small sharp view is often preferable to a large, fuzzy view, so keeping it sharp all the way down might be a good thing.

PC Version Differences

Aside from plug-in controls being more complete and available for a wider variety of telescopes, the Mac and PC versions of Starry Night Pro are identical. This is the only major planetarium software package for which this is true as far as I know (but perhaps I’ll discover others as I continue this series of reviews).

Conclusion

The Starry Night family of software is fun, easy to use, and contains a good feature set. The low-end versions lack so many features as to be nearly unusable in all but the most introductory of settings, and even the Pro version has some odd ideas about what users should and should not be able to control (such as being able to control the placement of trees on the horizon but not import your own images for that purpose). Nevertheless, the ease of use and the excellent appearance of the simulated sky, plus such nice touches as the Feet feature, user customizable images for Deep Sky objects, first-generation telescope control, and animated scrolling go-to functions make this a fun and strong contender for the low-to-middle range planetarium software market on the Mac.

Many educationally useful functions such as local vs. celestial path tracking are well implemented, although the control buttons are small enough to pose a challenge to trackpad users. Similar to the differences between Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines, the software addresses its primary market, beginning to intermediate astronomy buffs. From first glance, however, competitor TheSky is the Sky and Telescope of planetarium software where Starry Night is the Astronomy.

I would recommend this software as an excellent purchase for beginners, but if you can afford it, skip the Backyard package and go straight to Pro. It may be a little harder to handle but the extra features are worth it.


Update: Mike Parkes of Space.com, the publishers of Starry Night, wrote me to point out some errors in this review. First, it is possible to add custom sprites for use in the horizon definition (but you have to read the manual to find out how). Second, although the Pro version has a separate tool for angular measurement, the other versions can do it by clicking and dragging across the image. (This doesn’t seem to be the case for the “Freeman” edition included with my high school astronomy textbooks, and astronomy students are the ones who need the feature most.) The last point has to do with printing star charts. I stated that the program simply prints what is displayed on the screen, but didn’t say that you could control the printout in the Pro version.

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