Stellarium: A Handy Desktop Planetarium

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Let’s say you want to plan a camping trip to coincide with an auspicious time to view a meteor shower (like the Persead shower that reached its peak last week). You’ll want to pick a time when the moon is not up. Or let’s say you want to have some friends over for some planetary viewing and a glass of bourbon (as happened last night at the Root Simple compound). In that case you might want to pick a time when you can also take a look at the moon.

In the pre-personal computer era I used to use a planisphere. I still have my 1980s era plastic planisphere. But the planisphere does not show the planets or moon. You’ve got to hunt down that info elsewhere. And my planisphere is so small that it’s hard to use.

Thankfully, there’s a powerful, free open-source solution: Stellarium. Stellarium is a computer based planetarium that comes in OS X, Windows, Linux and Ubuntu versions. You can dial in any place and time. It comes with a catalog of 600,000 stars, eclipse simulation, meteor shower information, telescope control and much more.

How can you use Stellarium with a telescope or binoculars? I face major challenges using my fully manual Dobsonian telescope in light-polluted Los Angeles. It’s very hard to find “deep sky” objects such as nebulae and star clusters when you can, literally, count the number of stars in the sky. Last night I used my old star maps and regretted not loading Stellarium on Kelly’s laptop.

Stellarium comes with a bunch of scripts that function like planetarium shows. You can watch an eclipse or take a tour of suggested celestial objects. Two inventive teachers went so far as to make their own planetarium with cardboard and use Stellarium with a video projector and mirrored dome. This is just about the best school science project ever:

There’s a beneficial feedback loop here. Kids and adults interested in the night sky will advocate for less or better artificial lighting in the future. Dark skies are essential for the health of both wildlife and us humans. Just ponder the conclusive evidence that links artificial light to breast cancer. But there’s also the beauty of a sky full of stars. While computer based, Stellarium might just get more of us outside at night to look up and ponder our place in this amazing universe.

Saturday Tweets: Figs, Cordless Tools and Dancing Sunflowers

Solar recipe review: Moroccan Chickpea Tagine (Works on the stovetop, too)


If you’ve got canned goods on hand, this is a super fast and easy solar oven recipe. It’s also very much like many a quick bean-based stews I’ve thrown together on the stove top over the years. If you don’t have a solar oven, or if its cloudy outside, you can certainly make this on the stove. I’ll add notes about that at the end.

This recipe comes from the Solavore recipe collection, which is the best collection of solar recipes I’ve found on the internet. I’ve found you have to be really careful with random solar recipes found on the internet–well, you need to be cautious with any recipe found on the internet, but since I’m new to solar cooking my radar that tells good recipes from bad is impaired. Witness a truly appalling, chalky, brick-like cornbread I made a couple of weeks ago, following instructions found on some random prepper type site.


Inedible solar cornbread. I shudder in remembrance.

Meanwhile, even if I haven’t loved every recipe I’ve tried at the Solavore site, none I’ve tried are technical failures.


The is a link to their Moraccan Chickpea Tagine.  I’m just sending you there for the recipe because I don’t have any significant changes to make, so no excuse for copying it here.

It is simply onion, carrot, garlic and can of chickpeas and a can of tomatoes and some spices.  You just dump these all into one pan, stir them up, cover the pan and leave it in a solar cooker for 3 or 4 hours.

The ingredients are so basic that you can likely pull this out of your pantry right now. If you have fresh cooked beans or your own canned tomatoes it would be all that much better, but this is a good recipe for busy days.

The resulting stew is comfort food, spicy and sweet. My one critique is that it is perhaps a little too sweet. It calls for raisins or currants, and I used raisins. The raisins ended up being preternaturally sweet–perhaps due to the slow cooking? They’d be fantastic in a bread pudding, but I found them overwhelming in this dish. Perhaps if I’d made the dish more hot-spicy that would have counterbalanced the sweetness. But at any rate, next time I will either leave out the raisins or sub them with something a little more tart, like chopped dried apricots.

If you don’t have a solar oven all you’d have to do to adapt this recipe is start by sauteing the onions and garlic and carrots till they soften, then add in canned chickpeas and tomatoes and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook, maybe covered, until everything is hot and the beans have softened a little and the flavors have had time to blend: approximately 1/2 hour. Add a little broth or water if things are looking dry in the pan.






Learn to Build with Adobe

Adobe master Ben Loescher sent us a quick note about some upcoming classes that he’s organizing in and around his Pioneertown headquarters:

Making Adobe:

  • The next session of our monthly, half day Making Adobe class in Pioneertown is coming up on Sunday, August 21st. Just a couple minutes from both Sand to Snow National Monument and Joshua Tree National Park, we’ll spend Sunday providing a condensed introduction to making and building with adobe brick. Our final two session this year will be on September 25 and October 23th. Register here, bring your friends, make some bricks, build a wall and have a beverage at Pappy and Harriet’s when you are done (beverage not included).

Adobe Residency:

  • Our first, month long Adobe Residency runs weekdays from October 24 through a series of progressive workshops that will show folks how to build an adobe structure… from start to finish! The four week program will be taught by noted adobe educator Kurt Gardella in beautiful Pioneertown, California. Register here!

Five Day Classes:
Not ready to commit? We are also offering weeklong classes concurrent with the residency that can be taken a la cart.


Got something going on? Have a project and want to host a workshop?:

Drop us a line! We’re anxious to hear about new projects, preservation efforts, classes and folks doing recreational or professional adobe work in California. There’s a lot of folks that we have yet to meet!


Office to Kayak

Root Simple reader Kate alerted me to a boat building project that is both resourceful and poetic. London-based artist John Hartley figured out a way to turn some crappy office furniture and used suits, what he calls “post-industrial, post-bureacratic flotsam,” into a smart looking Greenlandic-style kayak. He has thoughtfully posted the project as an Instructable so that we can all make our own “Contingency Research Platform.”

Judging from the huge amount of post-bureacratic flotsam at my local Habitat for Humanity store, there’s a lot of potential in turning office furniture into building materials.

You should also check out his hilarious low-fi, DIY GoPro.

For more thoughts on building Greenlandic kayaks, Hartley suggests taking a look at