Those who live in the city—with its bright lights, pollution, et al—will almost never know what it is to look up at the night sky and witness its magnificence. But step out of the concrete jungle and what you’ll witness when you gaze up at the heavens is simply breathtaking. The stars appear brighter, the planets more discernable, and the moon looks glorious. Now nothing can possibly replace an experience such as this, but stargazers and backyard astronomers can take solace in the fact that there are free software that will bring this very same indigo sky—complete with labelled sky-mapping and space simulation—into your homes and onto your computers…


Imagine this: You’re standing in the middle of a field in the French village of Guereins. You click a button and voila, the sky turns pitch dark and stars appear. A few more clicks and lines magically start connecting the shining dots to form constellations; superimposed with dreamy white illustrations of mythical creatures such as the Phoenix, Piscis Austrinus, Taurus and Orion.

What looks like a show at a planetarium is now possible on your home PC with Stellarium – a free open-source software that’s also being employed by professional set-ups to render 3D photo-realistic skies in real time.

Using this software, you can choose to view the night sky from any location on the planet. Just key in the latitude, longitude, or use the dropdown to choose a predefined city.
Then, enter in the date and time and Stellarium generates a celestial map that replicates exactly what you would see in the sky had you actually been at the spot at that specified time; ideal for those who are curious and want to discover what that unusual bright spot in the sky is. The default installation comes with information on 6,00,000 stars, and you can download an extended catalogue of 200 million stars.

Download from:
Available for: Windows (45.6 MB), Mac OS X, Linux


With Celestia you can travel millions of light years, making it possible to visit faraway objects like satellites, planets, asteroids, comets and star clusters. All you have to do is select the heavenly object from a dropdown – or you choose from the options available within a solar system or star browser. Then, click the Go-To button to be instantly transported to the object to closely study its physical features. For example, you can use it to observe the potato-shape of asteroid Eros or the rocky nucleus of comet Borrelly.

Celestia stores information of about 1,20,000 objects sourced from ESA’s Hipparcos Catalogue; this, besides supporting add-ons like high-res surface textures and celestial objects such as spinning pulsars, rotating black holes, supernovas and star nursery nebula.

Sci-fi fans would be pleased to know that the Star Wars Excelsior Class Starship and the Star Trek Voyager are also available for download.

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For add-ons:
Available for: Windows (34.4 MB), Mac OS X (38.7 MB), Linux (27.7 MB)

Solar System 3D Simulator

If you are an astro-newbie or are looking for basic software that can teach your children about the planets in our solar system, then Solar System 3D Simulator is the perfect place to start. It displays animations of the eight planets moving in their respective orbits around the sun in their proportionate speeds.

You can adjust the orbit view by tilting and rotating and even increase or decrease the speed at which the planets revolve. Using its menu, you can even access details—including diameter, orbital period, mass, temperature, density and even the names of the moon(s)—for each of the planets.

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Available for: Windows (5.03 MB)

WorldWide Telescope

You can sit at home and view a panorama of the landing sites on the moon or even Mars using Microsoft’s WoldWide Telescope. The free tool allows you to launch high-resolution panoramas from the Apollo 12 and Mars Rover missions.

And that’s not all this visualisation app can do. Use it as a virtual telescope to browse images taken by several space and earth-bound telescopes including the Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.

Another popular feature is the option to take guided tours narrated by different space experts including astrophysicist Alyssa Goodman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Robert Hurt of Caltech. These visual journeys are divided into categories like planets, nebulae, galaxies, supernovas, surveys, cosmology, black holes, star clusters and cosmic events.

The software, however, needs a high-speed Internet connection as all of its content is stored on the web.

Download from:
Available for: Windows (62KB)

This story was published in Sunday TOI: