For stargazers who want to peer deep into the universe, there’s good news: Nowadays you don’t need a telescope to do some amateur astronomy. With the right apps, your phone can be a powerful educational window into the night sky.
SkyView, for one, is a simple yet impressive stargazing app. You hold your phone up to the sky and the app’s augmented reality display shows what stars, planets and constellations you’re looking at.
SkyView makes use of the phone’s camera and sensors and calculates where you are and which way your phone is pointing, then displays detailed maps and information like the names of comets or satellites on the screen, superimposed over the view of the actual sky. When you see something interesting, like a planet or a particular constellation, you tap the display for more information. Instead of cluelessly peering at the stars, you can know that the orangeish dot you see is called Betelgeuse, is part of the constellation of Orion and is the sky’s ninth brightest star.
The app also lets you search for things you want to see. You might be interested to know the location of the International Space Station, for example. SkyView will show an arrow on the screen directing you where to point your phone in the sky.
SkyView is intuitive and suited to amateur astronomers and youngsters. It’s free on iOS and Android (though on Android, different phones’ sensors mean it may not be 100 per cent reliable). The free version contains basic star information, but the $2 edition offers a more detailed star and satellite catalog. Most interestingly, the $2 SkyView on iOS now has an Apple Watch app that can alert you to coming events like meteor showers.
Several other apps have similar features to SkyView. My personal favorite is Star Walk. While SkyView emphasizes simplicity of use, Star Walk has a slightly more serious feel. Star Walk also works by displaying a dynamic map of the sky when you hold up your phone or tablet. It has an augmented-reality setting, so you can see what stars your phone is looking at through its camera. But by default this mode is switched off, and instead the app shows a detailed map of stars, galaxies and planets on the screen along with information about what you’re seeing.
Star Walk’s extras include beautiful animated graphics for the constellations (which you can turn off if they’re too fussy) and 3-D animated graphics of objects like planets. You can also quickly dial time around to see what the sky will look like on a particular date, which may help you plan your future stargazing. Like SkyView, Star Walk also has a companion Apple Watch app to keep you alerted to phases of the moon, opportunities to spot the space station and so on.
Star Walk’s sophistication does mean it takes a while to learn all its menus and controls. It costs $3 for iOS and Android, and is $2.50 on Windows Phone. The Night Sky Lite is another similar app, available as a free download on iOS and Android. I like this app’s extras, like the “traveler mode” that shows what the sky looks like from different cities. But its menus are sometimes tricky to navigate, and the free edition frequently nags users to upgrade to the $1 paid version that has more features.
Solar Walk, meanwhile, acts as a detailed guide to the wonders of our solar system, jam-packed with detailed graphics, interesting text and eye-pleasing animations. If you’re new to things astrophysical, this app can teach you all about Saturn’s rings and a huge variety of moons, comets like the Hale-Bopp and even some space missions. The app is fabulous for explaining space matters to children. It’s a $3 iOS and Android app, and there’s a limited-feature free version.
Wonders of the Universe, which costs $6, has detailed 2-D and 3-D graphics, animations and movies about subjects as diverse as the workings of a red dwarf star, the history of our moon and black holes. It’s designed to be easy to understand, even if you have a limited science background. It’s made in collaboration with the BBC, so it has high production values. While I wish this app came installed by default in new phones, it’s for iOS devices only.
Sometimes our phone screens drag our attention away from the real world too much, so these apps may remind you to look up and be amazed by the night sky’s beauty.
Quick Call Tumblr remains a hugely popular way to publish your own blog on traditional computers. Now the iOS Tumblr app has undergone an upgrade that includes the ability to start new blogs from your phone as well as other improvements. It’s free on iOS.