While it may not let you go where no man has gone before, Celestia is an amazing desktop application that lets you travel anywhere in the known Universe.
You can view any object in the Solar System, travel to distant stars, and even leave the Galaxy to view planets only recently discovered by NASA and global space agencies.
Celestia is cross-platform, which means you can run it on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux. It’s also open source, so if you’re using a different operating system, or if it’s not available as a binary package for your distribution, you can compile it yourself.
Windows and Macintosh users should head to the Celestia download page, while Linux users should check and see if it’s available through their package manager. In Ubuntu, you can download Celestia using the following command:
By default, Celestia uses a QT interface, which will work great in a KDE setup (such as Kubuntu). Gnome users will probably want to install the Gnome front-end, using the command:
There are also loads of add-on packages available for Celestia, which increases the size of the database of objects Celestia is able to view. These include various spacecraft and satellites, deep space objects, and even fictional objects such as space bases in Star Trek and Babylon 5. For a complete list of add-ons, check out the Celestia Motherlode site.
Once installed, you’re ready to start navigating your way around space in Celestia. The first thing you’ll probably want to do is check out Earth, or maybe some of the other planets in our Solar System. By default, Celestia comes with the graphics for objects in the Milky Way, such as each planet’s moons, various asteroids, stars, and comets. The Gnome front-end has a really handy tour guide feature, which will let you select some of the more popular attractions in space:
Selecting “Go To” will take you on a journey through the millions of miles to whichever object you have selected. I traveled to the comet Borrelly, and was able to view this beautiful image taken by the Deep Space 1 spacecraft:
Next, I was curious about how things looked from the most distant parts of our Solar System, so I traveled over to the ex-planet Pluto, to check out how things looked from that icy rock way out in space. Celestia gave me a beautiful view of Pluto’s moon, Charon, which you can see in the upper-left corner here, and you can see all the inner planets labeled in the distance:
To travel back, I simply right-clicked on Saturn and selected “Go-To”; stars in the background whizzed by as Jupiter and one of its moons, Titan, approached, giving me this wonderful view:
I could have spent hours traveling around the planets and asteroids in our Solar System, but I wanted to get into Outer Space and see what else Celestia could do.
Celestia comes with a very handy Star System Browser, which will show you a list of known stars, and you can sort by distance, known planetary systems, or brightness. Personally, I find stars with planets to be the most interesting, since they’re the ones that will likely have life, so I selected the Wolf 562 system. Once Celestia traveled to this distant star, I was able to see its planetary companion (romantically named “b”), and plot its orbit around its mother star.
Obviously, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other stars objects to explore. That’s the fun of Celestia! You’ll never run out of objects to view, or new things to find. And for more cool pictures, check out the Celestia Screenshot Gallery!
I heard on the news that there will be a lunar eclipse today (Feburary 21, 2008). Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to see it; but with Celestia, I can get a 3D simulation of any eclipse (Solar or Lunar) and of any planet, at any point in history – or even the future! Celestia’s eclipse finder lets you enter a date range, and select which eclipse you’d like to view:
Even though I won’t be able to see the Lunar eclipse today, I can still check out the view of the Earth, Sun, and the Moon lined up, using Celestia:
I haven’t really discussed the details about what type of information Celestia shows you. Obviously, you can set it to label stars, orbits, planets, and other bodies; it will tell you the surface temperature and luminosity of any object, its distance from any other object, and what class planet or star something is. This is all really great information for astronomers, and I have no doubt that this software will serve as a useful tool for anyone in that profession or field of study. But Celestia is great even for those who are just interested in space and the Universe. Celestia lets travel millions of light years without ever leaving home!