I’ve always been interested in space and a couple of years ago, my other half bought me a telescope for my birthday. It was a rather left-field sort of present, but she knew it would appeal because firstly, I like space, and secondly it was computer controlled, which would appeal to my inner and outer geek. I had one problem though. I knew nothing about our night sky, short of looking at a few nice pictures from Hubble and documentaries on Discovery. My new scope faced being an expensive, and large, doorstop unless I could figure out a bit more about what was above my head.
If you read pretty much any beginner’s astronomy forum (and I can recommend www.astonomyforum.net or www.cloudynights.com), most people will advise you to get some paper star charts and learn your way around the night sky. I’ll be honest, I don’t have the time to do this, plus I want to get my hands dirty and see some awesome stuff. Enter the iPad. As it does with many of my hobbies, I enlisted it to accelerate my learning of the heavens above. Here is a guide to some awesome, and not quite so awesome apps to use, all of which have been tried and tested quite literally in the field (a dark field).
Sky Safari Pro
I’ll be honest, this is an expensive app. There is no way around this. You can buy the lesser versions, but if you want the full fat astronomy experience, Sky Safari Pro takes a lot of beating. Firstly, it has the invaluable planetarium. If your scope is computer controlled and you need to know the names of stars to align your scope, then the gyro based planetarium is vital. I also found that after a couple of years of using this, I have learned what stars and constellations are about at any given time.
As you will be aware, there are lots of apps which do this and a gyro based planetarium is nothing special anymore. Where Sky Safari Pro excels is the incredible database in the app. It has information on 25 million celestial objects. The data is excellent and as an amateur astronomer, values like visual magnitude (how bright an object is), pictures of what it should look like, and detailed information about the object are very useful.
There are also some features which allow you to plan your observation ahead of time, such as the ability to create a list of objects you want to see, and once you have seen them you can leave notes on what scope you used, location and other observations. I have spent many an evening using Siri to dictate my observation notes*. Another sensible feature is the night mode where if you are out and about, the display will change red and black to preserve your night vision. A nice touch here is the keyboard also goes into night vision mode. I’ve used other apps where you activate red/black and the keyboard pops up in normal iPad colours to systematically destroy your night vision.
Sky Safari Pro also has the option to control your computerised scope from directly within the app. I’ve never used this feature because it requires an extra piece of hardware to attach to the telescope, but it seems a pretty cool thing. Finally, if the clouds roll in, you can still get your astronomy fix by using the 3D recreation of the Solar System and all of the bodies in it, including moons and asteroids. This was particularly useful with the recent opposition of Mars (when it was at it’s closest point to Earth). I could see basic features on Mars through the eye piece and I could match them up with what the app was telling me how it should look at that point. I’ve also used the data from the Moon part of the app to locate the landing sites of the Apollo missions (just to note I have obviously not actually seen the hardware they left. That’s too small to see.)
*This is arguably the most geeky sentence I have ever written.
Sky Safari Pro is available here in the app store priced at $39.99
Phases of the Moon
No prizes for guessing what this app does. Depending on what you want to see, the Moon is extremely important. If you are looking at deep sky objects (ie outside of the Solar System) you don’t want a bright moon glaring down at you. Conversely, if you want to look at the Moon, you want it out. Phases of the Moon is a very straightforward app which allows you see what the Moon doing at any given time. You simply drag your finger over the image of the Moon to change the dates and a graphical representation shows you what phase the Moon will be in. It also gives you rising and setting times so you can plan your night to perfection.
Phases of the Moon is available here in the app store priced at $1.99
Dark Sky Finder
Finding a site away from light pollution is an astronomer’s nirvana. Dark Sky Finder does what it says on the tin by giving you an overlay of light pollution in various places around the world. It can help you to plan where to go to find a decent dark sky site. This information is available on the web, so I wouldn’t say this is an essential app, but it may save a bit of time when hunting for a new site to go to. The zoom accuracy also isn’t amazing so this is best for an overview of a specific area that you may want to use.
Dark Sky Finder is available here in the app store priced at $1.99
We all know what Google Maps does, but for the astronomer hunting for a dark sky site, it is an invaluable tool. When you have found one you think might be good using the Dark Sky Finder app, you can then use Google Maps to see the site and also street view to check access to the site and if there are any street lights near it.
Google Maps is available here in the app store and it’s free
Red Shift – Night Browser and Maps
If you want to use your iPad for looking up something on the web while you are out with the telescope then even the lowest light setting will destroy your night vision. Red Shift is a browser which turns your screen red which is better for keeping your eyes dark adjusted. It’s not bad, but there are some niggles, chiefly as mentioned above, that the iPad keyboard doesn’t come up in red. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend it, but it is useful if you are desperate to look something up and you want to preserve your night vision. To be honest, you may be better off investing in a sheet of red conductive plastic to go over your iPad screen.
Red Shift is available here in the app store priced at $0.99
A final mention must of course go to weather apps. I’m not going to recommend one as there are tons out there. The one I use is trusty old BBC Weather. This is simple to use and while it doesn’t give you exact statistics for cloud cover, it’s pretty accurate and easy to use in an at-a-glance sort of way.
While I know only a tiny fraction of what there is to know about space, in my three years an an amateur astronomer my iPad has helped me wring the most out of my hobby. I don’t have hours and hours spare to meticulously plan nights out, or even pour over star charts, but the apps mentioned above have got me to a position where I know a bit about the night sky and I have seen some awe-inspiring stuff live through the eyepiece.
Please do leave any suggestions for apps which have helped you if you are an astronomer as I’d be keen to check them out!
Disclosure: I purchased all of these apps myself for my own astronomical pleasure.