It would take a cold heart to write off the night sky as merely sparks of light in the blackness. Yes, gazing upwards on a clear evening provides a beautiful show, but it also offers a perspective of our location in the middle of everything. So, it seems bizarre that astronomy is often thought of as a niche hobby of knitwear-clothed nerds, but perhaps that perception can be attributed to the depth of mind-stored knowledge that has traditionally been required to fully appreciate the heavens.
It seems to me that this perception is due an update. Information about the stars has never been more accessible, thanks to technology and, in particular, apps. One of the first generation of standout iOS apps was GoSkyWatch, which utilized the iPad’s accelerometers and compass to allow users to pan around a virtual sky filled with information. But sometimes, you just want to digest information in the light, warm surroundings of your sitting room.
Hence, there seems to be a place for OSX apps like RedShift Astronomy. Packed with information, and brimming with 3D visualizations, this $18.99 offering should be a hit with anyone interested in exploring the universe. But does it do the magnificence of space true justice?
Browsing the Heavens
After providing RedShift with your timezone and your nearest city (even modestly populated towns are included in the database), the initial view of the sky is “from the ground.” A stock photo of a city faintly illustrates where the real-world horizon is located, and above the visual hemisphere, the stars shine brightly — 2.5m of them are included in this app, not to mention the 75,000 other deep-space objects that can be toured.
From this position, you can click-and-drag yourself around the sky, and scroll to zoom towards objects. It’s the kind of control setup you might expect, but it works well, and graphically, RedShift never misses a beat, no matter how enthusiastically you rush around the virtual sky.
By default, RedShift doesn’t present a truly realistic version of the sky. Instead, it makes objects which are visible with the naked eye bigger, and everything else smaller. This does make distant or faint objects a little tricky to click on, but conversely, it also make the planets and stars you’re most likely to look up easier to select. You can change these settings, though, and plenty more visual aids are available, such as pole indicators, orbit paths and orientation grids.
As you pan around, the azimuth and altitude of your virtual scope are helpfully displayed, aiding the outside re-creation of a particular view via a real-life telescope. This is one of many clear hat-tips to stargazers — more detailed information of this type (magnitude, rise time and azimuth, and the angle and time of maximum elevation, etc.) can be found by double-clicking on celestial bodies.
There’s plenty to see for the desktop stargazer, too. As the cursor wanders over constellations, lines form the image of whichever creature or character gives its name to the group of stars in question. The names of standalone celestial objects also flash as you scan across the sky, and double-clicking on any of these produces more than just nerdy telescope-related facts and figures.
Learning the Stars
To get a more detailed description of the selected object, you’ll need to head for the next two icons in the object menu. The first link takes you to the celestial body’s Wikipedia page. The second opens the relevant entry in RedShift’s all-encompassing in-app glossary (“Dictionary“). These object biographies are factually informative, but in most cases, they are not quite lengthy enough to be an engrossing read, nor are they written well enough to be greatly engaging.
For interaction with the universe that is a little more stimulating, RedShift offers 3D flight. You can rocket off towards any object larger than one metre, and even take in the view from its surface (requires an in-app upgrade: see below).
With a (free) download, spacecraft can be seen, as well.
When I review apps, I don’t usually compare them directly with the competition. However, the more I use RedShift, the harder I find it to ignore my previous positive experiences of using Celestia and Stellarium, both of which are open source apps in the space genre. RedShift is definitely a more well-rounded product than either of these, but I think it is worth pointing out that most of what can be done in RedShift can be replicated by one free alternative, or the other.
Whether the all-in-one convenience of RedShift is worth shelling out for is very much a user-by-user decision.
Note, however, that I wrote that most of RedShift’s features are matched by other apps.
RedShift’s best features, by far, are its celestial calendar and observation planning areas. The former provides very detailed commentaries of eclipses, conjunctions, meteor showers and other space events, while the latter (requires an upgrade) allows you to make a note of upcoming happenings, and plan accordingly.
If the calendar functions are RedShift’s zenith, then its restrictions — which can only be lifted with a $8.99 investment in the “Feature Pack” — are its nadir.
Although purchasing the app gets you most of the features mentioned above, if you want to view historical skies, see space from the perspective of other planets, view objects of less than one metre in diameter, use the event planner, control your telescope, or access Harvard’s USNO-B1.0 space encyclopaedia from within the app, you’ll need to fork out for the add-on.
This is something of a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve already coughed up $18.99 for an app, and I suspect most users would rather pay the full cost up front than be presented with limitations in a premium app.
Most of the features that have made RedShift Astronomy so popular on iOS have the same, positive effect on this Mac version. Although the graphics aren’t world-beating, they do offer a nice view of the solar system and beyond, aided by the useful orientation and orbit guides. The in-built events calendar is also great for staying informed.
In fact, outright negatives in this app are rare — but there are several irritations. The in-built encyclopaedia is huge, but it feels like RedShift is leaning too heavily on the links to Wikipedia for the provision of extra information. In addition, the graphics on offer do not really surpass the views you might achieve in Google Earth, and in terms of planetarium-type use, my preference is for Stellarium. The pricing system will win RedShift no fans, either.
To give RedShift Astronomy its due, though, I must say that it is a polished, easy-to-use product, which will work perfectly well for any Mac owner with an interest in the night sky.