Free Flights

celestia voyager

There has never been a better time to be an armchair astronaut. Not only can we surf a steady stream of pictures and discoveries from all over the solar system, but those who are serious about their desktop spaceflight can use several top-notch software packages to further explore the sky. Best of all, some of them are free.

Here are a few that you won’t want to miss. Please feel free to add more in the comments below.

  • Celestia: The simulation of Voyager’s 1989 Neptune fly-by seen above was created in Celestia, a free space simulation that lets you explore in three dimensions. It runs on Linux, Mac and Windows. Celestia doesn’t confine you to the surface of the Earth. You can travel throughout the solar system, to any of over 100,000 stars, or even beyond the galaxy.
  • Midnight Mars Browser: This software allows users to view slideshows and virtual reality panoramas using the latest real images from the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
  • Stellarium: Stellarium is an open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. Planetariums use this software, but it’s free to download. Also for Linux, Mac and Windows.
  • JPL’s Solar System Simulator: This web site lets you calculate precise positions of, and views from, spacecraft and celestial objects.
  • CASSIE: The Cassini at Saturn Interactive Explorer (CASSIE) is a web application that lets you follow along with Cassini in its ongoing dance around the ringed planet. Mac and Windows only.

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One that I use a lot is Starry Night. It’s not free, but it contains a full list of space missions and panoramas from Mars and the moon. You can land where the Apollo astronauts did and see the stars they did with the panorama of the site. You can also change the surface of the planets so that when new surface maps are released (i.e. Titan), you can change the view in your computer. It also performs regular updates for the satellites, asteroids and other heavenly bodies to keep them on the right course in your digital sky.

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