Gazing upward at a sky free of light pollution to witness something like an annular eclipse is one thing, but on occasion, you need to orchestrate your stargazing plans with finer details. You may have bought a telescope thinking it’d be easy to use, but perhaps it hasn’t enabled you to ogle the surface of Jupiter in dramatic detail, because truth be told, you don’t really know how to operate the damn thing.
Luckily, there are plenty of apps out there meant to facilitate the viewing of the cosmos. If you’re serious about taking in some of the more striking visual events unfolding in the night sky this month, then you might want to consult one of these, if only to improve your stargazing experience and perhaps learn a thing or two in the process.
The best stargazing apps
Some apps are used for the observing and planning part of your experience, since you do, technically, need to understand where to look in the big, sprawling sky. According to the astronomy photographer Chris Westphal, the apps Stellarium, StarMap 3D+, and AstroAid are particularly good for this purpose.
- Stellarium: Available for iOS and Android, helps explain what you’re actually seeing when you gaze upward, with helpful diagrams and written synopses. It works via pointing your phone at the sky, which sounds simple enough.
- StarMap 3D+: This app does what it’s name suggests and helps you find stars, constellations and other visual delights. Also available are the locations of “50 artificial satellites, including the International Space Station (ISS), and the Hubble Space Telescope.” It’s only available for iOS, however.
- AstroAid: This app will help you understand what you should, in theory, be seeing when you look through a telescope, with multiple visualizations that adhere to various lenses. This is best suited for astrophotographers, as it “contains extensive lists of known vendor-supplied telescopes, camera lenses, eyepieces, imagers, and optical aids.” It’s only available for iOS users.
Westphal says of these three apps: “The first two are planisphere style apps good for planning when to look at objects of interest, and the latter approximates how objects should fit in an eyepiece/telescope or camera/telescope combo.”
Other stargazing apps
- NASA: Humanity is indebted to NASA for a host of reasons, but if you’re looking for bolster your astronomy acumen, I’d suggest the space agency’s app. NASA’s app is more likely to inform rather than provide an actionable roadmap to the stars, but using it will allow you to better understand what you’re seeing when you finally see it. Available for iOS and Android.
- SkyView: It helps to understand what you’re looking at when staring at burning balls of gas millions of miles away, and SkyView should help you achieve that. Point your phone at the sky and the app does the hard work for you, explaining, again, what exactly you’re seeing when you tilt your head backwards. Available for iOS and Android.
- StarWalk 2: An augmented reality app that lets you view stars in their past, present, and future iterations? That’s what StarWalk 2 promises. It’s on the more exhaustive side, which isn’t a bad thing at all, as it promises a “real-time map” of the stars above, in addition to a time machine feature that can transport you back into the skies from aeons ago. Available for iOS and Android.
There are more apps out there, too, if you’re really interested in wading through all the options. Still, going outside in an area free of light pollution is often just enough to witness the cosmos at its most majestic. For that, there’s often no apps necessary.