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Cool Piece of Astronomical Software of the Day: Stellarium

September 4th, 2009. By Dave. 7,715 views.
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Stellarium (courtesy of Stellarium.org)

Stellarium (courtesy of Stellarium.org)

Ever wonder what is that third star from the right?  Could that planet be Jupiter or possibly Venus?  Or, are you just planning a stargazing trip to someplace distant sometime in the far off  future and are wondering what you can expect to see?

Then, Stellarium is just for you.

While the free downloadable software (Windows, Mac, Linux) has been around for a while, it still hasn’t hit version 1.0.  As of this article, it’s on version 0.10.2.  Still, despite my best efforts, I could not get the program to crash, and I run an old P4 1.73Ghz PC.  I can only imagine how it will work on a newer computer.

As you can see from the screen shot, Stellarium will give you a view of the night sky, as if you walked outside your home on a clear, dark night.  But, that’s just the beginning.

Aside from helping identify any planetary, nebular, galactic, or stellar object in the night sky, it will draw out the constellations, attach names to objects, and, if desired, sketch the path of the planets as they travel across the elliptic.

Though the benefits are immediate for any amateur astronomer, Stellarium makes for a great learning tool for children and teens.  For example, one concept that can be difficult to fathom involves the relative movement of the planets, stars, and moon with respect to us, and that’s simply because few of us are out at night, every night, observing.

Stellarium makes that easy.  Just launch the program, configure your location (F6 key) and enter the current date/time.  Now turn on planet trails (F4 key).  Then fast forward to midnight, using your mouse to click on the right-most arrow on the bottom menu.  Once you get to around midnight, pause.  Now, to see what the night sky looks like tomorrow, hit the “=” key(equal sign).  Or, keep the button down and watch Stellarium zoom from midnight today to midnight tomorrow to all the midnights from now until when you take your finger off the “=” key.

It’s hard to see everything at once.  But if you’re interested in observing the direct vs. retrograde movement of planets over the course of days, keep your eye on Mars.  Although this movement makes a certain amount of sense in textbooks, there’s nothing quite like taking control of the helm and seeing it happen for yourself.

Stellarium is perfect for amateur or professional astronomers, even those who have telescopes with built-in star maps.  But for those without a telescope, you can consider Stellarium a fine substitute.  Don’t know what I mean?  Power it up, use the arrow keys to navigate to someplace interesting, and hit the page-up button.  You’ll see detail that will rival some of the best amateur telescopes today, allowing you to stargaze from comfort of your living room…or computer lab.

Galileo never had it so good!

Get Stellarium here for free!

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