Starry Night Pro - Essential Astronomy Software
Reviewed by John Rummel

Teaching astronomical concepts in the classroom has always been tricky. For this reason, astronomy education has suffered in many middle and high school curricula. The advent of the desktop computer has changed this situation dramatically. Now, using any PC, students and teachers can simulate the appearance of the night sky, and demonstrate concepts and effects that are almost impossible to visualize.

There are dozens of such programs, available for Windows PCs and Macs. They differ chiefly in three ways: 1) ease of use, 2) available features, and 3) ability to realistically portray the sky.

Starry Night Pro distinguishes itself primarily in categories 1 and 3, though it's no slouch in features. As a planetarium program, Starry Night Pro can display a beautifully drawn daytime or nighttime sky, with accurately portrayed celestial objects, both in position and appearance. With easy-to-use and intuitive VCR-like controls, you can put the sky in motion and simulate sunsets, daily motion, watch an eclipse, or simulate just about any event you can imagine. One of my favorite features, new to version 3 of SNP, is the ability to simulate the same event in two different windows on screen. For instance, simulate the June 21, 2001 eclipse from on the ground in Africa, and simultaneously watch it from outer space, and watch the moon's shadow creep across the continent.

Other demonstrations, solstice and equinox conditions, illustrations of daily and annual motion of the skies, retrograde motions of the planets, phases of the moon–and many more–are easy to set up and can be saved as documents for quick future reference.

SNP also enables you to set your viewing location to any location on the Earth, or anywhere in the solar system, whether on a planet (or moon, or asteroid, or comet, etc.), or simply floating in space watching the universe go by. Visualizing the hyperbolic path of a comet is easy when you can sit a few million miles from the sun and watch it zoom in from the depths of space, flit though the inner solar system, and depart for the outer limits again.

Constellations can be toggled on or off (using either standard astronomical patterns, illustrated figures, boundaries, or any combination of the three). SNP makes it easy to learn the constellations or simply answer the question 'what's up tonight,' or 'what was that really bright star low in the east yesterday morning?' Students can also investigate historical questions such as; did the Medes and Lydians really witness a total solar eclipse in 584 BC and put down their weapons? What celestial event might have heralded the birth of Christ?

One of the features I like best about SNP is the seamless connection to an internet resource called the Digitized Sky Survey. The DSS is an image database of the entire sky as photographed from Mt. Palomar back in the 1950's and 60's. These images have been available for years, but you needed to navigate a cumbersome form to specify what patch of sky or what image you wanted to download. With Starry Night Pro, you can zoom in on any object or area of the sky you choose, select DSS from a menu, and SNP automatically launches your web browser, goes to the DSS web site, and displays the appropriate image, at exactly the size and zoom level you had specified. The experience is akin to having a powerful telescope attached to your computer with the ability to call up images at will.

Zoom in on any solar system object and view planets from nearly any perspective. Here is a simulation of Jupiter and the Galilean moons.
Simulation of a solar eclipse as viewed from the ground in Africa, and from the sun, looking back at the Earth.
Starry Night excels as a basic planetarium program too. Learn the constellations and plan your observing.

SNP comes with a well-written and thorough user's guide and an excellent companion book written by John Mosely, professional astronomer and longtime astronomy educator. Mosely’s book provides a series of wonderful exercises to guide you or your students through such concepts as the motions of the Earth, precession, the motions of the moon, or celestial coordinate systems.

Starry Night comes in three different flavors, Beginner ($30), Backyard ($50), and Pro ($129.95). There is also a free downloadable demo available on their web site. The demo is fully functional for 30 days, giving teachers or students plenty of time to explore the features available. I would recommend at least the Backyard edition for teachers, but the Pro version is the best value. Visit the Starry Night web site and check out their comparison chart.

Starry Night is published by SPACE.COM.

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