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In the old days of stargazing, before smartphones and tablets and desktop computers existed, astronomers relied on star charts and catalogs to find things in the sky. Of course, they also had to guide their own telescopes and, in some cases, rely simply on the naked eye for observing the night sky. With the digital revolution, tools that people use for navigation, communication, and education are prime targets for astronomy apps and programs. These come in handy in addition to astronomy books and other products.
There are dozens of decent apps for astronomy out there, as well as apps from most of the major space missions. Each one delivers up-to-date content for people interested in various missions. Whether someone is a stargazer or simply interested in what's going on "up there", these digital assistants open up the cosmos for individual exploration.
Many of these apps and programs are free or have in-app purchases to help users customize their experience. In all cases, these programs offer access to cosmic information early astronomers could only dream of accessing. For mobile device users, apps offer great portability, allowing users access to electronic stars in the field.
How Digital Astronomy Assistants WorkMost apps and other programs for astronomy have settings that allow the user to customize it for location and time. Carolyn Collins Petersen via StarMap 2
Mobile and desktop stargazing applications have as their main purpose to show observers the night sky at a given location on Earth. Since computers and mobiles have access to time, date, and location information (often through GPS), the programs and apps know where they are, and in the case of an app on a smartphone, uses the device's compass to know where it's pointed. Using databases of stars, planets, and deep-sky objects, plus some chart-creation code, these programs can deliver an accurate digital chart. All the user has to do is look at the chart to know what is up in the sky.
Digital star charts show an object's position, but also deliver information about the object itself (its magnitude, its type, and distance. Some programs can also tell a star's classification (that is, what type of star it is), and can animate the apparent motion of planets, the Sun, Moon, comets, and asteroids across the sky over time.
Recommended Astronomy AppsA sample screen from the iOS-based astronomy app Starmap 2. Carolyn Collins Petersen
A quick search of app sites reveals a wealth of astronomy apps that work well on smartphones and tablets. There are also many programs that make themselves at home on desktop and laptop computers. Many of these products can also be used to control a telescope, making them doubly useful for sky observers. Nearly all the apps and programs are fairly easy for beginners to pick up and allow people to learn astronomy at their own pace.
Apps such as StarMap 2 have substantial resources available for stargazers, even in the free edition. Customizations include adding new databases, telescope controls, and a unique series of tutorials for beginners. It is available to users with iOS devices.
Another one, called Sky Map, is a favorite among Android users and is free of charge. Described as a "hand-held planetarium for your device" it helps users identify stars, planets, nebulae, and more.
There are also apps available for the tech-enabled younger users that allow them to explore the sky at their own pace. The Night Sky is aimed at kids eight years and older and packed with many of the same databases as the higher-end or more complex apps. It's available for iOS devices.
Starwalk has two versions of its popular astro-app, one aimed directly at kids. It's called "Star Walk Kids," and is available for both iOS and Android devices. For the adults, the company also has a satellite tracker app as well as a solar system exploration product.
Best Space Agency AppsA screen shot of the NASA app as it appears on an iPad. The app comes in various flavors. NASA
Of course, there are more than stars, planets, and galaxies out there. Stargazers quickly become acquainted with other sky objects, such as satellites. Knowing when the International Space Station is due to pass overhead affords an observer a chance to plan ahead to catch a glimpse. That's where the NASA app comes in handy. Available on a wide variety of platforms, it showcases NASA content and supplies satellite tracking, content, and more.
The European Space Agency (ESA)has devised similar apps, as well.
The Best Programs for Desktop AstronomersA sample chart from Stellarium, a free and open source star charting software package. Carolyn Collins Petersen
Not to be outdone, developers have created many programs for desktop and laptop applications. These can be as simple as star chart printing or as complex as using the program and computer to run a home observatory. One of the best-known and completely free programs out there is Stellarium. It's totally open source and is easy to update with free databases and other enhancements. Many observers use Cartes du Ciel, a chart-making program that is also free to download and use.
Some of the most powerful and up-to-date programs are not free but are definitely worth checking out, especially by users interested in using the apps and programs to control their observatories. These include TheSky, which can be used as a stand-alone charting program, or a controller for a pro-grade mount. Another is called StarryNight. It comes in several flavors, including one with telescope control and another for beginners and classroom study.
Browsing the UniverseScreenshot of the Sky-Map.org astronomy exploration site. Sky-Map.org
Browser-based pages also afford fascinating access to the sky. Sky-Map (not to be confused with the app above), offers users a chance to explore the universe easily and imaginatively. Google Earth also has a product that's free, called Google Sky that does the same thing, with the ease of navigation that Google Earth users are familiar with.