One subject that has fascinated scientists for over a millennium has been that of astronomy. The active gazing upon the night sky has been a point of attraction for humans for thousands of years. Countless songs, stories, and even some religions are based on the various objects that appear in the skies above. It’s only natural that one of the best tools for education today be used in a way that helps everyday people understand this subject better.
The iPad, like many mobile devices made today, is equipped with several tools that allow you to integrate position-based software and turn your mobile device into a portable astronomy lab. The compass, wireless connection, and gyroscope allow iPad users to enjoy the night sky like never before.
In this article, we’ll take a look at several apps, tips, and tricks to help you get started with the exciting hobby of stargazing.
When the idea came up of doing a how-to on using the iPad for stargazing, we decided to take the question to Fraser Cain, the host of Astronomy Cast and publisher of Universe Today, who sent the question out to his community. Here are some of the suggestions his community members made.
Star Walk for iPad is one of the most robust tools available for stargazers today. Not only does it allow you to point your iPad in the night sky and see what constellations are in front of you, but it also allows you to track the international space Station (among other satellites) as it makes its voyage around the earth. Star Walk for iPad isn’t free, but at $4.99, it does feature a lot of functionality in a relatively inexpensive package.
Star Walk uses the built-in gyroscope and location functions of the iPad to let you see exactly what’s in front of you at any given time. By simply aiming your iPad at a given point in the sky, Star Walk will show you what constellation you’re seeing (or would be seeing, depending on obscuring factors like city lights, cloud cover, or daylight). Motion is smooth, and the app works great out of the box almost instantly.
I’m not too crazy about the background music that plays when you’re looking at the sky, but you can turn that off. Night vision allows you to maintain your night vision while using the app so you can see the stars with your own eyes as well as on screen. There are also a variety of different visual modes to choose from, so your experience is as suited to your needs as possible.
One of the best features of Star Walk for iPad is a built-in calendar that allows you to go back in time and see the sky as it existed at any point in history. The sky live menu allows you to see a variety of statistics including when the sun rises and sets, elevation, and events surrounding various planets including Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon. You can even search for a particular constellation, star, or virtually any other object in the night sky with ease.
Another great feature of Star Walk for iPad is that it gives you detailed information about any given object including its current location, average distance from the Sun, radius, volume, mass, density, surface area, gravity, length of day, length of year, surface temperature, and more. You can even match the skies to your iPad using the built-in camera by simply aligning a certain object with the image that appears on the camera. This calibration makes it one of the most accurate stargazing apps currently on the market.
Andrew Law: Star Walk is marvelous. A complete map of the skies at night with loads of details.
What sets this $14.99 app apart from Star Walk is its ability to control your telescope (if you have a compatible telescope) so you can see objects up close as they actually exist in the current sky rather than a 3D image on the screen. This is a great companion app for serious amateurs and professional astronomers, alike.
If you don’t need all the bells and whistles, a “lite” version of SkySafari is available for $2.99, which also features many of the perks of the more expensive full version and Star Walk.
Simeon Greene: I just started using Sky Safari. It’s great for an amateur and rookie like me. I love that I can walk outside with my iPad and figure out what objects are above me.
Taking your first steps toward better understanding the heavens can be an excellent beginning to a rewarding and educational hobby. Being able to identify constellations, individual stars, planets, and other important elements of the Universe is a great way to spark up conversation, impress your significant other, and gain a better understanding of the Universe and how it works.
After all, isn’t more education a great thing?
Stargazing doesn’t require a telescope, but it doesn’t hurt to have one. If you want to see what it’s like to look through a telescope, check out the virtual star parties that Fraser Cain is organizing over on Google+. Participants pipe live feeds from several telescopes into a Hangout and then chat about astronomy, gear, and technique. It’ll give you a good idea of what’s possible with this hobby.
Stargazing doesn’t simply mean staring at the various stars and determining what constellations they may belong to. You can have a lot of fun searching for various objects as they appear in the night sky, including a very young or very old Moon. When the shadow of the Earth has covered the vast majority of the lunar surface, it can be more difficult to find, which makes it all the more fun to search for.
The International Meteor Organization is a great resource for finding out when meteor showers are expected. You can watch a meteor shower using a variety of instruments, but none is as useful as the naked eye. Of all the fun things to look for in the night sky, a meteor shower can be one of the most exciting.
Objects to Look For
Even without a telescope, there are some incredibly interesting things to see in the night sky. Anyone can benefit from knowing how to identify specific objects such as the North Star, which has assisted sailors and explorers alike in navigation for millennia.
Some of the most popular objects to search for with the naked eye include nearby planets such as Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus. These planets appear to be stars at first glance, but, with the help of your iPad and the right software, they can be fairly easy to locate and identify.
Some comets, asteroids, the International Space Station, and even Uranus can be located with the help of your iPad and good timing.
What tips can you offer for beginning stargazers?