Back in the 80’s a number of astronomy programs were released for the MSX home computer system to meet the star-gazing demand of MSX computer users. Developed by Paul Phillips and published in association with the London Planetarium, Mirrorsoft’s Star Seeker would eventually become the de facto astronomy software for the MSX system and not only.
Actually Star Seeker is comprised of two different programs. Star Seeker in Side A brings night-sky viewing to the domestic realm of the TV/monitor by plotting star maps featuring stars, planets, constellations and Halley’s Comet from any terrestrial coordinate at a given time (1800-2200 AD) from your preferred direction of view.
Advanced capabilities include information about stars, star position updating in time intervals (animation running @ 3.58MHz) and printing of screen dumps. Now, let’s be sensible. Not every star in the Universe would fit the limitations of 8-bit computers which is the reason why the Spectrum release notes that information is held on 500 stars in 76 galaxies. Still a whole lot of data.
Solar System, the second program in the tape (Side B), follows a similar menu structure, thus lowering its learning-curve. This time, given a location and time the program will display information on the planet of the Solar System (Pluto included), sunrise and sunset times and information about the moon and its phases. However, it’s the option to display orbital motions of the Solar System bodies and Halley’s Comet in time steps that will mesmerize the star lover in you as the animation plots the bodies’ path across the universe. Choosing the right scale will allow variable degrees of zooming and so inner or outer planets will gain more visibility. See Halley’s Comet moving away from the Solar System?
Now, why is that precise date and time chose for the screenshots? A random choice? Not even close. In February 9th 1986 Halley’s Comet passed the perihelion, that is, the closest it would get to our star in the Solar System, the Sun. And Lat 53.3 Lon -3.8 presumably was the abode of Paul Phillips back in 1983 according to the ad printed in the November 1983 Popular Computing Weekly issue where Paul would advertise his ZX Spectrum 48K computer programs Constructor and Chars 3. So this is my little homage to the developer of Star Seeker.
There is also the unresolved issue of what computer Paul Phillips originally programmed Star Seeker for. From the screen capture at the program’s page in World of Spectrum it is observable that the program interface is different from that of the MSX release. In addition to this, Star Seeker was published for the BBC B, Commodore 64 and Electron platforms as well. So it might have been for any of those computers.
Star Seeker gained considerable exposure in MSX printed media. While my observation draws basically from Spanish MSX magazines and British Spectrum magazines, further research should be done in order to gather more information about the reach of Mirrorsoft’s title in non-Spanish MSX printed media or 8-bit computing magazines at large.
A pre-release advert, the first reference to Star Seeker dates from August 1984 and was published in Computer & Video Games whereas Home Computing Weekly hosted the first full-page ad in its April 1985 issue. In the following monthly issue Home Computing Weekly published the first review of Star Seeker.
It would take one year and four months for Star Seeker to reach the Spanish shore. Edited by Manhattan Transfer, the 1986 September issue 22 of MSX Extra would briefly review (1-column article) the program describing it as an “excellent astronomy starter program […] designed with a high didactical sense and great graphical neatness”.
In March 1987 Planeta-De Agostini’s Input MSX – Issue No 11 would host a 2-page review. An quote from the article reports about the “two full programs that will be of great usefulness to those initiated in astronomy as well those who want to take first steps in that ancient science”. There is a reference to the instruction manual going beyond mere program usage by providing details about stars, planets in the Solar System and astronomy.
The last two references in Spanish MSX press date from June and September 1987, respectively. MSX Magazine’s issue 25 1-page article by MSX EDISA described Star Seeker as astrology [sic] “program developed scientifically”, “a complete and accurate program” and the “program has been created with careful attention and dedication”. Finally, MSX Extra’s issue 35 expanded the article published one year earlier in issue 22 by providing a complete step-by-step analysis of the different options the program has to offer. This time “a great application program”, “an extensive instruction manual” and two “very good programs” describe the reviewer’s opinion in MSX-Extra.
Star Seeker gained visibility not only by being reviewed but by being advertised. Mirrorsoft’s title was advertised in the Spanish MSX printed media by means of ads financed by Discovery Informatic, the Barcelona-based publisher and holder of the title distribution rights for the Spanish market.
I have thought long and hard about writing an explanation of the different options in Star Seeker and Solar System. However, I have taken the decision not to into detail as both are self-explanatory and it might take the fun out of actually running them. Moreover, viewing the profusion of screenshots in slideshow mode should facilitate an understanding of the inner workings of both programs.
Last but not least, it should be noted that Star Seeker had been previously catalogued in TOSEC as Star Seeker (1985)(Mirrorsoft)(GB).dsk However, there is no trace in that disc image of the second program, Solar System. Now, thanks to MSXer nrgo, Solar System has been recovered from gathering dust and brought back to e-life. It has been only nrgo’s willingness that has made it possible for both sides of the tape to be dumped thus recreating the original contents of the cassette into two fully-functional .cas files. It is the attitude shown by nrgo and other goodwill MSX users has been and still is a key element to recover MSX software from sinking into digital oblivion.
The program can be found at the Ficheros category.