Well, it's summer now and if you're like me, the first few weeks of summer are the best. And what better hobby to take up than astronomy!? For those of you out there who can't find the moon with a telescope...well, same here. But no fear! Stellarium is here!
Stellarium is an open-source desktop planetarium that allows you to look at planets and stars in "real-time". Although the images are virtual renderings, the time will automatically synchronize with your system clock and show you exactly what you can see in the night-sky at whatever time your using the program! Which means, for those of you I mentioned earlier (who can't find the moon with a telescope), just bring out your laptop and problem solved!
The program itself is not complicated, there are many options that allow beginner users to customize the program to fit their needs. First off, you will want to set your location. Stellarium is automatically set to Paris, France (no idea why), so you'll have to change it to where ever you are. After that, you can play around with the background image and atmosphere. The background image is basically the surroundings. You can head over to the Stellarium website to download more background images which range from Stonehenge to Mars. There is also an option to turn off the background image so you appear to be floating in mid-air. In addition, you can toggle the atmosphere on and off. Personally, I like to keep it off. The atmosphere somewhat obscures your vision around the horizon, especially if your time is set to around sunset (this is a more relevant problem now, during summer, when the days are longer and sunset comes later); therefore, if you toggle the atmosphere off, you can get an unobstructed view of the stars. Stellarium can also be switched between equatorial and azimuthal mode. I'm not going to get into the details of this but basically, a telescope is in either one of those modes. When you select a star, galaxy, planet, or any other celestial object, the coordinates are shown as well as any other information about the distance, diameter, etc., meaning, if you can find an object with Stellarium, you can find an object on your telescope. And if you don't have a telescope, you can always use a pair of binoculars, or even the naked-eye! In fact, astronomy originates from naked-eye viewings of the sky.
For you amateur sky-watchers and professionals, Stellarium has more complex features. In addition to downloading "star-packs" which contain more stars and far-flung galaxies, Stellarium allows you to toggle "night mode" on and off. Basically, you won't want to be glancing at your computer screen often when you're outside sky-watching. The reason being, exposure to white light hinders your night vision, making it harder to notice faint objects in your telescope. You could wait 2 minutes after looking at your computer screen, but I doubt anyone has the patience for that. However, with "night mode" on, all the lighted areas, save for the stars, are turned red. The significance of this is that your night vision is not impaired by red light. Besides, it makes you look kind of sinister and cool when your bathed in red light and tapping away at your keyboard. Well, I could go on forever about all the features Stellarium contains, but why don't you check it out yourself?
As always, you can click on the screen-capture above for a link to the site. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me, or head over to the Stellarium wiki, which is linked to on the main page. Happy sky-walking...get it? Like Luke...Skywalker...sky-walking...kinda rhymes with sky-watching, but not really...?! Never mind. Upon further reflection, "sky-walking" makes no sense whatsoever.