The universe is back in fashion. Lockdowns made millions of us stargazers, whether it was looking up at the night sky to see a few constellations from our backyards or staring at the Moon through our windows. For some the increased time alone led to an explosion of interest in the night sky and our collective place within it. I witnessed this bloom with my own eyes, seeing numbers rise for my articles about stargazing for beginners, about NASA missions and about the science of space.
Two summers on I still do my best to bring you the best of what’s going on in an easy to digest daily article about exactly what you need to know, what to see and how to interpret the latest research by astronomers.
During my research I’ve come across some websites that beautifully encapsulate the scale of space and exactly what’s happening within it right now. Here are seven websites that will launch your web browser into outer space:
You know that image in your head of the planets in a line from the Sun heading out into space? It’s an illusion created merely to show you how far—on average—the planets are from the Sun, but it bears no relation to what’s actually going on in our own star system. Cue The Planets Today, a drone’s-eye view of exactly where every planet is, and is going to be day-by-day in their clockwise journey. Look at this website then get up early and look east and see what planets you can see … the solar system will suddenly make sense to you.
Sometimes it’s a skeleton crew of three on the International Space Station. The full roster is seven, of course, but the visit of four space tourists recently changed that—temporarily. Then there’s China’s Tiangong Space Station, which currently has three taikonauts on a very long mission. Each astronaut currently in space gets a name, nationality, occupation and how many days they’ve been in orbit. And, no, they don’t count the billionaires who visit space for 30 seconds in a Blue Origin capsule.
What starts at a Planck and ends with the entire observable universe? An interactive tool exploring the size and scale of things in the Universe, this 3D model defaults to representations of a teapot, a hummingbird and a shrew and lets the user scroll in to go smaller and scroll out to go bigger to the observable universe via stars, our Milky Way galaxy and the distance to the Hubble Deep Field. You’ve the heard the phrase “space is big,” right? Well, it really is …
A planetary scientist previously a NASA and now at the Japanese space agency (JAXA), follow Dr. James O’Donoghue on Twitter if you want to know how the solar system really works should. Your reward will be his wonderful YouTube-based animations that demonstrate everything from the size of the planets, the speed they orbit and the reason for the seasons.
When’s the next SpaceX rocket launch? A regularly updated listing of planned orbital missions from spaceports around the globe, this is the website to bookmark to keep up to speed on what’s going up and when. If you want it on your phone then download the Space Launch Now app for rocket launch updates, notifications and links to watch live.
A life without experiencing a total solar eclipse is a life wasted. These fleeting events occur roughly every 375 years in the same place on Earth, but as luck would have it the “Great American Eclipse” that went coast-to-coast in 2017 will be followed up on April 8, 2024 when a super-long 4 minutes+ “totality” will go from Mexico through Texas, the midwest and over Niagara Falls into Canada. No eclipse will match this “Great North American Eclipse” until 2045—and this fabulous simulation from eclipse-chaser Dan McGlaun will show you exactly what to expect on the big day. Get planning!
There are a ton of apps and free software that act as virtual planetariums and allow you to identify what’s going on in the night sky (the free Stellarium software is great!). However, this website from Time and Date successfully distills that into one web page that defaults to where you are. You’ll get rise and set times from the Moon and planets, a comment on visibility where you are and a virtual map of the night sky you can scan around. It’s a lot less daunting than planetarium software and stargazing apps.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.