Distant Suns. (Evaluation)
by Bruce M. Bowden
Want to get lost in space? After using Distant Suns, you may never want to return to earth.
Distant Suns simulates the appearance and features of the celestial sphere as seen from our little cosmic vantage point, the earth, with reasonable accuracy. A database of some 9100 stars stocks this electronic universe, along with Messier objects, NGC entries, deep sky objects, the planets of our solar system, the moon, and our personal star, the sun. View a swath of sky anywhere from 3 to 180 degrees in width, watch the planets move against the sidereal backdrop, see any solar eclipse as often as you like. Watch the seasonal dance of the constellations. See the sky as it appeared to long-dead observers in 4713 B.C.--Distant Suns' earliest date--or as it will appear to unborn eyes in A.D. 10000--the end of time for this program. Journey through the eons and see for yourself the procession of the equinoxes, as our planet wobbles through time and space. Glimpse the heavens from anywhere on our home planet's surface and from any epoch, unbound by the constraints of time and place.
Of course, all of the more analytic features are here--constellation lines, coordinate lines, object labels, local and celestial coordinates, tracking, and encyclopedic information. You can search for stars, constellations, Messier and NGC objects, and even userdefined objects! If you're trying to learn your way around the starscape, a flash card option paints an unlabeled patch of random sky for you.
For all its power and elegance, Distant Suns is the product of one mind, Mike Smithwick's. He originally wrote it for the Commodore Amiga during, he notes, "five years of parttime work." The Amiga version was received with wide popular acclaim. Now ported to the IBM PC, Distant Suns has all of the Amiga features and more; its praises continue to be sung. The manual itself, also written by Smithwick, is very well done, serving both to guide the user in the operation of Distant Suns and to provide a fine introduction to astronomy; an appendix even explains varieties of telescopes, so that a reader unfamiliar with these devices can make an informed purchase.
Here's my only complaint: The program must be run under Windows--an operating system for which I prefer not to pay the storage overhead. To have been given the option of a stand-alone would have been nice. But that's my only serious complaint, and a subjective one at that. It's for Distant Suns almost exclusively that Windows remains on my hard drive. So consider that to be more praise for Smithwick.
Distant Suns works best in VGA graphics mode. A fast microprocessor makes things like screen updates happen more rapidly. A fast CPU combined with a math coprocessor will make the program hum nicely. Whatever your system configuration, however. count on an extraordinarily pleasant experience.