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November 15, 2010

Free Software Tools for Astronomy

I have been in the astronomy education world for about a half decade now. In that time, I have found many very cool pieces of software that are great to explore on your own and teach with. So, if you have a few extra minutes, poke around, explore, have fun, and maybe learn something along the way.

Want to know what stars and planets are going to be above your head tonight? Stellarium will tell you that and more. With it you can also see what the sky was like a thousand years ago, or in Antarctica. This program will get you acquainted with the constellations and is really easy to use. I have used Stellarium to give students a idea of what to look for in the night sky, and I use it myself on a regular basis.

NASA released a new piece of software recently that, while still in beta, I have been thoroughly impressed with. Eyes on the Solar System is a absolutely spectacular tool for exploring planets, moons, and spacecraft. I was flying around the solar system within minutes of visiting the site. Its ease of use sets it apart from many other such tools, and the graphics are well done.

Third on my list is probably the best known. Google Earth is hugely popular, but one of its best kept secrets is its ability to take you off the planet it is named for. Google Sky lets you look up at constellations and see exquisite images from telescopes. Google Moon and Mars let you explore in much the same way you explore the Earth. To get to these features, press the button with the picture of Saturn on the tool bar and select the option you desire. This is great for showing anyone the wonders of another planet. Such a thing should be made available for every planet. Enjoy your travels.

The programs above I use and love. There are others, such as World Wide Telescope  and Celestia, that I have not been able to master and effectively use. I know other people who make these programs do wonderful things so they are worth your time. If you are interested, I recommend that you give them a try. I hope you more luck than I have had.

If you found this useful, let me know and I can do more similar posts in the future.

November 9, 2010

Sagan Day

Today is Sagan Day! While many of the celebrations took place this last weekend, today would have been Carl Sagan's 76th birthday. Carl Sagan has inspired me as well as many others to love science and use the lens it gives us to explore the world. This year I celebrate by watching a few episodes his famous television series, Cosmos. All I ask of each of you is to watch this short video clip. It is in my opinion on of the best essays ever written. No matter how many times I read and listen to it, I am struck. It is humbling and uplifting. I think it exemplifies the responsibility he saw us having not only to our planet, but also to each other.

"The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky" - Carl Sagan

On that note, Happy Sagan Day.