Shareware Shop column, Computer Shopper

April 1997


by Ken Hart


Programs That Will Put Your PC in Orbit


Space, the final frontier: Not since the first moon landings have people been so interested in the night skies. New probes are heading toward the surface of Mars, satellites may have found ice on the Moon, and “The X-Files” and “Independence Day” have made us again wonder if We Are Not Alone.


Whether you’re an astronomy fan or are simply curious about what’s out there, this month’s column has something for you. None of the programs will teach you to speak Klingonese or let you wiggle your toes in the Martian sands, but they will help you discover more about the billions and billions of objects in our little corner of space.


You can find these programs on Computer Shopper’s online forum on ZDNet/CompuServe (GO ZNT:COMPSHOP) in Library 11, Shareware Shop. They’re also available for downloading from Shopper’s own Web site ( For filenames, look at the information box near the end of this article.


Now pressurize your PC, grab your William Shatner albums, and step into the airlock.




Here’s something that will tax the IQ of even serious astronomy buffs. Astronomy Quiz is an easy-to-use Windows program that contains dozens of multiple-choice questions, separated into eight categories such as Constellations, Stars, the Solar System, and Coordinate System and Observing. If you have no idea what the last category means, here’s your chance to find out.


Many of the questions are accompanied by graphics of nebulae or planets, and you may feel you’ve stepped onto the set of “Jeopardy: 1999.” Although you will find some disappointingly easy questions in the Solar System category (“Which planet is referred to as ‘the Red Planet’?”), Astronomy Quiz has plenty of toughies. For instance, I’m pretty up-to-date on astronomy and space matters, but I was stumped by questions like “What is the major component of Mercury’s limited atmosphere?” or “In which Messier galaxy did the Hubble Space Telescope find a large ‘black hole’ in its center?” Serves me right for not reading Sky and Telescope.


Correct answers are rewarded with a smiley face and a “Star Trek”-like computer voice saying “Affirmative,” while wrong answers are accompanied by a childlike “Uh oh.” You can set an elapsed time indicator if you want to pace yourself, as well as generate a separate printout of all the questions and answers.


Astronomy Quiz is a fun program that will appeal to anyone with an interest in space. Registration is a mere $5, in return for which you’ll get the ability to use its Quiz Editor, which enables you to generate your own questions. Site licenses are available to those who want to use this in schools or on a network, and the answers are available in grading form.




If you’re concerned about what’s happening on this little blue-green planet of ours, spend a few minutes with Earthwatch. This attractive DOS program presents a colorful flat map of the world, separated by time zone. On the screen you’ll see exactly where the sun is shining at that moment (vital info for any vampires out there), along with many other tidbits of information about the day, such as the percentage of daylight, the number of days remaining until the next change of seasons (equinox and solstice), and the phase of the moon.


Earthwatch continually refreshes, so the map will gradually scroll eastward to reflect the rotation of the planet throughout the day. You’ll see the continents slowly move from darkness into daylight and back again. Small sun and moon icons on the map show their relative “overhead” position. (At the time I write this, it’s a new moon, so the moon is right next to the sun icon in the daylight.)


The Almanac view provides much of the same information, along with tidbits such as how many more minutes of daylight you have today. You can customize Earthwatch to present day/night information about any area on the planet, but further customization would have been appreciated. One annoying problem is an inaccuracy in its sunrise data: Even after you take Daylight Savings Time into account, it still seems to be an hour off.


Earthwatch probably won’t earn a permanent place on your hard drive, but it is worth checking out. The file comes with both VGA and CGA versions of the program (for anyone who’s still using 16-color monitors), and a mouse is highly recommended. Registration is $25, which will get you a user’s guide.




So you’re looking at the night sky and you’ve just seen the alien mothership arrive. What do you do? Call 911? The Air Force? Geraldo Rivera? No, you write it down in your observation log! Personal Observing Log is a tidy little Windows database designed specifically for amateur astronomers. It’s a good way not only to keep track of your sightings, but to make sure you don’t end up spotting the same items night after night.


