A galaxy of iPhone apps to reach for the stars

Oct 26, 2009
Education

Thirty-two new planets were recently discovered outside our solar system, another humble reminder of our minuscule knowledge of the cosmos. To celebrate—or perhaps ease a gnawing sense of insignificance—I turned to a collection of iPhone space apps to get better acquainted with our galaxy’s planets. Mercury Distant Suns ($3.99) maps out our solar system like […]

Thirty-two new planets were recently discovered outside our solar system, another humble reminder of our minuscule knowledge of the cosmos. To celebrate—or perhaps ease a gnawing sense of insignificance—I turned to a collection of iPhone space apps to get better acquainted with our galaxy’s planets.

Mercury

Distant Suns ($3.99) maps out our solar system like a science fair model, but with coordinates and impressive zooming capabilities. Select Mercury, and the app will lock on like a rifle scope ready to fire information about the planet’s atmosphere, orbit and best viewing times. This app can be text heavy, but the pictures thrown in will make the distant sun feel like your next-door neighbor.

Venus

It’s hard to spot any planet within Star Walk ($4.99) and its endless sea of constellations, which are outlined for easy gazing. The app is a cinch to navigate, but offers only a few short facts about this second planet from the sun—though it does link to Wikipedia. With Virgo hovering in the background like a purgatorial spirit, I dare you to care.

Earth

Amazing Planet (99 cents) marvels at a glowing globe with pictures of different cities from space. The app’s slideshow interface can be clumsy—font snobs should definitely pass—but appreciation is all about perspective and this app takes a step back to scroll through the greatness of mankind.

Mars

Until someone starts marketing private trips to the red planet, I recommend spending the $1.99 for Mars Globe. The 3D navigation app offers a guided tour of the planet’s craters and volcanoes, with more than 1,500 terrain features casually annotated as if you’re walking through Central Park.

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Jupiter

It’s hard to get your bearings when you first launch SkyGazer ($2.99), but shift the screen southwest through the constellations and you can’t miss the glowing sphere of Jupiter. Though not as stunning as other sky-searching apps, SkyGazer successfully marries real-time sky mirroring with in-depth descriptions of stars and planets, offering the best of both (and all) worlds. 

Saturn
With Hubble you can watch a video of Saturn’s moons orbiting the planet—emerging from the darkness, just above the rings—as part of a library of footage taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. The free app also features all 2009 Hubble press releases, plus images of distant spiral galaxies and orbiting exo-planets so you’re never out of the loop.

Uranus
At $9.99, Uranus is only worth it if you’re serious about astronomy. Even then it might be confusing. The app offers information on more than 100,000 stars, plus planets and enough celestial lingo to evoke multiple Wikipedia consultations. With added features like optional night vision for improved gazing, it’s crystal clear this app is the real deal.

Neptune

In addition to an astronomy news section, Pocket Universe ($2.99) lets you explore the sky by tilting your phone as the image follows, making things easier to spot. The app even breaks down daily viewing times by planet (Neptune sets at 1:41 a.m.) as well as schedules for upcoming meteor showers.

Pluto

Planetarium ($2.99) zeros in on Pluto and its moon with refreshing 3D graphics and a smooth interface that uses “advanced positioning systems similar to flight simulators,” according to its description. It will also let you speed up or reverse planet rotations for rough days when even possessing the universe in your pocket just isn’t enough control.

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