Sunday, November 15, 2009


Tomorrow night marks the beginning of the peak of the annual star show known as the Leonids meteor shower. Astronomers are predicting this year's Leonids will be more spectacular than usual, with a rate of upwards of 500 meteors per hour.

AJ and I have enjoyed starwatching since he was very small. In the semi-rural area where we live, it gets mighty dark at night. Star viewing is pretty spectacular. But we've had trouble with our identification. We like looking at star charts, but we're not so talented at mapping them onto the sky.

But this week, I discovered an abolutely amazing computer program to help us look at and learn about the stars. And it's completely free.

Stellarium is an open source planetarium program. The graphics are great. You can set your latitude and longitude; it gets the date and time off the computer. You can set a variety of background photos. You can chose to overlay any number of things -- constellation labels (from any of 10-12 cultures), constellation pictures, planets, planetary orbits, etc. You can adjust the amount of star detail with a slider. You can make the atmosphere go away so you can see what the stars would look like in the daytime, if you could see them. You can add shooting stars. We're still exploring and finding new things.

We had a good time looking at the constellation legends from different cultures (we checked out Navajo and China). But my favorite thing is that the background screens show the horizon and the compass directions, so we won't have any of the problems we have reading the flat star charts. There's even a dim feature, which turns the screen darkroom red so it doesn't interfere with your outside viewing.

We'll do some reading to go along with our star viewing. A Child's Introduction to The Night Sky by Michael Driscoll is one of our astronomy favorites. It also with a glow-in-the dark star chart, one several we've been struggling with. We also really like Stars: A New Way to See them by H. A. Rey, better known as the creator of Curious George. We'll also be looking at some Greek Mythology. Andy loves the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, but we haven't yet read a lot of straight up mythology. I'm hoping I can get him interested in the originals with D'Aulaire's Greek Myths.


Unfocused Me said...

We are big fans of the D'Aulaire's mythology books here, although the Norse Myths book gets more play because, frankly, Unfocused Girl and I both think the Greek gods are jerks. She does have a thing for Artemis and Athena, though, both of whom are neither jerks nor dependent on the attention or approval of men (try to read that last word with appropriate disdain).

Thanks for the tip about the Leonids and the software. We don't do much stargazing here -- not much point, unfortunately, with all of the light pollution -- but it's probably worth looking into anyway.

Unfocused Me said...

"both of whom are neither..."

Sigh. That's just embarrassing. I've been writing all day, but that's not much of an excuse.

Harriet said...

Unfocused girl will totally love this program. I can almost guarantee it.