Some of you may not be aware that you can turn Google Earth around, pointing it at the skies. With a simple click of the ‘Switch Between Sky and Earth’ button on the toolbar, or the ‘Switch to Sky’ entry in the view menu, Google Earth turns around, giving you the night sky directly above what you’d been viewing.
Containing the same features as Google Earth, the astronomical view lets you navigate the skies, and has plenty of groovy bookmarks and linked images to keep you entertained and informed for hours. See the Google Sky page for more info on what you can uncover.
Google Earth only offers views from Earth, however – the camera can only pan the heavens and zoom in and out. For those with a real hankering to tour the universe, you’ll need to take a look-see at the mindbogglingly detailed (and yet still free!) Celestia.
Celestia is, quite simply, a space simulator that runs on your home PC. Pick a time, place the camera somewhere, and look at practically anything in the known universe. Nebula, stars, galaxies, spacecraft – whatever your fancy, you’ll find it.
Track probes like Voyager 2 in Celestia
However, Celestia requires a bit more work than Google Earth. The interface is more complex (to be expected, given the greater range of freedom to place the camera and shift time) and it requires additional downloads of add-ons to add extra details beyond what’s covered in the meager 22Mb base install. That being said, it’s more than worth the extra effort to place the camera somewhere around the orbit of Callisto, turn the speed up to 4x time, and watch the inner moons of Jupiter traverse the orange giant. The resulting show is nothing short of astounding.
If you’re after information about what’s in the sky, Google Earth’s vast array of bookmarks can’t be missed. Celestia offers no bookmarks, but the views are a thousandfold more interesting.