Best Astronomy Apps for Stargazing in 2022

It’s easy to feel like if you want to look at the night sky you have to live in the desert and either have a telescope covered in so many wires and wires that it looks like someone threw a bowl of spaghetti on it, or a camera powerful enough to photograph Perseverance crossing Mars.

In fact, the list of things you need if you want to observe the sky these days, it’s pretty much the same as when I started this hobby 40 years ago. You need a clear night, a dark place and at least a basic knowledge of the night sky to be able to jump from star to star and constellation to constellation to find interesting things like star clusters , galaxies and planets. If you have a pair of binoculars or a telescope to zoom in on these things, great, but it’s not essential.

A new tool

In recent years, another item has added itself to this list for many (but not all) observers: a smartphone. Why? Because there are now so many useful applications available for them that they are, I believe, an essential part of the amateur astronomer’s toolbox.

Today’s smartphones are essentially tricorder-like computers that occasionally – and inappropriately – emit a strange noise or vibrate when someone wants to talk to you in real time. But if you’re an amateur astronomer, these are also handhelds that not only allow you to plan observing sessions in advance, but also to enjoy them and maximize your productivity during them.

In Ye Olden Days, observers setting out on a clear night had to carry with them a voluminous star atlas and possibly a lunar map. They left with only a rough idea of ​​what the weather was going to do and if they wanted to see a particular satellite or the space station, they had to rely on lists of dates and times printed on websites. Today, you can download apps that give your smartphone a star atlas, moon map, and local weather forecast. They can also give you accurate satellite and ISS forecasts for the very location you are in, rather than your part of the country. It’s almost witchcraft! Oh, and they can turn your camera into an astronomical camera capable of taking timed exposures long enough to show not just the brightest stars and planets, but also constellations, the Milky Way, and deep sky objects.

The list

Let’s take a look at some of the astronomy apps available, as well as a few others that, although they have nothing to do with astronomy, will certainly make your time under the stars more enjoyable. (Note: These are my own personal recommendations, based on the apps I use myself. Many more are available.)

SkySafari (different versions and prices, Android and iOS)

It’s a planetarium-like app that, as the name suggests, basically turns your phone into a planetarium. You set your location, date, and time, and the app shows you what the sky will look like, with planets, stars, and constellations all accurately depicted and labeled (if you want, you can choose to turn off -them). You can jump back or forward in time by seconds, minutes or hours, seeing how the sky changes and where and when objects will rise and set. You can also see when the ISS will cross your sky, what future lunar and solar eclipses will look like from your location, and zoom in on the Moon to identify which of its features are visible through your binoculars or telescope. I have several planetarium apps on my phone and tablets, but SkySafari is my favorite choice because it has lots of features without being cluttered, its sky maps are colorful without being so garish that they cause a migraine, and it offers lots of information about objects in its database without drowning in it. I also like how it can be updated very easily with the orbital elements of newly discovered comets, allowing me to see when they will become visible to me.

Mobile Stellarium (Android and iOS)

Another of my favorite planetarium apps, Stellarium also puts the night sky in your pocket, but with far fewer whistles and bells than SkySafari. A miniaturized version of the hugely popular computer software package, the app works exactly the same way as Sky Safari but offers the familiar (and a lot more realistic) Stellarium view of the night sky, with beautiful dusk and dawn sky colors and stars that actually look like twinkling suns and not colored dots. If you could actually shrink the night sky and put it in your phone, it would look like Stellarium.

heaven above (Android)

While planetarium programs like the ones described above allow you to identify satellites, they instead get lost among all the other objects visible on their maps. This app is perfect for people who just want to know in advance where to look for the space station at night, when they can see the Starlink “trains” destroying the night sky crossing the sky, and identify all the satellites they see pass through the constellations while they are observing. After identifying your location using your phone’s GPS, Heavens-Above displays the tracks of the ISS and satellite passes on a circular sky map, and also gives more detailed table information. Although the app is only available for Android operating systems, iOS users can visit the Heavens-Above website to get the same information but through a browser.

HD Moon Map (Android)

If you’re looking at the Moon through your binoculars or telescope and want to know what a certain crater or other feature is called, this is a great app to put on your device. In addition to labeling all major features and landmarks – seas, mountain ranges and major craters – you can zoom in on very small areas of the lunar surface as if descending towards it in a lunar module and see thousands of craters and other named features. One downside is that there’s no “red mode” for nighttime observing, but to be fair, if you’re looking at the Moon through a telescope, you won’t really need it – the Moon will be so brilliant, both in the sky and in your eyepiece, that you won’t have to worry about dark adaptation!

Light for night vision (Android and iOS)

And speaking of dark adaptation, I can definitely recommend putting an app on your phone that turns it into red light by turning its screen into a blank red panel. There are a number of such apps available, all of which do the same thing: provide you with a red light source that will allow you to work on your telescope and protect the dark adaptation of your eyes without having to reach into your pocket for a flashlight with red cellophane taped to the front. I use Light for Night Vision (called NightVision Light for iOS), which has a simple slider to increase or decrease screen brightness. No frills, no extras, just red light on demand, that’s what you need when looking for that eyepiece you just dropped…

clear outside (Android, iOS)

Just like the weather forecast itself, choosing a weather forecast app is a very controversial area. If you ask 10 different amateur astronomers which weather app they recommend, you’ll get 10 different answers. I’ve yet to find one that’s completely accurate or reliable – on several occasions my apps told me my night sky was clear and dotted with stars while it was scanning it, or vice versa versa – and rare are the nights when both of the weather apps I have on my phone actually give the same forecast. I found Clear Outside to be right more times than wrong, but that’s not a glowing recommendation! But whichever you choose, you should definitely have at least one weather forecast app on your phone when you go out.

Radio Garden (Android and iOS)

Sky gazing is a great group activity – seeing a meteor shower, lunar eclipse or northern lights display in company is great fun – but if you don’t have friends or relatives who share your passion for the night sky, this can be a very lonely one. Growing up, I always used to carry a radio with me when I went out stargazing to keep me company in the dark and to keep me from getting home early too. When you’re alone in the dark during a long lull in the Geminids, when you start to feel the cold and can’t stop yawning, it’s easy to give in and call it a night.

This hasn’t been a problem for me since I found an app called Radio Garden (called Radio Garden Live on iOS), which gives you free access to tens of thousands of radio stations around the world. I can access all my favorite local and national stations, and if I miss them or just want a change, I can always find something new to listen to. Believe me, when that demon on your shoulder starts whispering “Go home, go to bed, there’s nothing to see now”, you can silence it by tuning into a Texas country music station, a station disco hits from France, or even a local news show from a town in Alaska.

Although there are now thousands of astronomy-related apps on the two major smartphone platforms, don’t go crazy and fill your phone with them. By all means, try a lot, but keep a few and stick to the basics. You don’t want to miss a brilliant Leonid fireball or a beautiful high pass from the ISS because you were too busy scrolling!

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