September 5 2017 was the 40th anniversary of one of the most crucial milestones in space exploration, perhaps second only to Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind. NASA launched the Voyager 1 probe in 1977, laden with sophisticated camera equipment and recordings of earth activities for the benefit of any passing aliens. But as that lonely object drifts further into deep space, now might be an opportune time to highlight the best software for your own stargazing.
The main application of the Aladin Sky Atlas suite, this software gives you a powerful browser that plugs into a diverse range of astronomical sources, such as the jaw dropping images captured by the Hubble telescope or access to databases including Simbad (objects beyond the Solar System) and VizieR (catalogue of astronomical research.) The beauty of this unfettered access to existing information is that you not only get to see photographs taken with extremely high quality telescopes across multiple wavelengths, Aladin will automatically download views to your hard drive of anything you choose to select. Naturally a lot of the file sizes will be large, but images can be viewed offline.
Harnessing available resources is what much of the Internet is about. Many part-time astronomers also run small businesses, and are already familiar with tapping into a top affiliate network. Aladin is equally resourceful and will run on Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems, with a minimum requirement of Java 1.5.
Cartes du Ciel
French for ‘sky charts’, this software is user-friendly and offers a planetarium experience in the comfort of your own home. It is a must for any amateur astronomer with a serious interest in star charts, and contains a celestial calendar to pinpoint the positions of objects in real time. Everything from phases of the moon to the trajectories of comets to imminent solar and lunar eclipses can be calculated. This time aspect is invaluable when it comes to recommending the optimum viewing conditions for distant stars, with the program offering minimum and maximum perimeters.
There are Windows, Linux and Mac-appropriate versions. There is also an option of adding the entire PPMXL catalogue (a directory of some 900 million stars and galaxies.)
This software gives the user reasonably accurate mock-ups of the night skies, with over 600,000 stars included. Many striking visual effects are included, such as twinkling star effects, passing comets, the Milky Way and even light pollution. A powerful zoom function allows you to get close to planetary landscapes and various objects to be found in deeper space.
The beauty of using sophisticated but easy-to-navigate programs like Stellarium is that stargazing can become a truly immersive communal experience. Studying the never-ending wonders of the cosmos can make a stimulating date night. For instance, imagine if budding sky watchers were drawn together after inputting ‘flirt usa’ into their search engines. Whether your prospective partner is American or from anywhere else on the globe, appreciating the universe knows no international barriers, with Stellarium display coningstellation groupings as they appear for any culture on earth.