Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University
One of many domains that smartphone apps have opened up to the general public is that of Astronomy. In the past, if you needed to identify an object you spotted in the night sky, you were confined to a pile of star charts and a red light, sifting through maps to try and pin point your target. Today, with different smartphone apps, even the most casual amateur astronomer can call up information at the touch of a finger.
With Mars at Opposition on May 22nd this year, we thought we'd take the opportunity to showcase some of the best beginner apps for amateur stargazing. Mars might be bright, red and easy to spot right now, but it isn't always that way. sometimes, an app is just the right tool to chart the motion of our solar system.
I kept the list short because this assumes you're just getting started with astronomy apps and don't want to get overwhelmed. I encourage more research if you want to find out more about the large amount of apps out there! Good luck spying Mars!
Google Sky Map
Android (free) - Google Play Store
This is the app that got me started using smartphones with astronomy. Simple at it's core, it uses "augmented reality" to allow you to point your phone at a place in the sky and get a readout of what you're looking at. As you move from side to side, the objects you see move with your phone, effectively creating a window into the universe. Google Sky Map shows stars, planets, constellations, messier objects, and simple landmarks like the horizon, zenith, nadir and the compass points. If you've ever looked up at a bright star and asked "I wonder what it's called...", just whip open Sky Map and get your answer. Also features a search function which will guide you to your targets so you can find certain objects.
I recommend Sky Map if you just want a simple app to tell you what you're looking at. I use it a lot still.
Along the same lines as Google's Sky Map, but perhaps more fully featured, Star Walk 2 is a beautiful astronomy app that leverages augmented reality to show you what you're looking at. Star Walk 2 also features individual profiles of the objects, allowing you to tap for more info. It has phases of various solar system objects, letting you know when they rise and set. Perhaps most interesting, the time machine feature allows you to fast forward or go back in time to see what the sky looked like on certain dates. Star Walk 2 also makes it easy to share images directly to social media accounts or save screenshots to your device.
There are free versions of this app with reduced features, but I must admit it kept crashing my device and I couldn't do a proper run through.
SkySafari is a well-known astronomy app that has a few different versions depending on what level of astronomer you are. All the basic features like the augmented reality (which they call "compass mode"), object information, and time switching it included in the basic, $2.99 apps on both Android and iOS. It also includes a night mode (which turns the light red for use in dark parks) and search functionality to find objects. It connects with Sky and Telescope's event calendar to give you heads up on what to look for on the upcoming dates.
If you end up getting more advanced into the hobby, the enhanced, more expensive versions of SkySafari are available for OSX. In addition to increasing the database size for objects available to look at (going further and further into the universe), these "Plus" and "Pro" versions also introduce telescope control. If you own a computer-controlled telescope, you can hook in your device to control where you're pointing.
I'm not terribly impressed with the cheap version. I didn't get a lot out of it that I couldn't get for free somewhere else. But the advanced versions offer nice features, especially if you have a computer controlled telescope.
I was really impressed with Star Chart. It has a nice interface to do the standard augmented reality mode that looks really pretty. The time changing functionality was a bit clunky but it's there and it works. But I really enjoyed the exploration mode (pictured) where you can travel around the universe and explore objects. It has some nice imagery and facts about the different objects you can see (but it sure needs a Pluto update!).
Full disclosure, to get the full experience you need to purchase the add-ons for Comets, Meteor Showers, Extended Solar System (dwarf planets and moons) and Satellites. Each of these was a few dollars so you could end up spending $10-$15 if you wanted the entire package. Great app overall.
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