Virtual Astronomy

There are few things in this world that has more sense-of-wonder impact than standing out in the dark nighttime and seeing the Milky Way.  Now, the key word here is dark.  You can’t do this from the city, so that means most people have never experienced this wonderful view of the night sky.  One of my most vivid memories is sleeping on the beach in the Florida Keys when I was a boy and waking up to see the Milky Way overhead.  The sky was gray with stars.  Amateur astronomers lament the growing light pollution we live with.  If you want to see the stars you need to visit the country.  Pretty soon people living in urban areas will be as bad off as the citizens of the planet in Isaac Asimov’s classic short story, “Nightfall.”

Last weekend I was out at the local star gazing site of the Memphis Astronomical Association.  I had taken two of my friends, Linda and Carolyn, to see through my telescope, but in the end it was more exciting to just stand and look up at all the stars.  The Milky Way isn’t up this time of year but we had plenty of constellations to see like Orion, Leo, Ursa Major, a setting Cassiopeia, Virgo and Gemini.  The challenge of astronomy is learning the night sky and developing a sense of where we are in the universe.

When you are outside at night it feels like the universe is slowly spinning around us, and if we could turn off the sun, in each 24-hour period we’d see the parade of constellations march overhead.  Of course it’s us who are spinning, and we can’t turn off the sun, so each evening of star gazing only shows us a portion of 360 degrees of one plane of the stellar map we live in.  To really learn the sky you have to go out regularly all year round, and even then you won’t know the stars of the southern hemisphere if you live on the northern half of Earth and vice versa for those living down under.  There’s a lot of sky to learn and it’s very hard to grasp, being three dimensional.  Most people fail at two-dimension geography, so it’s easy to understand how hard it is to learn your way around the celestial sphere of the universe.

One solution is virtual astronomy.  In this day of computers and Internet there are plenty of programs to help you visualize the sky.  Most people know about Google, and a large subset also know about Google Earth, but do you know the latest versions of Google Earth has a menu option to turn your sights away from Earth to look out at the universe?  Just run Google Earth, go to the View menu and select Switch to Sky.  [For those who do not want to download and install Google Earth, there is a web version of Google Sky – but all my instructions below are for the full Google Earth version you download.  Google Sky is lots of fun but is less dynamic – just type what you want to see in the search box.]

Google Earth will spin out to look at the constellations for a moment and then spin around and zoom in on a galaxy shot they use as a menu with an artificial constellation of icons now strewn across the screen.  By clicking on these icons you’ll be instructed through a series of pop-ups about the program and astronomy.  Clicking on the small >> next page buttons in the pop-ups will cause the view to spin dizzyingly to new vistas and more lessons.  You can by-pass these instructional features by using the navigation controller up in the upper-right hand side of the screen.  Just hold the – button down to zoom out until you see just the constellations again.

Once you are in the constellation view you can move around the sphere by clicking on any portion of the sky and holding down the left mouse button and just sliding the sky around.   If you have no knowledge of the constellations this will be confusing because your view is one of being inside of a sphere.  Go up to the View menu again and select Show Grid.  You can then push the sky around and find the poles.  If you watch the navigator icon at the top right you can find your way to the north pole.  Find the constellations Ursa Major and Minor, the old Big Dipper and Little Dipper.  This is the beginning of learning your way around the sky.  It’s like navigating on Earth, find North first.

If you can see any stars at night where you live you might want to try and match your outside view with your virtual view.  If you have a good view of the north the Big Dipper shows well in urban skies this time of year.  The easiest constellation to learn in the overhead sky is Orion – even in a heavily light polluted city skies Orion will stand out.  Look for three stars close together in a line, that’s the belt of Orion.  Orion is up now but sets early.  A good free program to simulate the sky in relation to time and day is Stellarium.  Once you configure it for your location and time the program will start by showing you the sky in real time.  So if it’s daytime, you see simulated daylight and if it’s night you see the dark sky with minimum stars, like you would see in the city.  Stellarium has just a few iconic controls.  At the bottom right are video player buttons that you fast forward and reverse through time letting you jump ahead to plan your night-time viewing.

The Internet provides a wealth of free virtual planetarium programs that you can try out.  Some of these programs are very serious tools with catalogs of millions of stars that allow you to print very detailed maps of the sky for telescope observation.  Programs like the open source Stellarium and the commercial Starry Night programs offer great introductions to learning the sky with software.  Both the free Google Earth and the most expensive edition of Starry Night marry astronomical photography with celestial maps that allow you to zoom in and see photographs of famous cosmological tourist sites.  Most people love looking at the beautiful Hubble images but they don’t know where in the sky these photographic subjects are – these programs can show you.

