What Is Stellarium?
Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. It is being used in planetarium projectors, but it’s totally awesome on your computer screen. There are versions for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux (the source code).
Download And Install Everything
Once you have the file downloaded, just run the installer for computers running Windows 98 or later. For Mac OSX 10.3 or later, the download is a disk image. You’ll have to mount that to drag the application into your Applications folder. Be sure and download the PDF format User’s Guide as well. The basic Stellarium file has 600,000 stars, but if that’s not enough, you can download some add-on star catalogs to bring it up to 210 million stars!
Once the program is installed, start exploring the universe. Everything is moving in real time, so if you leave it in the evening and look back in the morning, the sun will be rising. When you click on anything, the information about the object is displayed immediately.
You can set it to center on a selected object and zoom in smoothly. Alternately, you can zoom in any direction and watch the stars and planets move. For example, if you go about halfway out to Saturn, you’ll see the planet and all its moons move swiftly past against a slower but moving field of stars.
Stellarium has vast numbers of stars, nebulae, and the planets, so it’s like a real interstellar journey, with more and more stars coming into view as you zoom into the sky. In my first hour of playing with it, I went to the moon, Saturn, and Sirius! I’ve also seen the Great Nebula in Orion up close.Deep Space Photos
As you close in, you are rewarded with beautiful deep-space photos. The planets and nebulae are my favorites, but it’s a lot of fun to zoom toward what seems to be a single star and see it resolve into two stars once you are closer.
Many Viewing Options
I’ve only explored about one-thousandth of what this software can do, yet I’m astounded already by its power. You can turn the atmosphere on and off, to compare the clarity of observing from a planet or in outer space. Of course, with the atmosphere turned off, you can see the stars at noon! You can have a realistic horizon, as if you were outdoors at night, or turn off the ground and feel like you are suspended in the void.
Star Mythology From Many Cultures
You can outline and label the constellations (they call them asterisms now), or turn on star art to see the mythological figures people once imagined. And you aren’t restricted to the Greek constellation myths we are familiar with. There is a section on star lore and constellation stories from just about every culture on earth!
Go To Another Planet
You can also set the observation location to another planet. I’ve seen what the sky looks like from Mars, for example, and looked at Saturn’s ring from inside it. You’ll want to make lots of screenshots to use in your classroom! Whether you use Stellarium as a tool for teaching astronomy, or just to explore, it’s an incredible experience. But don’t take my word for it. Go and download this amazing program, and take your class to the stars!
Application needed: Stellarium
Level: Teacher resource.
Download the Stellarium software for your operating system, plus the User’s Guide, from: