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Readers in the Pacific Northwest and certain portions of the midwest will understand: You hear of an awesome celestial event, set your alarm, wake at 3am, run outside, and it's all clouds as far as the eye can see. Galileo saw moons orbiting Jupiter with just his crummy telescope, but you can't even make out Orion with all the light pollution. Where the heck do you look when you want to even try to find a constellation? You look in the App Store, silly.
Star Walk from Vito Technology Inc. is what immediately comes to mind for most people when you discuss astronomy apps. One of the first to arrive on the scene with this kind of app, Star Walk is still the one to beat whenever the topic comes up in conversation.
Lots in the sky, little on the app's controls
With the goal of keeping the interface as clean as possible, Star Walk fires up with four visible buttons and tiny ones at that. The rest of the screen is given over to the black recesses of space with brighter larger and smaller objects. Stars get white captions, satellites and planets get orange. Move your phone about and as you do, Star Walk tracks the stars in the "sky." Tap the screen at any point to freeze it in that view, then to restart the scanning just tilt your phone upwards. If you tap upon an object, a new button appears in the upper left, a lowercase "i." Tap that to be taken to an informational page about that particular object.
Today's calendar of events
Overlaying the screen, the minuscule green circles hug the corners of your screen. In the lower left, a magnifying glass takes you to a search screen where categories of celestial objects are broken down into five groups: Constellations, Solar system, Deep Space, Stars, and Satellites. Tap any one of these to be taken to back to the sky view. A green arrow will direct you which way to turn and tilt your iPhone until you are taken directly to the object of your search.
In the upper right corner, a camera bracket button turns on your camera, overlaying the heavenly view with the world around you. Aim your iPhone to the sky when the stars won't accommodate you, and against the cloudy gray heavens you'll see what you wanted to see naturally.
Or you'll see the starry cafe
At the bottom right, the list button packs a wallop, expanding to seven buttons when tapped. Here you can find a Calendar of upcoming astronomical events like eclipses. Sky Live is information about your day with rising and setting times for planets. Tap the arrows on either side of the date to go back or forth along the calendar. Picture of the day loads a gallery of gorgeous photographs from deep space, arranged in cover flow fashion. Tap the "i" in the upper left for more info about what you're looking at; double tap the entry that appears to load a Wikipedia page with even more info.
All the data to fill you in on these heavenly bodies
If you're of a community minded bent, the familiar Twitter icon accesses your Twitter account (if you're signed in through iOS, not through a third party app). From there, you're taken out to a globe view of Earth with other Star Walk users who are commenting on the app and/or the heavens, collated around #starwalk. So if the vast reaches of space makes you feel insignificant, there are others out there, stargazing like you.
iCandi Apps aims for the same target demographic as Star Walk, but tries for a few different kinds of tricks in Night Sky. You still fire up the app and point it anywhere to see what heavenly bodies are in the sky around you. The app opens to the star view and gives you five buttons across the top to modify what you're viewing. The lighter blue is the day sky, the darker what's below your horizon and near rising.
Those satellites look like USS Enterprises
Tap the North American continent button to be taken out to a 3D globe. A tiny yellow dot will mark your location using GPS. Pinch and zoom lets you get closer but not by that much, though you can spin the globe around to see other landmasses. On the globe screen, tap the compass button and a white dot appears in the globe's center. Drag the globe around to position that dot, then tap the starry button that replaced the North America one and you'll see the current stars in that location.
We're surrounded by artificial satellites
Back in the constellation view, tap the compass tracking button to freeze your view or make it responsive to whatever direction you turn your phone. In both views, tap the satellite button to see what manmade orbiters circle our globe. The eyeball button to the far right gives your screen a red color overlay for night time viewing (red light won't force your eyes to spend as much time readjusting to the visible night time spectrum).
Of course you want to know more
As you move across the sky, constellation names and patterns fade in and fade out (settings allows you to adjust the speed of their fade) while the names of planets and our moon and sun stick around. You can pinch to zoom closer to the objects for a better look. Short and simple, Night Sky is the least expensive option, though the one with the least number of options.
