Stargazing apps add a fun, accessible, and high-tech twist to backyard stargazing.
These days, the phone in your pocket can turn into anything from a simple guide to a stunning augmented reality device.
But that raises one very important question: is the universe they show you actually correct?
This is how accurate stargazing apps really are
Most stargazing apps have accurate sky charts and realistic representations of celestial objects. The accuracy of your device’s compass and gyroscope is critical, so careful calibration will help the stargazing app work optimally. Keep in mind that many apps use color-enhanced photos and renderings, whereas objects won’t always look so vibrant to the naked eye.
These apps can help identify objects, take you on a tour of the night sky, and even plan your stargazing for that upcoming holiday. Irrespective of the extent of engagement in astronomy — be it a casual stargazer or astronomy professional — there is certainly an app to fill the need.
What Stargazing Apps Show Accurately
Most apps can easily and accurately locate the moon, Mars, Venus, the Sun and other planets and stars. They enable the user to set location and move the horizon easily.
Some astronomy apps add information about the background story behind the names, and the interesting science around the stars’ behaviour.
If it all gets too overwhelming, many apps will let you limit the number of stars displayed.
Nebulas, star clusters, and galaxies are popular deep sky objects that apps can also help you to locate. Many require a telescope to see, but an app can help you focus on the more accessible ones. A so-called “GoTo telescope” has a very advanced version of this software built in, and will automatically find the objects you’re looking for.
Most sky-charting apps manage the objects by categorizing them into observing lists. This is a great way to find the “greatest hits,” so to speak.
Most also make it easy to find data about heavenly objects, such as its celestial coordinates, brightness (magnitude), scientific names, and so forth.
Automatic updates are a huge advantage of stargazing apps over hard-copy guides. Seasonal differences, recent discoveries, and other changing info are literally at your fingertips–no further purchase required, in most cases.
When Stargazing Apps Are Misleading
Stargazing apps are chock-full of great information, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.
The biggest shortcoming is that not all phones have accurate compasses, gyroscopes, or even basic location reporting.
Now, they’re pretty solid for most modern devices. But you’ll at least need careful calibration to make sure the app has accurate info to guide you with.
There’s also the fact that the best stargazing is usually in remote places without light pollution…but most apps require an internet connection. Offline capabilities will depend on the app, but on the whole, you’ll enjoy less functionality the farther you get from populated places.
It can also be a little overwhelming to compare your limited naked-eye view with the abundance of in-app objects. If the app has a “beginner” mode or other way to limit the objects displayed, then play around with that setting until you can confidently match the real-life sky to the digital one.
Some users are disappointed to find that vibrant colors aren’t realistic. Apps often use color-enhanced space images–after all, they look incredible!–but our naked eyes seldom see all those vivid hues.
How To Get More Out Of An Astronomy App
As we mentioned earlier, stargazing apps aren’t without challenges. Here are a few tips to help you start seeing more, sooner.
Calibrate your gyroscope and compass properly
Basic apps have options to zero the reading when the phone is rested on a horizontal surface. Compass apps usually have instructions to move the phone in certain pattern allowing the magnetic readings an automatic correction.
This can also be done by sighting a known star or celestial object.
To avoid interference, make sure to avoid any metal objects like cars or even power lines as you do this.
Use observing lists
Most apps forecast upcoming astronomical events and celestial objects visible for your location. Some might be more interesting than others, so sort them into observing lists and let the app suggest viewing times.
Likewise, use the app to log what you’ve seen. This is traditionally done on paper, but a digital alternative is easier to carry with you and to share with others.
Use the red light mode
Your vision takes a while to adapt to the dark, so a glaring phone screen is the last thing you want!
If you’ve got an app with a red light mode, make sure to use it when you’re out observing. That lets you take advantage of the app’s information without much of an impact on your ability to see. This is important for all stargazers, but most of all for those using their naked eyes.
3 Awesome Stargazing Apps To Try
There’s no shortage of stargazing apps to try. In fact, knowing where to begin might be the hardest part of all.
To help you get started, we dug through expert opinions and heaps of user reviews to find the best stargazing apps for most users. . As of writing, all three all cross-platform apps, meaning versions are available for iOS and Android alike.
1. SkySafari (App Store / Play Store)
There are too many excellent astronomy apps to call one the absolute “best,” but if you have to pick a winner, then SkySafari might be it.
It’s got the vast collection of celestial objects that you’d expect. But it adds remarkable graphics for moving phenomena (think meteor showers), recommendations for your location and time, and a crazy-cool “orbit mode” (for a few bucks more) that lets you virtually venture away from Earth altogether.
A few folks had trouble with compass calibration and orientation set-up, but it doesn’t seem to be a consistent or widespread problem.
2. SkyView Lite (App Store / Play Store)
SkyView Lite is a wildly popular augmented-reality app for stargazing. It combines your phone’s camera input with a massive database and beautiful images to help you understand exactly what you’re seeing.
It’s a great choice for stargazing in out-of-the-way places, too, since it works without an internet connection. Additionally, it works with some pretty cool app-enhanced telescopes and binoculars from a company called Terminal Eleven (check them out here).
We did find a few users who struggled with calibration. It’s hard to say whether that’s an app issue or a device issue, though.
3. Star Rover (App Store / Play Store)
Star Rover is one of the simpler options, and that’s part of its appeal.
If you’re a little easily overwhelmed with other AR apps, then consider starting with Star Rover to test the waters.
Instead of camera-based AR, it uses your location to cast a digital “sky” that lines up with what you’re seeing. It’s a paid app, but costs just a couple bucks as of writing. Some users have had trouble with jittery images and difficult orientation, however.