Back when I was in law school I discovered the “Whole Earth Catalog” (2nd edition, entitled “The Next Whole Earth Catalog”). Well, actually I was introduced to it by an upperclassman. To this day I’ve carried with me two things from that book. The first is the memory of an article entitled “The Stillman Zero Maintenance Theory”, that appeared alongside an entry for Joe Troise’s book Drive it till it drops: how to keep your car running forever!. Basically, Stillman’s “theory” was that you find the biggest, ugliest, gas-guzzler you can find (in 1980 this would have been something like a 1968 Plymouth Fury) and, so long as it passes some minimal safety tests (one I remmember involved taking the car up to about 60 MPH and then slamming on the brakes — if the pedal didn’t completely sink to the floor you were in), buy it and then do nothing to maintain it. No tuneups, no oil changes, nothing.

The other thing I took away was an introduction to astronomer Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar and related publications. The most fascinating of these was the Astronomical Companion, an oversize format paperback that provided an ever expanding 3-D view out from Earth of it’s stellar neighborhood.

I spent hours looking at those 3D views of the other star systems around us, and always wished there was a software program that could provide a similar perpective.

Well, StarPlot is such a program, whose source is available for compiling on Linux and “Linux-like” systems.

In late 2009, as part of my rebuild of a CentOS 5.3 workstation, I was able to install StarPlot from the Fedora 7 rpm and supporting packages. Life is good.

StarPlot uses the GTK toolkit, and so you’ll need the appropriate development libraries to build it. When I compiled it last, I did a “./configure prefix=/opt/starplot” to keep all the code in one directory. Here’s my “starplot.desktop”, that I dropped into /usr/share/applications.

[Desktop Entry]
Comment=3D Star Mapping

The application icon is a user contribution copied off the StarPlot home page.

After building and installing, I chowned /opt/starplot so that my “user” group had ownership and chmod’ed to give the group write permissions.

Using StarPlot is pretty intuitive. You can load (or merge) additional star catalogs like one that contains stars with planets. I loaded the Gliese catalog in order to locate GL581. There are tools included to convert generic star catalog files to the .star format used by StarPlot. Another great piece of open source astronomy software.