In my last blog post, Stargazing for Beginners: Planning Your First Night Out, I focused on getting the most enjoyment out of your first night of stargazing. I only touched on the resources that will help you identify what you are seeing or help you to plan what to look for. Star charts and moon maps are a great start because they don't overwhelm you with too much information and are very portable. However, once you have been out stargazing, you'll probably see a whole lot of stars that you would like to identify, or you would like to know when a particular planet rises and sets, so that you can plan when to be outside, looking up at the sky. Fortunately, there is a fantastic computer program called Stellarium, that will help you to do all of that and more. Best of all, it is FREE, downloadable, open-source software, and is available for MAC, Windows and Linux.
First things first - you can download Stellarium at http://www.steallarium.org/. As I said, it is FREE. For those of you who are familiar with the open-source software movement, you won't be surprised by that. For those who aren't, you'll be amazed that software this powerful and useful could possibly be free. All I can say is that as hard as it is to believe, it is truly free - no money, no catches, no registration, no spam, no trial period. If you have the slightest interest in being able to easily identify the stars you see, download it now and install it. You won't be disappointed.
I will now go over some of the highlights of Stellarium and explain how the various features can be useful. If you want a more comprehensive explanation, the Stellarium User Guide is available in PDF format here.
Stellarium allows you to view the sky on your computer screen, and it can be customized to show the view of the sky at any location on earth, including your own home. The interface is very customizable, allowing you to adjust the display to simulate light pollution, show planetary orbits, and display the names of the various stars and planets. You can change the time from your current computer system time to any time in the future, which allows you to plan for your next stargazing trip, whether that is tonight, this weekend or next year. Or you can go back in time to display the sky as it looked on the day you were born.
There are also a wide variety of options for showing the constellations, with labels and lines linking the various stars in each constellation. You can choose among the "starlore" of various cultures, including Chinese, Norse, Aztec, Polynesian and Western, among several others, so that you can see the constellations unique to each one.
For use on a laptop when you are outdoors at night, you can adjust the display settings so that everything is displayed as if you are using a red filter on your laptop screen. This will help you to preserve your dark-adaptation, so that you won't have to wait as long for your eyes to readjust to the dark after looking at your computer display.
To aid you in locating a particular star, you can display the cardinal directions and several different grid configurations which will help you to locate specific stars relative to the positions of more easily identified constellations. If you see a star in the sky, and want to identify it, you can reverse this process, determining its location relative to easily identifiable constellations on the computer display, then clicking on the star. When you click, you will see a pop up display of the star's name and its "vital statistics", such as it's brightness, distance from the earth, and location in the sky.
As you can see, Stellarium is very powerful and useful software. I use it all the time, and always learn something new. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I do. Happy Stargazing!
- Guest Blogger and Amateur Stargazer, Paul Adomshick
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