We are not quite at that point where you can ask your computer to swing over to the Orion Nebula and take a few shots for next weeks’ astrophotography competition – oh and a cup of Earl Grey, hot, thanks.
But every day seems to get us that little bit closer.
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If I want to know where Mintaka is in the night sky, I could start up a planetarium software program like Stellarium, or the legion other planetarium programs and web-based sky mapping sites to choose from.
But, being a ‘just point in the general direction and muck about until you find it’ type of telescope user, I’m much more interested in an objects’ alt-azimuth position from my particular location, rather than trying to set my scope to right ascension, declination settings. Seriously, I am holding off on starting my astrophotography career until those Go To computers can make a proper cup of tea.
Anyway my point is, even with all these great information resources around, things are still a bit all over the place. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one place where you could go to find out – well, anything? Wolfram Alpha seems to be taking steps in that direction. It’s kind of a front end interface drawing on a huge virtual warehouse of databases.
As well as the basic search engine, there’s a wiki sideline to all this, notably a set of Wolfram Astronomy demonstration projects here, including a downloadable 3d celestial sphere, a planet database and why not a simplified model of the Big Bang.
And it knows where you live. At least it knows where I live, I guess from my IP address, so I save a step there. Wolfram Alpha can tell me Mintaka is set to rise at 6.01pm local time, it’s 720 light years away and it will set at 6.07 am. And any time I like, I can just hit refresh and get its alt-azimuth position updated in real time. It can do the same for the planets and for the ISS too. Not too shabby.
Also useful for the casual astronomer, if you type in your city, it will give you a weather report – and even a population count if you like. And from there you might find yourself straying further off topic. For example, I now know there are 202,185 people alive named Steve – which is only 1 in every 1,173 people. Hah.
And if you do type in Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.? It says Coming right up. Can’t wait.