Cartes du Ciel (CdC, French for Sky Maps) is fantastic....and it's free, thanks to the ingenuity and generosity of Patrick Chevalley. You can download the latest beta version (3.0.14) here. At its heart it provides a very good sky chart which, once you've entered your location, draws the night sky as you would see it. But there's lots more besides!

 

Here's a snapshot of CdC (v3.0.14) showing a view of Northern Hemisphere's winter sky, with the Milky Way stretching diagonally across it.

You can do all the normal things like pan and zoom, search for objects in its wonderful catalogues of starts and deep sky objects (it comes with some default catologues, but you can add many more, such as fainter field star catalogues). Click here to find out how.

At the bottom of the main screen shot you can see some brown shapes. These are the local horizon from my observatory (you can input this in a simple file). This is useful so that when remotely setting up an imaging session, I can be sure the object is above hills, trees and my house.

Another useful feature is the ability to configure CDC so it can show realistic images of the planets and their satellites (click on thumbnail to the right). I find this useful when trying to identify whether the 'satellites' I'm looking at in my image are really satellites or background field stars.

 

I also use CdC for controlling my telescope, a Meade LX90 (it can control most of the common telescopes). This allows you to synchronise the chart display to where the scope is pointing, as well as slew the scope to different objects. If I were using CDC alone to talk to the telescope then in the Telescope configuration panel I'd select "Meade LX200 and Autostar". As I say, there are many other protocols for different telescopes and mounts.

However......the telescope is controlled using a serial port which is connected to one of the controlling computer's COM ports. Since only one programme can control the COM port, if you are using a guide camera or something else which needs the COM port you need to find a way of sharing the port. The method I use is to use the ASCOM POTH (Plain Old Telescope Hub). I cover this elsewhere, but for now you just need to know that CDC connects to "POTH" not to "Meade LX200 and Autostar" .

For completeness, there are many other planetarium packages out there. Some are free (like Stellarium), others are expensive, but very professional (TheSky, StarryNight, etc). I've not used any of these, mainly because CdC is a) free and b) excellent!


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