📅 March 12, 2013
Are you an aspiring astronomer seeking greater knowledge of the heavens? Would you enjoy a quality software program that helps you locate celestial objects and provides information about them? If so, then Stellarium might become your next best friend.
Stellarium is a high-quality, open source program that acts as your personal planetarium. Packed with star facts and a slick, custom GUI, Stellarium is one of the best companions available for understanding the wonders of the night sky.
I have been using this program for a number of years, and it has served me well. Here are a few notes about my Stellarium explorations.
It’s night time, and Neptune is out there somewhere, but where? You possess your trusty star map, your telescope is pointed in the correct area, but Neptune remains elusive.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have more detailed information in order to pinpoint Neptune?
Stellarium can save the day…er, night…by providing the extra details not found on most star maps, so you can aim your telescope at exactly the right location.
Neptune is just an example. You can use Stellarium to find any celestial object. If you live in a location suffering from light pollution where only the brightest of constellations are visible, then a faint object like Neptune can be hard to find if not impossible.
Stellarium allows you to see what the night sky should look like. By searching for Neptune in Stellarium, the planet, along with all surrounding stars and constellations, will appear in their real-time positions that match the night sky from your current location. This allows you to spot objects quickly and helps you learn about the night sky as well — even on cloudy nights.
Stellarium is a freely available cross-platform program available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. Ubuntu includes Stellarium in its repository.
Stellarium is a program that is as much fun to use as it is useful. So, install and try it out for yourself. That’s where the fun lies, anyway! Best of all, you do not have to be a professional astronomer to appreciate its value. Anyone can easily stargaze with Stellarium.
Controls function as you would expect using a mouse or keyboard. Just grab the night sky and drag the mouse to move the sky. You can also zoom in and out for different views and travel through the galaxy. Unleash your inner godlike powers as you manipulate the heavens!
Where should I start? Stellarium contains a plethora of information about stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies, and starlore in one convenient location, and finding it is easy. To read information about an object, such as a star or nebula, simply click the object in the window, and its results from the internal star catalog are displayed in the upper left-hand corner of the screen.
Real Time Sky
The true value of Stellarium is its ability reflect and display the universe in real time according to your location and current time, which are both adjustable. The sky you see in Stellarium is the same sky outside. For example, as the planets move, their planetary motion is reflected in the program. You can then go outside and find the planet in the exact same part of the sky as seen in Stellarium.
This real-time sky is invaluable because you can set different times and locations in order to view past and future skies and view them from different geographic locations. Do you live in Australia? What does the sky look like from France? Are you in Canada? What constellations are visible from the southern hemisphere? Using Stellarium, you can see parts of the night sky not possible in real life.
Stellarium uses its own, unobtrusive interface that works well with the program. The focus is on the sky, and menus are hidden by default. Sky animation is fluid. Program dialogs have a transparent effect so you can see the night sky behind them while making adjustments to the program.
Stellarium runs smoothly on a netbook, so you can take it with you outside during your night viewing expeditions and use it as a live star map. There is even a night mode that turns the text red to aid night vision.
You can enable or disable aids such as constellation lines, planetary orbits, equatorial and azimuthal grids, landscapes, atmosphere, labels, and more. Lines softly glow into and out of view when enabled or disabled.
What makes Stellarium stand out is its attention to detail. Some stars even flicker! While studying the stars, I was surprised to see Stellarium send a shooting star across the screen. Nice touch!
For those rainy nights, Stellarium can function as your own personal planetarium that teaches about the night sky. The Scripts tab in the Configuration menu runs scripts that provide a guided tour of the heavens. While not many scripts are included by default, more are available online.
Now, this is educational. The Starlore tab in the View dialog allows you to customize the night sky according to the starlore of different cultures and provides information about how those cultures interpreted the night sky.
Different cultures arrange the constellations differently. For example, selecting Aztec will make Western constellations, such as Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, disappear and show Aztec constellations, such as Citlaltlachtli, instead. Lengthy descriptions of Aztec constellations are provided.
Hint: If you find yourself exploring Stellarium and wondering where Ursa Major went, try checking which starlore is enabled. This makes a difference!
If you enjoy the night sky and wish to learn more about it, Stellarium is a program you need. Not only is it fun to use, it always — Oh! There went another shooting star! — remains useful.
More information is available at the Stellarium web site.