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Starry, starry night, paint your iPhone blue and grey...

Mastering even the rudiments of astro navigation is still an ambition for me. Its one of those skills that really must be learned through practice – especially practice at sea.

Practical celestial navigation usually requires a marine chronometer to measure time, a sextant to measure the angles, an almanac giving schedules of the coordinates of celestial objects, a set of sight reduction tables to help perform the height and azimuth computations, and a chart of the region. With sight reduction tables, the only math required is addition and subtraction.

Using sextant swing

The Starpath School of Navigation publishes a small comparison of various hand-held celestial navigation calculators …”that are more-or-less readily available today. These devices perform most celestial navigation computations as well as solve many other general navigation tasks. Indeed, several of them are as sophisticated as most PC programs now available for comparable computations.”

You can even get FREE pdf star charts from the SFA Observatory – and together with this video from Astronomy.com that shows you how to use a star chart you can really get stuck in to your homework.

SFA Star Charts

Small handheld computers, laptops and even scientific calculators enable modern navigators to “reduce” sextant sights in minutes, by automating all the calculation and/or data lookup steps.

Of course with a laptop on board you can always check out your calculations with the greatest of ease. NightSky1I was lucky enough to download a piece of software called Starry Night many years ago, and have used it ever since to further my education in identifying the constellations and stars ….and after many years I can safely say I can identify the Plough and Orion without hesitation and without the aid of a safety net… This lack of advancement is no fault of the software, which is truly amazing, but more an indictment of my failing faculties 🙂

“This astronomy software lets you see the sky from anywhere on Earth, any solar system body, or any location up to 20,000 light-years away. View 1,000,000 stars along with 110 deep-space objects such as galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae. Navigate through space for otherworldly views of eclipses and other rare cosmic events. Click Go There and travel to the planet, moon, or star of your choice.”

There are a few alternatives to StarryNight but not as good for actual use as a navigation aid in my view. I have posted links to the CNET download site for all the software mentioned in this post – and repeat some of the comments posted there for easy reference.

NightSky2One free piece of software but slightly different in its intention is WinStars. – “This uses the latest 3D technology to show the objects of our solar system in a realistic manner. Thus, it is possible to move from one planet to another, to follow a space probe on its long voyage or to observe a celestial event from a place to which you could never go. The use of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory s DE 404 planetary theories allow us to have a precise representation of the events displayed.”

Another free download is Telescope Simulator“this displays astronomical objects as they may appear with a real telescope. Included objects in retail version are: Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Pleiades. Telescope Simulator is designed for beginner and amateur astronomers who want to better understand how the dynamics of telescopes work together to create a view. Simply click and drag the slider controls or enter data entry fields. Controls include: focal length, aperture, eyepiece focal length and apparent field of view. Calculations include: magnification, focal ratio, exit pupil, field stop and true field of view.”

If you are cool and own a Mac then Night Sky 3.3 is a ..”planetarium for Mac OS 10.2 ‘Jaguar’. Night Sky displays the night sky for any latitude, date, and time. This includes 20,000 stars (files with up to 50,071 stars available), the Messier catalog of deep space objects, the planets out to Neptune, the moon, and the sun. With registration, Night Sky can print sky displays or save to PNG and JPEG formats,’open concurrent star files, display the sky along the horizon, indicate sky regions obscured by daylight, edit star and constellation data, and facilitate the drawing of free-form lines over sky displays.”

Asynx Planetarium is ..”an amateur astronomer’s guide, showing the starscape from five earth-bound positions, including the North and South Pole. It gives real-time information on the planets of our solar system, such as azimuth and altitude, and can display the changes in the sky with the virtual time sped up or put into reverse. Another option allows the user to switch among geocentric, heliocentric, and horizontal views of the solar system

If you are truly lonely and want your laptop to talk to you then talk to Stella 2000. ..“Stella 2000 talks and teaches aloud. With complete incorporation of Microsoft Agent speech technology, animated characters guide you painlessly through the pronunciation of a myriad arcane star names and lore, and even read aloud from Astrogloss and Aspects of AstronomyComplete astronomy software suite exploring realistic skies in real time, with observing log, Sky Quiz, Live Orbits, telescope support, spoken pronunciation guide, a half-million word Encyclopedia Astronomica, and concentrated searches embracing planets, comets, asteroids, DSOs, and over 300,000 stars. An integral HTML guide to the solar system, a 1000-term astronomical dictionary, and the 2nd revised and enlarged edition of Aspects of Astronomy–a book-length primer covering topics such as “What are the Stars?”, “Choosing a Telescope”, “Cosmology”, “Dark Matter”, “Eclipses”, and “The History of Astronomy”, to name but a few–are closely coordinated with the sky display and picture windows.”

The last system of note is also free and open source and is called Stellarium“This is a planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. It is being used in planetarium projectors. Just set your coordinates and go. In version 0.10.2, a new projection mode is now available, called “Hammer-Aitoff”, which allows for very wide fields of view (up to 360 degrees). This release also includes many bug fixes and some general performance tweaks.”

Note that Stellarium is not even a 1.0 version so may cause glitches on your computer. Come to think of it – dont use any software on your computer while you are navigating unless you know for certain that it does not cause any strange glitches – press the common sense button on your keyboard if you are unsure.

Starrynight1What brought this all to mind again is that the Starry Night software is also now available – yes you guessed it – on the iPhone, that marvelous little beast that you either hate or love – but only with a passion.

As with the PC version you can use Starry Night Mobile to view the sky for any date / time (10 years past and future) and from any location on Earth. Identify constellations, planets, stars, and other objects. Use advanced Google location search. Set location by zip code, address or landmark. Change aspect ratio to optimize for portrait or landscape viewing. Zoom in on any area of the sky to identify nebulas, and star clusters.

…and all that while you are waiting for a signal to make a phone call!

MySkyI still love the Star Trek looking device called MySky that I blogged about a couple of years ago – much more retro than the iPhone – proves I am a geek!

Now you might think that there is nothing much to see after you have spent a boggling hour or so studying the real sky and comparing it to your StarryNight software on your laptop – but you would be wrong. Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications and you can see a list that he has published here that shows just how many events are occurring during 2010.

Just to finish you off you might like to check out the Space Top 1o’s page which has such delights as the “Astronaut-Photographer’s Best Portraits of Earth – ISS commander Leroy Chiao took more than 24,000 pictures out the window. Here are his 10 faves.” ….. or …. “Top 10 Apollo Hoax Theories – Think We Didn’t Go to the Moon? Think Again After Reviewing the Top 10 Apollo Hoax Theories!


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