ATLANTIC SKIES: How a phone app can help you identify celestial objects

While I’m a die-hard, hands-on astronomer myself, I appreciate that many night sky observers don’t own or have access to a telescope.

In the digital age, however, there’s really no need to have one unless you’re serious about astronomy and enjoy searching and observing in detail the myriad celestial wonders of the night sky.

Depending on the type of environment in which you observe the night sky, especially if you live in an urban or suburban environment, many of the stars can help you identify the constellations or locate the planets and other objects with the naked eye in the night sky may not be visible.

To solve this problem, many night sky observers are now turning to Sky Apps, digital maps of the night sky that can be downloaded to your mobile device or home computer.

These apps range from free apps that show very basic star patterns, the position of the moon and planets, to apps that require purchase or subscription that are more detailed in what they show of the night sky and have a greater amount of information about the night sky provide object or part of the night sky that you are observing.

Most of the time, the latter type of app always allows the user to change the view they are looking at on the screen, which allows them to change the date – even in time forwards and backwards – as well as the time, observation location, view depth and more, which is often not included in the free apps.

There are a number of excellent apps available depending on the level of detail you want to see on your computer or mobile device and the benefits associated with a particular Sky app. Most are user friendly and often quite easy to use. The mobile device apps are linked to your device’s GPS program, so you can use the app anywhere in the world. You simply turn it on, point it at the night sky, press an icon, and the current night sky above you will appear on your screen, complete with constellation patterns, planets, etc.

Sky apps for your home computer, often more comprehensive and detailed in what they show of the night sky, are intended for deeper viewing of the night sky and may require a bit of setup and calibration, but are usually well within the average person’s computer skill level.

What’s your best bet?

Personally, I have not used computer or mobile Sky apps, so I asked a friend and member of the Charlottetown Astronomy Club, Chris Vessey, from the UPEI School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, to give me a simplified overview about a range of Sky apps he has used and is familiar with.

Here’s Chris’ review of three Sky apps:

1) Stellarium (for Windows, Mac, Linux): Level – Beginner to Intermediate; accuracy – high; detail – high; For free; a full planetarium package; basic operations are fairly easy; can set the geo-coordinates of your location so that you can see the sky at any time, in the future or in the past; has a huge database of objects; gives a huge amount of information; available, paid, for mobile devices.

2) StarWalk/StarWalk 2: both available for iOS, SW2 for Android; level – beginner; accuracy – high; detail – medium; Cost – $2.99 ​​(basic info); Database upgrades can be purchased for $0.99 each; available for free as adware.

Both apps are great on a mobile device; Just turn on your device, choose your location and time; hold at arm’s length and swing down and then up to sync the device’s accelerometer and magnetometer; will show you what to point your arm at; also gives local rise/set times for planets and the moon, as well as the phase of the moon.

3) SkyView Cafe ( Level – Beginner; accuracy – high, detail – low; For free; a simple online star map maker; creates a one-sided sky overview with the brightest objects; doesn’t have much detail as it’s only intended as an overview, like a planisphere.

Chris’ review is intended solely as an overview of some of the features of available Sky apps and is not intended as a recommendation for any particular app.

While these apps, especially mobile apps, are readily available and easy to use, they shouldn’t replace the pleasure of emerging from under a dark sky and observing the night sky with the naked eye or through binoculars.

I see Sky apps as yet another tool that I hope will spark a first-time observer’s interest in the night sky and that the limited view of such apps, particularly the mobile device apps, will create a desire to learn more and see the night sky.

This week’s sky

Saturn (magnitude +0.5, in Capricorn – the Sea Goat) becomes visible 10 degrees above the southeastern horizon at about 11:00 p.m. and reaches its highest point in the sky (28 degrees) above the southern horizon at about 2:45 a.m. before rising the approaching dawn fades away around 5 a.m

Jupiter (magnitude -2.6, in Cetus – the sea monster) rises in the east around 11:30 p.m. and reaches 45 degrees above the southern horizon before disappearing from view at dawn around 5:20 a.m

Mars (magnitude +0.3, in Aries – the Aries) rises in the east-northeast around 1am and reaches an elevation of 43 degrees in the southeastern sky before fading along with Saturn around 5am

Venus (magnitude -3.9, in Orion – the Hunter) is briefly visible in the predawn east-northeast sky around 4am, reaching 13 degrees above the eastern horizon before succumbing to the dawn glow around 5:20am

Mercury, just emerging from behind the Sun, is unobservable.

Clear skies until next week.


  • August 5 – First Quarter Moon

Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, PEI and has been an avid amateur astronomer since childhood. He welcomes comments from readers at [email protected].

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