Stellarium – Planetarium for the Masses

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Some softwares are just too fun to be let go off and this weekend I discovered Stellarium, a free, open source planetarium software that shows a “realistic sky in 3D”. Stellarium is designed from ground up as a simple, easy to use, open source software to observe and learn about the breath taking beauty of the night sky.

This weekend, I happened to be visiting a village in rural Mardan, Pakistan (where we are supporting a rural Tele-healthcare project). The electricity in this remote part of the world is patchy and highly unreliable. Mardan District is composed primarily of a farming community and little or no industry and technology in this rural part of Pakistan. Hence, the night sky is not only clear but dazzles with the beauty of billions of stars. In fact, on a clear night, one can see the Milky way all across the night sky.

Tonight was just one such nights, when the electricity, went out, the night sky lit up brightly with its displaying its full array of stars. The moon was at half crescent and thus it blurred a bit of dim stars out there, but over all, it was a feast for the eyes.

The software asks you to select your city through its fairly simple configuration file. And if your hometown is missing (in my case Mardan was not there), one can enter the basic information like the Latitude, Longitude and height in meters above sea level and the software then automatically sets itself to the night sky in your area. It then slowly tracks the night sky as it changes with time so that the observer is always objects slowly rise and set over the night sky.

I trained my Stellarium on the planets first. Tonight, Saturn was visible in the night sky. With the help of a basic compass and the Stellarium software, I was able to pin-point the magnificent planet Saturn with some fairly good accuracy. This was the first time I had identified any night sky object with accuracy. And the best part was that I did not have to know a lot about Astronomy nor the need to have complicated equipment. The software is designed to be easily operated by a kid as well and requires little or no prior knowledge of Astronomy. All night, I would simply find something interesting on Stellarium and then using the provided grids, a hand held compass and using other known stars as references, would get to the desired object.

One can zoom in and out of the objects (planets, nebulae, etc) and some of them do have fairly detailed images and information associated with them. If any detail is missing, one can always download it from their website and add it to the catalog. For example, if I would find something of interest in the night sky, I could get basic information including a detailed image of the object. Here in this image on the right, I got to see how Butterfly cluster looks like at close proximity and how far away it is from earth. For example, Saturn here is reported to be 8.5AU (Astronomical Units). 1 AU is equal to approximately 149.5 Million KM or in simple terms, 1AU is equal to the average distance between the earth and sun. Hence, Saturn is approximately 8.5 times farther from earth than the Sun from us. That is approximately 1.2 billion KM from earth.

The software has many cool features, including red eye mode to assist eyes remain adjusted to darkness. An essential requirement if we want to truly observe dim and distant objects with ease. Stellarium has many features but some of the fascinating ones are listed below:

  • Default catalog of over 600,000 stars
  • Extra catalog with more than 210 million stars (easily downloadable through the Stellarium website). The additional data is divided into further four separate files totaling around 1Giga Byte.
  • Images of nebulae (full Messier catalog)
  • Realistic Milky Way
  • The planets and their satellites (yep, even details of moons for the planets)
  • And many more

The joy was short lived as the power was restored later in the night. With the light pollution dimming many of the stellar objects in the night sky. However, this unexpected power outage has inspired me to spend the coming summer gazing at night sky with some basic telescope and track numerous objects in the night sky.

There is also a method to link the software with your telescope (if it supports computer tracking) which one can read online for more information.

The software can be easily downloaded for MacOS, Windows and Linux platforms. It is also available through Ubuntu repository of pre-compiled software packages.

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