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?
Outer space is big. From our vantage point, it’s mostly just dots in the sky that we see at night. But there are billions of stars, asteroids, comets, and planets out there. You can see of them when you look up on a clear night, more if you use a telescope, and more still if you use SkySafari, an app that shows 46,000 stars and many of the best-known galaxies and nebulae with images from NASA and other expert star-gazers.
SkySafari isn’t the prettiest app around, but it more than makes up for it with the majesty of the stars and reams of encyclopedic information. It’s deep enough that serious astronomers can use it as a reference tool, and suitable for the rest of us to explore and learn about outer space.
To say the universe is big would be a gross understatement, so the idea of creating an app that lets people explore outer space must be hugely intimidating. Solar System simulator Cosmographia tackles the subject on a limited scale, by focusing on just the stuff in our galaxy. It has 3D models and star maps, great visual effects, and everything is built from real scientific data.
Cosmographia is akin to a beginner’s guide to the Solar System, and insofar as that it’s an impressive app — well presented and pretty to look at, with no assumptions of prior knowledge. But it doesn’t go deep enough, and you’re likely to leave wanting more.