Sunday, January 10, 2016


Smart Phones + Tablets + Amateur Astronomy: Where we are Now (Part II)

As promised, here’s my next batch of astronomy programs for smart phones and tablets. Before we get to them, though, the big news in apptown, as it always is when it happens, is that there’s a new SkySafari on the street, SkySafari 5. I’m already using the iOS version, since the upgrade from 4 to 5 was free for the basic edition. I will most assuredly be upgrading to 5 on my tablet, too, probably to Pro when it becomes available for Android, likely in the next three – four months, I understand. Stay tuned. From the brief look I’ve had at the basic version of 5, SkySafari is better than ever.

More Planetarium and Deep Sky Stuff

There is little doubt, as I said last time, that SkySafari is the king of the hill when it comes to planetariums for smart devices, but just because it’s a good thing, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that may be of use to you. Do you like “free”? If so, check out Celestron’s SkyPortal. It’s based on SkySafari, so why would you choose it in preference to the real deal given the fact that the basic version of SkySafari costs a paltry ninety-nine cents at the moment? You probably wouldn’t—unless you own a Celestron telescope.

The draw with SkyPortal is that it allows you to control your Evolution telescope wirelessly. And you can do the same thing with many other Celestron scopes with the addition of Celestron’s SkyQ wi-fi dongle. That’s been the case for a while, but Celestron has just kicked things up a notch with a new version of SkyPortal that supports their StarSense automatic telescope alignment system. Yes, SkyPortal in concert with the SkyQ Link adapter will now talk to the StarSense camera and perform goto alignments without you having to squint through a finder or mess with the telescope’s hardware hand control.

Another planetarium that might strike your fancy is an old, old Windows favorite, Distant Suns. It’s been in an iOS version since almost the beginning of the smart phone revolution, is available in a standard and a “Max” version for a very reasonable $1.99 and $4.99 respectively, and comes in both Android and iOS flavors. Is it a SkySafari Pro with millions of stars and DSOs? No, but it is user-friendly, pretty, functional, and may be all some of you ever need.

While it’s not a planetarium program, an app I’ve found quite useful for my deep sky observing is one called “Deep Sky Browser.” This app was originally called “DSS browser,” and that is actually a more apt description of what it does. This is a simple but useful program that allows you to download images from the online Digitized Sky Survey and view them on your iPhone or iPad. Very useful when you’re hunting fuzzies and want to know exactly what your quarry looks like.

Deep Sky Browser
DSB doesn’t stop there. It also gives the vital statistics for thousands and thousands of DSOs (it will access the huge UGC galaxy catalog, though it lacks the ability to bring back PGC objects). It also makes visibility predictions for any of these fuzzies, and you can even interface it with your digital setting circles if you have a means of connecting the DSC computer to your phone. Useful, good, and inexpensive at $9.99. I hope the developer keeps working on this app, and considers turning it into a full blown observing planner. I also hope they eventually do an Android port. If there were one available, it darn sure would be on my Asus tablet.

Telescope Helpers

This is an area particularly suited for phones and tablets. You’ve always got one in your pocket, well, a phone anyways, so why not enlist their help in setting up your telescope? There is a surprising lot they can do in that regard.

Scope Help, available for iOS only, is (or was) a fantastic little app, combining a polar alignment helper, a compass, a bubble level, GPS, and more. The only problem with it is that at the moment it doesn’t seem to be available in the iTunes store. If you run across it, however, glom onto it. Thanks to Scope Help I don't have to carry a compass in my accessory case anymore.

If you can’t get Scope Help, there are alternatives that will do the same thing, if not in all-in-one fashion. One of these is “Polar Scope Align.” What it does is display a simulated view through your telescope mount’s polar alignment borescope showing where Polaris should be with regards to the reticle. Which polar scope reticle? There are numerous ones you can select…Takahashi…SkyWatcher/Orion…iOptron and more.

This is a really nice little app. It picks up your position data automatically from the phone’s GPS and shows the Polaris Hour Angle in case you need it. Simple. Neat. No trouble at all. Well, no trouble if you’ve got an iOS device. There isn’t a version for Android, alas. Luckily, there are similar good apps for Android, but this is what I use. If you’ve got an iOS widget this is a no-brainer:  get it, it’s free.

