Tuesday 20 September 2011

Learn About The Stars In The Sky With Open Source Program Stellarium

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, you’ve probably stared at the night sky at some point or another, wondering what all their names are and what stars actually make up which constellations. I’ve wondered about this many times, and honestly I still do. But my curiosity can now be quenched thanks to a fantastic open source program that delivers in spectacular fashion.

Stellarium was actually covered by MUO back in 2009 and as all open source projects are, enough things have changed for it to be reviewed once again. Although the interface and basic program usage hasn’t changed, there are still some noticeable differences.


Installation is easy as always. You can install it from here (http://www.stellarium.org/) if you use Windows or Mac, and Linux users can install Stellarium via their package managers. Once installed, you can simply launch it via your menus (Linux users will have it under their Education category).

Getting Started

When you launch Stellarium, you’ll be greeted immediately by a full-screen view of the sky at your current time. The default location is Paris, so if you don’t live there, the sky that’s shown won’t look like it actually does outside your window. In order to get your actual location, you’ll need to move your mouse to the bottom of the screen, where some options will suddenly appear that were hidden.

If you move your mouse over to the left you’ll find yet another pane of options with bigger buttons. The very top button on the left pane is responsible for setting the location. In here you can choose the nearest city, or for optimal results you can enter your own coordinates. Remember that these need to be entered with minutes and seconds included.

Where To Find Options

In general, you’ll find settings related more to how the program operates in the left pane, while viewing options are on the bottom pane. Click around to see what you’d like to have in your view. You can also set the time parameters on the bottom panel.

For example, options include constellation lines, labels, art, different grid options, and plenty more. The program options on the left pane are very complex in that they can tweak a great variety of options that I personally feel more comfortable leaving alone.

General Use

Clicking on stars (both visible on the screen and invisible) will result in a nice pane of information in the top left corner of your screen. If you still have it set to use the current time, all the information will automatically update, most notably the distance from your current location to that star. You can move the sky by right-clicking anywhere and holding that button down while moving the mouse around. Honestly, simply through playing around will you get a clear idea of how to use the program.

If you’re mainly a keyboard user and hate having to use the mouse, there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts. I have not thoroughly explored them myself, but the previous article about Stellarium has a nice compilation of keyboard shortcuts that you can use.

New Features

The main functions of Stellarium are cool, but the newest features are what’s interesting.

Install New Landscapes

Using the same landscape, no matter what location you have selected, can get pretty boring after a while. Also, it simply takes away from the accuracy, as the landscape should be as accurate as the night sky. Now you can install custom landscapes (in .ZIP format) to get that added benefit.

New Plugins

Stellarium isn’t just a single package, but instead can be expanded with plugins. The developers themselves use this feature to create plugins they ship along with the program itself. There are two new plugins: a solar system editor and a time zone manual override plugin. Updates have also been pushed out for the oculars, satellites, and telescope control plugins to include new features.


Stellarium is a very high-quality program for finding out where stars are along with other information about them. In terms of graphics quality, design layout, and customization abilities I must say that this is a top notch open source application. Really, the best way to use it is to find out the right settings for you and enjoy it from there.

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