Stellarium reaches for the stars

For a true PC planetarium experience, check out cross-platform Stellarium. The features are, well, stellar: a catalog of more than 600,000 stars that can be expanded to 210 million is just the start of what this open-source star map offers.

The way things have gone this week, you'd be hard-pressed to find a mention of anything not related to Google Chrome.

Now that we've gotten the obligatory nod out of the way, it turns out that cross-platform Stellarium is one of the coolest apps around.

Full sky view of the constellations, their boundaries, and the Milky Way.

(Credit: Stellarium)

It won't report on your Web surfing habits, either.

Open-source and currently in use by planetarium projectors run by Digitalis Education, it brings astronomer-level features to star-gazers of all levels of interest. It's not quite as robust as Google Earth or Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope, but it's also a much faster program. It loads at--well, not quite the speed of starlight, but it doesn't suck away your RAM into a black hole when loading or running. Running a Web browser or e-mail client simultaneously won't crash your computer, either. However, to further the planetarium simulation experience, it only runs in full screen mode, making any other programs you're running inaccessible except for the ALT+Tab switcher.

On with the show. As I mentioned, the feature set is heavenly, and this is with the program still in beta. The default catalog includes 600,000 stars, with upgrade modules that can push the count up to 210 million stars. The constellations of 10 different cultures are included, as well as illustrations and asterisms to help you visualize what the ancients saw. There's a full Messier catalog of nebulae, too. The dawn, dusk and atmosphere backgrounds were good, but not great on my monitor. They probably look better on a planetarium dome, which is why it's useful that Stellarium also includes a fish-eye view for curved surfaces.

Search for a planet, nebula, constellation or a specific star. Press enter, and Stellarium centers on the object. This is Earth from the moon Phobos, orbiting around Mars.

(Credit: Stellarium)

Some of the visualizations were pretty cool, too. Besides equatorial and azimuthal grids, users also get shooting stars when appropriate, eclipse simulation, and skinnable landscapes. Because this is a computer simulation, and not an observatory in the Andes, Stellarium incorporates star-views from the Moon. I'd like to see other objects in our solar system added as locations.

Along with being full screen, the interface de-emphasizes its presence. Controls live in the lower left corner and are transparent--some users might find them hard to see. When tweaking options, though, a standard Settings box opens. There's a nifty record feature in the interface, too, so that you can create shows that highlight specific constellations or other stellar objects. Labels appear when you mouse over a planet or star, and stay in view once you click on them.

Once I got the hang of the atypical navigation, I couldn't find much to complain about except that when you run the program for the first time it asks that you set your current location. Unless you know your exact coordinates, easy enough to look up on the Web, the mouse-over map of the world was too small to use easily.

Stellarium should appeal both to users who need something more academic and less distracting than Google or Microsoft's offerings, as well as those who have a need for an open-source planetarium. Fortunately, that could be any of us.

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