Online resources for the amateur astronomer

If you're looking forward to seeing Perseids this week, you might want a refresher course of mapping the sky. These sites will get you ready for any cosmic event.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
4 min read

This week, astronomers will be up in the early morning hours to see Perseids, a meteor shower that has historically proven to put on quite a show. This happens every August when Earth passes through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet.

If you're an amateur astronomer or someone looking to get started with the hobby, you might be surprised to know that there are online tools to help you tonight, when you want to see Perseids, and every other night you go in the back yard and set up your telescope.

Go star gazing

Astronomy Network Astronomy Network is a social network for astronomers. It sounds like a neat idea, but after you sign up, you quickly realize that the site has such a small community, it's tough to find value in it.

That said, Astronomy Network's forums are a great place to hang out and communicate with some of the members. If you end up making friends with some users, you can instant message each other, send direct messages, upload videos, and add images to the site. It's a full-featured social network designed specifically for amateur astronomers, but until more people join, it won't live up to its potential.

Astronomy Network
Astronomy Network would be even better with a larger community. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

CalSky CalSky is an invaluable astronomy tool. The site provides you with a search that you can modify to find exactly what you're looking for tonight. Do you want to see the International Space Station? Are you looking for meteor streams? The site will help you find it all.

When you get to the site, it determines your location. From there, it will find all the objects you search for in the night sky on a specific day (you can search for any day of the year). The site explains each cosmic event and where to find it in the sky. When you click on one of those events, it delivers a page that provides even more information. If you're serious about astronomy, this is the site for you.

Find all the celestial objects in the sky tonight with CalSky. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

EarthSky EarthSky is an informative site for amateur astronomers. The main focus of the site is podcasts, which run daily providing astronomers with news that could affect their star gazing. But EarthSky's real value is its daily "SkyWatching" feature, which provides tonight's sky conditions. Using that, you can find different visible constellations in the night sky. EarthSky is easily one of the most informative services in this roundup. Check it out.

EarthSky helps you find constellations each night. EarthSky

Google Sky Google Sky is a neat utility that helps you determine where celestial objects are before you run outside to check them out for yourself. The app lets you see constellations, planets, the solar system, an infrared view of the galaxy, and more. It works far better in the browser than Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope. And since it provides you with the exact location of stars in the sky, it should help you find what you're looking for sooner. It's a great app.

Google Sky
Google Sky shows all kinds of neat celestial objects. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Weather Underground Weather Underground is a really useful site. Once you input your location, the service will show you a visual depiction of all the celestial objects visible from your location. When you click on one of the many objects displayed in the image, you'll be taken to a page detailing its important facts. So, if you're looking for its exact location, distance from Earth, and the peak times to see it, you should be happy.

Weather Underground
Weather Underground helps you find everything in the sky. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

World of Astronomy If you're looking for an astronomy encyclopedia, the World of Astronomy is for you. Think of it as the Wikipedia of the astronomy world.

When you search for topics in the World of Astronomy, you'll find some short definitions to simple topics. But where the encyclopedia shows off is in its listing of major constellations that you can see with your telescope. It features their exact location in the sky, so you can quickly find the constellation you're looking for. World of Astronomy is worth trying out.

World of Astronomy
World of Astronomy lists several constellations. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

WorldWide Telescope Although it works best on the desktop, Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope has a great Web client that gives you the same view of the sky as the desktop version.

With WorldWide Telescope, you can choose to look through different constellations. The resource also lets you check out planets. If you want, you can even enjoy a guided tour to see the important stars and celestial objects that you don't want to miss. The online client works well, but beware that it's much slower than the desktop app. If you can download the desktop client, go with that. In either case, WorldWide Telescope will help you learn before you head to the back yard to see those stars for yourself.

WorldWide Telescope
The WorldWide Telescope is a great way to learn about the galaxy. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

My top 3

1. CalSky: It's, quite simply, an extremely useful service.

2. Weather Underground: Since it's unique to your location, you should find everything you want with Weather Underground.

3. EarthSky: It's full-featured and informative. What else could you ask for?