by February 6, 2003 0 comments



Do you like to gaze at stars in the night sky and wonder what’s really up there? Do you like to spot constellations and track their movement through the year? Pegasus, the Knight? Orion, the hunter? The Big Dipper? Are you an astronomer at heart, craving to explore the deep secrets of these twinkling stars? 

If you live in a city then the chances are the dust and smoke-cover do not allow you the luxury of having a good look at the night sky. Even if you are able to see the splendor of a star-studded sky, you will often require at least a basic telescope to really spot planets, see the rings of Saturn, or figure out the outline of the constellation of your star sign. 

Well, there is some good news for you. You can now do all this and more from the comfort of your computer room. There are a few very interesting and very exhaustive computer software and websites that cater to the insatiable human desire to explore the stars. All you need is a working computer (OS no bar, mostly) and an Internet connection. We have given some of the software, namely Cybersky, Celestia, and OpenUniverse on this month’s CD.

Try these out for an out-of-the world experience. 

Cybersky
Cybersky (www.cybersky.com) is a shareware astronomy software only for the Windows platform. What is good about it? Many things. For one, it shows you the sky just above your head in hundreds of locations across the world. Within India, you can choose a location from 12 cities, including the metros. Then, you have options to view the constellations (with or without their names) and save and/or print this sky chart. You can also view solar-system objects and deep sky objects (clusters, galaxies, nebulae, etc) and learn basic things about them through Cybersky Help. 

Cybersky Help contains a section on constellations that can be browsed alphabetically by category (as in, all the bird-shaped constellations together and all the monsters together) or by months during which they are best seen. Here you can find the history and mythology about these constellations and get blown away by the imagination the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had. Or, start picturing these stories as real and wonder where you fit in. You decide.

One of the most amazing features of the software is that of animating. You can view the sky in motion! And watch how it changes as time goes by. You have options to set the speed of time–choose from seconds, minutes, hours, solar days, sidereal days (time measurement with respect to stars) or years. You can also view explorations like watching the sky at the North Pole or The Solar Eclipse of August 11, 1999 and many others. 

Overall, Cybersky is entertaining and educative and will appeal greatly to amateur astronomers and astronomy students alike.

OpenUniverse/Celsetia
OpenUniverse (www.openuniverse.org) is free software under the GNU General Public License. It is a 3D space simulator and greedily hogs your system resources. But the simulations it generates are truly amazing. Celestia is what the openuniverse developers are now contributing to and, hence, it is the later of the two space simulators (as their website claims). 

You can watch the motion of the planets and satellites in the solar system and even some of the famous man-made space objects like the Hubble telescope in 3D, with options to track the object or orbit around it, center it, watch it from the sun, etc. Watching the simulation is pretty out-of-the-world and once you get the hang of the features, you can do a good job of entertaining yourself or showing off to friends how you can move the universe. 

Some Java applets
www.skyviewcafe.com\index.html: Sky View Cafe presents a feature-rich Java Applet showing the stars right above your head on a particular day, oops, night. And star charts in 3D (models of the solar system) and ecliptic orbits and moons (of all the planets that have moons) and more. If you know a few things about astronomy, you can use this site better. Oh, and you can also buy the stand-alone software which can then be downloaded from their site.

www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/constellations.html is dedicated to constellations. It has a lot of information and an applet (Interactive Star Chart) that shows you all the 88 known constellations. Read the instructions about the Java applet to know about Right Ascension and Declination. The good thing here is the useful information that will interest hobbyists and amateur stargazers. 

http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/skychart/# is a star-chart applet takes a great deal of pain to get your exact co-ordinates and then displays the sky full of stars. The image is quite spectacular and can be printed as a useful star-chart that you can take to the terrace and do some constellation-hunting. 

There are really many, many star-charts on the Internet. You just need to know they are there and then go about using them to add the knowledge punch to your star-gazing. 

Shruti Pareek

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