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Equinox 6

When I moved over to the Mac a few years ago, I kept Windows running in a virtual machine a lot of the time. There were two programs that I just had to have going whenever I was thinking about a night’s imaging or about new scopes or cameras. One was Rod Wodaski’s CCD Calc and the other was Cartes du Ciel. Being a “switcher”, I wanted to have something native to the Mac but at the same time, I was so used to both of these and they did just what I needed them to do. But, it was time to make a switch.

I looked at a lot of options on the Mac. AstroImageBrowser provided a decent stand-in for CCD Calc. It does some things a lot better than CCD Calc, but it doesn’t do a few things that CCD Calc does or just does better. Neither program lets you see how things will look with an FOV of more than 1 degree and with today’s DSLRs and other decent-sized chips, it doesn’t take much to get larger than 1 degree. (These days, I find myself using something else, however, thanks to some recent updates to Equinox 6 - read on.)

When looking at “planetarium” software, I had a much harder time. I’ve tried Starry Night Pro on both the Mac and Windows and there was something about the interface I just couldn’t ever get my head around. The sky never seemed to move the way I wanted it to and despite giving it a solid try, it just didn’t work for me. In addition, their support of my Takahashi Temma mount was limited to Windows. I’d been a fan of TheSky for a long time, but their Mac version was very out of date. (TheSkyX is out now, but still only in the Student Edition). I trield Stellarium and Celestia and both are beautiful, but neither would let me really plan for an evening of imaging much less control the Tak mount. I looked at Voyager 4, but the price tag was a bit steep, especially since it wouldn’t control the odd Tak mount (sense a theme here?). AstroPlanner could do a lot, but I really did want more of the planetarium-style interface. It’s a neat package that I encourage folks to look at, but it’s not exactly a replacement for CdD. Oh, and yes, I did even work with CdC’s code, getting things sort-of compiled and going on OS X, but this isn’t ready for prime time (or wasn’t then). As a side note, the mount can be run via cocoaTemma if you know where you want to go by name or coordinate and I do have things going nicely on it with a PDA and TheSky Pocket Edition).

Enter Equinox 6, by Darryl Robertson. Equinox 6 has been around for awhile and I won’t pretend to say I know it’s history, but I’ve now used it for almost two years and can say I like what I see. At first, I must admit it took a little getting used to. For starters, there is a separate “main view” that shows the whole sky or whatever portion of the sky you’re zoomed to and a “scope view” that shows what should be in your telescope. It’s the “scope view” that can show the fainter stars, show camera or eyepiece overlays, etc. and it took a bit of time to get used to this split setup. Now, it doesn’t bother me and can even be a nice feature at times. In truth, it didn’t take very long to adjust (and as always, reading the manual actually helped. It’s a very nice manual.)

It’s got all the features you’d expect from a nice planetarium package (and then some!) and I encourage you to take it for a test drive even if just for these (and yes, it does even control my Tak Temma mount!). What I’d like to really point out today are one long-standing thing and two new things that I think make Equinox 6 exceptionally cool and help show what kind of product it is. These latter two things actually are evidence of the first and that is that Darryl is just the sort of guy you’d love to have writing a program you use. In my time using it, I’ve gotten to watch it grow and watch how quickly bugs are fixed and patches put out. I’ve spotted a few bugs myself and let him know either via e-mail or via the Yahoo group and patches arrive promptly. Any time you write software and certainly any time you don’t have a large development team and substantial beta-tester crew, you’re going to have bugs. (As we all know, even when you do have huge development teams, etc. bugs happen.) Bugs are part of life with software and what matters is how well and how promptly they get fixed. Darryl gets an “A” in my book here.

I’ve pitched a few ideas to him for the program and some he’s gently said “See page X in the manual -- it’s already there” and others he’s taken to heart and thought about. Some of these (and I’m certainly not the only one giving suggestions) have appeared in the program. One I particularly like is the ability to grab shots from the DSS of any FOV you want and see how your scope + camera combination will frame things. True, you may need to spend a few minutes figuring things out if you don’t have a pre-defined camera (which is really just a pre-defined sensor size), but once done you can do things like this:
That’s a nice wide view of the Veil from DSS data as it would look on my Borg 101 f/4 and QSI 540. I can swap around cameras or scopes, rotate the FOV, nudge things around, etc. and still see just how much of this target will fit without having to deal with limitations of 1 degree of FOV. When thinking about scopes or cameras, I can grab any number of targets, see just how it will fit, etc. I can also see just how faint something really is since the DSS shots are all standardized. This has been a really nice feature for me and one that makes Equinox stand out for me.

Another recent addition is the ability to superimpose information from the NOMAD star database in in the “scope view” here (I had nothing to do with this one and was just pleasantly suprised when it arrived in an update!). One potential limitation of Equinox has been that the main star database is limited to 12th magnitude stars, even in the “scope view”. 99% of the time, that’s not a limitation, but at times I’ve needed to see and/or know the magnitudes of something fainter. NOMAD is a “simple merge of data from the Hipparcos, Tycho-2, UCAC-2 and USNO-B1 catalogues, supplemented by photometric information from the 2MASS final release point source catalogue.” With it, you can get things like detailed magnitudes for stars down to 18th magnitude. Here is a shot of Equinox’s “scope view” with the filter set at 15th magnitude:

I think I’m not going to have trouble finding out any star magnitudes anymore! Of course, you can turn on or off aspects of this display, showing just the stars even if you like, etc.

As noted above, there is a lot more to Equinox 6 than just these two features as it is a mature package. What these new features help show is that Equinox 6 is continuing to evolve with slick new features being continually added. Registered users get free updates so registered users get all the bug fixes and new features. I like that approach (as it’s what I use in my commercial software.) If you’re a Mac user and haven’t given Equinox 6 a try or haven’t looked at it for some time, head on over to its site and give it a shot.