Distant Suns on CD: A planetarium on your desktop

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, September 1994

Distant Suns 2.0 CD-ROM
from Virtual Reality Labs
$149.95 (US list)-- CD-ROM version
$69.95 (US list)-- floppy disk version

Available for Windows or Macintosh

Virtual Reality Laboratories Inc.,
2341 Ganador Ct., San Luis Obispo, CA 93401;
800-829-8754, 805-545-8515; fax, 805-781-2259.

Just as there are computer hackers, there are astonomy hackers.

I'm sure they've got their own name for themselves, but for centuries
longer than there have been personal computers, there have been avid
amateurs looking and learning about the universe that surrounds us.

They've got their own magazines, such as 'SKY AND TELESCOPE', and
businesses catering to the 'Personal Astronomy' market.

And just as personal computers have had an impact on such diverse
hobbies as quilting and composing music, they've penetrated the domain
of personal astronomy.

The personal computer lets an individual have their own planetarium...
viewing the night sky under weather conditions that are always ideal.
Want to see what the sky would have been over New York City at the
time of my birth? Easy.

Well, maybe you're more interested in the sky over Palestine on, say,
December 25th of the year 0 (or was it 3 BC?)... just as easy.

DISTANT SUNS, from Virtual Reality Laboratories, is an easy-to-use
example of the planetarium model. When you launch it, you get a view
of the stars overhead, looking north, right now... even if the Sun is
shining. You can set it up to identify the objects of your choice (
stars, constellations, planets, distant objects... it's your pick),
and set your home base. Yes, Vancouver, Toronto, or over major
Canadian cities are options.

You can move from 4,713 BC to 10,000 AD and look from hundreds of
spots on Earth, in both hemispheres. You can change your viewing
angle, and quickly center on different objects with a simple point an
click. You can even view the sky from outside the Earth.

There's a What's Up menu, giving quick tips of what's worth viewing
tonight and in the near future, and an ephemeris calculator, to create
customized tables for objects of your choice.

And lots of information, hidden away in a database: of course the
known planets and moons in our solar system. 9100 stars in our galaxy.
450 deep space objects, identified by both the Messier and NGC
standard catalogues. There are also 200
thumbnail pictures. Double click on an item
in the sky, and if available, an information window, including the
thumbnail picture pops up.

And here's where the CD-ROM version makes itslef known... while the
floppy disk version includes a mere 18 large bitmapped pictures, the
CD version expands that to over 1,300 high quality photos, many from
the spacecraft that have expanded our knowledge of the solar system.

An Events menu lets you quickly jump to a number of sky spectaculars,
and it's easy to add your own events to its list (You're sure you don'
t want the night sky when and where I was born?) In fact, the whole
interface is quite easy to learn and use.

This summer, there has been added interest in our solar system,
sparked by the Shoemaker-Levy comet's crash with the planet Jupiter.
Virtual Reality Labs has come out with a special edition of the CD-ROM
version to mark this event. The core program remains the same, but it
adds a lot of information, animations, planet-watch guides, and
teacher's guides to the spectacle.

I only have two complaints... first, while the CD-ROM version gives
the visual splendor of its many added photos, there is too expensive
compared to its floppy disk cousin. And second, with a slim, 88 page
manual, and a single CD-ROM disk, there's no need for the large box
that it ships in. In the interests of the environment, and saving me
shelf space, this is unnecessary.

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1994, as a review. A decade or so later, I've gotten a series of emails from  fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at OldSoftware.com.If you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan