Viewing Heavenly Bodies on Computer

As an amateur astronomer, I often use desktop planetarium software to plan my viewing sessions. There are many products available for all computer platforms. A Google search yields links to many sources.


Growing in popularity and features are the online planetarium sites. Below are highlights of some favorites of mine. Each has unique features, look and feel, and ease of use. Enjoy.

Eyes on the Solar System from JPL at NASA

This is one of the best simulators available. It is accompanied by rich graphics and top of the line accuracy. It uses Java.

There is an Intro as well as Tutorials. For best results, I advise using them. Or, jump in and start exploring the Solar System on your own. Explore the planets and their moons. Bookmark and check back in the future for new features, tours, and news. The menu of choices is updated as needed.


Neave Planetarium

This one is more intuitive and asks that you basically jump right in and try it. Click near the center of your screen. Move your mouse to drag the sky around. Click again to stop it. Move the mouse over an object and it identifies it. The Menu… accessed via the Neave N at the top left, has some other fun stuff to play with.



This one has some interesting features. I inquired about the program. Here is a reply to my email.

Dear Jim
We are a little (4 members) company from Slovakia – central Europe and usually make multimedia presentations for local companies. As we are all fans of astronomy, we use our experiences and made free model SSS for two main reasons:
First of all, we want to popularize astronomy among people (especially the young ones). The next thing is that most space applications on internet have scientific character and are difficult to understand for a common user. So we’ve made the user-friendly model that makes anybody understand the movement of planets and recognize constellations. SSS has own Flash 3D engine and use NASA calculations to precisely position all celestial objects. We are only at the beginning of our project and are planning lots of improvements.
So please visit our website also in future.
Mito – SolarSystemScope

Gravity and Orbits

This is a downloadable program for you to keep. Or, it can be run directly from this site. It is simple and direct allowing you to make and control orbiting systems under the influence of the force of gravity. Some presets are available. Or, build your own.


Motions of the Moon

This animation shows the geocentric phase, libration, position angle of the axis, and apparent diameter of the Moon throughout the year 2013, at hourly intervals. The Moon’s orbit is not circular. Most obvious is the sequence of phases which occur during each orbit. This animation accurately shows the level of detail possible in such a computer simulation. The shadows and features are based on the global elevation map being developed from measurements by the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

The Moon appears a little larger during the time it is closest to Earth. Watch the size in the video vary as it goes through the phases during each orbit.

It also keeps the same side facing toward us. Notice the wobble, or libration, also visible in the video. I will post in the future to explain these strange looking motions in detail.

Kepler Mission Search for Habitable Planets

The Kepler spacecraft is staring at a small region of the sky to survey how many may have planets in the habitable zone. That is a planet at such a distance from its star that it might have liquid water on the surface which might support life. The image below represents the stars with planets found as of the January 2013 data release.

This is a graphic of 2,740 stars which have candidate planets in transit. The planets are small black disks against the bright disk of each star. Using the prolific planet hunting Kepler spacecraft, astronomers have discovered 2,740 planet candidates orbiting other suns since the Kepler mission’s search for Earth-like worlds began in 2009. To find them, Kepler monitors a rich star field to identify planetary transits by the slight dimming of starlight caused by a planet crossing the face of its parent star. In this remarkable illustration created by Jason Rowe of NASA’s Kepler Science Team, all of Kepler’s planet candidates are shown in transit with their parent stars ordered by size from top left to bottom right. Simulated stellar disks and the silhouettes of transiting planets are all shown at the same relative scale, with saturated star colors. Of course, some stars show more than one planet in transit, but you may have to examine the picture at high resolution to spot them all. For reference, the Sun is shown at the same scale, by itself below the top row on the right. In silhouette against the Sun’s disk, both Jupiter and Earth are in transit.


The Milky Way in 5000 Mega-Pixels (Give it time to load)

What do you see? This was the anthropic question of a year-long photographic project dubbed the Photopic Sky Survey, meant to reveal the entire night sky as if it rivalled the brightness of day. In it we see tens of millions of stars, the glowing factories of newborn ones, and a rich tapestry of dust all floating on a stage of unimaginable proportions. I hope you enjoy this new view of our place in the universe as much as I have enjoyed making it.    — Nick Risinger


Nick traveled nearly 60,000 miles to obtain the clearest skies and vantage points for the 37,440 images which are stitched together in this zoomable interactive. Weather, moon cycles, and light pollution complicated his quest. He divided the sky into 624 areas about the size of the palm of your hand. Details of his project and specifications on equipment used are found at this link.

Each frame received a total of 60 exposures: 4 short, 4 medium, and 4 long shots for each camera which would help to reduce the amount of noise, overhead satellite trails and other unwanted artifacts.

Finally ….. Orrery Fun

An orrery is a mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the solar system in a heliocentric model. Though the Greeks had working planetaria, the first orrery was a planetarium of the modern era was produced in 1704, and one was presented to the Earl of Orrery — whence the name came. They are typically driven by a clockwork mechanism with a globe representing the Sun at the centre, and with a planet at the end of each of the arms.

Today, the orrery can be found in digital form. One recent example I like allows you to have some simple control with interesting results. The image below is linked to the site. Below are some comments about the controls you ought to try.


The slider in the upper left of center lets you run time forward or backward and at varying speeds.
The links in the upper right sets the date and the view of months or zodiac signs.
At the lower left you can make the Moon phases visible. Slow down the clock.
At the lower right you can view the Solar System from the Copernican or Tychonian views.The Copernian view assumes the Sun to be the center of the system. It is also called heliocentric. This view was espoused by Galileo and got him placed under house arrest. The Tychonian view assumes the Earth is the center of the system. It is not correct. But, it gives some interesting motions.


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