Five advanced Stellarium features for astronomy buffs

Credit: Stellarium

Stellarium is one of the premiere astronomy programs available for multiple platforms (Linux, Windows, Mac OS X). Luckily for the community, its features are free. As you gain confidence in observing, know that Stellarium’s features can “grow” along with your knowledge. Here are five examples of how you can do more with Stellarium.

More star catalogs

While this is difficult for beginners to believe, there are so many stars visible (especially in telescopes) that not all catalogs cover the breadth of viewable objects. The standard program covers 600,000 stars, which is good for most casual users, but advanced users will probably want to look for a larger catalog. You can browse available ones in Configuration –> Tools; more star catalog information is here.


Screenshot of the paths of planets in Munich, above the European Southern Observatory headquarters. Credit: Stellarium

‘Sky cultures’

Professional astronomy tends to follow a set of constellations and naming procedures from the International Astronomical Union, but there are many cultures – especially indigenous ones – that have their own names and traditions associated with the sky. Stellarium has a few options you can choose from, such as Inuit, Korean, Polynesian, Maori and even ancient cultures such as Mesopotamian.

Creating landscapes

You can change the landscape in Stellarium to resemble your own backyard or preferred viewing site, giving you more of a sense of which objects are (or are not) visible from where you set up your telescope. You can also enhance landscapes on celestial objects, such as the moon, to reflect different maps or newly discovered objects. Find more guidance on landscapes here.

Scripting engine

Advanced telescope users are used to running scripts to direct their view precisely to the sky, especially when hunting down faint objects. Stellarium offers many features in advanced scripting, as long as you have the patience to learn. Since the scripting engine is still in development, Stellarium warns there may be bugs. Find more guidance on scripting here.

Adding planetary bodies

Astronomers occasionally spot new comets and asteroids while scanning the sky. If your equipment is advanced enough and the object is bright enough, you can input the orbital parameters into Stellarium to follow the object. This requires knowledge of scripting, but once you have that down you can see the instructions here.

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is one of the few science journalists in Canada to focus on space exploration, with bylines in dozens of publications in the United States and Canada. She has attended several human spaceflight launches in Florida and Kazakhstan, and simulated a Red Planet mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. She also teaches technical writing and does consulting.

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