General Gaia Sky tutorial (2021)

This page contains the workshop on the general usage of Gaia Sky given at the online DPAC plenary meeting on March 17-18, 2021.

The main aim of this workshop is to provide a comprehensive introduction on the usage of the most common features of Gaia Sky. By the end of the workshop, the attendee will be able to:

  • Use the basic controls to navigate the scene

  • Find her way around the Gaia Sky user interface

  • Quickly locate basic information like the current focus object, the nearest object to the camera, etc.

  • Display and understand the debug information panel

  • Activate/deactivate time and change the time warp factor

  • Change camera modes and camera settings

  • Use the special render modes (3D, planetarium, 360) and how to turn them on

  • Enable/disable components’ visibility

  • Modify the properties of proper motion vectors

  • Control star appearance using the visual settings panel

  • Load additional datasets in .vot, .csv or .fits

  • Hide/show and highlight datasets

  • Apply basic filters to datasets

  • Use the archive view and the extra information panel

  • Record and play back a camera file

  • Use keyframes to define a camera path

  • Write and run very basic Python scripts against the Gaia Sky API

Estimated duration: 1.5 hours

Before starting…

In order to follow the course it is recommended, albeit not required, to have a local installation of Gaia Sky so that you can explore and try out the teachings for yourself. In order to install Gaia Sky, follow the instructions in Installation.

When you start Gaia Sky for the first time you will be greeted with a welcome window. Initially the Start Gaia Sky button will be grayed out, as you need to download the data pacakges before Gaia Sky can start. To do so, click on the Dataset manager button.

Welcome window the first tart Gaia Sky is started

Welcome window the first time Gaia Sky is started

Then select at least the following data packages:

  • Base data pack – Should be selected by default, contains the Solar System and some other basic data

  • Gaia eDR3 small, Hipparcos or another star catalog – The star catalog. Note that usually only one star catalog should be loaded at once. The Gaia eDR3 catalogs already contain Hipparcos!

  • NBG catalog – Neraby Galaxies Catalog

  • SDSS DR12 (small) or SDSS DR14 (large) – Sloan Digital Sky Survey catalog, distant galaxies

  • Open Clusters DR2 – Open clusters catalog based on DR2 data

  • Nebulae – Some nebulae textures

The download manager

The dowload manager of Gaia Sky

Then click on Download selected and once the downloads have finished, close the window (Ok). Then you can go ahead and start Gaia Sky by clicking on Start Gaia Sky.


By default, Gaia Sky selects all downloaded packages for you. However, you can select or unselect packages each session using the Dataset selection button in the welcome screen.

Basic controls

When Gaia Sky is ready to go, you will be presented with this screen:

The scene

Gaia Sky default scene

In it we can see a few things already. The Focus info pane tells us that we are in focus mode, meaning that all our movement is relative to the focus object. The default focus of Gaia Sky is the Earth. We can also see at the top that our focus is the Earth (green), and the closest object to our location is also the Earth (blue). Finally, there is a collapsed window at the top left. If you click on it, the controls window will open. We will use it later.


But right now, let’s try some movement. By default the camera in focus mode will orbit around the focus object. Try clicking and dragging with your left mouse button. The camera should orbit around the Earth, getting to see parts which were previously hidden. You will notice the whole scene rotates. Now try scrolling with your mouse wheel. The camera will move either further (scroll down) or closer (scroll up) to the Earth. Now, if you click and drag with your right mouse button you can offset the focus object from the center, but your movement will still be relative to it.

You can also use your keyboard arrows to rotate around and move closer or away from the focus.

You can use shift with a mouse drag in order to roll the camera.

More information on the controls is available in the controls section.


You can change the focus by simply double clicking on any object on the scene. You can also press f to bring up the search dialog, where you can look up objects by name. Try it now. Press f and type in “mars”, without the quotes, and hit esc. You should see that the camera now points to Mars. You can go to Mars by simply scrolling up until you reach it, or by clicking on the goto icon next to the name in the focus info panel. If you do so, Gaia Sky takes control of the camera and brings you to Mars.

If you want to move instantly to your current focus object, hit ctrl + g.

At any time, you can use the home key in your keyboard to go back to Earth.

The User Interface

The User Interface of Gaia Sky consists of basically two components: Keyboard shortcuts and a Graphical User Interface in the form of the controls window.

Gaia Sky User Unterface

Gaia Sky User Interface with the most useful functions

Control panel


The control panel is descibed in detail in Control panel

The control panel is made up of different panes: Time, Camera, Type visibility, Visual settings, Datasets, Bookmarks and Music. In this course we will only explore the first six. Each pane can be expanded (with caret-right), collapsed (with caret-bottom) and detached (with detach-icon).

