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Stellarium.

This Week On The Internet: Nerds in Spaaaaaaace!

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A quick glance outside will reveal a beautiful new layer of snow on the ground, reminding one not only of finals and Christmas break just around the corner, but also of the fact it's hella cold outside. However, this also means the winter night sky is absolutely gorgeous due to decreased atmospheric interference and the occasional presence of north lights. As such, driving twenty minutes south of the city to escape Calgary's ever-present light pollution and then staring at the sky is one of most enjoyable and easy activities around. While it's possible to get by with simple paper charts, having a laptop and some free software can make the journey more enjoyable and make it easier to find objects that aren't commonly listed.

NASA World Wind

Kind of like a more-scientific version of Google Earth, NASA World Wind allows users to rotate and zoom in on a detailed 3D version of the Earth, as well as Mars and the Moon. Regardless of the inherent coolness of being able to check out the dark side of the moon, World Wind can also be used to get the exact coordinates of a particular observation site, which can be fed into another program before heading out to get really accurate localized skycharts. Note that it requires an active internet connection to use, so don't expect it to work 20km out of town.

worldwind.arc.nasa.gov/

Cartes du Ciel

Don't be scared off by the French name, Cartes du Ciel (CDC) is entirely in English. If lugging along a computer isn't possible, CDC allows detailed, localized skycharts to be printed beforehand.

www.ap-i.net/skychart/

Stellarium

Talking about Stellarium sounds like a late-night infomercial for some kind of food-processor, since it does everything. It slices. It dices. It makes Julienne fries. It's an incredibly versatile open-source observatory program that allows one to view the night sky from anywhere on earth at any time. That's only what it does at the basic level, though; it can do a million other cool things, such as draw the observer in the middle of a field complete with bushes and atmospheric interference, show constellations, demonstrate eclipses, and a lot more. Most notably, since it can calculate skycharts for anywhere on earth in real time, finding celestial objects becomes child's play when combined with a compass. Don't feel like going out and freezing in the middle of field somewhere? No problem, Stellarium has a mode where a combination of a LCD projector and spherical security mirror can turn any room into an instant planetarium.

www.stellarium.org

Celestia

Those taking the indoor route can play with Celestia, another cool piece of astronomy software. Think of it like Google Earth for the entire Milky Way galaxy. Sure, one can view the earth and the moon, even check out some of the other planets orbiting the sun, but once bored with that, one can go to other solar systems. See a cool red dwarf? A single click is all it takes to go directly to it. It comes standard with 100,000 stars, but an add-on expands it up to two million. It can be used to compute when and where the next eclipse is going to be, or if nothing else, just used as a nifty screensaver.

www.shatters.net/celestia

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