Space Watching

When I decided to get an android phone a few months ago, there were several reasons why I thought it would be a good idea (some of which I wrote about at the time).  However, there was one single app that tipped the balance from “I’d quite like to get an android phone sometime” to “I must have one NOW!!!”.  That was Google Sky Map.

As the name indicates, this is a planetarium app, i.e. one which provides a map of the night sky.  I’ve used several planetarium apps on various computers over the years, since first seeing one demonstrated in the early 1990s and then getting one for my Amiga a couple of years later.  However, what sets Google’s offering apart from the herd is that this one makes use of the position / location detection features on your phone to provide a map that updates in real time as you hold your phone up to the sky and move it round.  This makes it ideal for identifying stars, planets and other astronomical features that you can see (no more guessing whether it’s Venus or Jupiter that you’re looking at).  For those of us who live in cloudy climates, you can also identify where the astronomical features would be visible if the clouds weren’t obscuring them, and you can similarly locate them if hidden behind tall buildings, trees, or even the earth itself (i.e. you can always use it to find Uranus, no matter where you are).

It may not be one of the most practically useful apps on my phone, since I don’t generally find myself needing to navigate by the stars, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting (at least if, like me, you have some interest in astronomy).  It is an example of augmented reality, which until fairly recently was very much in the domain of science fiction.

Very thoughtfully, they have programmed Sky Map with a night viewing mode that renders the map in dull red on a black background and hence preserves your night vision (a moot point if you’re in an area with lots of street-lights, but potentially helpful if you manage to find a nice dark place for stargazing), as well as an ordinary mode that uses a full range of bright colours.  As well as being able to pan the map round the sky and identify what you’re looking at, you can search for a specific feature (by name or by browsing through an image gallery) and it will then give you pointers so that you can line up your phone and your eyes in the right direction to see it;  of course, it can’t do anything about the clouds or terrain features that may be in the way, but it sure beats panning madly round the sky in the hope of being able to spot when M62 shows up on the map.

I haven’t yet tried using Sky Map in conjunction with binoculars (or a telescope, not that I have access to one) for viewing and identifying features that are not visible to the naked eye, but it has enabled me to know what I’m looking at when I stand and gaze up at the night sky on clear nights, or know what I’m missing the other 90% of the time.


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