Do you like to unwind with some stargazing? There's always something new to see in the night sky, no matter how often you look.
The closest most of us will get to the stars is through the lens of a telescope. But that doesn't mean we can't explore the galaxy. Realistic models can be made from data collected from space.
Below are three free programs that let you explore like an astronaut. They offer views that you'll never get from a telescope.
TeleStar Astronomy Software is a basic 3-D map of stars and planets. You can zoom in and out of the celestial sphere. You can also set the stars in motion as they appear from Earth.
Click on any star or planet to see its name and details. Each item on the map includes right ascension and declination numbers. You can use it along with your telescope.
TeleStar Astronomy Software works on Windows 98 or newer.
Celestia adds some polish to its 3-D map of the stars. You can look around as though you're floating in space. The program starts you hovering over Earth.
You can move around or simply look around. If you see a distant star or planet that catches your eye, click it. Celestia will give you its name and other details.
To get a close-up, right-click the star or planet. Then select Goto. You'll start flying toward your destination. You have to see it to believe it.
Celestia works on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
Stellarium adds some art to the night sky. It paints illustrations of the Zodiac characters over the relevant constellations. It also animates the sky as it appears in real time from earth.
Stellarium's default view is a simulation of standing outside. In fact, the screen includes foregrounds such as a grassy field for perspective. You can select different settings and locations on Earth. You also have the option of zooming to other planets and stars for close-ups.
Stellarium works on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.