NEED TO KNOW: Stargazing apps

As the Perseids Meteor Shower peaks tonight, check-out these stargazing apps for wherever you are

01Almost all ancient cultures used the stars to calculate the seasons, and sailors needed them to navigate the oceans … but only our culture has the equipment and expertise to study the night sky in close-up.

However, it’s a myth that stargazing must involve expensive equipment, a degree in astronomy and/or a penchant for fiddling with telescopes. In fact, we’d recommend that anyone with an interest in the night sky actively avoid a telescope for at least a year. The joy of stargazing is in its fabulous constellations and awesome star clusters; the former is best viewed by naked eye, while the latter look awesome only in a pair of 10×50 binoculars.

With such a plethora of planetarium apps for smartphones and tablets – and armed with a few basic pieces of equipment – all you need now are clear dark skies.

The Night Sky app

02Everyone’s got one, but are planetarium apps for smartphones and tablets any good? Anyone’s who’ve crossed the equator and tried to use one will know that they can get very confused, but the temptation of having an instant stargazing guide to hard to resist whatever hemisphere you’re in.
Using any smartphone’s built-in digital compass, accelerometer, gyroscope, and GPS sensor, The Night Sky (69p) is the app to go for if you just want a casual glance at the night sky now and again since it identifies only major objects. Planets do tend to be shown as much bigger and brighter than they actually are. For instance, it shows Neptune as a major object despite it being almost impossible to find without a telescope.
However, use these apps with care; they might give you a helping hand, but if all you do is stare at an app then what was the point of going outside in the first place? Engage the night vision mode and use sparingly.

Star Walk app

04Augmented reality stargazing apps don’t get much better than Star Walk (£1.99). Its database has over 200,000 stars, planets, constellations, satellites and galaxies in the night sky, and in use the field of view moves relatively slowly as you move your iPhone or Android device.

You can easily pinch and zoom-in on stars, and touch anything for more information, while a Sky Live page presents information on exactly when – to the minute – the planets, Moon and Sun will rise and fall that night. Better still, for those hunting for a specific object, just type it into the a search box and an arrow on the screen points you in its direction until you’ve turned to face it. All this can be done in a red-lit night-vision mode.

The maker of Star Walk has just released Sky Live (£1.99) as a dedicated app, which gives a useful stargazing-centric weather forecast for your location that’s updated every hour. As well as cloud and visibility predictions, it also includes the major sights ‘up’ on any given night, as well as rise and set times for planets and even the International Space Station’s exact position.

SkySafari app

SkySafariEasily the most comprehensive stargazing app is SkySafari 3, which is available for all iOS devices as well as Mac OS X. It’s got 15,000,000 stars, 740,000 galaxies, and every solar system object ever discovered in its brain – more than any other app – alongside encyclopedic descriptions of the constellations, stars and planets, but perhaps the most useful feature is the ability to scroll forward in time by an hour. So it’s possible to see when a particular constellation or planet will be rising.

Though it’s available as a basic app (£1.99), the Plus (£10.49) and Pro (£22.99) versions of the iOS and Mac apps let you view the solar system from orbit and can also be used to control a motorised telescope (wired and wirelessly), while SkySafari for Mac OS X puts everything in a higher resolution.
SkySafari is the most geeky of all stargazing apps, but its exhaustive information is delivered in an easy-to-use way that always looks stunning.