While writing about the Terapixel image of the night sky, we mentioned how one thing that pollution has deprived of us is the beauty of the stars shimmering against the jet black of the night. Add to that the fast dwindling interest in astronomy, and we have a generation that has known the night only for its darkness.
Along with the Terapixel image, Google Sky is another contribution in reducing the gap between sky and the men under it. But while both of them might succeed to certain degree, they only give us a faint ‘picture’. ‘Picture’, in every sense, because it does not put you ‘in there’ like Chris Laurel’s awesome, open-source software Celestia does. Fasten your seatbelts before you download.
Celestia is a 3D model of the Universe where you can explore, and move around, getting the view that many a famed astronauts might have got from the hot seat on the space shuttles [SCREENSHOTS AT THE BOTTOM]. You can travel through this extensive Universe with its 120,000 celestial bodies modeled after reality. Quite astonishingly, the ultra-realistic Celestia also manages to be accurate in terms of the actual location of the star at any particular time. In fact, it predicts the orbit and location of celestial bodies so accurately, that it can be used to predict a solar and lunar eclipse. It maps the paths that were, and will be treaded by planets (including extrasolar planets), dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, comets, artificial satellites, and spacecraft. Ofcourse, you can’t see the motion of planets if you look at them in real time. No problem. Celestia allows you to speed up the clock to have a quick peep into the future. We blinked in amazement as we even saw the planets spinning about their axis. Stars were our next destination, as we switched on the constellation labels (you can toggle labels, grids, constellation diagrams etc). One look at the constellations, and we knew that Mr. Bejan Daruwala might not actually own a telescope after all.
The software also supports scripts (like the default ‘demo’ script) which can take you through a customized tour of the Universe, with accompanying text.
You might wonder that the software has to be 100s of gigabytes in size to store the Universe in there. You surely wouldn't trust us if we say it is a 33.6 MB download. Here's our witness.
Let us not fool ourselves though. 33.6 MB can obviously not store the entire Universe in all its detail. Thus, the basic package of Celestia contains low resolution textures on planets and lesser details for other celestial objects. But in seeking the solution for this, we discovered the real beauty of the software – its add-ons.
Celestia has an active user-community which has developed close to 18 gigabytes of add-ons for the software, all of which are hosted here. These include high resolution surfaces for solar planets, 2 million more stars, man-made satellites from the present and the past (with actual trajectories!) and much more. Moreover, the stars can be customized to show all stages of their life cycle (from nebula to black dwarf).
But the feature we loved the most in Celestia is the ability to add fictional worlds to the Universe. Not just any fictional world, head over here and you can have the worlds from Star Wars, Star Trek and Space Odyssey.
You can also download scripts from here, and give your kid (or yourself) an automated tour of the Solar system, or other intergalactic destinations. No doubt, the software is used by even NASA in their educational and outreach programs.
Celestia is highly recommended for those who are fascinated by the Universe, and for those who admire anything beautiful. Download it here.