I came across this little gem while perusing the Ubuntu Software Center and decided to give it a shot. Stellarium is an open source, free planetarium that runs right on your computer. To be honest, I was really taken aback by Stellarium’s stunning appearance and visual quality. For one thing, it doesn’t run in a window. It launches into full-screen mode, which beautifully presents the eye-catching graphics. I can discuss this further at another point.
As previously mentioned, Stellarium opens in full screen mode by default. The user finds him or herself looking up at the night sky in the northern hemisphere. Only the major heavenly bodies and cardinal compass points are labeled. The interface is very straightforward. At the bottom of the screen, a panel provides information such as location (Paris, France by default), elevation, Field of View (FOV), Frames Per Second (FPS), date and time. Clicking on a heavenly body brings up information about that body, such as its name, position and distance from Earth. Configuration is handled through two docks/panels called toolbars in the lower left corner. The bottom toolbar, or main toolbar, allows the user to turn visual effects on and off. The side toolbar opens dialog boxes used to configure Stellarium.
So, what does Stellarium have to offer in terms of features? According to the Stellarium Web site, Stellarium includes a default catalog of over 600,000 stars (though additional catalogs containing up to 210 million are available) There are optional connecting lines and/or illustrations (referred to as Constellation Art) that can be toggled to better visualize constellations. Stellarium offers constellations for over 20 cultures and the stories behind those constellations. Views of every planet, and their satellites, are provided. Other features include powerful zoom, multilingual support, time controls, excellent graphics and integrated help.
Arguably, one of Stellarium’s greatest strengths is the level of customization that it offers. First of all, as I mentioned, Paris, France is the default location. Paris is, however, one of hundreds of locations around the world from which users may choose for their session. Additionally, if you’re bored with Earth, you can view the stars from such heavenly bodies as Mars, Saturn or the Moon. One feature that the author thought was pretty cool was being able to toggle the visibility of the ground. Remove the ground and you can view the whole night sky, northern and southern hemispheres, just as if you were in outer space. Other features that can be controlled include equatorial and azumuthal lines, the flow and direction of time and visibility of nebulae. Combine these with the many other features available and you have an incredible platform upon which your students can explore the universe.
Stellarium is available for Linux, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows.
Category: User’s guide. (2014). Retrieved from the Stellarium Wiki: http://www.stellarium.org/wiki/index.php/Category:User’s_Guide