The amount of creative, and free, software on the Internet amazes me. For every piece of limited, stale, and costly piece of software you find, there’s an equally fantastic, interactive, and free piece of software like Stellarium, a personal desktop astronomy program well suited for use in schools. Until I found this program mentioned in a comment on Bud’s blog, I was contemplating spending what little money I had left in my yearly room budget to hire an inflatable planetarium, or visit the planetarium of a neighboring school district. While I still may pay a visit to the actual brick and mortar planetarium, after using the software with my kids for just a few days I’m convinced that students studying astronomy should have access to Stellarium.
Why? Because it feels like you actually have a planetarium on your desktop. Using minimal resources it can display the night sky at any given time, from any given location on the globe, while providing a plethora of information on the stars (sorry for the plethora, I watched the “Three Amigos” this weekend). Stellarium allows users to navigate stars as you would with Google Maps, by simply clicking and dragging your way across the sky. An all too convenient search function allows you to quickly find stars, galaxies, constellations, planets, and other celestial bodies including outlines and original artwork of the 88 mythological constellations which can be superimposed over the stars. Shooting stars, twinkling stars, sunrises, sunsets, and planets can all be viewed. I especially enjoy the ability to zoom in on planets to see them as detailed as you would through a telescope, but so far my students have been completely taken in by the constellations of the zodiac, their position in the sky, and how they move. Or rather how they appear to move given the Earth’s movement in relation to the stars.
The last point was especially nice as I saw many of my students immediately making the connection between some of the stars’ “setting and rising” and the rotation of the Earth. While usually difficult to detect, Stellarium allows time to be sped up to watch the “movement” of the stars. My students also enjoyed clicking on stars in the constellations we’ve been talking about and seeing how many light years they are from Earth and then tracking them to see if they’re always visible year round or if there are times of the year in which they are hidden from the Northern Hemisphere’s view.
If you’re just an amateur astronomer, or a serious star-gazer, this program will impress. It’s also available in Windows and MacOS formats, so few should be disappointed. Oh, and planetarium people; it can be projected in what the creators call a full dome, 180 degree mode for display in your planetarium.