You can record your nightly viewings of more than 1,200 selectable objects, including globular clusters, binary stars, and more than 600 galaxies. Each of the astronomical objects in the database comes with essential information such as the magnitude (if it’s a star) and its celestial position. You can add notes of up to 5,000 characters to any entry you make, and all of your reports can also be printed or exported as a text file.


If you want to focus in on a specific type of object, narrow your view of the database with existing filters, or create your own. You can also specify what type of instrument you used to view the object (e.g., binoculars, camera lens, or naked eye). Choose from among 20 configurable fields. All the objects can be sorted by name, right ascension (think of it as the celestial longitude and latitude), or Messier number (named after astronomer Charles Messier, not Mark Messier of the New York Rangers).


Unfortunately, if your knowledge of astronomy terms is weak, you won’t find much help here. Personal Observing Log would be enhanced greatly by a glossary explaining many of the labels it tosses around. The shareware version is complete as is, and carries a $10 registration fee.




Not all of the objects in the evening sky are natural. Mankind has been pretty busy over the last few decades, launching hundreds of satellites that are now parked in orbit above Earth. PC-Track is a unique program: It can map the path of up to 300 of these satellites and show you exactly where they are right now. Remember the movie “WarGames”? You’ll feel like you’re there.


Using information from NASA and other sources, PC-Track will show you the orbital path of the satellites in question, as well as a “spotlight” of the portion of the globe they can affect. You can view the 640x480 display either in 3-D format or as a flat map, which resembles something out of a Pentagon war room. It’s perfect for amateur or professional radio or weather satellite users, as well as for anyone who needs to perform orbital analyses of satellites.


Eight “Globe” views show you four different angles of the planet from two distances, presumably so you can see any exceptionally high-orbit satellites at work. Unlike some of the other programs in this group, PC-Track is extremely customizable: You can change the color or the angle of just about anything in the display. The satellites’ motion can be seen in realtime or in pre-set intervals. A simple keypress also creates a PCX screen capture of the current view.


Although this program sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, PC-Track is amazingly easy to set up. A number of satellites have already been programmed in, but you’ll have to do your own research if you want to include the latest weather satellite or a new NASA gadget. You can input satellite data from NORAD or AMSAT easily enough through the File menu.


PC-Track runs in DOS protected mode and performs quite well on the Windows desktop. The program carries a $45 registration fee, which will bring you a manual and notification of future updates. The company also advertises PC-Track Professional for $95, which boasts higher-resolution displays and improved orbital visualization.




The last program featured here is my favorite of the bunch. SkyGlobe is an extremely cool DOS program -- and, no, that’s not a contradiction in terms, you Windows snobs out there. It turns your monitor into a beautiful planetarium, with a “domed” display of the night sky. You can find the location of any constellation, planet, or one of thousands of listed stars, nebulae, and comets. Once you’ve fixed the position, it’ll be a breeze to step into your backyard and track down the real thing.


Rotate across the cosmos using your cursor keys or mouse. SkyGlobe is wonderfully configurable. Simple taps of the keyboard can remove or add planets, the Milky Way, the elliptic plane (the path that the planets of our solar system follow), the constellation lines, etc. You can move ahead or backward in time, jumping by the minute, hour, day, or year. There’s even a “Millennium” button, which does not turn you into a serial killer on Fox TV, but instead advances your view of the sky by thousands of years!


The Find button summons a huge menu of celestial objects, including over 3,200 stars. Choose the one you want and it immediately appears in the center of the screen. You can then “lock” it in that position by hitting the L key. If you’re about to head outside to compare SkyGlobe to the real sky, you can print out the current view to take with you. A pop-up menu shows you all the hotkeys at a glance, and SkyGlobe comes with a detailed manual explaining its functions.


SkyGlobe is strictly a stargazer’s tool: You won’t find information about Saturn’s rings or the number of moons around Pluto (answer: one), but it does present the clearest view of the night sky that you’ll see outside of a commercial astronomy program like RedShift. I highly recommend it. Registration is $20. In return, you’ll get a printed version of the manual and a “SkyGlobe-like” screen saver for Windows.


Now that we’re finally getting out of the cold weather, this is the right time to check out these programs and do your own exploration of the cosmos. Who knows? You might be the first to warn the world if the real “Independence Day” ever falls in our laps. Just make sure you keep a log of it!


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