On my last vacation my wife and I dined nightly with the sound of the surf under the glorious Mexican night sky. Sorry, no app for that – yet. However, I’ve been in Los Angeles for nearly three decades where the city glare and atmospherics make star-gazing a rare treat.
We all know the names, Sagittarius, Taurus, Ursa Minor, etcetera, but how many can you actually identify? After twenty-five years of marriage, I’m still trying to impress my wife like a college kid. So I authoritatively point out Ursa Major and Polaris. “And all those other stars you see are, uh, all the other stars, or possibly planets or maybe a galaxy.” My wife was underwhelmed.
This trip I had a secret weapon. I pulled out my Android with Google Sky Map, and aimed the smart-phone at the sky. The screen then presented an augmented reality of what I we were looking at. It displayed the the same sky except with annotations and graphic indications of constellations.
What makes this app fascinating is how it works. It uses GPS and time to locate the “where and when” of your position on earth. The app also uses the built-in compass and accelerometer to determine where the phone is aiming. As you sweep your phone across the sky, the screen smoothly pans with it, displaying the information I needed to sound like an astronomy PhD. It has a neat search function, too. Enter “Jupiter,” for instance, and an arrow will direct you right to it. Other features include the ability to turn on and off layers such as constellations graphics, planets, stars, galaxies, horizon and meridian grids.
Google Sky is free and only available to android users. So I also tried out a couple of similar apps available on iPhones. The most similar to the Google Sky was The Night Sky, which I downloaded for a buck.
The Night Sky had some features not found on Google Sky. First was the ability to track orbiting satellites which I thought was kind of cool. The second was the optional swooshy space music. How can you not love that? You could also toggle between sky view and globe view which seems of greatest interest to satellite trackers but since this isn’t 1958 with Sputnik up there, I got bored pretty quickly. It also lacked the layer controls, meridian grid and search function of Google Sky.
Another iPhone option, and the most feature rich of the three, was Sky Chart which I downloaded for $4.99. In addition to having all of the same features as Google Sky, Sky chart could place a ghosted image top of the constellations which was very cool. Another nice feature included the additional information that one could summons for the celestial body. “Hey Honey, wanna know the altitude of Jupiter?” She didn’t.
Of the three, I preferred the graphics of Google Sky when viewing individual celestial objects. The stars are displayed nicely with a relative brightness to each other, making it easier to identify them in context. The planets, moon and sun had tiny images to represent them making them instantly identifiable. Sky Chart uses background images to show the Milky-way and other celestial “cloud” formations that some may appreciate but I felt that they interfered with legibility and I often found myself wishing I could turn this off. Star Chart’s trump card, however, are the ghost images that overlay the constellations. So if that is your primary interest, this is the way to go.
Which ever one you go with, they all represent why technology is so damn much fun. This is an app which is just as perfect for your first date as it is for your 400th.
Have a favorite app? Post it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.