Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Friday, March 24, 2006

Software for Space Explorers

Phobos and Mars with Celestia

Ralph Buttigieg

Sydney, NSW Australia

Like Dennis, spaceflight was a childhood dream of mine. I knew it would take some time to save for the ticket, so thought I would use the time to have a good look at whats up there. So started my lifelong interest in amateur astronomy. Over the years I have had a range of telescopes including 250mm Dobsonian reflectors and a 200 mm cassegrain. Currently I'm using a 80mm refractor and my trusty 7x50 binoculars. Modest equipment but perfectly adequate for a unit dweller.

Sadly many people purchase a telescope and are disappointed by what the see. No view from an amateurs telescope can match the image from a major observatory. Especially when that image is a time exposure photograph. However there is great beauty to be seen with even modest instruments. Remember the object will be subtle but the brain and eye will see more detail with constant viewing. If you are interested theres plenty of resources on the web so I won't be discussing amateur astronomy here but I want to go through a few astronomy software programs . They are all free ware and most should be of interest to all readers of this blog telescope or no telescope.

Celestia. probably the most spectacular freeware astronomy software available is Celestia. It produces beautiful high resolution realistic 3D images of planets and other celestial objects and allows you to take a space trip to the desired object. What to go to Mars? Then select Mars from the Menu and hit Goto. In a few seconds you will be zoomed through Space to your destination. I arrived 6 million km from the surface, far to distant. So I zoomed in to 7000km. Too close. Went out to 20000 km, much better, now the whole planet is viewable. Celestia can be used as a planetarium , to follow space missions, tour the galaxy etc. Theres lots of add ons and is well supported by its users. A must get.

Stellarium. Learning your way around the sky can be difficult. I found most star charts confusing, especially the ones that ask you to hold them above your head and look South. How are you supposed to read the thing in the dark and try to see the stars with the chart over your head? Fortunately we now have Stellarium. This program simulates the sky as it actually appears outside. It trys to to account for atmospheric haze and sky glow and produces a photo realistic image. You just select your location from a map and it reads computer time to produce the simulation. Then just compare the view on the screen with the outside view. It would be a cinch if you have a laptop to take outside but I had no problems with studying the simulation on a desktop PC then going outside to look at the night sky. Users can overlay constellations and select stars for identification. If you want to learn the sky get Stellarium. Wish I had it 20 years ago.

Home Planet . John Walker's Home Planet has been around since the mid 90's and I have been using it most of that time. If you want a comprehensive free astronomy program get this. On startup it produces a map of the Earth showing the day/night cycle and the position of the Moon. You can then produce a map of the full sky, your horizon or the view from a telescope. Home Planet can also be used to guide a computer controlled telescope. Want to know where a newly discovered asteroid or comet is? Well, go here and you can produce the new objects ephemerides in the Home Planet format. Run them in the Orrery and see where it is in relation to the planets. Then go to the star chart and see where it is in the sky. Theres even a satellite tracker, input two-line orbital elements and you can plot the ISS or any other satellite position in the sky. Home Planet may be getting a bit old but its still very useful.

Virtual Moon Atlas. If you want to explore the Moon download Virtual Moon Atlas. It will produce a high quality image showing the Lunar features. You can zoom down to any feature selected and a side bar provides detailed information. Selecting the full globe option provides a 3D image which can be rotated revealing the Farside. Users can input the type of telescope they have and it will generate the image they should see. Since the Moon can be explored with modest instruments, binoculars will do, the Moon Atlas is a useful program to have.

Cartes Du Ciel . If you have a telescope and want to to get the most out of it this program is for you. Cartes Du Ciel will produce detailed star charts for the amateur astronomer. It will show stars, deep sky objects, planets, asteroids comets etc. Information can be updated online. The night vision option allows you to use it on your computer at your observing site or produce printouts. You can do serious work with this.