Monday, May 29, 2006

Stellarium: More Stellar Freeware

Stellarium Constellation Art
Stellarium is a wonderful freeware program that I learned about from Gene Harm's astronomy and Orbiter web site. I played with it for a few days last year but quickly went back to Orbiting. But this weekend, with the help of a couple of books and relatively clear late spring skies, I started my remedial astronomy program, then rediscovered and reinstalled Stellarium.

Stikky Night Skies performed as promised for both my wife and myself - we quickly learned to spot and use as guides the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, and Taurus, as well as a few key stars (Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius, Vega). Although some of these objects were already pretty familiar, we had never really used them as guides to finding other things in the sky. Some of the paper exercises were tricky "Where's Waldo" adventures with hundreds of simulated stars in various orientations. When it was time to test our new skills, the skies cooperated and we were able to spot the expected constellations and stars in our back yard (Orion and Sirius remained out of sight due to the season). Jupiter was also quite bright in the southern sky. But what were some of those other stars? A "Star Finder" wheel helped us to identify Arcturus, but there were others that we still weren't quite sure about.

Enter Stellarium. It shows an accurate and easily controlled and configured view of the sky for any desired location, date, and time. It also allows you to speed up time, configure labels, and much more (the picture shows the optional constellation art overlay - more screens at Flickr). Very cool. The sky is starting to make a lot more sense.

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