Have you ever looked up at the night sky wondering where those elusive constellations are? Do you wonder what that really bright star (or planet) is called? With Stellarium, you will wonder no longer!
You may have heard of Celestia, a great program that lets you leave planet Earth and explore space from beyond. Stellarium is similar to Celestia in some ways, but it allows you to view and explore the night sky exactly as it would appear from any location on Earth. Like Celestia, it is also available for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.
When you first launch Stellarium, you’ll find that you are looking at the sky as it appears in Paris, France. If you are located in Paris, then you’re all set. However, chances are that you are not. Fortunately, changing your location is easy.
You can either press the Location window button in the menu bar on the left side of the screen, or press the F6 key. You’ll then see the location window. You can select your location in a few different ways.
Once in the location window, you can select your location by clicking on the map, searching for your location, or entering your location co-ordinates. If you have a decimal latitude/longitude for your location, you will have to convert your location to degrees, minutes, and seconds. If you have entered your exact co-ordinates, select a name for your location and click the Add to list button. You may also want to click the Use as default checkbox.
If you’re using this during the day, you’ll probably want to advance the time of day to nighttime. There are buttons to navigate through time on the right side of the bottom navigation bar. Just click the Increase time speed button (or press L on your keyboard) a few times to get things moving. Then click the Set normal time rate button (or press K on your keyboard).
Another way to move through time is to jump to a particular date and time rather than fast forwarding or rewinding. Click the Date/time window button in the left navigation bar (or press the F5 key on your keyboard). You can use this feature to advance to certain days when you know a celestial event is taking place that is visible from the surface of Earth.
On the left side of the bottom navigation bar, you’ll see options for displaying constellations. You can enable Constellation lines (or C on the keyboard), Constellation labels (or V on the keyboard), and enable Constellation art (or R on the keyboard).
You can also click on objects in the sky to find out what they are. If there is a certain object you wish to view but are having trouble locating it, just hit ctrl-F on your keyboard and enter the name of the object you want to find. You can search for stars, planets, or constellations.
You may sometimes find that objects you find with the search function are not always visible, because they are obstructed by the Earth. If this does happen, you can disable the display of the ground. There is an option to do this in the bottom navigation bar, or you can press the G key on the keyboard.
Navigating the sky is easy. Just click and drag with your mouse, to move around or use the arrow keys on your keyboard. Your mouse wheel allows you to zoom in and out (or press the PgUp/PgDown keys on your keyboard). You can zoom in on the selected object by pressing the / key on your keyboard. If you want to restore the zoom to normal, press the \ key. If you want help on the navigation keys, you can press the F1 key on your keyboard.
Stellarium and Celestia are great programs for exploring space and the night sky. Do use any other free programs to learn about celestial bodies and constellations?