Ezcosmos 3.0. (simulation software) (evaluation)
by Gregg Keizer
Go outside one cloudless night and tilt back your head. Unless you live deep in the country, you'll see only a smattering of the visible stars--city lights mask the rest. It's no wonder that we don't share the awe our ancestors held of the heavens. They imagined bears and warriors, bulls and crustaceans in the sky, and built legends, mythologies, even religions around what they saw. We look up and see nothing more than a few meaningless pinpricks of light.
You can rediscover the sweep of the Milky Way and the bright path of the planets with a good telescope and the time it takes you to drive out of the city. Or you can stay at home and turn your PC into a personal planetarium with EZCosmos 3.0, a fascinating and instructive astronomy program.
EZCosmos is delightfully simple to use. From a status screen, you select such things as your location, the date, and the time. Stepping through the setup is quick; the program recognizes 1150 cities across the world and automatically takes the date and time from your PC's clock. If you want to get adventurous, you can view the skies from any place on the planet by setting the longitude and latitude, or even transport yourself back in time as far as 4000 B.C. or as far ahead as A.D. 10,000. That's especially useful for hunting down solar eclipses, past or future, since EZCosmos can animate the planets and show you an eclipse close up.
Your monitor turns into a stunning display once you leave the status screen and plot the sky. On an EGA- or VGA-equipped system, planets are color-coded, and stars appear in their true colors--Betelgeuse, a red giant, gleams red on the PC screen, for instance. As expected, CGA and Hercules modes are far less satisfactory. Constellation lines, the sun and moon, and New General Catalogue objects (nebulae, clusters of stars, and distant galaxies) complete the display.
With all this information on the screen, it's easy to go into stellar overload. EZCosmos conveniently solves the problem by letting you pare the display to the essentials--the stars. A small cursor box can be moved around the screen to identify stars and other galactic objects of interest. Mouse support--one of version 3.0's enhancements--makes it easy to move around the screen and choose objects for identification. Another way to get to where you want is with the program's fill-in-the-blank Find command, which lets you jump to stars you know by name. Although tho program offers a menu list of commands at the press of a key, I'd like a system that doesn't require me to know the names of stars, one that would let me pop up all the stars whose names begin with S when I press that key, for example.
Once you've located an object, hit the Enter key, and an information box appears, filled with such things as its magnitude (brightness), azimuth (deviation from true north), and rising/setting times. The last is especially useful for planet watching. The moon appears when appropriate and shows its phases, as well. Though the stars don't move, you can animate the planets and watch them track across the sky. The outer planets seem to barely move from month to month, while the inner worlds fairly zip through the heavens. EZCosmos makes it easy to identify what planet is where, both onscreen and in the night sky.
Extras include 40 full-color graphics of planets, star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae; extensive online help; and a filter to display only the brighter stars. In all, you have access to more than 10,000 objects in the program's database--a good start towards a guide to the galaxy. But this program is more than a sky watcher's references limited to your desktop. With version 3.0 of EZCosmos, you have the ability to generate a star map on your laser or dotmatrix printer. Maps can make your star gazing jaunts more productive.
EZCosmos brings a bit of astronomy into anyone's home. Its sights may be set too low for astronomers who have already memorized the skies, but for amateur enthusiasts, it's an enjoyable diversion and an educational voyage of discovery. More than that, it gives you an excuse to get up from your computer and go outside, to see the real interstellar sights of the night.