Starry Night

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - Did you ever wonder what the view would be like from Pluto? Want to fly into the Sun without getting flambéed? Now you can take a virtual trip to the heavens using Sienna Software Inc.'s Starry Night Backyard and Starry Night Pro, a pair of programs that provide navigable star maps incorporating a wealth of astronomical information. The $64 Starry Night Backyard is aimed at beginning-to-intermediate stargazers; the $149 Starry Night Pro adds features for astronomers and serious hobbyists.

Both versions present a view of the night sky from any location you choose-including other planets. As you mouse over a celestial object, its name and distance from Earth appear next to it. Double-clicking on the object brings up a dialog box with extensive information about it, including distance, surface temperature, and luminosity. You can then click on the Go There button to launch an animated trip to that object. In addition to planets and stars, the star maps include constellations, comets, and orbiting satellites. If you want more information, the program accurately provides topic-specific links to NASA's Web site and to Livesky.com; the latter includes links to a variety of astronomy sites. In addition to searching for planets or satellites in the star map, you can also select them from a Planets palette.

As you move through the heavens, you can print star charts and produce QuickTime movies of your animated journey. The Backyard version limits these movies to a 320-by-240-pixel selection; in the Pro version, you can select the entire sky view.

The Backyard version includes What's Happening Tonight, a link to Livesky.com that provides information about nightly celestial events, and Interesting Events, which takes you ahead or back in time to catch eclipses and planetary alignments.

Starry Night Pro adds features for advanced stargazers and incorporates a much wider array of celestial bodies, including comets, asteroids, and Messier objects-star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies originally plotted by 18th-century astronomer Charles Messier. A night-vision option, useful when you're using your computer with a telescope, adds a heavy red cast to your display, making it easier on your eyes when you look from the screen to the sky.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Anyone with an interest in the skies above will find either version a rewarding educational experience. If you are a serious stargazer-or you want to create full-screen QuickTime movies-spend the extra money for the Pro version.

However, the Backyard version also provides lots of quality stargazing for a more affordable price.

RATING: 4.0 mice

PROS: Easy to use; thorough astronomical information; intelligent Internet links provide plenty of resources for more information.

CONS: Limited QuickTime resolution in Backyard version; some Internet features lacking in Pro version.

COMPANY: Sienna Software (416/410-0259, http://www.siennasoft.com).

COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: Starry Night Backyard, $64; Starry Night Pro, $149.

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