The long winter nights may not be to everyone’s taste, but now is the perfect time of year to explore the heavens. If you’re an expert astronomer you’ll know exactly where to point your telescope, but most people struggle to name more than a couple of constellations. What’s needed is a guide to tell you what to look for and where to find it, which is where apps such as Star Walk and Moon Globe HD come in.
Star Walk is particularly good, and uses augmented reality and pointers to tell you what you are looking at. Astronomy is not, however, just about stars, but also looks closer to home at the sun, the planets and other celestial objects. Moon Globe HD, for example, lets you fly over the surface of the moon just like in the videos from Apollo lunar missions, while NASA has its own superb free app that’s packed with the latest space exploration news, images and videos.
There are some excellent astronomy and space apps here, but which ones should you install? Star Walk is our favourite because of the help it provides to those new to the subject with the augmented reality display.
However, SkySafari 3 is a close second. Moon Globe HD and NASA App are both free, so there’s no reason not to install them. You can have a lot of fun with these out in the garden on dark, clear night.
Distant Suns (Lite)
A little like SkySafari and Star Walk, Distant Suns starts up with a display of the night sky. This is quite pleasingly realistic – a bit fuzzy and hazy, just as it often is at night. You can then drag the sky around and look in any direction.
Unlike those rival apps, however, this one doesn’t use the gyroscope or compass to show you what you’re looking at. You need to know which direction you’re facing and bring it into view on the screen yourself. The toolbar along the bottom is useful if a bit unresponsive: you can find stars, planets and constellations and get information on them. The What’s Up option tells you what’s in the sky right now, which is handy to know.
This free app lacks some of the features and general user-friendliness of other apps. Paid-for versions are available for £3.99 and £6.99, but the Lite app didn’t tempt us to try them.
Moon Globe HD
Our nearest neighbour is the moon, and it’s a good place to start when exploring the night sky.
It’s so close you can see many features with binoculars or a small telescope, and this app will help you identify them. You can view the moon from a distance or zoom up close. Swiping left or right rotates it, and you can view it from any angle. Major features such as mountains and craters are labelled, and the locations of Apollo and unmanned landings are also shown. The way they are drawn gives the impression of 3D, and there’s a real 3D view if you have the right glasses.
Brief details are displayed about the moon landings and interesting features, but there are useful Wikipedia and Google links to learn more.
Another great app to add to your collection. A timeline enables you to view the moon at any time in the past or future, which is interesting.
NASA App HD
NASA puts lots of great content on the web, but it’s much easier to navigate and explore in this iPad app.
The home screen is attractive, with menu bars at the top and bottom, and a solar system graphic in the middle. You can tap the planets to view information about them, tap NASA TV to watch various programmes, view the picture of the day, see launch schedules, view a list of satellites and get more information about their missions. There’s also a collection of interesting features such as moons, magnetospheres, and asteroids. More content is added as and when it happens, and there’s always something new to see or read about.
This is an excellent resource for discovering all the great space exploration that NASA does. It’s aimed at a wide audience and you don’t need to be a hardcore astronomer to enjoy it.
The problem with astronomy is that it’s hard for beginners to get into. The night sky is packed full of stars, constellations, planets and galaxies everywhere you look, but they are nameless twinkling points of light, which can be overwhelming at first.
SkySafari 3 is a great app for beginners because it tells you exactly what you’re looking at. It uses the compass, gyroscope and geolocation to work out exactly where you are on the Earth, which direction you are facing and what you are looking at. You just hold your iOS device up to the sky and the app draws all the brightest stars that you can see with the naked eye and labels them. Tapping any labelled item displays a full-page description. It even tells you what to look for in the sky each night.
This is the perfect app for anyone wanting to take up astronomy. It even has a night mode screen display, so you can see it better in the dark.
Solar Walk – 3D Solar System Model
Solar Walk is a gentle introduction to the solar system, focusing on the sun, planets and moons.
The app uses 3D models and dragging your finger around the screen enables you to examine the solar system from any angle. Fly around Mars, zoom in on Jupiter, and more. All the celestial objects are beautifully rendered. In addition to this, there’s a real 3D mode that must be viewed using 3D glasses. You can view detailed descriptions of the planets and moons, with internal structure diagrams and see NASA missions.
The amount of information on offer is limited, but the graphics are superb. Fast forward or rewind time to see where the planets were in the past or will be in the future. It’s both fun and informative.
In many ways this app is similar to SkySafari 3, but it does have some unique features that set it apart from the crowd.
The app displays the night sky and you can drag it around to look in every direction. The display is good and the constellations look fantastic, major stars are clearly labelled and any visible planets are shown. More stars and objects in the night sky are labelled as you zoom in, and every item can be selected and an information screen displayed.
Point your iPhone or iPad at the sky and it shows exactly what you can see from your current location and compass direction. Even better is the augmented reality display that overlays the stars on a live video. Select a star or object and arrows point you to it.
This is a great app for novices and when you see something of interest you can easily find it on the screen or in the sky.