Apps for stargazers and space lovers

The spectacular success of Curiosity landing on Mars a few days ago has perhaps caused a few more of us to look up at the night sky and say to ourselves, “Hmm…I’m curious about some of that stuff up there.” Perhaps the phenominal feat of landing a nuclear-powered compact car with a built-in rock-vaporizing laser hasn’t excited everyone. Much of the world just went back to arguing about the Olympics, or a minor political gaffe, or the latest celebrity scandal. For the rest of you, for the dreamers who look up at the sky and are driven to explore, consider this list of phone and tablet apps your gateway to a much larger universe.

NASA Apps

Speaking of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they are probably the only government agency whose official apps you'll actually want to download. iOS users get the best stuff, with the NASA TV and the Spacecraft 3D apps available only to iPhone/iPad users. The main NASA App has versions for Android, iPhone, and iPad. It’s free, and it’s full of great information on NASA missions, fantastic photos, videos, basically everything NASA is up to and more.

Star Walk

Perhaps the most popular astronomy app for iPhone and iPad, Star Walk was featured in an Apple TV commercial, and with good reason. It’s simple and intuitive, attractive, and has slick features like an augmented reality mode. Amateur astronomers may not find the star database deep enough, but it’s a fantastic app for the casually curious stargazer. It’s $3 for the iPhone and $5 for iPad, the latter of which is really the better experience.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

NASA runs an Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) site that delivers fantastic images of the cosmos on a seriously ugly webpage. Users have taken the feed of these images and used it to fuel free apps, for both Android and iOS. It’s just inspirational eye candy, but it’s free.

Sky Safari

If you’re serious about astronomy, you’ll want to splurge for Sky Safari. The basic version (Sky Safari 3 on iOS, simply Sky Safari on Android) is $3 and includes a database of 46,000 stars, but that’s child’s play. The Plus version, at $15, ups the ante to over 2.5 million stars and 31,000 deep sky objects. It also adds the ability to adjust the viewpoint to anywhere in the solar system, so you can see what Earth looks like from Mars. Oh, and it can control your telescope wirelessly, if you have that sort of gear. Still not enough? There’s a $40 Pro version that has 15.3 million stars, plus 740,000 galaxies (down to 18th magnitude), over 580,000 solar system objects, and a Moon map based on NASA’s latest LRO data.

Mobile Observatory

Android users that simply want to know what they should look at on a starry night should check out Mobile Observatory. Sure, it has a lot of the same skymap stuff other astronomy apps do (albeit without the massive database of Sky Safari), but the real reason to shell out $4 for it is the calendar of celestial events (don’t want to miss that big meteor shower!) that integrates with your phone’s calendar. It also features lists of various bright objects like asteroids or comets, and a “Tonight’s Best” option that suggests some key objects to look for. For example, maybe Mars and Jupiter appear right next to each other and the crescent moon. This app makes it easy, at a glance, to get some idea of where you should start looking when you gaze up at the night sky.

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