What's the Internet Stellar Database all about?

This little labor-of-love of mine began all the way back in 1988.

At the time, I was in the planning stages of writing what I hoped would be the Great American Science Fiction Novel.  It was called The Pentagon War; it had nothing to with U.S. military headquarters and everything to do with five star systems at war with each other.  Even though this story featured xorn-shaped aliens from Alpha Centauri and a war started by diplomats out of mutual frustration, I still wanted it to realistically reflect what planets in those five star systems actually could be like as much as possible.

And in trying to piece together a workable reality based on what we really know about our nearby stellar neighbors, many, many simple, innocent-sounding questions came up.  How far is it from Alpha Centauri to Sirius?  How old is Alpha Centauri?  How far away from Sirius A would a planet have to orbit to receive as much light as the Earth does from the sun (i.e. how far away is Sirius A's "comfort zone")?  Would such an orbit even be possible, or would Sirius B's orbit eventually throw such a planet out of the system?  And if such an orbit were possible, how long would the "year" be on such a planet?  How big around would Sirius A appear in that planet's sky, and how bright would Sirius B be?

I looked in a star atlas.  No help there.  I looked in a stellar astronomy book by Isaac Asimov titled Alpha Centauri: The Nearest Star.  Still no luck.  I broke down and looked at the "serious" professional astronomy catalogs.  While there were catalogs that could tell me everything I'd ever want to know about one narrow aspect of lots of stars (their spectral class, for instance), nowhere was all the detailed information about individual stars available in one place!

So saying, I embarked on my first faltering steps to remedy that situation.  I started compiling something I hoped one day to publish as a reference book, entitled A Guide to Nearby Stars for Science Fiction Writers.  9 years of off-and-on labor later, it still wasn't anywhere near done.  And, worse, data on some of these stars -- particularly since Marcy and Butler detected the first extrasolar planets -- kept changing.  Even if I did find a publisher who'd want to sell my reference work, I'd have to crank out a new "revised edition" before the ink was even dry on the pages of the first one.

The logical thing to do, then, was turn this Guide to Nearby Stars into a web-searchable database, sorta like the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com).  Of course, at the time I had no idea how IMDb worked.  I'd never heard of CGI programming, and when I did, I had no idea how to convince an ISP to let me run my CGI programs on their server — especially when my CGI programs would have to read a local MS Access database that I'd need to update on a regular basis.  I ended up choosing to run my own web server out of my own house.  This meant I'd need a connection to my upstream ISP running 24 hours a day.  I'd need to get either (A) a frame relay or partial T1 connection, which costs mondo monthly bucks; (B) an ISDN line, which charges by the minute; (C) a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), which wasn't available in my area; (D) a cable modem connection, which also wasn't available in my area; or (E) a cheapo dedicated analog modem connection, which I could get for a flat residential-rate monthly fee.  Figuring a stellar database wouldn't be the kind of thing you'd get gazillions of hits on, I went with option (E).  So, in August of 1998, the Internet Stellar Database went live on an analog modem at a sluggish 28.8 KBPS.

In 2002, however, I moved to a house which was within DSL range of my phone company's central office — but which was not within the DSL service area of my then-current ISP.  Finding another ISP that would not only give me DSL service but would give me a true Static IP address and all the other things necessary to run a web server over DSL took another couple of years, but on 26-February-2005, the Internet Stellar Database began finally pushing out webpages at a decent 384 KBPS.

The Internet Stellar Database is not complete and never will be.  There are just too many stars out there to include them all.  I even chose to ignore many of the solitary red dwarfs out beyond about 20 light-years, for which there are little or no available data.  I've learned a heck of a lot about stellar astronomy as I've gone along, and I certainly have a heck of a lot more to learn.  So, dear users, your feedback would be most appreciated.

But remember: Don't ask me to "spice up" the main page (or any of the pages) with graphics.  Athough I now have the outgoing bandwidth to blast out pictures, finding the right pictures to populate this site with would be a never-ending ordeal that would please no one.  And, really, would pretty-looking animated GIFs of a smiling planet or a tap-dancing white dwarf improve the content of this website one iota?

— Roger M. Wilcox, 26 February 2005