Leave the X-Wing in the Garage. Use your iPad to Explore the Galaxy: Three Free Star Gazing Apps Reviewed


If you’re like me, a not too serious star gazer with an iPad, you may appreciate an app that helps you navigate the night sky.

From the DOS days forward there have been many computer programs that show you the universe, or a specific chunk of it. But unless you want to hold up your laptop outside at night and try to orient the screen to the direction you’re facing, you are limited to an onscreen experience indoors.

The iPad, with its portability and gyro changes all that. It’s like taking an illuminated map outdoors. I installed three apps that allowed me to look toward the heavens with a more educated eye: SkySafariSkyORB 3D and Planets.

[Note: this post was written by Freewaregenius contributor Will Lewis].

Three star gazing apps

SkySafariSkySafari: at first I didn’t like this app because I thought it had too much bun and not enough meat. After playing with it for a while, it became my favorite. It is feature rich and hard to compete with. Although they can be turned off in the settings, the constellations first appear in a semi-translucent, detailed image. For example, Ursa Major is shown with a fully detailed image of a blue bear. Other apps have just a simple line drawing connecting the stars in the constellations. Also, you have a choice of three styles of horizon: rocky hills, snowy alps and an island scene. This feature can be turned off and replaced with a basic horizon line. The mountain landscape was beautiful, but actually blocked some of the stars near the horizon. Once I selected the translucent horizon it was easier to keep a proper perspective of up versus down without hampering the view. Some may find these extra features as enhancements to the experience. I am the first person to praise apps with a high level of refinement and spectacular visual style. However, when it interferes with the functions I am specifically looking for, I put it in the “unnecessary fluff” category. SkySafari is informative, detailed and fun. Other features include object search, object information, a time function to allow you to see the sky as it would be in the past or future. Also available is a Night mode that changes the display to red so that the eyes don’t have to make a dramatic adjustment when going from the iPad to the sky. SkySafari is fun and would be great for both kids and adults to play with and learn from. After learning how to customize the app to my liking, I couldn’t find fault with the design or execution. Strongly recommended.

skyorb3d3SkyORD 3D: This is a lite version and it constantly reminds you that some features are available only in the purchased copy. The controls are simple and readily available along the top edge. As you change modes the subordinate controls and options are presented directly underneath, making for a fairly short familiarization phase. The horizon is represented by an inconspicuous compass heading with latitudinal degrees. You can choose to see star names, constellation lines, planet names, etc. The buttons are a little small for my big, meaty paws. But the average person should have little difficulty, especially a young adult. I love the planetary view that allows you to fly around the entire solar system, with orbital lines and nicely represented planets. Take away the constant request to get out my credit card and I would be perfectly happy with this one.

planetsPlanets: This one is the quickest way to get started looking at the stars. It’s not overly spectacular, but excellent for a free app. You can select between a 2D and 3D view, see a visibility chart of celestial objects, or view the globe as it appears with a current representation of where daylight and night time fall. Move the globe around with your finger or zoom in. When viewing 3D mode, you have the choice of Visible, X-Ray, Hydrogen a, Infrared, Microwave, or Radio images of the heavens. I found this to be a fascinating feature as it shows you the hot spots in the sky for each. Infrared is hottest along the path of the Milky Way, for example. You will want to stay in 3D mode. 2D is an unspectacular 360 degree image of the visible night sky from your location. It is basically a quick reference guide to the constellations. Though Planets has limited features, it’s an awesome place to start identifying stars or for getting a great idea of what your new iPad can do.