|Stellarium in action|
What astronomy software should you choose for your personal study or as a teaching aid in your class? There is Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope, free Stellarium PC planetarium, Digitial Universe Atlas from Hayden Planetarium, Night Sky for iPad and much more.
Different goals and approaches
WorldWide Telescope is a truly fabulous offering created with massive resources. It has a carefully designed GUI for easy of use and for clarity of orientation. Its creators want to give you everything in a single portal in WEB 2.0 and Silverlight 4.0.
WWT surely is a resource hug - the recommended 2 GB memory, good graphics card and fast internet connection are required for smooth operations. Of course, any of the programs discussed here will work more smoothly and faster with better resources. But WWT will not work properly or at all in weak computers. Once this amazing Internet telescope is is up and running in your machine there is so much you can do with it exploring the space. It is designed also to assist in teaching modern astronomy and cosmology with the help of guided tours and many other resources and features.
Stellarium is there for you for free download if your main concern is to learn to know better the stars and constellations visible in the night sky and to decide where to aim your binoculars or telescope. The Stellarium PC planetarium is less fancy and simpler then the visually rich WWT but its compactness and easy to use interface gives you exactly what you need for orientation and finding. When does Arcturus rise tonight or is it visible at all in my place at this time of the year?
Stellarium is a truly multicultural system probably knowing also your mother tongue if its is not English and can display the constellations as seen in twenty different cultures.
Night Sky for iPad is not free software and it is an iPad not PC application. Night Sky can even run in the iPhone that you may carry in your pocket. The experience of walking out there in the fields admiring the starry night can be greatly enhanced with Night Sky. Just point iPad towards the part of the sky that interests you. The device remembers the location you gave it and feels the direction you are pointing it. Night Sky cleverly uses this location and orientation information to show you exactly what it is up there in the part of the sky you are aiming the iPad.
Digital Astronomy Atlas has no parallel in this group of software if you want to learn astronomy more deeply. It is practical and science oriented and gives overview of the history, scope, limitations and meaning of modern scientific data collected in various projects like, for example, the Microway (WMAP) all-sky survey. The software lets you explore the 3D model of the observable universe with you in full control of navigation and what type of data you see while following the very clearly written Guide.
I am afraid that despite its great educational value the Digital Universe Astronomy package is doomed to obscurity because of its difficult interface and the demands it puts on us, the spoiled and lazy users. We prefer ready meals like the very easy to use Stellarium and like the fancy visual stuff offered by the WorldWide Telescope and its guided tours.
The learning curve for the archaic looking Partiview GUI with its strange controls is steep in comparison to the other programs mentioned here. But the engine is, in fact, a very modern 3D display system and learning to use it is rewarded manifold. IMHO even a hologram hovering over your table would not necessarily be more enchanting than the multicolored 3D image of the entire Universe created by Partiview from nearly million points - once you get that SLUM slider in the right position...
Surprisingly, the greatest benefit from Digital Universe Atlas is reaped by those who bother to learn to use the Partiview engine and follow the interactive tutorials and teaching in the accompanying Guide. It is the effort that drives in the significance of the data. Merely seeing Microwave WMAP all-sky survey data and reading and hearing about it in WWT is less effective in learning than working with the DUA navigator and getting it finally right.
The remarkable thing is that the making of all these software packages takes so much work and so many experts on astronomy and on computer technologies they are still all free downloads.
We Are Being Spoiled!
So why not to take them all and more?
Never before has the study of the magnificent creation of God of Israel been so affordable, interesting and easy for all Earthlings as it is today thanks to the information technology revolution and the kind people who share their enthusiasm, knowledge and use their skills to help us to grasp what is known today.