To the bottom of the control panel, we can find a few buttons to perform special actions like:

  • minimap Toggle the minimap

  • dsload Load a dataset

  • prefsicon Open the preferences window

  • logicon Show the session log

  • helpicon Show the help dialog

  • quiticon Exit Gaia Sky

To the top of the screen we see the quick info bar, which provides information on the current time, the current focus object (if any), the current closest object to our location and the current home object. The colors of these objects (green, blue, organe) correspond to the colors of the crosshairs. The crosshairs can be enabled or disabled from the preferences window (use p to bring it up).

Debug panel

Gaia Sky has a built-in debug information panel that provides a lot of good debug information and is hidden by default. You can bring it up with ctrl + d, or by ticking the “Show debug info” check box in the system tab of the preferences dialog. By default, the deubg panel is collapsed.

Collapsed debug panel

Collapsed debug panel

You can expand it with the + symbol to get additional information.

Expanded debug panel

Expanded debug panel

As you can see, it contains information on the current graphics device, system and graphics memory, the amount of objects loaded and on display, the octree (if a LOD dataset is in use) or the SAMP status.

Additional debug information can be obtained in the system tab of the help dialog (? or h).

Time controls

Play and pause the simulation using the play-icon/pause-icon Play/Pause buttons in the time pane, or toggle using Space. You can also change time warp, which is expressed as a scaling factor, using the provided Warp factor slider. Use , or minus-icon and . or plus-icon to divide by 2 and double the value of the time warp respectively.


Warp factor slider

Now, go ahead and press home. This will bring us back to Earth. Now, start the time with play-icon or space and drag the slider slightly to the right to increase its speed. You will see that the Earth rotates faster and faster as you move the slider to the right. Now, drag it to the left until time is reversed and the Earth starts rotating in the opposite direction. Now time is going backwards!

Camera modes

We have already talked about the focus camera mode, but Gaia Sky provides many more Camera modes:

  • 0 - Free mode: the camera is not locked to a focus object and can roam freely

  • 1 - Focus mode: the camera is locked to a focus object and its movement depends on it

  • 2 - Game mode: the camera is free, but the view is controlled using the mouse plus wasd for movement

  • 3 - Gaia mode: the camera can’t be controlled, as it follows Gaia only

  • 4 - Spacecraft mode: take control of a spacecraft, out of the scope of this tutorial

  • 5, 6, 7 - Fov modes: project the fields of view of Gaia on the screen

The most interesting mode is free mode, which lets us roam freely. Go ahead and press 0 to try it out. The controls are a little different from those of focus mode, but they should not be to hard to get used too. Basically, use your left mouse button to yaw and pitch the view, use shift to roll, and use the right mouse button to pan.

Special render modes

There are three special render modes: 3D mode, planeterium mode and panorama mode. You can access these modes using the buttons at the bottom of the camera pane, or the following shortcuts:

  • 3d-icon or ctrl + s - 3D mode

  • dome-icon or ctrl + p - Planetarium mode

  • cubemap-icon or ctrl + k - Planetarium mode

Toggle visibility of components

Most graphical elements can be turned off and on using the toggles in the type visibility pane in the control panel. For example you can hide the stars by clicking on the stars stars toggle. The object types available are the following:

  • stars – Stars

  • planets – Planets

  • moons – Moons

  • satellites – Satellites

  • asteroids – Asteroids

  • clusters – Star clusters

  • milkyway – Milky Way

  • galaxies – Galaxies

  • nebulae – Nebulae

  • meshes – Meshes

  • equatorial – Equatorial grid

  • ecliptic – Ecliptic grid

  • galactic – Galactic grid

  • labels – Labels

  • titles – Titles

  • orbits – Orbits

  • locations – Locations

  • countries – Countries

  • constellations – Constellations

  • boundaries – Constellation boundaries

  • ruler – Rulers

  • effects – Particle effects

  • atmospheres – Atmospheres

  • clouds – Clouds

  • axes – Axes

  • arrows – Velocity vectors

  • others – Others

Velocity vectors

One of the elements, the velocity vectors, enable a few properties when selected. See the velocity vectors section for more information on that.

  • Number factor – control how many velocity vectors are rendered. The stars are sorted by magnitude (ascending) so the brightest stars will get velocity vectors first

  • Length factor – length factor to scale the velocity vectors

  • Color mode – choose the color scheme for the velocity vectors

  • Show arrowheads – Whether to show the vectors with arrow caps or not


Control the width of the velocity vectors with the line width slider in the visual settings pane.

Velocity vectors in Gaia Sky

Velocity vectors in Gaia Sky

Visual settings

The visual settings pane contains a few options to control the shading of stars and other elements:

  • Brightness power – exponent of power function that controls the brightness of stars. Makes bright stars brighter and faint stars fainter.

  • Star brightness – control the brightness of stars.

  • Star size (px) – control the size of point-like stars.

  • Min. star opacity – set a minimum opacity for the faintest stars.

  • Ambient light – control the amount of ambient light. This only affects the models such as the planets or satellites.

  • Line width – control the width of all lines in Gaia Sky (orbits, velocity vectors, etc.).

  • Label size – control the size of the labels.

