"Astronomy's much more fun when you're not an astronomer." So says astrophysicist Brian May, a man better known to most of us as the guitarist for the legendary rock band Queen.
After a hiatus of more than 30 years, during which his band sold more than 200 million albums, May returned to his first love—the study of astronomy. He earned a PhD in 2007 from Imperial College London after completing his dissertation about zodiacal dust clouds. Since then, May's been working to make learning about the universe fun and simple for those of us who are decidedly not astronomers.
We're going to let May's quote be our guiding light today, as we explore free online resources for studying both our own solar system and space at large. As always, if you'd like to recommend additional tools or websites, please do so in the comments section of this post.
First off, a test. Think you know our solar system? Take this Space.com quiz to find out if you can tell Venus from Mars.
Each day, NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day publishes a different photo or image of some aspect of the universe. The pictures are accompanied by short write-ups by the site's founders, two professional astronomers who have been at it since 1995. All images are indexed and made available via a searchable archive.
WikiSky is an interactive sky map that lets you stargaze virtually. Think of it as Google Earth for space. You can view the entire sky at once, then click around for details about more than half a billion celestial objects. You can also edit information and add your own relevant images and links.
The Planetary Society, a renowned nonprofit co-founded by Carl Sagan, offers a free introductory astronomy class online. There are 13 video sessions, each about 90 minutes long, covering topics like planetary exploration and the Big Bang. There's even a midterm available as a PDF, with a final exam set to be posted soon.
Finally, stay on top of the latest news about space with Astronomy magazine's weekly podcast. In each episode, senior editor Michael Bakich explains how to observe objects and events in the sky.