stellarium: A Planetarium on your Desktop

March 30th, 2008 edited by Patrick Murena

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I’ve always been interested in astronomy. But it was only after moving out of the city that I discovered merely by tilting my head up I could see some of the amazing things I had seen pictures of and learned about. Unfortunately, I knew very little about how to find interesting things in the sky.

This is where Stellarium comes in! Stellarium is a free/open source planetarium for your PC. It offers a splendid interface:

Stellarium Interface

Many "Sky Cultures":

Stellarium Sky Cultures

And beautiful graphics:

Stellarium Nebulae

To install, just apt-get install stellarium. The user interface is easy — left-click and drag to move around, and mouse wheel to zoom in and out. Alternatively arrow keys can be used to move, and Ctrl-Up/Down to zoom. Usually Stellarium shows the stars rotating at the same speed as in reality (which is only obviously visible at high zoom). However, the controls in the bottom right corner allow time to be sped up or reversed. This is important for figuring out where objects will be in the sky.

Time shifting means that Stellarium can be used to simulate solar eclipses, comet passes and meteor showers (all of which have something which can be seen in the simulation).

The magnifying glass icon or Ctrl-F allows you to find objects. I recommend finding the especially beautiful Dumbbell Nebula, or the recently famous Comet McNaught (Hint, it is recognised as C/2006 P1).

Stellarium is beautiful to use to look at constellations. Turning on the first three toolbar options displays the constellations, their names and artwork of what they represent. In the language tab of the settings window (the spanner or "1" key) the “sky culture” can be changed, showing the constellations of the Chinese or Inuits, to name just two.

One fun thing to do is find a solar system object and press Ctrl-G. This takes you to a view from that planet, with positions and phase of other solar system objects calculated correctly.

After having a little play around with Stellarium, it#8217;s down to business. Find a little free time after dark, and before you go out, jump onto Stellarium. Set the time, date and place in the configuration window to when and where you will go out. Then find a few objects (maybe a dimmer planet like Saturn or Jupiter) with magnitude less than five (Magnitude is a negative logarithmic scale, lower numbers are brighter), and note down their positions relative to the cardinal points and nearby stars.
when you go out, try and find them! Many objects such as Orion’s Nebula or the planets can be seen with the naked eye. Charles Messier catalogued over 100 objects that can be made out with the naked eye. Try searching for M1 - M110 to find these. Binoculars or a small telescope make these more visible.

For those of you who feel like shelling out a bit of cash, Stellarium can be used to control telescopes, or even be projected onto a dome.

Have fun stargazing, both real and virtual!

Posted in Debian, Ubuntu |

3 Responses

  1. Sepp Says:

    Thanks for this great application!

  2. Hans Meiser Says:

    KStars is a very powerful alternative. You should try it out as well. :-)

  3. Nyx Says:

    Also note, that according to my past experiences, Stellarium need some hardware opengl accelaration to run beautifully and smoothly. (without it’s rather uncomfortable ihmo).

    KStars is less “eye candy” but nonetheless very powerfull.

    I like both :)