For a while in high school I was keeping pretty good track of the planets in the sky, which gave a certain satisfaction as I’d leave for school in the cold, wintery mornings and glance into the sky and see Jupiter or Saturn and know them. I liked that, when the sky was as like an old friend. In our modern times it’s a lot more difficult to keep tabs on the heavens, though, since our lifeways are now totally divorced from whatever is going on up there, given the invention of earth-bound clocks and calendars and artificial lighting.
I’ll periodically catch the bug to once again want to know the names of things in the sky, not so much because the names themselves are important but because knowing that the bright dot over there is actually the mighty world Jupiter is real knowledge. I’ve seen numerous planetarium programs, but the one I’ve come to rely on when I need a refresher is the free and open source Stellarium.
I’m aware that there are many features in it that I am unaware of and don’t use, but the dirt basics are intuitive and useful, like a simple finder and time controls. I usually turn off most of the lines in the sky like constellations since I don’t find those that interesting (random pictures superimposed on random arrangements of a particular placing of stars in time), but I do like to turn on the ecliptic which is the plane that Earth’s orbit makes, and the other planets of the solar system line on very similar lines (as does the Moon and Sun). I think one of the best things for the total newb astronomer to go out and find is Jupiter, since once you finally take the time to look at it you realize just how damn bright it is. Not a point like a star, but a true disk of reflected light.
I’ve know of other astronomy applications that I can write about in the future, but when I want to know where Saturn will be at 11 pm next Saturday, I turn to Stellarium. Hard to beat free.