“Where do you get all those cool images from?”
I was asked this after one of my lectures. When I create a lecture, I always include a LOT of images; I get many of these from various space mission websites. Occasionally, I am unable to find exactly the image I want, or wish to convey a concept that I cannot find an image for. When this happens, I create my own! There are several computer apps that allow you to visualize objects in space in a number of different ways, including:
- See the current position of the planets in the solar system.
- Go to a current NASA spacecraft, and see what they’re doing.
- View the solar system from any planet or moon.
- See the sky from the surface of the Earth at any time in the past or future.
- Lob an asteroid at the Earth, and see what happens.
- Send a star hurtling through the solar system, and see what it does.
- Experiment with planetary climates.
- See newly discovered exoplanet systems.
- Build your own solar system.
- Build and launch rockets.
With these apps, anyone can delve into the wonders of the universe, from the comfort of their living room. They are also perfect for use in schools, libraries, planetariums, and other educational venues.
NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System is a free app for the PC and MAC that lets you travel throughout the solar system, and fly alongside the spacecraft – both current and historic.
One of the coolest things I’ve done with NASA Eyes is watch a “live simulation” of the New Horizon’s Pluto flyby as it was happening. I got to see what the spacecraft was observing in real-time – it was simply fantastic! I had NASA TV running in another window, and several times I saw images from NASA’s Eyes used during the broadcast.
Stellarium is a free open source planetarium app for the PC, MAC, and Linux. It shows the sky from Earth’s surface, just as you would see it with the naked eye. You can use the mouse-wheel to zoom-in on objects in the sky, you can view constellation lines and artwork, and see celestial coordinate lines. You can control your telescope with the app too! There is an extensive library of stars, asteroids, and other objects that can be downloaded and tracked.
I frequently use Stellarium to plan future observing events; I set the date and time within Stellarium to the evening of the event, screen-capture the image, and send that to the event host to show them what’s in the sky that night.
Celestia is a free space simulator for the PC, MAC and Linux, that allows you to visualize and explore the universe in 3D. When you launch the app, you are presented with a view of the Earth, as it would appear in real-time. From there, you can go to locations all over the solar system and beyond.
Celestia has several add-ons available, including hi-rez surface maps of planets, moons, and asteroids. There are add-ons for extrasolar objects, spacecraft, and more.
Celestia has a scripting language, and several scripted journeys that will take you an a visual tour of interesting locations. There are educational journeys, where you are take an active role as the pilot of your own spacecraft, and and an educational version of Celestia
The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is a free virtual telescope for your computer. The installable client is a Windows app; there is also a web-based client. WWT offers the viewer imagery from the world’s best ground and space-based telescopes, information, and stories from multiple sources, and mixes it all into an immersive media experience. You can search for specific objects, go on audio/visual tours, or just browse around a large number of sky studies and object types.
One of the really cool things you can do with WWT is view the results of all-sky surveys mapped onto the dome of the night sky.
You can view the Earth in several different ways: as the beautiful “Blue Marble,” with streets overlaid, different seasons, or see an all-night representation of worldwide light pollution.
Universe Sandbox² is a physics-based space simulator for the PC, MAC, and Linux. From their website: “It merges gravity, climate, collision, and material interactions to reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet. Create, destroy, and interact on a scale you’ve never before imagined.” I must say, lobbing asteroids at an unsuspecting Earth is way more fun than it should be in this sim!
You may have seen a picture circulating around social media showing that all the planets could fit between the Earth and the Moon. I modeled that in Universe Sandbox², and animated it:
I wrote about Kerbal Space Program last year, and my opinion of it has steadily increased with time. KSP is an award-winning Space Program Simulator that allows you to build and fly rockets and space planes, launch them, get them into orbit, and preform scientific experiments from space. You can build orbiting space stations and moon bases, and explore other worlds.
During its development, NASA collaborated with KSP’s developers to create an in-game mission mirroring NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission. There is an educational version meant for use in the classroom, which includes historical missions from he early space program.
Here’s a simulation of an Apollo L.E.M. ascent stage lifting off from the surface of the Moon, modeled in Kerbal Space Program:
Moonbase Alpha is a free Windows-based, multiplayer, 3D immersive exploration game. From their website: “Moonbase Alpha is a NASA-funded multiplayer game scenario with 20 minutes of play set on a hypothetical lunar outpost in 3-D immersive setting. This is a proof of concept to show NASA content – lunar architecture in this case – and a cutting edge game engine could be combined to produce a fun game and inspire interest in STEM education.”
Moonbase Alpha is a work in progress, almost all of the apps mentioned above are being updated frequently, and new apps are always being developed as computing and graphics technologies continue to get smaller and faster. It’s never been a better time to #TeachKidsSpace!