Stellarium already provides an excellent graphical interface allowing anyone with an interest in Astronomy to explore the night sky on their computer or to locate objects for actual observation with a telescope or binoculars. As logical next step, individuals with a deeper interest in astronomy might want to record their observations over a period of time using a combination of textual description, sketches and photographs.
Other stand-alone programs do exist but most save one, AstroPlanner, require purchase. None integrate with Stellarium. The goal here is to produce a solution that:
- is easy enough for a beginner to use
- has enough functionality to satisfy an intermediate user
- integrates functionally and visually with Stellarium
- allows the user to preserve their observational data
- allows the user to move their observational data between computers
Its is hoped that unrestricted access to such an application may help to encourage more individuals, particular young people into a more serious study of Astronomy.
The user interface needs to be simple to access and blend in with the Stellarium colour scheme and general screen layout. The plug-in functions could be accessed via a task bar on one edge of the screen that appears when the cursor is moved near that edge and that dis-appears when the cursor is moved away again. In that way, the plug-in remains unobtrusive during the normal use of Stellarium. The toolbar may include icons linking to the Observations, Equipment, Session and Configuration dialogues.
Optionally, access to the Observations dialogue could be provided by means of a hotkey combination (Ctrl-L or Ctrl-Alt-L). This would give the user access to the Observation Logger directly from the Stellarium Display and would be the preferred option for normal usage. Care should be taken to avoid keys used by other plugins (e.g. the originally proposed Ctrl-O combination is used by the Occular plugin).
The Observations dialogue would be the primary user interface to the plug-in and would provide a list of observation records for the currently selected object.
If no observation records for the given object exist yet, then the user would be presented with an empty list that they could populate by clicking on an 'Add Observation' button or a blank line in the listing. Either action would open up the Observation Record dialogue.
If observations for the given object had previously been recorded, then by clicking on an item in the list, the observer could bring up the previously recorded observation. Observations for the given object could be listed in date order, by observer name or a combination of both. The user could be given the ability to choose the sort order, i.e whether the list is sorted by latest or earliest observation first. Selecting an item from the list would allow the user to view and edit a previously recorded observation.
Observation Record dialogue
An observation record might include the following information:
- Name of observer
- Date and time
- Object observed
- Unique identifier, e.g. HP, Messier or other unique identifier for the object
- The object's proper name, e.g. The Great Orion Nebula
- Other object data extracted from catalogue?
- Location, could this information be extracted on demand from Stellarium's location list? For example, if I already have preconfigured locations that I use regularly, could I just select one to copy the details?
- Equipment used, A scrollable list of equipment used added from the observers inventory
- Seeing conditions
- Seeing (rating)
- Transparency (rating)
- Comment, to allow the user to provide any other relevant details
- Comments, freeform text field allowing the user to record their observations
- Image(s), to allow the user to include an astro-image or a scanned sketch (a single image may suffice here for a beginner, but it might be useful to add multiple images subject to a careful consideration of how they might be linked and stored)
An equipment (configuration) dialogue could allow the user to specify details of the equipment they own including telescopes, binoculars, eyepieces, barlows etc. A drop-down list of this equipment could be presented within the observation record allowing the user to list the equipment that was used for the observation. Clicking on the equipment item would bring up further details from the equipment specification record.
Details of the equipment would have to vary depending on type, for example:
- Type: Telescope
- Optical design (Refractor, Newtonan, SCT etc)
- Focal Length
- Focal ratio
- Type: Binoculars
- Type: Naked eye
- Type: Mount
- Design: tripod, pier
- Orientation: alt/az, equatorial
- Tracking (yes/no)
- Goto (yes/no)
- Type: Eyepiece
- Focal length
- Type: Barlow
- Magnification factor (x2, x2.5, x3, x5 etc)
- Type: Filter
- Size (1.5in, 2in)
- Wavelength (R, G, B, ND, OIII etc)
- Type: Accessory
- This would be the 'catchall' category
These details could perhaps be stored in an INI file.
This dialogue would allow the user to plan an observation session. I propose three options representing three levels of complexity. The first, the beginner choice, would be a simple one button click that would automatically generate a list of the 10-20 objects of most interest in the currently visible hemisphere. These would be easy objects such as the moon, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, M42, the Pleiades cluster, Hercules cluster and other relatively easy objects.
The second level would allow the user to choose a specific constellation and this time, the list would be populated with 10-20 objects of most interest within that constellation boundary. Naturally, in this instance some of the objects would be more difficult to observe as the search is limited to a much smaller area of the sky. The objects here might include some of the brighter Galaxies, globular and open clusters and also Nebulae.
The final option would be to provide a custom list allowing the user to select and add for themselves any object they choose to the list.
I think that a nice feature to include with the first two options would be to allow the user, after having automatically generated a list of objects, to then edit the list and add their own choices or remove uwanted ones if so desired. Another nice touch might be to give the observer some indication of the difficulty involved in locating a given object, i.e whether it is a naked eye, binocular or telescope object.
Having generated a list of objects to observe, the observer could then be given the option of embarking on a 'tour'. Stellarium could take them to each object in turn showing them where to find the object in the sky. The observer makes their observation, records it and moves on to the next object. The observer could skip objects by simply moving onto the next, or go back to previous ones. The observer could finish the tour whenever they liked by simply clicking the 'Exit the tour' icon. For this purpose some kind of discrete navigaton control would probably be required with icons for advance to next, return to previous, create observation record and exit the tour. In this way the observer is taken on a virtual tour of the selected objects and is given the opportunity to find and explore the real thing and then record what they have actually seen.
Printing and reporting
The observation logger should have the functionality to generate based on a template and using the information recorded in the observation record, an observation report in a pre-defined standard format. A function to print the report would no doubt also prove useful. Optionally, the ability to export the observation report to a word processor or PDF file would be advantageous.
Backup, portability and export
At minimum, it should be possible to back up the complete observation data and port it over to another computer.
- COMAST - an XML schema for amateur astronomy observations.