Each lab class will have a session to help you learn to identify constellations, bright stars, and the planets that are currently visible. It will help if you work on this with a star chart of your own, such as you might find in an astronomy book, or in one of these free resources:
For your laptop, home computer, cell phone, or tablet there are many choices.
The free Google Sky Map for Android works well, and makes use of Android device's navigation to interact with your real sky.
iTunes also offers a Sky Map for iPhone and iPad for a fee.
If want to pursue this and learn the night sky well, old technology works great. Consider getting a planisphere star finder, a rotating map of the sky that will show you how it appears on any date and time.
This lab will use Stellarium to help you learn to identify some of the prominent constellations and bright stars. If you have a Planisphere or one of the other applications on your handheld device or laptop, use it too.
First, there are a few things you need to know about using Stellarium. You might look at the Stellarium Tour on their website for an overview and reference to these options:
Stellarium starts in full screen mode and will cover everything. You can change this by pressing the F11 key to fit it into a smaller window.
There are two bars of menus, one at the bottom of the screen, and one on the left. They are hidden until you run the mouse down to the bottom or over to the left.
When you or done, you can use the bottom menu bar to exit by selecting the off button.
Setting your location
By default you will be in Paris, France. If you press F6 the location menu will pop up and you can select your city or put in longitude and latitude. Once you have done this and saved the configuration, Stellarium will come up at your chosen site. The location menu is also in the left menubar under the compass icon at the top left. When you have selected your location the menu will show a map of Earth with an arrow pointing to your site.
Setting the time
Stellarium starts with the sky over your site at this very moment. The date and time will show at the lower right, based on the computer's clock. This time is the local time at your computer. If you change your location, the time shown will still be the time at your computer, not the time at the new site. For example, if you are in Baltimore, Maryland and you set up Stellarium for that site, then the computer is in the Eastern U.S. time zone. When you run Stellarium at 3 PM it will show the afternoon daytime sky with the Sun. Should you use the location menu to change to Rome, Italy, the sky will go dark because it's nighttime there. The clock will still show 3 PM because that's the time where you are. You can change the date and time in two ways. One is with the time menu selected from the left menu bar Clock icon. The other is with the two arrow icons at the right of the bottom menu bar. These speed forward-reverse, real time rate, and now buttons let you speed up the daily motions of the sky, and then slow them down again when you have the events in view you want to see.
Change the direction you are looking by holding down the left mouse button and dragging your direction of view, or by using the updown leftright arrow keys on the keyboard.
Identifying planets, stars, and constellations
The lower menu offers options to add labels. By default the planets will be named, and you can turn this off using the Planets labels icon that looks like Saturn. You can outline the bright stars of the constellations, add constellation names, and even overlay mythological figures to help you see the patterns by clicking on the various buttons in this menu. There are two celestial grids offered too that show the equatorial celestial coordinates of stars (right ascension and declination), and the local sky coordinates (altitude and azimuth). A menu on the left for
Sky and viewing options
allows you to change the constellations, names and associated cultural folklore. Click that option, select
Starlore and Western
to see the the typical sky labels of American and European culture, or change to one of the others offered to see the diversity of named patterns in the sky. The same menu under
lets you select whether you would also like to see the constellation boundaries as red dotted lines. Sometimes it's helpful to see these in order to identify the constellation in which a particular object is located.
Identifying an object
Move the mouse over the object and click with the left button to have its identification displayed. Click with the right button to make this go away. Click with the center button (press down on the mouse wheel) to have the display center on this object after you have selected it.
Zooming in and out
The Page Up and Page Down keys on the keyboard zoom in and out of the sky. You can move around the zoomed in sky with the arrow keys or dragging with the left mouse button. The status display at the bottom of the view tells you the field of view
in degrees among other things. For some objects there is a photo that appears when the sky view is zoomed in close. When an object is selected and centered in the view, after zooming in the view will stay centered on it even as the day progresses. Think of it as a telescope that is pointing at your target, and tracking the target as the Earth rotates.
The Moon and planets will be labeled by default. You can turn these names off with the P or by clicking on the Planet icon on the lower menu bar. If you select a planet with a left mouse click, the sky view will lockto that planet and you can follow it during the night. Planets with satellites like Jupiter will show the satellites as they really would appear in a telescope, and in motion in their orbits around the planet.
You can find a planet or other objects by using the
The left menu has a Magnifying glass icon that brings up this option. So does F3.