A good astronomer prepares for an upcoming starry night by studying astronomical maps and noting the stars and planet’s ascensions to get an idea of when the targets will be visible at his/her sky. The geek astronomer today though, uses software to do this faster and easier. While it is not recommended to learn observational astronomy using automated software tools, the time and effort that can be saved certainly helps to keep people interested as well as draw in newcomers, including those who previously never thought of looking up at the sky. In this post, let’s look at two open source tools with which you can enhance your starry night experience, free of charge.
I want to learn about the night sky.
Getting to know your night sky requires a lot of time and devotion, reading astronomical maps, and experiencing neck pain trying to locate what you see on paper. The alternative that I suggest is using Stellarium virtual planetarium software. This tool allows you to set your location (anywhere in the world) and manipulate time at will. This way you can note what stars and constellations will be visible from your location at the time of your observation. Moreover, you can also remove the atmospheric light refraction and get a clear picture of what you should be able to see if all that city-light pollution was removed.
Now to get things even more interesting, you can even foresee how your targets will look through your own scope. Using the Oculars Plugin, you can add your scope’s and eyepiece’s characteristics and choose your targets. By enabling the plugin you will get a picture of what the selected field of view and magnification will contain. This is especially useful for astro-photographers who want to save some time searching for the right eyepiece. The ability to change mounting to equatorial will also help you search more realistically (as you would do with your own equipment).
Stellarium works in Windows, Mac, and Linux, and you can also take it with you on your observations by installing it on your Android device at the cost of $2.49 (the price may vary for your country’s currency).
What if you’re interested in the Moon.
The Moon is the largest and most impressive celestial body that amateur astronomers enjoy viewing. If you want to focus on the Moon, then you must download and install Virtual Moon Atlas. This piece of software contains all available up-to-date information about Earth’s only moon by connecting to the internet and downloading extra pictures/textures and data. The high fidelity 3D maps featured in this application will help you locate any crater or valley and learn more about it (diameter, historical facts, location, description etc.)
You can even see where the various Apollo missions landed, review old lunar maps, and use scientific overlays to determine surface soil slope and roughness, locate silicates, and learn about day and night temperatures on the Moon. All these data are derived from real lunar orbiters and visiting probes. VMA works in Mac, Windows, and Linux and its latest stable version was released not long ago, so the project is thankfully, still under active development.
If you’re a total astronomy novice, hopefully, these free software will help ease you into the field without much of the previously associated cost and time. Although software cannot replace what our eyes can see through telescopes, their usefulness as tools have always been obvious, and today, more than ever, people are getting their feet wet in amateur astronomy by the very means of such digital tools.