By Phil Plait | August 26, 2009 2:26 pm

LookUP twitter stream logo

A few years ago, when I was working on my Masters degree, I was trying to find the coordinates on the sky of a handful of objects I wanted to observe. This was a tortuous process of looking up object names, cross-referencing journal articles, hoping someone listed their position, usually not.

Just a few years later, this process got a lot easier when catalogs came online. It still was a pain, but eventually everything was collected into a single meta-database called SIMBAD, where you could enter the name of an object and it would then return almost everything you needed to know.

And now that process just got even easier. Why go to a web browser when you can use Twitter?

Stuart from Astronomy Blog and Rob Simpson have created LookUP, a twitter account. All you do is send a tweet to it with the name of your object, and it will send you a link with all the info you need. I sent it this command: @lookupastro philplait, and less than a minute later it posted this link, which had info on the asteroid 165347 Philplait, and a link to the JPL site where I could get its current position.

Very slick.

I was just thinking yesterday that it might be fun to see if we could look for some asteroids at the Dragon*Con Star Party (there are a few tickets left, too!), since the get-together is in honor of asteroid hunter Jeff Medkeff, who named asteroids after Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, Mike Stackpole, and me. Mine will have set by the time it’s dark, which is too bad. But with LookUP we’ll be able to quickly come up with other targets, I’m sure.

Fun. And, I think, a glimpse into the way astronomy will be done in the future, too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (20)

  1. Adrian Lopez

    If you’re looking for well-known objects such as planets, nebulae, galaxies and visible stars, nothing beats Stellarium for ease of use.

  2. Crux Australis

    Is there any way to increase the number of stars in Stellarium? I was looking for Neptune the other night, and I couldn’t starjump in Stellarium because I couldn’t even identify the stars.

  3. Jeremy

    I use XEphem (the best planetarium program out there, hands down) and SIMBAD in about equal measure. I suppose this service is nice, but I can’t imagine being in a position where I could “tweet” but couldn’t web browse, so I suppose I don’t really see the point.

  4. Stuart

    Jeremy, Rob has made use of the API to make it work with Twitter but the main service is via the website at http://www.jodcast.net/lookUP/ . There is also a Javascript widget to embed the search box on your own website. You can also use it via an iPhone app. One advantage over Stellarium is that it can find any name that is in Simbad or NED and can also find fairly recent supernovae and exoplanets.

  5. George F.

    I too use Stellarium and find it well-adapted to my Mac. Also ran across this little tidbit: http://www.citizensky.org/

    Any ideas Phil?

  6. Jon Blumenfeld

    Astroplanner, my friends. There is no substitute.

  7. Earthlight

    Stellarium FTW :)

    @Crux Australis I don’t think you can :(

  8. Clarification here…If you’re going to Tweet it, try @lookupastro instead.

  9. I like Google SkyMap on my Android phone. Not that I’ve ever had an opportunity to use it to find real-life heavenly bodies, though; I just use it to remind me of the night sky that I’ve been missing for the better part of a decade.

  10. When I want to see something in the sky, I visit the beach. The computer isn’t as good a place to see the sky.

  11. John Williams (8) Oops, fixed that typo. I was in a hurry heading out the door when I wrote this. :)

  12. coolstar

    Thanks Stuart, unlike the original post, that really is useful information.

  13. Ian

    I can only assume that by “a few years ago” Phil means “in the dark ages of computing.”

    I had Distant Suns on my Amiga in that long forgotten era.

    Of course, perhaps Phil was looking for secret things only the cool kids know about and never make it into common software.

  14. Jeremy


    That is, as coolstar says, significantly more useful. It looks like it would make a viable SIMBAD front end in some ways, actually, especially with that nice set of imaging output. Thanks!

  15. I’m happy enough with Starry Night Pro on my Mac.
    Glad to meet another Amiga user! I have (collecting dust these days) 3 of them! The greatest computer nobody ever heard of. That’s one of the “secret things only the cool kids know about” fer sher!

    Here’s a good list of bright targets:
    Jupiter, the Moon, Neptune, Uranus – for planets etc.
    M 13 or M15 – for globs
    M 27 or M57 – for planetary nebulae, maybe, if it’s not too light polluted…
    M 16, the Eagle nebula, maybe as well
    NGC 869, the Perseus Double Cluster
    Ceres & Vesta are a bit too close to the Sun…

    With the Moon basically full, and Atlanta next door, we’ll have to stick to bright targets. The Veil Nebula will probably not be visible. Bummer! I wonder how low the horizon is at the Observatory. Trees can be such a pain sometimes. At UVa’s McCormick Observatory, Buildings & Grounds is removing the trees on the South side of the building. W00T!

  16. I still prefer a paper atlas like the Uranometria over a computer program.

    With software you’ll have to make prints to take with you in the field anyway, as it is *NOT* a good idea to take a laptop or iPhone or whatever with you while observing and look things up in the field. The screen will ruin the dark adaptation of your eyes (even software with so called “night vision” mode – the screen is generally still too bright). One peek at a screen and your eyes need at least 20 minutes to get fully dark-adapted again.

    For pre-session planning of course, software maps can be great.

  17. Martin Moran

    @Crux Australis I think I know what you mean, go to ‘Sky and Viewing Options’ on the right, within that find the Atmosphere section and bring the light polution right down.

  18. Chris A.

    I’m partial to VizieR myself. I suppose it has a lot to do with what you’ve become accustomed to using.

  19. Phil (11) No worries Phil. We’ve got your back.

  20. 15. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum Says:
    Glad to meet another Amiga user! I have (collecting dust these days) 3 of them! The greatest computer nobody ever heard of. That’s one of the “secret things only the cool kids know about” fer sher!

    The Amiga was one of the computers I didn’t have, but would have loved to have had. I ran a Coco (Radio Shack Color Computer 2/3), but when I heard about the “Toaster”, which was Amiga based, and was used, IIRC to create the early graphics for Babylon 5, it was one of my ‘once I get rich…’ items.

    BTW, The Coco had its OS on ROM, but also could run a UNIX based system called “OS9”, which was some of the first non-BASIC programming I learned. Another specialized OS was ADOS, a customized language. I still have systems with all 3 of the OS’s, but stored due to lack of room.



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