There was a time when the only way to learn about space was to have a look with your own eyes. Then came telescopes, which weren’t available to the masses. Soon we were flying in space ourselves thanks to Russians and Americans racing to the moon. Today we use the latest technology to look billions of years back in time and investigate how the universe began. Perhaps the best thing about modern technology is that we have awesome astronomy tools we can carry around with us.
Smartphones are great tools for learning or even doing astronomy. Firstly, they’re connected so you have access to the latest discoveries. But more importantly, the technology inside modern phones lets us learn astronomy in novel ways. There are apps that help you find sights in the night sky and there are apps that teach you more about the universe. Here are our top 5 apps for amateur astronomers.
Star Walk 2
Star Walk 2 does a lot of things that other apps do but does them better. The main feature of this app is that it uses the smartphone’s gyroscope, compass, and GPS to act as a window into the night sky. As you point your phone in certain directions, the app shows an augmented reality view of the night sky in that direction. This means you can spot an object with your own eyes then point the phone at it to find out what it is. There are tens of thousands of entries on different stars, galaxies, and nebulae that you can tap to learn more about and see 3D models or NASA imagery.
It’s not just constellations and stars. You can track planets, asteroids, and even satellites. One of the best features is that you can slide your finger to view the night sky on different nights. Seeing what the sky will look like in the future means you can plan ahead to see some amazing sights. Other apps do the same sort of thing with augmented reality but the user experience is better on Star Walk 2 and it looks beautiful.
There are a few weather apps designed for astronomers but Xasteria is our favourite because it’s free and has everything you need. It works anywhere in the world giving you a weather resolution of about 20 km. If you’re planning to do some amateur astronomy sometime soon, this app helps you pick the best time.
It shows when the sun and moon will set or rise and even highlights the twilight times that are best for viewing the moon. You can see the moon’s phase; the cloud cover in your area; how transparent the atmosphere will be; the predicted temperature and humdity; plus there are predictions for rain, snow, and even wind. You can change the view on the app for a detailed text-only mode that experienced astronomers might prefer or a graphical interface that makes it easier to see everything at a glance.
This might seem obvious but the NASA app is great for anyone fascinated by astronomy. It’s a great way to keep up-to-date with the latest NASA missions and discoveries. You can view news, schedules, and sighting opportunities for the current missions. You can see the latest images including the famous Astronomy Picture of the Day. The latest news is there to read and you can watch the latest videos from missions and press conferences when new discoveries are made. It’s also an educational app for anyone wanting to learn about astronomy. In the “Featured” section there are interactive entries on topics ranging from the formation of the solar system to gravity itself.
Moon Globe HD
Want to know more about our nearest neighbour? Viewing it through a telescope and need to know what features you’re actually looking at? There are a bunch of moon atlas apps available that do more or less the same thing but our favourite is Moon Globe HD on iOS. The images are really high-resolution and it looks amazing in 3D thanks to the laser altimetric data combined with the satellite imagery.
You can view the Moon as it appears from where you are in Telescope mode or you can zoom around the moon like you’re using Google Earth. There are words floating around the globe showing different geographical features or abandoned spacecraft. If you tap any of the words you can learn more about them.
Moon Globe HD is £0.79 on iOS. There’s also a free version using slightly lower resolution imagery. The options on Android aren’t as great but the best we’ve used is Moon Atlas 3D, which also allows you to learn more about hundreds of features on the lunar surface. It’s free on Android.
Wonders of the Universe
This app isn’t for use in astronomy as a tool. Instead it’s a beautiful educational experience. Based on the BBC TV show, Brian Cox talks you through the most amazing sights in space. There are articles to read, of course, but it’s the video and 3D content that brings the app to life. You can learn about planets, gravity, and black holes from lots of other apps but none have the same production quality as this app does. It’s like having an interactive episode of Cosmos in your pocket (sorry Cox, we still prefer Sagan). If you consider yourself an astronomy genius then this app might not be for you, but if you want an attractive experience learning new things then it’s a good way to go.
Main image © iStock/Thomas_EyeDesign