Forensic Astronomy

Forensic astronomy uses the knowledge of the sky to study astronomical phenomena
in literature and art. In this lab you will use the planetarium program, Stellarium to
study three famous Van Gogh paintings which show objects in the sky. Van Gogh is
known to have often painted from nature so it is likely that many of the objects
depicted in the sky were real. Your goal is to identify the astronomical objects in each
of the paintings and compare them with the actual sky at the time.
Using Stellarium Web
Stellarium is a powerful program that simulates the entire night sky, allowing you to
observe the appearance of the stars, planets, Sun, and Moon from any location on
Earth and from any time in history. Best of all, the program is available for free as an
interactive web tool. You can use Stellarium to identify constellations in tonight’s sky,
or you can travel through space and time to see what the sky looks like from any
location on the Earth in the past or future.
● Open the web version of Stellarium in the Chrome browser. If the software
does not open, try another browser (such as Firefox).
● Watch this Overview of Stellarium Web video to learn about the essential
features of the program.
● Watch the instructor video, Understanding Time in Stellarium Web.
Two Notes about Changing Your Location
● The landscape you see (grass, trees, etc.) will look the same regardless of
your location on the earth. When you move to a new location, the ground
won’t change, but your view of the sky will.
● If you change your location to a large city like “Chicago” then Stellarium will
recognize the city’s name and display it on the map. However, if you change
your location to a small town, then it may use the name “undefined” simply
to say that it does not know the name of this location. For this reason,
throughout our lab, I will provide you with the latitude and longitude of our
observing locations.
Now that you are familiar with Stellarium, we will examine three Van Gogh paintings
and attempt to use forensic astronomy to identify the celestial objects he painted.
White House at Night
It is believed that the painting below was created by Van Gogh on the evening of June
Forensic Astronomy
1/11/21, 3:43 PM
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It is believed that the painting below was created by Van Gogh on the evening of June
16th, 1890 in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France (latitude 49.070720 N,
longitude 2.169886 E). The house in the picture still exists today so we know that the
painting is looking towards the direction of the West. Notice the bright object in the
sky. What was it? The moon? A planet?
Using Stellarium Web, change your location to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise by pasting
49.070720, 2.169886 into the location search box. Next, change your observing date
to 1890-06-16. Look to the West and adjust the time of day to be shortly after sunset
(while the sky is not yet fully dark). Do you see a bright object in the sky, just above
the tree? This is most likely the object depicted in Van Gogh’s painting. Click on the
object to see information about it. Answer the questions below:
a. The bright object in the sky which Van Gogh painted was probably:
b. The object’s azimuth is:
c. The object’s altitude is:
d. The object’s apparent magnitude is:

e. It’s distance from the Sun in AU was:

Sample Solution