Computers are very important to Astronomers. In so
many ways, this tool has worked its way into just
about every aspect from data storage and data
analysis to automatically running a specific list of
commands from across the world.
Chances are, you
know what a computer is - how else are you able to
read this! There are essentially three types of
- A computer running Microsoft Windows
- A computer running Macintosh OS X (or some
- A computer running Linux or Unix
The professionals prefer to use Unix or Linux,
mostly because all the work and software design for
governmentally funded programs exists on the Unix
platform. A perfect example is the
Image Reduction and Analysis Facility (IRAF).
This software is 100% free (paid by U.S. Tax
dollars) and is by far the best software to use for
any Astronomy related project. The problem is it can
be notoriously difficult to use, and it only just
began to support the Windows based computer.
This section will briefly introduce how computers
are used, and are divided into the following
- Planetarium Software
There is an enormous amount of data available on
the Internet, so much so that you probably don't
telescope. Chances are, any deep sky object
of interest has already been imaged. In addition,
professional research articles are also available
but you have to know where to look.
If you browse the web long enough, you will
probably find them but I have already been there as
a requisite for my coursework in Astronomy.
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Film is rarely used by professional Astronomers
today. Most of the previous plate film that has been
captured has been digitized (and available online
through the MAST website).
Images are captured by
CCD camera. Usually,
exposures are handled by
computer software. The
programs the variables like exposure
duration, filter selection, capture of the BIAS and
Flat frames (for calibration - see the
Astrophotography section for more details) and the
software does the rest.
After image capture, the data is saved always as
a FITS file. FITS stands for Flexible Image
Transport System. This file type is standard
everywhere and allows important header information
from the CCD camera to be retained. Additionally,
the image is unaltered and is in its native 16 bit
Once captured, software is used to combine,
calibrate, enhance, save-as, whatever you can think
of. There are several choices available.
Most, if not all, of these software packages
CCD control and processing. However, don't
be surprised if you see a fellow amateur astronomer
(or professional) have more than one of these
packages installed on their system.
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Just about all telescope manufacturer makes a line
telescopes with a computerized mount. While not
at all necessary, a computer controlled mount can
save a load of time but there are power requirements
to be considered. This section will assume a home
observatory or computer controlled
the patio (in other words, AC power is available).
A computer controlled
telescope works in tandem with
software. Just about every
has an advanced or professional level software that
is capable of controlling your Meade, Celestron, or
even custom made electronic mount using what is
called ASCOM standards - which is nothing more than
an open source language used by Astronomers.
Telescope control really just controls the
telescope mount. The
software works in tandem
telescope control software to:
- Ensure accuracy by tracking a guide star
- Focuses the eyepiece
- Captures the image
software was discussed in the section
above. Here is a list of a few programs that
offer a complete package, or
ASCOM Standards for Astronomy - This is
the language used by computer control and
CCD control software
DC-3 Dreams - A new company that offers
a very nice, and complete, telescope control
TheSky by Software Bisque - A very nice
planetarium package that also controls a
telescope quite well. Works well with their
There are probably others but these seem
to be the most popular among amateur
astronomers. The professionals will use
custom made software.
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- Planetarium Software:
Planetarium software shows what the night
sky will look from any location on Earth at
(just about) any time. Many of the software
makers include extra features like bonus
video CD's, telescope control, online star
updates, list of current events (in
Astronomy). There is a wide variety
available, and they are all good. Some are
more difficult to use than others, but they
all show the positions of the stars is
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The power of the Internet and high-speed Internet
access has opened the door to a growing new trend -
remote access capabilities. The idea is to have
complete control over an automated observatory from
any computer with an Internet connection. This may
seem to be overkill at first blush, but there are
some very important benefits:
- Those of us who live in the city do not have
access to dark skies - remote access eliminates
the light pollution barrier by remote control of
an observatory at a dark location.
- Cost - Astronomy gear is VERY expensive and
not everyone can afford it. Telescope time can
be purchased at very reasonable prices.
- Maintenance - You don't own the gear so you
don't have to maintain the equipment.
- Education - Astronomy students can have
greater access to a much larger selection of
- Education cont. - Not sure is
astrophotography is for you? Save a truck load
of money by practicing via remote access.
I could go on, but it is clear the benefits
of remote access are incredible.
There are several sources to learn more:
Blackbird Observatory - Ron Wodaski,
author of The New CCD Astronomy has a nice
remotely accessible observatory.
New Mexico Skies - One of the first of
its kind, New Mexico Skies offers an
Astronomy vacation as well as remote access.
DC-3 Dreams - Software to help you make
your own remotely controlled observatory.
Slooh - A new company offers remote
access as well as guided tours via computer.
Software Bisque Observatory Suite - A
complete package for telescope control,
automation and remote access.
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