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Navigate the galaxy with Gaia Sky

26 September 2016, Mike Williams

Gaia SkyGaia Sky is what the developer calls a “real-time, 3D, astronomy visualisation” package, which normally means you get to fly around like you’re in Star Trek, but with real-world deep-space images to make it more “educational”.

The project is based around the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to chart around one billion stars of our galaxy.

Gaia Sky is open-source and Java-based, with downloads available for Windows, Linux and Mac. We grabbed the Windows build and it installed without issue.

On launch the program displays its graphics settings. We could choose to run Gaia Sky full-screen, in a fixed-size or resizable window. There are other options, too, although they are sometimes rather complex. Which “anti-aliasing” option would you prefer: FXAA, NFAA, MXAA X2…?

We opted for what seemed like high quality settings, and waited for the application to load. And waited, and waited, and waited. Patience is required, not surprisingly– there’s a lot of data.

Gaia Sky

Wander the solar system, then head out into deep space

Fortunately Gaia Sky gets off to a good start with an impressive visualisation of Earth, as seen from space. We then tried the usual click, drag and mouse wheel-spinning tricks to move around, and were occasionally confused– but not for long.

Left-clicking and dragging starts to move the camera in 3D space, for instance, but it doesn’t stop when you release. We overshot out targets a few times until we realised a left-click stopped movement immediately.

Gaia Sky doesn’t initially display captions for astral objects, either, so there’s no obvious way to tell where you are, or where you’re going. But click “labels” in the “Controls” panel and captions appear.

There’s an even easier way to find stellar objects, and surprisingly you know it already: it’s the usual Ctrl+F shortcut. Press Ctrl+F, type Mars, press Enter and your view will point in the direction of Mars. If it’s out of sight you can spin the mouse wheel to zoom in, or press Ctrl+G to jump straight there.

There are plenty of configuration options. If the current camera settings don’t work for you, you’re able to adjust its speed, focus, rotation, orientation and more.

The “Lighting” settings offers some useful graphics effects. You can crank up star brightness to get a better view of what’s out there, increase ambient light to reduce the shadow effect on planets, add a touch of motion blur, a lens flare and more.

The more advanced options didn’t always work for us. Gaia Sky has an option to display its view in stereoscopic 3D, but this crashed on our test PC, and again when we restarted. If anything similar happens to you, delete your Gaia Sky settings (the contents of C:\Users\User.Name\.gaiasky on Windows) and the program should restart with its defaults.

What’s more interesting is Gaia Sky’s option to record your camera path and replay it later. You can even automate this with Python scripts, and some bundled examples show how easy the process can be.

Here’s a chunk of goto-test.py.

gs.goToObject(“Sol”, -1, 2.5)

gs.setHeadlineMessage(“Sun”)
gs.setSubheadMessage(“This is the Sun, our star”)

gs.sleep(5)
gs.clearAllMessages()

gs.goToObject(“Earth”, -1, 2.5)

gs.setHeadlineMessage(“Earth”)
gs.setSubheadMessage(“This is the Earth, our home”)

gs.sleep(5)
gs.clearAllMessages()

You don’t need the tiniest bit of development experience to figure out the basics of how this works. We’re going somewhere, displaying a message, pausing and carrying on, so– copy and paste that part, go to other planets, stars maybe, add new messages, use “Run Script…” after each change to see the results.

Is Gaia Sky for you? If you’re mostly after appealing deep-space imagery, probably not. It’s all about our galaxy rather than all the others, so there’s not the same range of visuals, and the navigation takes a while to understand and set up.

Despite that, there are some impressive visuals here. They’re far more configurable than you’ll get with some other packages, and the camera recording and scripting support are interesting, too. Definitely worth a look for the more experienced astronomy fan.

Gaia Sky is a Java-based tool for Windows, Linux and Mac.

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