There used to be a time when you could easily impress a date by pointing to the night sky and dreamily rattling off names of major stars, constellations, and the like. Now, instead of cramming your head full of names or making up stuff as you go along, you can use your trusty iPhone to guide you through your stargazing.
There are a bunch of apps that you can download, depending on your interest level and degree of expertise. Most of the apps are based on augmented reality–so all you have to do is point your phone towards the sky and the app does the rest.
If you’re a beginner, Pocket Universe ($3) and Star Walk ($3) are recommended by The New York Times for iPhone users; while Google Sky Map is great for Android users.
With Pocket Universe, you can use the camera view to look at the evening or morning sky, and the app will overlay the labeled view over the real sky. (The iPhone’s camera isn’t good enough yet to pull off this feat with a dark night’s sky.) The app also plots the position of the sun, moon, and planets, displays 10,000 stars, and traces the shapes of the constellations. Pocket Universe also features a “Tonight’s Sky” option, showing you a list of planets you can spot with the naked eye.
Star Walk, meanwhile, boasts spectacular graphics and animation, as demonstrated in this excellent video. You can also download a version of the app ($5) for the iPad. Then all you have to do is point your iPad towards the skies, or even towards the ceiling of your room, and the app will take over–labeling the stars and the constellations you would see if you were pointing a telescope in that direction. The New York Times describes:
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.
StarMap is yet another app that may help you get into stargazing. StarMap 3-D ($2 for iPhone), among other things, puts you at the controls of a simulated deep-space flight. If you’re more serious about your stars, you can try the advanced version of the app, Star Map Pro. Apart from offering detailed information about celestial objects, the app also shows telescope aficiondos how stars would look through different telescope lenses. For a closer look at the both the apps in action, check out the videos.
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Image: Pocket Universe