Smartphone apps can make astronomy as easy as point and gaze

  • By Mike Lynch Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, May 8, 2014 1:31pm
  • Life

I’ve been intending to write about stargazing apps for a long time now, but I’ve been putting it off because I kept waiting for even better apps to help you make the stars even closer friends.

Assembling a list of stargazing and astronomy apps has turned out to be a tougher task than I thought because there’s so many of them, and their availability depends on whether you have an iPhone or an Android device. I have to confess I’m much more up-to-date on iPhone apps since that’s the only smart phone I’ve ever had. I did check with my stargazing Android-owner friends and solicited their opinions that I’ll pass on to you. By no means is this meant to be a comprehensive list but rather a conglomeration of my favorites and my astro-buddy’s favorites. I’m not quoting exact prices, but in general the ones I’m recommending cost little or even no money.

The most popular stargazing apps are the ones that help you identify what stars, constellations, planets, satellites and other things you’re viewing in the night sky. These are especially wonderful on larger iPads and tablet screens, and can be a great help with your star watching. Some are better than others. You can hold your phone up to the sky and it will show you the stars and constellations in that particular direction. Be careful though, because the display can at times be 10 to 15 degrees off. Another word of caution is that faint stars and constellations that show up on the screen may not be visible to your eyes because of light pollution. Some of the apps help you allow for that. Another important feature the better apps have is a control that turns your display screen red. That’s key because it helps you maintain your night vision while still observing the screen. Even if you’re observing from a light-polluted area keeping your night vision is very helpful.

Some apps to consider:

Skywalk (iPhone): It’s one of the less expensive apps and it even plays stargazing music to allegedly put you in the mood, although it drives me crazy after a while because the tune sounds like “Silent Night.” That’s a great piece of music but not over and over!

Starwalk (iPhone and Android): It’s very similar to Skywalk but a little more expensive.

Starchart (Android): Very much like Skywalk and Starwalk.

Sky and Telescope (iPhone and Android): It helps you keep up on special celestial events, provides you with a monthly star map and much more. It’s great for newcomers as well as experienced amateurs.

Stellarium (iPhone and Android): It’s the best all around planetarium app available and can also be downloaded from the internet on your home computer or laptop. It’s wonderful!

ISS Spotter (iPhone): It’s the best app in my opinion for helping you keep up with the visibility of the very bright International Space Station over your location. You also get an alarm a few minutes before the ISS passes above you. Make sure you wave at the astronauts.

ISS Detector Satellite tracker (Android): I think it works just as well as ISS Spotter. It also sets off an alarm a few minutes before a the station passes over

Aurora Radar (iPhone): I think it’s one of the best forecasters for predicting auroras or northern lights at your location. It also has an optional live alert that’ll push live Space Weather alerts directly to your phone. It’s a fairly new app and certainly not foolproof, but I like what I see so far.

JupiterMoons (iPhone): It helps you keep up with the ever-changing positions of Jupiter’s four brightest moons as they orbit the planet in periods of 2 to 17 days. All four moons can be easily seen with a small telescope or even a good pair of binoculars.

SaturnMoons (iPhone): Basically it’s the same app as JupiterMoons but for the ringed wonder of our solar system and it’s many natural satellites.

Red Astrolight (iPhone and AstroLight Android): Both of these apps can turn your smart phone into a red flashlight to help you read star charts and not lose your night vision. It’s really handy!

Again, by no means is this meant to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully these apps and others you’ll discover will make your nights under the Everett heavens even more enjoyable!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at www.adventurepublications.net.

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