Looking Back, Looking Ahead – 2017 Edition

I’d like to take a little time to pause and reflect on the past year’s accomplishments, and to try to peer ahead at what I expect we will be delivering over the coming year. The future is never certain, of course, but I think it’s important to talk about where we are now and where we think we’re headed.

2016 Release Timeline for Observatory

We shipped Observatory 1.0 a little over 8 months ago on April 25. Since then we have released five updates. These updates packed bug fixes, but also many new features. We added results filtering and six more image archives to Virtual Observatory, Spotlight importers for FITS, XISF and SBIG files, a Quick Look generator for XISF files, and enhanced the drag & drop handling. For macOS Sierra we added support for its Tabs feature. We even introduced limited GPU accelerated computing to Observatory.

Observatory was featured in the November 2016 Sky & Telescope New Product Showcase. It was great to see the innovative approach to discovering, organizing and processing astronomical images being recognized in the 75th Anniversary Issue of Sky & Telescope.

Not everything did go according to plan though. With macOS Sierra, Apple introduced various regressions, including some that affected Observatory’s image browser. These regressions pushed a planned rework of the image browser to the top of our release plan. In fact, we decided to rewrite it completely, and have it ready just in time for the public release of macOS Sierra.

We are glad that we made this decision, as the new image browser and the focus bar are great improvements to Observatory. The downside was that optimizations and documentation were delayed.

The greatly enhanced documentation finally did arrive with the release of 1.0.5 on November 12, after which we were able to shift our focus to optimizations.

Looking ahead at 2017

2017 has barely begun, but I’m very pleased to share that we have some major stacking and calibration performance improvements on the way!

Optimization of these and other features of Observatory is going to be a top priority this year. Users with a dual GPU setup will be glad to hear that the ability to do the number crunching on the GPU will also be greatly enhanced. In addition to these real performance enhancements, the perceived performance will also get attention, in the form of making Observatory more responsive while the numbers are being crunched.

Observatory is going to gain several additional features, like the ability to open image documents in their own window, and we’ll be continuing to improve the overall user experience.

Beyond all that, well, I’m sure Apple has more surprises coming at us this year. We’ll try to be as responsive to them this year as we have been to the surprises last year.

Please keep in mind that this is a snapshot of our current direction, not a commitment to arriving anywhere on a particular schedule. Reliably predicting the future in that way is impossible — but I’m always happy to share which way we’re headed!


Today we released Observatory 1.0.5, an important update for PixInsight users.

In this release, we’ve added support for the XISF image format. XISF is the native file format of PixInsight, an image processing software platform designed specifically for astronomical imaging. You can now import these images in addition to FITS, SBIG, DNG, NEF, CR2, TIFF, JPG, and many more image formats.

We also added the capability to open a master image in an external editor, like PixInsight, directly from Observatory. And because Observatory now actively monitors master images to detect if they were altered or deleted, it is very easy to keep your libraries in sync with the file system.

We didn’t stop there though. We have added something that we thought PixInsight was dearly missing: Quick Look and Spotlight plugins for XISF images! This is in addition to the FITS and SBIG plugins that we added previously to Observatory. What this means is that you can preview your XISF images and display metadata in the Finder itself, and use Spotlight to find these images by some of their metadata.

Quick Look

There is more to this release than PixInsight support though, like extensive drag & drop support. You can now organize images by just dragging them to albums, or you can stack images by just dropping them on each other.

Also exciting is the new ability to drop a Finder folder onto the Observatory application icon. This will create a new library with all images in the folder and its subfolders. It’s a great way to quickly inspect last night’s images. And it can serve as a starting point for a much larger library as well.

Another bonus: greatly enhanced documentation.

Check for updates via the App Store application and read the full release notes here.


WISE: Andromeda Galaxy

We’ve just released Observatory 1.0.4 – a fresh new release with a few big things.


As soon as you select a folder, album, or smart album in the sidebar, the brand new Focus Bar will appear at the top of the browser.

Focus Bar

It gives you a good excuse to collapse the sidebar (⌘0), and focus on that one area of your library, for example a single album. If that album contains stacks, and you select one, the Focus Bar will show an additional button: Focus on Stack, which when clicked (or by pressing ^⌘[) will take your focus to the stack itself and the images it is made of.

Focus Bar: Focus on Stack

When focused on a stack, the Focus Bar displays three nifty buttons that allow you to quickly select the stack’s pick image, all images comprising the stack, or the stacked image itself.

No more inline stack expansion, which didn’t scale well, but a more focused approach.

Virtual Observatory

The Virtual Observatory has gained four more archives:

That’s a lot of extra image data, and to help you get a hold of it, you can now filter the search results. For example, if you only want to include images obtained with the Hubble ACS instrument, you might enter “ACS” in the new text field towards the bottom of the Virtual Observatory.

Filter by HST ACS instrument

Fixes, and more

We’ve made improvements throughout the application. For example, the “Edit” button in the inspectors was in the way of efficient metadata editing, so we removed it. You can now double click stacks and images to quickly focus on them. And importing folders of images doesn’t create superfluous folders in your library anymore.


Full release notes here.

Ready for Sierra

Today we released Observatory 1.0.3. As announced in the previous blog post, it now includes Spotlight Importers for FITS and SBIG files. This means that, when choosing File ▸ Get Info (⌘I) for such files in the Finder, it will now display useful information like image dimensions, exposure time, detector temperature, right ascension, declination, etc. What’s more, you can now search for this information right from within the Finder itself!

Creating a new library has been tweaked slightly, such that you don’t need to provide a name for it until you explicitly save it. A small change, but with it comes support for the Tabs feature of macOS Sierra, the next major version of OS X macOS this fall.

Observatory with Tabs on macOS Sierra beta

There are disk space utilization optimizations, Virtual Observatory returns results faster, and Observatory now displays a notification whenever there’s an update on this Observatory Blog.

Loading and displaying images is up to 40% faster. This has steadily been improving over the last few releases as you can see in the graph below. The system-level support for RAW images is inherently slower than Observatory’s FITS handling, but there’s still room for further improvements.

Image Load Performance (Late 2013 MacBook Pro)

Aside from that, you’ll see several other improvements in Virtual Observatory, importing, the sidebar, and more. For all the little details, you can head here.