You don’t need telescope, or 20/20 vision to figure out the sky. All you need is a PC or a smart phone loaded with interactive star maps.

In the year 1600, Galileo was able to look in to Jupiter, see its moons, and declare that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way around. Today, you can do the same, with a toy telescope that costs 2,000 rupees from a mall.

There are only 6,000 to 9,000 stars visible from earth to the naked eye even at the best viewing conditions. Even then, by using just a pair of binoculars and software you can see planets. Constellations and star clusters and at least one spiral galaxy on a clear night.

As part of ESA’s International year of Astronomy, three pictures were released last year, the trilogy of pictures zoom further and further in, demonstrating the capabilities of modern astronomy and is downloadable from their website gigagalaxyzoom.org.

The first picture, an 800-million pixel 360-degree-panoramic image reveals the stars and the Milky Way as seen by the naked eye from the darkest and best viewing location in the world. It is also available in 3D map where you can rotate; zoom in and out of it in a browser (www.sergebrunier.com/gallerie/pleinciel/360.swf).

The night sky was for medieval civilizations, like TV before TV, a galactic PowerPoint presentation that signaled the passing of time and change of season.

“I wanted to show a sky that everyone can relate to – with its constellations, its thousands of stars, with names familiar since childhood, its myths shared by all civilizations, “said Serge Brunier, who spent many months compiling this composite picture made out of 1200 photos from both hemispheres of the Earth.

Stargazing is free, and so is most of the software that supports it. Google may be more renowned for making maps that look down the Earth from space, but sky map, a free app for Android phones that can construct a map of stars and constellations. It uses a combination of GPS, network signals, in built compass, and other sensors to determine which direction you are pointing at, in the known universe. You can also search for stars and planets by name, and chase an arrow to pinpoint it in the sky.

No smart phone? In that case, the best software to accompany your laptop or notebook on an outdoor excursion would be stellarium. This open source planetarium software is the best way for you to discern the stars and planets visible in the night out of your window. It takes in your latitude and longitude coordinates and then gives you a real time simulation of every visible object in space. Using this software you can safely estimate the time, position and trajectory of planets and stars visible to the naked eye.

Easily viewable planets in city skies include Jupiter, Venus and mercury. You will also be able to estimate exactly where and when the moon will rise and set.

Since stellarium planet works offline, you can load it on a laptop hopefully with a battery on full charge and be fully equipped for a night of star gazing. It comes loaded with illustrations of constellations, a whole bunch of keyword shortcuts for navigation and is highly customizable. It is available on all PC platforms.

We particularly like stellarium’s rewind and forward feature, which help you visualize the steady movement of the planets, the Milky Way galaxy and everything related to it. Stellarium supports real time movement of celestial objects, a catalogue of over 6, 00, 000 stars.

Using zoom you can track and locate like the M31, also known as the Andromeda Galaxy, which can be seen with a pair of binoculars. Many other spiral galaxies can be seen with a basic telescope.

If you are in to living out star Trek fantasies, albeit for free, then celestial real time 3-D space simulation software is a good bet. This software is good enough to give a conventional game a run for its money. You can use it to watch the solar eclipse as it cut through earth, travel light years in to the deepest parts of the universe, or travel back or forward in time to see the Halley ’s Comet.

The controls for celestial are quite intuitive, similar to the space simulator game Home world from relic. It lets switch the scale and viewing angle to zoom in and out of any part of the universe in a flash.

Buying a telescope

The Bangalore Astronomical society recommends that one buy a telescope not just on the basis of its magnification and that a good pair of binoculars with good optics would be better than a cheap telescope. Reflector telescope are cheaper than refractor telescope. Newtonian reflecting telescope, aka table top telescopes are made in India by a company called star tracker systems. The complete kit, which includes eye pieces, lenses, and tripod, starts from Rs 4,800 and goes up to Rs. 14,700. While the low end 75-mm telescope can let you see a 10.5 magnitude star, the high-end 125-mm version can see a 12.5 magnitude star.

 


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