The hardest part about learning astronomy is knowing where you are in the universe and which way you are looking.  An Atlas of the Universe is a site like the famous Powers of Ten video I used in explaining What Shape is the Universe?  Essentially all directions look the same when you observe the universe at large, it’s like being a grain of sand and trying to tell someone how to find another grain of sand.  For local viewing we use the Earth’s poles, the plane of the ecliptic, and the center of the Milky Way for orientation.  Advance students of the cosmos learn the various astronomical coordinate systems.

Most people think of astronomy as looking through a telescope.  Telescope viewing can be fun and exciting – especially the first time -but I personally find it frustrating and disappointing.  Except for a handful of objects all I see are countless little points of lights and occasionally some fuzzy smudges.  My advice to people thinking about buying a telescope is to learn the sky first.  Join a club and drive out to the dark sites.  Just learn the sky by looking up, and then get free views from members with telescopes.  If you want a telescope, wait to buy one until you find out if you like learning the sky.  The real fun of using a telescope is finding hard to find objects and that won’t be appealing unless you also like learning your way around the sky.

My advice is study virtual astronomy, books, magazines and learn the sky with your eyes first.  Then get binoculars with the widest field of view and study the added detail they bring.  There are plenty of people with telescopes that will give you free views.  Learn from them before buying your scope.  If you live in the city and seldom get to dark observing sites considering getting a scope that works well with urban views.  The  Moon and planets do well with small scopes.  You can get special filters and scopes for observing the Sun.  Start with a scope that’s easy to grab and carry outside for a few minutes observing – such as to check on Saturn or Jupiter, or gaze at the Moon for awhile.

The International Year of Astronomy is coming up in 2009.  This will be a great time to take up astronomy as a hobby because it will be getting lots of attention.  Starting off with these virtual astronomy programs will help you develop a foundation for learning the sky.  Astronomy is a vast field of study.  Our ancestors always lived with dark skies which they read like clocks.  The history of mankind has been the study of the sky.  Us modern folk have tuned out the night sky by constantly living with artificial light.  Learning astronomy is a way to tune back in.



2 thoughts on “Virtual Astronomy”

  1. How cool that they are planning on next year being the International Year of Astronomy. I’ll be able to play off that nicely with next January’s Sci Fi Experience.

    I am right with you in believing that one of the most magical things that can be done is to stand out and gaze up at the night sky. We live in town and yet live in a fairly dark neighborhood so I can see the stars well, but not as well as I could in the country at my parents house, the place where I grew up.

    Last year my wife and I took a trip to this old farmhouse bed and breakfast in central Missouri and were told by friends that going outside at night was just amazing because you are out in the middle of nowhere and it is pitch dark. We looked forward to experiencing just that and unfortunately had a rainy weekend the whole time we were there. They were right though, it was pitch black out at night. We had alot of fun, but I missed having that part of the experience. Hopefully in May when we go back to the same area (not the same place) we can get out and view the stars.

    I’ll have to check out the Google Earth thing. I’ve looked at it before but just briefly, but the sky option is something I would be much more interested in.

    Good stuff, thanks!!!

  2. I grew up on Asimov. “Foundation” was the second book I ever read – I was four, sitting on my father’s lap trying to read all the words before he turned the page. I had to re-read it years later because I missed a lot with that first reading!

    I love Asimov’s easy-to-read-and-understand style. Other SF authors use convoluted and technical language that drops me out of the story. I need to be immersed in the world I’m reading about and if I have to stop every few pages to check the meaning of technical words that isn’t going to happen. I read for escape. I like to learn things along the way but I don’t want the learning to be too much like work. I get really annoyed if the research done for a book has been sloppy. I like technical accuracy, I like to know that if ‘this’ happened in the science world, then the circumstances of the book could be possible.

    Every time I see one of Asimov’s books that I don’t already have I buy it. It’s a bit difficult to do that now without a conscious effort as most of the ones readily available I already have.

    Nightfall is one of my favourite stories. I love things that play on the mind, things that can cause drastic changes in how people see themselves and their lives. One of these days I’m going to use some of the ideas I’ve gained from Nightfall and write my own story. I have some notes but have been making myself focus on finishing the ones I’m working on already.

    SF and astronomy go together, I think. I can’t imagine looking at the stars at night and not thinking about which ones might have habitable worlds. I’d love to see the night sky in the northern hemisphere. People I know who’ve travelled say it’s very different but nowhere near as impressive as the southern sky.

    The milky way here is an incredible sweep of light across the sky. It’s so dense when you’re in the country, you can see blades of grass by starlight alone. Even moonless nights aren’t totally dark. I haven’t seen it in its full glory for years. I’ve lived in the city for too long.

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