There are lots of programs on the internet for anyone with a desire to start exploring outer space. Some are really impressive while others just aren’t worth your time. I wanted to take some time and see what was out there, and which ones were worth while.
I started out poking around on Google Sky a bit over the last few days, and I have to say, it really feels incomplete. As a sort of update on the impressive Google Maps, the relatively new Sky feature is not living up to all it could be. On the one hand it does a good job of incorporating a tremendous range of actual photos to create a full 360 degree map of the night sky. There’s nothing more impressive than being able to pick a famous cosmic locale like the Eagle Nebula and zoom right into a jaw-dropping photo of it. Another website sky-map.org integrates these kinds of photos just as well, and comes with a great user friendly tour of the cosmos. Still, there’s something about both of them that feels a little sterile.
Stellarium is a must have tool for any aspiring astronomer. Just knowing where to point your telescope on any given evening is sometimes the hardest part of getting started. Stellarium tracks all of the major celestial objects, including stars, planets and nebula, and then displays them like you were standing looking up at the night sky. By setting any time, date and location on earth, you can accurately predict exactly what will be overhead on any given night. It’s so accurate it’s often used by actual planetariums to project the night sky onto their domes. One word of warning is Stellarium can take a decent amount of computing power to run, so just make sure you have something pretty beefy under the hood.
What if you would actually want to travel to the locations you see? Celestia is a three-dimensional real time simulation of the galaxy, featuring a catalogue of over 100,000 stars and other cosmic bodies. You’ve got total movement throughout the universe to travel to any celestial body your heart desires. It’s an amazing tool, one that gives a real sense as to how big space truly is and how far apart things are. One great aspect is there is a strong online community of people always making new features and points of interest for the program. You can download everything from the Hourglass Nebula to the Voyager Spacecraft. There’s even a section for fictional space ships like the entire Star Wars battle fleet or my personal favorite, Spaceman Spiff.
The universe is an exotic and wonderful place, and with these free tools you can start exploring its mysteries.