For centuries, the orrery was a front-line scientific instrument, but software like SolarMax sent these mechanical models of the solar system into storage closets, next to the Visible Man's transparent plastic torso. SolarMax is a free tool that displays the solar system in incredible detail from a variety of projections and perspectives. In essence, it's a desktop planetarium for the solar system.
Aside from a menu bar, SolarMax presents a star field view of the solar system from Earth's perspective, with constellations, ecliptic and equatorial lines, planets, moons, major asteroids, and other astronomical data. Clicking the View menu let us add overlays like the Flight Controls, which depict the 3D position and angle of the observer in simple geometric diagrams at the bottom of the window. We could drastically alter the view by clicking either View Mode and selecting Ecliptic, Surface, Top Down, or Following perspectives, or change the Projection mode from Cylindrical to Orthographic or Stereographic. Under Stars, we could increase or decrease the number of stars displayed, toggle the constellation maps on or off, and choose different modes and patterns. A Camera menu let us pan, zoom, and tilt the view incrementally, while the Navigation menu let us fly to locations in a manner similar to Google Earth and other geographical information systems. Of course, we could also grab the view and move it with our cursor, zoom in and out using our scroll wheel, and alter the speed and time scale of the star field's motion. Buttons let us rotate the view to display the Moon's position, a handy way to quickly orient the map. We could also click Fly to Earth to reorient ourselves. Clicking F1 toggled open a list of keyboard shortcuts.
We were surprised not to find a Help file or even an About page with a Web link; we had to search Google to find the program's site. Don't let that discourage you: SolarMax is as easy to use as you need it to be yet powerful and accurate enough for advanced users and professional astronomers. We had no trouble and a whole lot of fun with it.