by Rex Parker
If you have been thinking about ways to improve your observing skills and get more out of the precious hours you spend under the stars, here’s something you might want to try. A few astronomy computer programs have appeared over the years which fit the niche of observation session planners. These programs generally combine databases of deep sky objects and stars along with a search engine and spreadsheet/report generator function, user-selectable search filters, and a star chart/planetarium program. However, while the concept is a good one, I have found that the star charting aspects of some of these programs leave much to be desired (e.g., DeepSky, an otherwise interesting and useful program which I have used for years).
Many of us are using Software Bisque’s excellent The Sky6 at the AAAP Observatory and/or at home. The Sky6 is a high-powered, very well-designed planetarium and charting program, especially for deep-sky objects that are hard to find visually. I recently reviewed the currently available observation planning programs and was pleasantly surprised to learn of Deep-Sky Planner 5 (by Knightware), which runs on all Windows systems, Vista upwards, including Windows 7 64-bit. More importantly, it has been developed to interface seamlessly with the Sky 6 and several other popular planetarium/charting software programs out there. You can set and modify all of the relevant search filters quickly (magnitude, RA/declin, size, object type, etc). When the database search is conducted and an NGC object of interest is selected, for example, the program automatically flips to Sky 6 with the appropriate NGC object now centered in a field of view which the user specifies. This is a really neat trick and greatly improves the usefulness of the planner software approach. Deep-Sky Planner 5 is available as a free trial (with reduced database) and as downloadable full program for $65 (CD disk version slightly more), in my opinion a good deal for what it can do for observation sessions. It can also do ASCOM-based telescope control and has other interesting features which I haven’t yet had a chance to try out
(P.S. — I am not in any way affiliated with Knightware, but I can recognize a good program when I see one!)