Linux Goodies

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The Stellarium Planetarium Program

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Stellarium -- Realistic Rendered Planetarium Program

If you want a computer planetarium program with realism, either for teaching or planning your own observing sessions, you should investigate Stellarium.

Just look at the image blow -- a section of a Stellarium screen -- and notice the actual terrain instead of just a horizon line, the ground fog extending a few degrees into the sky, and the Milky Way.

Stellarium Sky Image

Stellarium Screen Shot Segment

Some of the Main Features

Stellarium, created in France, is available in both Linux and Windows versions. It presents a very realistic display of the night sky, complete with ground images, horizon glow, twinkling stars, and meteor streaks.

Moving the mouse around lets one view from any Cardinal direction and sky elevation. Scrolling the mouse wheel or using the page up and down keys lets the user zoom in and out of any centered sky region.

The magnitude limit for labeling stars and nebulae can be selected. Constellation lines, boundaries, and even mythical images can be selectively viewed in addition to just the stars.

A number of guides can be selectively turned on as well, such as the ecliptic or galactic plane. The horizon can be indicated with only a line, or a complete ground image. The user can select from a handful of landscape images.

A number of object catalogs can be selectively turned off and on. The star twinkling threshold can be set, and the meteor rate can be tuned.

The user can turn on or off the ground fog and horizon glow effects as desired.

The result of this enormous tuning capacity is a presentation of startling realism.

Scripts of display sequences can be made and played back. The user can also grab a screen image (as a bmp file) of any current display.

Zooming in on Messier objects will result in an actual photographic image of the object, giving the user a sense of the type and look of the object. It's a great tool for instructional purposes, and I find it handy for planning my viewing sessions.

See the Orientation of Mars for Any Time

Stellarium Mars Image

Stellarium Mars Image

Zooming in on Mars will show the planet in it's current orientation (or for any other time) as shown in the Stellarium Mars image above. Running time forward or back at an accelerated rate will show the features soon to be in view, or those that were visible hours before.

With a couple of key strokes, the Mars image can be flipped horizontally and or vertically to accommodate any type of telescope view.

Plan Your Jupiter Observing Sessions

Stellarium Jupiter Image

Stellarium Jupiter Image

Zooming in on Jupiter or Saturn will reveal the respective planet's moon positions. The adjoining image is a Stellarium zoom in on Jupiter.

Notice that the moon positions and names are given. As with Mars, Running time at an accelerated rate will continuously re-plot the moon positions and visible planet features. Again, a great aid for teaching, and handy for planning Jupiter viewing sessions.

Other Features and Final Thoughts

There are many short cut keys also. For example, clicking the mouse on an object selects it, and a touch of the / key zooms in on the object. A touch of the \ key zooms back out.

With all of these great features, I did find one characteristic that I don't like. Two star catalogs are categorized by whether the objects are textured or not. I'm assuming this peculiar nomenclature is a language translation issue. It appears to me that textured means that a telescopic image of an object is available. So objects in the textured list all have images. These are mostly the Messier objects.

Objects for which images are not part of the Stellarium database are in the non-textured category. This list includes many NGC objects, and oddly enough, some Messier objects. So one can't just turn on or off the Messier catalog, but can turn on or off the textured (images) catalog or the non-textured catalog.