The Universe in your pocket
Although no one has a database that captures the entirety of Universe as defined by Bucky, there are now apps that put the physical Universe within the grasp of anyone with a smart phone. (GW)
Choose a clear night and hold your phone skyward, and the heavens suddenly make sense — that is, with the help of a stargazing application.
If ever there were a type of mobile software guaranteed to elicit a grin, this is it.
These apps — like Starmap, Star Walk, Pocket Universe, Google Sky Map and others — are part of a category known as “augmented reality.” The idea is to point a mobile device toward an object and let an app show you more about what you’re seeing than your own eyes could.
At the moment, the category is in its nascent stages, with one exception — the stargazing apps.
As for which app you should buy, it depends on your level of astronomical expertise, and what device you have. Pocket Universe ($3) and Star Walk ($3) offer great experiences for beginners with an iPhone. Google Sky Map (free) will do the same for Android users. Starmap ($12) and Starmap Pro ($19) will probably appeal to more experienced astronomers.
IPad owners, meanwhile, can download Star Walk for iPad ($5). You don’t even need a starry night — or, for that matter, a view of the night sky.
Open the app in your bedroom and point the iPad skyward, and it will show you whatever you would have seen if you were looking through a telescope in that very direction. Even better, it will label stars, planets and constellations, and offer up details about them in terms that amateurs will easily absorb.
Ever wonder about the constellation that’s tied to your astrological sign? Search for Gemini, for instance, and it will display the constellation as it currently looks in the sky, even if it isn’t visible from your particular vantage point.
Touch “Pollux,” Gemini’s brightest star, and then tap on the information icon. A dropdown box displays a brief description of the star — which, it turns out, is a mere 34 light years from Earth.
The box also includes data that few people other than telescope owners will need, like the RA positioning and the object’s visual magnitude. Such people will find this app useful, but these users are better suited to the Starmap apps, which offer a depth of astronomical information that others lack.
For serious astronomers, Starmap Pro can be a great source of help. Use it as a remote control for pointing a telescope to distant objects, or change the view to reflect how stars might look with different lenses. At www.star-map.fr/, see a video of its other capabilities.
Star Map also works in conjunction with StarmapShare.com, by showing images in the app that other users have uploaded to the Web site.
The app is so dense with information and options that stargazing novices may want a guide to help navigate it. Do you want to set the navigation options to show the Azimuthal grid? Should “Target is Telrad” be turned on?
Less ambitious astronomers might consider StarMap 3-D ($2 for iPhone), which, among other things, puts you at the controls of a simulated deep-space flight. For someone with no ambition to discover the next comet, this was more my speed.
Pocket Universe is in the same vein. The app is designed to be intuitive, so you can turn it on, point it toward the sky and start learning. Pocket Universe also features a “Tonight’s Sky” option, showing you a list of planets you can spot with the naked eye.
Like other apps, you can filter the view in other respects, to show only constellations or deep-sky objects. And as with the other top competitors, you can alter the lighting of the app so you are not compromising your night vision with bright white light.
John Kennedy, the app’s creator, said an Android version would probably appear eventually. On that front, though, he faces extremely stiff competition from Google’s Sky Map.
Google has built a business by offering very good software free, and Sky Map is no exception. Type “Jupiter,” or “M83” into the search box, for instance, and it will tell you which way to point the phone until you’ve found it.
Sadly, there is no way to learn more about the stars or planets that you’ve selected.
There is one other limitation. If you are on the move, you’ll have a hard time. I tried to zero in on the planets while on a train, and was hopelessly lost. Why anyone would want to use it on a train, though, is beyond me. Maybe the passenger seat of a convertible.
Or a boat, perhaps. Drifting in the open water on a cloudless night, wondering what exactly the celestial navigators of the past would think of a world where people need a $500 gadget to find Gemini.