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Astronomy Day software.

Space Update Cosmyx, connect@space.rice.edu; www.spaceupdate.com. $15.

Requirements: 200-MHz processor, Windows 95 or higher/System 8.1 or higher, QuickTime 4, 64 megabytes RAM, CD-ROM drive, and 16-bit (thousands of colors) display.

WHEN THE CATAWBA VALLEY ASTRONOMY Club, my local club in North Carolina, celebrates Astronomy Day every spring, we try to have at least one computer on hand running a sky-simulation program. While effective, such software usually doesn't do much other than demonstrate the night sky. Space Update not only models the sky but also brings together pictures, movies, and data about actual phenomena that take place on Earth, on other planets, elsewhere in the galaxy, and beyond.

I liked this program right away because it runs on both PCs and Macintosh computers. I loaded it onto a 733-MHz machine with 64 megabytes of RAM running Windows 2000. Formal installation is not absolutely necessary, since the program will run directly off the CD-ROM (another useful feature), but if you want to download images and data from various Internet resources you must install the software onto a computer's hard drive. I performed the full installation on my PC, but I chose to run the program from the CD on my 700-MHz iMac.

I was amazed at Space Update's intuitive interface. The opening screen presents five icons with very clear labels: Astronomy, Sky Tonight, Solar System, Space Weather, and Space Events. The Astronomy icon took me to another set of icons, which in turn brought up brief descriptions of various objects (recently discovered objects, stars, nebulae, clusters, galaxies, and images of the Milky Way at various wavelengths) and several QuickTime animations of some celestial exotics. The movies are brief but visually engaging, as are the other images.

The Sky Tonight icon brought up a simple yet attractive sky simulator complete with animation capabilities, constellation labels and outlines, and a clickable horizon to change the observer's viewing direction. I could choose only two times of day (dawn and dusk) but that's OK for such a basic sky-map function. Actually, the "simulator" merely steps through yearlong animations created with Starry Night Pro, but I didn't realize that at first.

The Solar System icon predictably leads to loads of information about all the major planets and even asteroids. I was impressed with the virtual-reality Mars panorama from 1997's Mars Pathfinder mission. I could pan the Martian landscape by clicking and dragging a full 360[degrees]. All the other planets have equally engaging movies. I particularly enjoyed the Eros flyby sequences.

Since seeing an unexpected auroral display last fall, I like to monitor space weather. I appreciated the aurora images and movies, animations depicting the distortion of Earth's magnetic field by the solar wind, current images and movies from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, updated space-weather parameters, and other pertinent information located beyond the Space Weather icon. These images and animations are useful even if you are running the program from the CD--you just can't update them.

The Space Events icon took me to apparently up-to-date news stories related to astronomy and aerospace topics. I was reminded of the recent tragedy of the Space Shuttle Columbia by a report of the events surrounding the ill-fated craft and crew. Some of these "up-to-date" stories, however, date back to at least 2001, and I could not find a way to get any articles more recent than March 2003. These may be provided in future updates to this package. This section also contains links to various Internet resources.

On the Windows machine at work, I had no trouble updating images and space-weather data. I did not try this on my iMac, due to my relatively slow dial-up connection at home, but the program ran perfectly from the CD. My only, and admittedly very minor, gripe is that the Mac version runs in OS 9, not the latest operating system, OS X. Nevertheless, it does have superb performance in the OS 9 emulation mode called Classic.

Space Update is not an observer's program. It will most likely be favored as a hands-on attraction in a museum, observatory, or Astronomy Day display, letting visitors get information about various space-related topics. It's a must-have for science teachers! The developers clearly had teachers and students in mind as the target audience because the CD-ROM includes numerous classroom activities. The ones I looked at could be used at almost any academic level. You can bet that Space Update will be on display at our local observatory and my club's future Astronomy Day exhibits.

Review by Joe Heafner

Contributing editor JOE HEAFNER (heafnerj@ctc.net) hopes Santa will leave a new wide-field eyepiece in his stocking.
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Author:Heafner, Joe
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:776
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