Telescopes have changed very little since the 1600’s. Hans Lippershey’s and Sir Isaac Newton’s designs have proven to be an overwhelming success because of a common theme that runs through all great inventions, high performance and simplicity. While there have been few advancements in the basic principles of how a telescope works, there have been many achievements in the bells and whistles of telescopes, including bases, tracking systems and more recently micro computer technology. An even more recent revolution has come from the handheld market where apps and mobile devices can now allow us to connect with our telescopes and research topics in ways that just 5 to 10 years ago were not possible. Throughout this section, I will be reviewing my top three most useful Astronomy Apps.
Having the sky in the palm of your hands is what makes “SkySafari” by Southern Stars, my number one go to app for observations. Realtime 3d rendered graphics displaying what’s up above is just the start of it. Where SkySafari truly excels, comes when a map of the night sky an hour or two in the future is needed. With built in time settings, you can watch the sky move to what will be over head minutes, hours, days, months, or even years in the future. Want specific information on the Orion Nebula, including distance, magnitude, right ascension and declination, it’s all at the touch of your finger. Recent updates for the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch’s retina display along with internal programming improvements to this app provide beautiful cosmic images of planets and star maps at high resolutions with silky smooth frame rates. Do not let the price tag scare you away from this program. Out of all of the astronomy apps I have used, this one consistently impresses me with its simplicity, high performance and free product updates.
Where SkySafari has an immense database of thousands of objects, Moon Globe choose to concentrate on one celestial neighbor, the Moon. Lunar observing can be a very rewarding experience if goals are set and a detailed analysis of the lunar surface is done. This app provides all the information needed to effectively bring these results about. Recently updated retina display graphics provide a lunar surface that is extremely detailed and just plain enjoyable to look at. The true magic of this app comes from being able to control the phases of the Moon. Watching the lunar surface pop up with 3d effects when the shadows hit mountain ranges and craters is very realistic and fun to do even when not using it for observing. For tracking down specific craters or hunting down the six lunar landing sights from the Apollo missions, this app has it covered with accurate graphics pointing out most of the major craters viewable by telescope. For the free price tag you really can’t beat this app if the Moon is a favorite target of yours to observe.
While two observing programs make up my top two astronomy apps, the app rounding out my top 3 list delivers break through astronomical discoveries to my iPod Touch. Exoplanet is an ever growing database of the over 500 exoplanets that have been discovered outside of our solar system. Along with a list of these planets is detailed information on where the planet is located, what its size is along with a wide variety of other bits of interesting facts. CGI models of the newly discovered planets are available to compare their size to the planets of our own solar system and 3d orbital patterns are also viewable with plenty of information that the app refers to as “technobabble”. Another area where this app shines is the Milky Way feature that visually shows the location of all discovered exoplanets in our galaxy. Zooming in and out of these solar systems is as simple as the pinch of your fingers. The 3d model of the Milky Way is impressive and knowing where these other planets are located in relation to our own solar system makes their discovery seem all the more amazing.
While there are several hundred astronomy apps in the iTunes app store, these three are the ones I consistently come back to when planing and performing nightly observations and wanting up to date information on interesting scientific discoveries in Astronomy.