Sunday, March 3, 2013

Amateur Stargazing With a GPS Tour Guide

One of my favorite things to do on a clear winter night is to take a trip to a beach near where I live and do some amateur stargazing, far from the glare of streetlights. After years of simply using my eyes, I recently bought a portable telescope. Now I can just about see the stripes of clouds on Jupiter, which is a truly awesome sight.

But I'm no expert, and to help me understand what I can see in the sky, both by eye and by telescope, I rely on my phone and its apps.

One of my favorite astronomy apps is Starmap, $5 on iOS. The main feature of this app is its virtual sky display. This is a re-creation of the sky above you, calculated from your GPS coordinates. It shows you where the stars, moon, planets and other heavenly bodies are. This display rotates and pans as you move your phone, so you can hold it up in front of you and figure out what stars or galaxies you're looking at. You can zoom in for more detail if you find something interesting, and tap on a planet or a star to see details about it. The display can be switched to a night mode, which turns the graphics red so as not to spoil your night vision.

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Sources: The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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