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THE GOODS : Starry, Starry Software

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want a clear view of the night sky in Los Angeles?

Go inside and turn on your computer.

Astronomy-themed home computer programs have been on the market for several years, but the vast storage capacity of CD-ROMs has launched a new generation of starry software. Two of the more notable of the pack are “Planetary Taxi,” a whimsical program aimed at junior high and high school students, and the spectacular Russian-made “Redshift,” which turns your computer into a sophisticated planetarium.

“Planetary Taxi,” from the enterprising Voyager company in New York, depicts the solar system as a giant roadway accessible by interplanetary taxi. Your guide is Rita, a Brooklyn-accented dispatcher whose voice is a refreshing change from the bland norm of software programs that seem to get their actors from the same agency that supplies talent for infomercials.

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Rita has you choose from three taxis. The “Rookie” model provides a simple tour of the program, while “Cruiser” and “Expert” get you into the “Planetary Taxi” game.

To play, you sit in the driver’s seat with a view of a highway on a desert landscape. A passenger comes on-board and makes a request to go to a planet that meets his or her needs.

For example, a kid who can’t wait for tomorrow to go to Disneyland wants you to take him to the planet with the shortest day. An athlete wants to go where he can jump the highest and a romantic soul wants to go to the planet with the most moons.

You click in a guess at what planet they want and the taxi streaks across the highway, recording the time it takes to get there at rocket speed of about 25,000 miles per hour. If you’ve gotten the answer right, the passenger gives you a big tip. A near guess gets a smaller tip and if you’re totally wrong, you have to try again.

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The idea is to collect as much as you can in tips before racking up 50 years of travel time.

“Planetary Taxi” also includes 300 high-quality still photographs of the planets and a handful of animated sequences.

Currently, the CD-ROM is available only on the Macintosh platform for about $30. Voyager officials say a Windows version will be out by the end of the year.

“Redshift” is the first software product developed in Russia to be generally available in the West and it’s a stunner. (The program is in English and the title refers not to the favorite color of the former regime there, but to the term used to describe the increase in the wavelength of light of an object in the universe as it moves away from an observer).

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The dimensions of the program, commissioned by London-based Maris Software, are mind-boggling. The program includes depiction of a sky full of about 250,000 known stars, 40,000 deep space objects, 5,011 asteroids, the planets in our solar system and all their known moons.

“Redshift” allows you to choose any moment in time between 4,000 BC and AD 11,000 to check on the position of the planets. And it allows you to view this from more than 1,000 vantage points in the solar system.

Once you pick your time and place, you can set the planets and moons in motion to watch how they progress in relationship to each other. For example, you can choose to sit on Jupiter’s moon, Io, and watch how the giant planet would have risen up into view on the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

The view is a quantum leap up from the simple renderings of planets we studied in school. The heavenly bodies in “Redshift” are amazingly detailed, and the quality of the light shining on them changes with their movements in relationship to the sun and other objects.

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There are numerous controls to manipulate--you can speed up or slow down time, zoom in or out, or change the angle of view.

And if all this isn’t enough, “Redshift” also includes 700 full-screen photographs of planets, moons, nebulae and galaxies, and it comes with a dictionary of astronomy that includes more than 2,000 entries.

At its best, “Redshift” provides a hint of the wonder we felt as kids when staring up at the night sky.

But “Redshift” is no kiddie program and it’s not a game. It’s for serious study of the heavens, whether by professional or amateur astronomer. Once the novelty of “Redshift” wears off, those with only a passing interest in the field will probably not delve much further into it.

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But it’s undeniably spectacular and bodes well for what can be done in the future on CD-ROM.

“Redshift” is available in stores and through mail order for both Macintosh and Windows platforms for about $50.


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