Pocket Universe from Craic Design aims to be more than just a mobile constellation finder but seeks to give you the universe in, well, in your pocket. Upon start up, you are presented with local time including Julian and Stardates as well as the times of rising and setting of the visible planets and our sun and moon. Across the bottom run five buttons to navigate to more app goodies.
Navigation is in-depth in this universe
Tap Virtual Sky to be taken to a view of the current sky (only weirdly, PU defaults to putting a tree line as horizon marker, irrespective of where you are). In this view, you get five new buttons at the app bottom. Home returns you where you started and Motion freezes your view so you can study what your phone's direction shows or unfreezes it so you can spin around to see more. Find lets you search for specific types of astronomical items, while Display lets you turn various options in your view off and on.
To see a progression (or regression) through the hours and years, tap Time to turn on a clock and direction and pause controls like on a DVD player appear allowing you quickly cycle through. Similarly, from the home page, the Orrery button provides an overhead view of the solar system that you can also watch unspool through time.
While in the Virtual Sky view, a target appears that turns on the names of constellations and the like when they fall across its crosshairs. Tap the name of the item when it appears in the top of your screen and you're taken to an information page for that object. Tap the camera in the upper left hand corner and augmented reality takes over as in the other apps, painting the starry sky across your camera's view.
A head (and a bear) full of stars
Back at the Home page, the original buttons are waiting for you. Planets gives you individual views of each of our solar system's major inhabitants including non-planets such as the sun and moon (sorry, fans, no Pluto). What's up gives you view of the night sky and a timeline of when various bodies will rise. Tap the navigation controls on this to go forward, backward, or increase the speeds of either direction just as we saw in Orrery and Time elsewhere.
Learn more about Mercury, it's so close and all
More is where tons of stuff that don't fit easily get packed away like a map of the moon, a moon phase calendar, a movable panoramic view of Mars (as if you were standing there), quizzes, the location of the International Space Station, a table of this month's astronomical highlights, and a Sky Report for the upcoming night that's full of information. Of all the apps we look at this week, Pocket Universe is the one most invested in actually seeking to scale that height.
Terminal Eleven LLC isn't shooting for the same depths of space quality as Pocket Universe with their app, SkyView. Instead, their focus appears to be more on the augmented reality version of an astronomical view of the world around you. Only three buttons on the screen work away from this camera view.
It's almost like a hallucination at times
A wrench in the upper left takes you, naturally, to settings where you can turn certain layers of the augmented reality off and on such as the Dwarf Planets (take that, Ceres!) or the camera view if you prefer using the app as a straight constellation identifier. There are also additional settings tucked away such as removing the horizon line or compass from your screen view or altering the size of planets and satellites. Here, too, you can set your location to any country in the world. If you run into gyroscope issues, this is where you'd also calibrate that feature.
Let's clear up the view a bit
The clock in the upper right allows you to see stars in the sky for custom times such as what auspicious things were occurring on your birthday or far into the future (what constellations will be visible on January 17th, 5580?).
We're not crabby, we Cancers; we're sensitive
The magnifying glass in the lower right allows you to search for various heavenly bodies broken down into four categories: the Solar System, Stars, Constellations, or Satellites. Tap one of the objects on the list and you are taken back to the camera view but with a small panel on the bottom of your screen with a tiny picture of your choice. Tap that panel and it scrolls through informational tidbits about your chosen object. Should you tap on an object that appears in your camera view, the same lower screen information panel will appear.
As much as Star Walk is a fan favorite, we found that Pocket Universe gave us a lot more bang for the buck. We got the same kinds of star views, but we also got a ton more information about the universe in general and everything was easily findable and tucked away decently. There was simply more packed into Pocket Universe including an iPad version and it was all the same price. Having our own nightly sky report filled with what we should be looking for at night and push notifications for astronomical events will remind us to look heavenward a lot more often than we currently do. While SkyView and Night Sky are a buck less, they also provide you with much less information. If your only goal is constellation identification, then either should do just as well, but if you want to peer deep into the cosmos, Pocket Universe is our bet.