I wrote my first astronomy application back in 1981 while I was still in University. It was for the Sinclair ZX81. A year earlier I had bought my first ever computer – a ZX80 which had a whopping 1K RAM on board. For Christmas that year, I received a 16K RAM extension board which wobbled precariously on the back of the ZX80.
Then in 1981, Sinclair released the ZX81 and a ROM upgrade to convert a ZX80 to a ZX81, along with a new keyboard overlay. This was not a keyboard as we understand it, but a rubberized affair that was not exactly responsive. The ZX80 displayed black text on a white background and the screen flashed every time you typed something.
So another mod I bought and installed was to let the computer display white text on a black background. Much easier on the eyes. You can see it bolted onto the ZX80 in this picture:
My Zx80/81 resurrected from the loft after 36 years. It still works!
On that setup I wrote my first bit of astronomy software which calculated the rise and set times of the Sun, Moon and planets and their positions in the sky. While I sold and had other smaller programs published in various computer magazines of the time, I never published my astronomy software. It never even had a name. I gave a copy to some friends in Uni who also had ZX81s. And that’s where things rested.
First App For An IBM PC: JupSat
1984 saw the appearance of the IBM PC. There’d been a Wild West for computers up till then with all sorts of models being introduced by a variety of manufacturers. IBM with its well recognized and trusted name gained a solid foothold in the corporate world. As did DOS (Disk Operating System) being bundled with PCs from a nascent Microsoft.
Screen resolution was poor by today’s standard being 320×200 or 640×200 in 16 colours. It was on such a machine that I wrote the very first version of JupSat, my app for calculating and showing the positions of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. I created newer versions of the software over the years as DOS gave way to Windows 3.1 and all the flavours of Windows since then.
The Birth of LunarPhase and LunarPhase Pro
I always had an interest in the Moon, ever since the days of Apollo and the Moon Landings. So in 1997 I set about writing what I thought would be a definitive application for predicting lunar behaviour.
Over the next 2 years, I developed the software, adding more functions into it.
Then, in 1999, disaster struck. My PC suffered a hard disk crash. No worries, I had everything backed up on Zip Disks. The Zip Drive was an external super floppy disk that could store up to 100Mb of data, nothing to to with file zipping as we know it today. Standard floppy disks could only hold 1.44Mb.
But my Zip Drive decided it was in a suicide pact with my hard drive. It too failed. And when Zip Drives failed, they trashed the Zip Drive that was in them.
In one fell swoop my original and backup copies of my software and all my important files were digitally shredded.
A tough lesson to learn. And these days I keep multiple backups of important files, some in hardcopy format and some offsite, just in case.
2 man years of development on LunarPhase went up in smoke.
I felt like throwing in the towel.
The Iomega Zip Drive
But for whatever reason, I didn’t. I rewrote LunarPhase from scratch, naming the new version LunarPhase Pro.
My astronomy apps have always had a distinctive, non-Windows look to them. I did that by design because presentation plays a role in how users interact with and like or dislike using software. That look is one of the things that sets my software apart.
LunarPhase Pro was originally developed for monitors with a 1024×768 pixel resolution. Its main screen was a fixed 800×600 pixels in size. The Lunar Explorer screen (where you can zoom in on lunar features, identify them, see near and far-side features, etc) was originally the same size.
But as monitor resolutions started to increase, I added larger screen options for the Lunar Explorer.
Now, with the release of LunarPhase Pro Version 4, a larger main screen is now an option for today’s high resolution monitors. The original 800×600 screen can look a little small on a 1680×1050 monitor, let alone a 1920×1200 or a 2560×1600 one.
Other changes to the software besides modernizing the icons include the addition of a new Moon map texture that provides a more natural looking Moon in the display.
The Moon In The News module has been rewritten from the ground up. RSS was big a few years ago. Google even provided a free reader to organize RSS feeds and display their content. But that’s gone now, just another Google service that’s been closed down over the years.
RSS readers are now very difficult to find and many sites that formerly provided feeds for their news no longer do so.
So for LunarPhase Pro 4, I created a brand new RSS Reader built right into the software. All old, defunct feeds have been pruned out and new, current, active feeds have been added. Podcast and Vodcast feeds are also included and news is broken into three sections: The Moon In The News, Astronomy & Space News and General Science News.
A similar but much less capable feature was included in LunarPhase Pro 3 but became unreliable in fetching news due to all the changes with RSS over the years.
Another module rewritten from the ground up is Astronomy Videos. In LunarPhase Pro 2 when this module was originally introduced, YouTube was a brand new company and the place to upload your videos was Google Videos (now also defunct).
Many sites also placed videos on their own sites in the RealPlayer format (.rm). I don’t know if the .rm video format is defunct but its use has all but disappeared. That resulted in such videos being removed from various sites. In some cases, the videos were made available in newer video formats and uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo. Then YouTube kept changing the video format it used and how videos could be accessed or embedded.
So, unfortunately, the Astronomy Videos module in LunarPhase Pro ceased to function. Too many changes online with how things work.
That’s now been rectified in LunarPhase Pro 4 which now uses current display technology to show videos. Right now there are 150 videos too watch about the Moon, Moon missions, astrophotography, cosmology, even docudramas such as the Space Race series from the BBC that dramatized the origins and events of the space race between the USA and the USSR from the end of World War II to the Moon Landings.
As I find more worthwhile content to watch, I’ll add it into LunarPhase Pro 4. Version 4 owners can always download the latest list of videos right from the Astronomy Videos screen.
More features will be added into LunarPhase Pro 4 in the coming months.
Filed under: Astronomy Software