The next one isn’t really an astronomy app, but it’s useful in telescope setup anyway. Bubble Level is just that, a virtual Bubble Level on your phone or tablet that makes use of the device’s accelerometers. You get a choice of three level styles, including the circular level favored by amateur astronomers for leveling telescope tripods. Even better? It’s free. Best of all? It's in both Android and iOS versions. I don’t agonize over getting my scope tripod precisely level; that’s just not necessary.  I do level it, however, and this is much easier to use than any hardware store level.

Polar Scope Align
What’s troubling you, Bunky? Your goto telescope doesn’t have a GPS receiver and you don’t feel like giving the folks who made your scope’s mount a couple of hundred bucks for one? No problemo. You can get a free one that will work fine if you don’t mind manually entering latitude and longitude into the hand control during set up. Most phones and tablets have GPS, so why not take advantage of that fact? I’ve got several GPS apps, but the one I’ve used the most is the appropriately titled “Free GPS.” It’s not fancy, but it doesn’t have to be. It displays your current latitude and longitude and that is all you need for scope set up. Android and iOS versions.

Solar System Apps

I am not currently big on observing the Solar System, but I go through phases when I am and will undoubtedly be again, especially with a good Mars opposition on the way.  There’s plenty of Solar System stuff on iTunes and Google Play, and a surprising amount of it is even oriented toward observers. This is just a sampling of the apps I’ve found useful at one time or another.

Not only is Planets, which comes in both Android and iOS versions, free, it’s actually pretty useful. Useful enough that I’ve had it on my smart devices since the iPod Touch days. It’s somewhat limited, really only doing two things for you, plotting the positions of the planets (on a nice 3D sky chart), and giving visibility data. I wish it would do other things like show planetary satellites and GRS data for Jupiter, but it obviously does enough for me or I’d have ditched it long ago.

If you need the positions of Jupiter’s satellites, there is no more convenient way to get it than with a little app called “Jupiter Guide.” Not only does it show you the positions of the Galilean satellites oriented properly for your telescope, it also gives Great Red Spot transit times. Not bad for free. I’m sorry there does not appear to be an Android version, but I’m sure there are similar apps for that OS.

Everybody needs a Moon map, and why not put one on your smart device? One is somewhat easier for middle aged eyes to read than the Rukl book, and much easier to orient to match views in the eyepiece. What I like is Moon Map Pro. MMP displays a pretty airbrush style chart as the default, but you can switch to Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images. How many features are identified? 8,000. Maybe that’s not quite up to the level of the PC program Virtual Moon Atlas, but it is way more than I usually need. This is a great tool for the Lunatic with an iOS device. At .99 cents, how can you go wrong? I’d have paid at least ten times as much for this much utility and quality.


There’s more to iPhone astronomy than just apps to help with observing. Oh, those are my main focus, but I’ve found two non-observing programs I use frequently, and I suspect that if I took a good cruise through the iTunes and Google Play stores I’d find many more.

Who doesn’t love Astronomy Picture of the Day? The daily dose of astrophotographic goodness from NASA is a constant in my routine; I look at it every single morning, but I probably wouldn’t if it were just on my PC. There, I inevitably get bogged down with a writing project or Facebook or Cloudy Nights and forget to go to the APOD website. But since the APOD app is on my phone, I have developed the habit of clicking on its icon first thing every a.m. and never miss my daily pic. With the app, you don’t have to fool with a browser; just click and go. Free and in iOS and Android formats.

The NASA app is a lot like APOD, but with a wider ranging collection of images. You can get the APOD picture with it, but also images from NASA missions and a lot more. NASA The App doesn’t seem very well known compared to APOD, but it should be. Like APOD, it can be had in both iOS and Android versions, and it is, like APOD, free for the taking. Do so.

That is about it for this edition, y’all. A little short, I know. but there’s something else demanding my attention at the moment. A new telescope. No, not Hermione Granger, another new one about which you shall learn before long.

Nice roundup of apps Rod thanks. Another couple of apps I usually use out with my scope besides sky Safari is Astroaid. It allows you to see a simulation of any of the many objects from a number of catalogs in your eyepiece/telescope combo. Kind of reminds me of the Sky tools functionality. The other one is TriAtlas which is basically like the old fashioned print atlas but you can zoom in on areas of a chart (really helps me with my poor up close vision). Now if only sky safari could provide eyepiece simulation like Astroaid then it might just be my replacement for Skytools and I wouldn't need to bring a laptop anymore...
Another scope! I suspect another refractor....Dwight
Thanks for the veryvuseful information uncle Rod. I actually have a free version of Stellarium mobile. It seems only to be free for android users here in China. Very useful and I like it since it has some of the PC version characteristics.
one of the best blog post you have done

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