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North Hills Monthly

Spectacular Stargazing: Best Apps for Viewing the Night Sky

Aug 31, 2018 11:42AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

The battle between Star Trek and Star Wars fans about the superiority of their favorite franchise may have come to a stalemate. But space geeks—and everyone else—can agree that gazing up at the night sky inspires awe and sparks imagination. Happily, a handful of apps can help everyone from novices to aficionados better understand the final frontier in that galaxy far, far away.

Luna Solaria allows moonstruck users to view the moon’s current phase in real time, using authentic images of the moon from NASA. The basic free app provides details about the moon’s progress in its cycle, current distance from the earth, precise rise and set times, brightness, and exact position in the sky. Luna Solaria also offers rise and set times for the sun. In-app purchases offer a feature that lets the user check the exact position of the moon on any date between 6,000 B.C. and 10,000 A.D. (Free, with in-app purchases; available for iOS and Android)

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest human-made object in space. Weighing in at 462 tons, the space laboratory is about the size of a football field and is visible from earth if stargazers know where to look. The ISS Detector Satellite Tracker app lets users know when the ISS will appear and where to expect it in the sky. Reviewers say the app is among the best satellite trackers available and applaud cool features like a reminder that gives a five-minute warning before the ISS is about to become visible. Reviewers also give the app high marks for its ease of use, especially for first-timers. The app is free, but available only for Android devices. For iPhone devotees, the ISS Detector app has similar functionality and is free on both iOS and Android. 

StarChart is one of those apps that truly makes people appreciate the wonders of technology. Users simply point their phones or tablets at the night sky, and the app will display labels and images explaining exactly what stargazers are seeing. The app features all 88 constellations, using constellation imagery created by 17th-century astronomer Johannes Hevelius, as well as planets, their moons and the sun. Apps such as SkySafari and Stellarium offer similar functionality; Night Sky is another solid option, but it is only available on iOS. StarChart stands out from the competition because it is intuitive, easy to use and free. (Free; available for iOS and Android)

The Meteor Shower Calendar app is a handy tool for determining the best time to see falling stars. Users can get a list of upcoming meteor showers and the approximate dates that the events will peak, figure out where to look in the sky to see the showers and check the weather to determine the optimal nights for viewing. Reviewers like the reminder feature and say that the app itself is fantastic but criticize the many ads that clutter up the free version. Ads can be eliminated by purchasing the paid version of the app. (Free; available for iOS and Android)

The official, free NASA app is among the best resources available for users looking to be immersed in all things space. Featuring the latest NASA news, incredible images of nebula and upcoming opportunities to view the International Space Station (ISS), the content is second-to-none. Many images are interactive; for example, users can spin the sun and planets to view them from all angles. NASA’s updated launch schedule contains a brief profile on each mission, including the names of the astronauts. One of the app’s coolest features is a live view of the earth from the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment on the ISS. (Free; available for iOS and Android)

With so many nifty tools to help people appreciate all there is to see in the night sky, stargazers can plan a night to remember. Both Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker would approve.