  • Elevation multiplier – scale the height representation.

Visual settings

The visual settings pane

Loading external datasets

Gaia Sky supports the loading of external datasets at runtime. Right now, VOTable, csv and FITS formats are supported. Gaia Sky needs some metadata, in the form of UCDs or column names, in order to parse the dataset columns correctly. Refer to the STIL data provider section for more information on how to prepare your dataset for Gaia Sky.

The datasets loaded in Gaia Sky at a certain moment can be found in the Datasets pane of the controls window.

Datasets pane

Datasets pane of Gaia Sky

There are three main ways to load new datasets into Gaia Sky:

  • Directly from the UI, using the dsload button, or pressing ctrl + o

  • Through SAMP, via a connection to another astronomy software package such as Topcat or Aladin

  • Via a script (addressed later on in the workshop, if time allows)

Loading a dataset from the UI – Go ahead and remove the current star catalog (either eDR3 or hipparcos) by clicking on the binicon icon in the datasets pane. Now, download a raw Hipparcos dataset VOTable, click on the dsload icon (or press ctrl + o) and select the file. In the next dialog just click Ok to start loading the catalog. In a few moments the Hipparcos new reduction dataset should be loaded into Gaia Sky.

Loading a dataset via SAMP – This section presupposes that Topcat is installed in the machine and that the user knows how to use it to connect to the VO to get some data. The following video demonstrates how to do this (mirror):


Loading a dataset from Topcat through SAMP (click for video)

Loading a dataset via scripting – Wait for the scripting section of this course.

Working with datasets

A few useful tips for working with datasets:

  • The visibility of individual datasets can be toggled on and off by clicking on the eye-s-on button

  • Remove datasets with the binicon button

  • You can highlight a dataset by clicking on the highlight-s-off button. The highlight color is defined by the color selector right on top of it

  • Bring up the preferences window for a dataset with prefs-s-icon. From the preferences, you can define basic filters on the objects of the dataset using their attributes

External information

Gaia Sky offers a three ways to display external information on the current focus object: wikipedia, Gaia archive and sibmad.

External information

Wikipedia, Gaia archive and Simbad connections

  • When the +Info button appears in the focus info pane, it means that there is a Wikipedia article on this object ready to be pulled and displayed in Gaia Sky

  • When the Archive button appears in the focus info pane, it means that the full table information of selected star can be pulled from the Gaia archive

  • When the Simbad link appears in the focus info pane, it means that the objects has been found on Simbad, and you can click the link to open it in your web browser

Cameara paths

Gaia Sky includes a camrecorder feature to enable recording and playing back camera path files. This comes in handy if you want to showcase a certain itinerary through a dataset, for example.

Recording a camera path – The camrecorder will capture the camera state at every frame and save it into a .gsc (for Gaia Sky camera) file. You can start a recording by clicking on the rec icon in the camera pane of the controls window. Once the recording mode is active, the icon will turn red recred. Click on it again in order to stop recording and save the camera file to disk with an auto-generated file name (default location is $GS_DATA/camera (see folders).

Playing a camera path – In order to playback a previously recorded .gsc camera file, click on the play icon and select the desired camera path. The recording will start immediately.


Mind the FPS! The camera recording system stores the position of the camera for every frame! It is important that recording and playback are done with the same (stable) frame rate. To set the target recording frame rate, edit the “Target FPS” field in the camrecorder settings of the preferences window. That will make sure the camera path is using the right frame rate. In order to play back the camera file at the right frame rate, you can edit the “Maximum frame rate” input in the graphics settings of the preferences window.


Location of the controls of the camrecorder in Gaia Sky

More information on camera paths in Gaia Sky can be found in the camera paths section.

Keyframe system

The camrecorder offers an additional way to define camera paths based on keyframes. Essentially, the user defines the position and orientation of the camera at certain times and the system generates the camera path from these definitions. Gaia Sky incorporates a whole keyframe definition system, which is out of the scope of this tutorial.

As a very short preview, in order to bring up the keyframes window to start defining a camera path, click on the icon keyframes.

More information on the keyframe system can be found in the keyframe system subsection of the docs.

Frame output system

In order to create high-quality videos, Gaia Sky offers the possibility to export every single still frame to an image file. The resolution of these still frames can be set independently of the current screen resolution.

You can start the frame output system by pressing F6. Once active, the frame rate will go down (each frame is being saved to disk). The save location of the still frame images is, by default, $GS_DATA/frames/[prefix]_[num].jpg, where [prefix] is an arbitrary string that can be defined in the preferences. The save location, mode (simple or advanced), and the resolution can also be defined in the preferences.

Frame output

The configuration screen for the frame output system

Once we have the still frame images, we can convert them to a video using ffmpeg or any other encoding software. Additional information on how to convert the still frames to a video can be found in the capturing videos section.


This section includes a hands-on session inspecting pre-existing scripts and writing new ones to later run them on Gaia Sky.

More information on the scripting system can be found in the scripting section.