Stellarium: Free Software to Begin Your Journey to the Stars
We’ve probably all used Google Earth and seen our planet composited from thousands of satellite images. We can spin it around and look at it from any point of view.
Better yet, we can zoom in and find a place that we are very familiar with, locating an old home or neighborhood where we grew up. It works very well.
If you zoom right in, you can see a street-level view where satellite imagery goes to the highest level available to the general public (sorry, you’ll have to speak to the NSA for more detailed pictures from orbit).
Yes, of course, the undersides of trees and cars are missing because satellites cannot see those things. The buildings are somewhat distorted, looking like French Impressionists painted them in the late 1800s. But on the whole, it’s pretty darned good!
Out of This World
Well, they have done the same thing with Google Moon, complete with photos taken onsite at all the landing sites by the astronauts, as well as showing all the geographical features than can be imaged from orbit. Not enough? They have also created Google Mars so that you can zoom in on the Red Planet. Now, just to be clear, these programs were never intended as astronomical programs—these pages provide imagery for interested questioners, not real astronomers—and they often require an internet connection for data acquisition, linking to NASA sites.
Somewhat less successfully, they have also created Google Sky, but again, it’s not very useful, even for someone who knows what they're doing and knows what they're looking for. There’s no real help, and you have to fumble around trying to make it do something…anything...so it is particularly frustrating for newcomers.
Stellarium to the Rescue
There are plenty of useful astronomy programs available, and a lot of them are free. The variety is quite startling—and unlike Google’s forays into the field, these dedicated programs are well-designed and very useful. The strongest contender, Stellarium, enjoys similar functionality to Google Earth. You can type in the name of any known object, and the view will swing around and locate it for you. Now you just line up your device with the sky, and your object is in sight!
The advantage is that the database is on your device (tablets are usefully-sized for the field, but their smartphone app is highly functional, too), so you don't need an internet connection. If you have a data link, you can use the web-version without installing it on your device. Best of all, unlike the Google versions, the screen can be set to “night vision." What does that mean?
It’s Not Black…
Depending on your monitor settings, here are two (very hard-to-see) images of the same subject. The top full-color image would be so bright after you had acquired your night vision that it would blind you to all of the faint stars for many minutes. The nearly identical image below it has the same details, but is red-colored, making it harmless to your night vision.
While nearly impossible to discern on a bright computer screen under normal lighting conditions, these images demonstrate that your night vision is incredibly sensitive and delicate. The great thing is that both images came from the thoughtfully-designed Stellarium programs. You can set your device to “night vision” and use it to steer you to any object you want to observe without compromising your ability to see faint objects.
Once you learn the vocabulary of astronomy, this is an easy program to use. For example, a constellation is an historical pattern used to identify a specific group of stars. Traditionally, there are 88 of them in total, although Stellarium allows you to switch between several different historical groups and records. Want to see how the Arabs, Egyptians, Dakota (et al.), Hawaiians, Indian, Inuit, Korean, Maori, Norse, Romanian, or Siberian people saw the sky? There are about 30 different “Star-lores” available.
An asterism, on the other hand, is a group of stars that is smaller than a constellation, but easy to recognize, such as “the teapot” asterism located within the larger constellation of Sagittarius.
Deep Sky Objects (DSO) include star clusters (either open or globular), nebulae, and galaxies. There are 24 selectable catalogs of these items, and they're broken down into ten subgroups.
Exoplanets are worlds we have discovered circling other stars. You can't see them with even the best amateur telescopes, but you can observe the stars around which they circle.
Irrespective of whether you’re looking at it to learn and plan, or whether you’re looking at it in the field in the dark, the same information is available. Now, let's brighten it up a bit so you can see the menu icons and witness how they'll appear in either standard or red coloration.
The Bottom Toolbar
You’ll experiment and try different things and soon discover your favorite settings. Using the numbers added beneath the icons, let’s see what each symbol means. In the program itself, you can tap, or use the available keyboard shortcuts, shown in brackets.
- [C] Show the Constellation Lines
- [V] Show the Constellation Labels
- [R] Show Constellation aRt
- [B] Show the Constellation Boundaries
- [Alt + A] Show Asterism Lines
- [Alt + V] Show Asterism Labels
- [E] Assorted Grids that can be imposed [Equatorial Grid]
- [Z] …on the sky to aid in locating [Azimuthal Grid for telescope aiming]
- …specific objects that may be [Modified Equatorial Grid]
- …of interest. You’ll discover uses [Orientation in Milky Way]
- …for these as you progress [This one is best Planet-finding]
- [G] This toggles the Ground [horizon]
- [Q] This toggles the Compass Indicators
- [A] This toggles the Atmosphere
- [D] This Toggles Deep Sky objects
- [Alt + P] Toggles Planet labels
- [Ctrl + M] Toggles Equatorial or Azimuth Telescope Mounts
- [spacebar] Lock on current target
- [Ctrl + N] NIGHT VISION
- [F11] Full Screen mode
- [Ctrl-Alt + E] Show Exoplanets
- [Ctrl-Shift + M] Toggle Meteor Showers
- [Ctrl-Alt + M] Toggle Meteor Showers search tool
- [Ctrl + Z] Satellite Toggle
- [J] Slow passage of time [each tap decreases it]
- [K] Pause/Resume passage of time toggle
-  Reset time to current time
- [L] Speed up passage of time [each tap increases it]
- [Ctrl + Q] Quit
The Left Toolbar
On the left side of the screen, is another hidden menu. Opening it gives you access to:
(F1) open the Help Window which explains the available commands;
(F2) The program’s configuration window;
(F3) The Search window: locate anything here;
(F4) alter the Sky Viewing options, so you can set the display features such as ten different perspectives, the star brightness, whether they twinkle, and which magnitudes are visible, plus much more;
(F5) set the Date & Time; look at the sky on the day you were born, or any time you desire, past, present, or future;
(F6) change your Location so you can preview what you might see if you’re planning to travel to another place to observe an eclipse.
This provides a quick introduction to the Stellarium program, but it is by no means comprehensive. We haven’t even touched on the subject of add-ons to the program that will, for instance, allow you to control your digitally-enhanced telescope by Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
If by some chance this program lacks functionality that you require, you will probably find a forum or group of volunteers, who will write a piece of code to make it do what is desired (if it’s reasonable, practical, or useful to other group members).
That is one of the best aspects of astronomy: the whole profession or hobby is chock-full of altruistic individuals that just want to share knowledge and help other people understand. Don’t be nervous about asking questions. If you're interested in meeting an outstanding group of people, your best first step might be to download Stellarium to increase your basic knowledge. No question is silly, but it will increase your confidence to know more before you start!