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Dr. Phonelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Astronomy Apps

October 6, 2020

Warning: long, navel-gazey confession inbound. To wit: I used to be a bit of a snot when it came to planetarium apps. When I put together my “Astronomy Wish List for Beginning Stargazers” post back in 2014, I wrote:

Yes, you can get a free app for your phone that will show you thousands of celestial objects. If you get one with a good night-vision mode AND turn the brightness way down on your phone, it might not destroy your night vision, but it will still only show you a small slice of the sky at one time. At best, you’ll be outside under the stars and still looking at a dadgummed screen. Here’s a thought: put all the devices away, get out a lawn chair or just lie down on the grass, grab a planisphere, and spend a quiet half hour picking out the constellations. One of the chief advantages of a planisphere over an app is that you can see essentially the whole visible sky displayed at once, so you can figure out how the constellations relate to each other. 

Ugh! That was written out of ignorance and prejudice, and I cringe to read it now. Especially the bit about how an app would supposedly only show “a small slice of the sky at one time”. I didn’t own a smartphone at the time and I hadn’t actually used a planetarium app, I’d only seen other people use them, so I didn’t know about using two fingers to zoom in and out, which by now has become such second nature that it’s like looking back and realizing I didn’t know how to turn a doorknob.

My favorite constellation: Cassiopeia.

In any case, no, every planetarium app I know of will show as much or as little of the sky as you want. And most offer a red-based night vision mode for preserving your dark adaptation, which combined with the native screen brightness controls and night vision modes on most smartphones mean that you can use the apps under dark skies without sacrificing all your dark adaptation. (Another easy solution: close your observing eye when using the phone, and ask any companions to look away.)

So what pried me out of my self-dug hole of stupidity regarding astro apps? Direct experience. In 2015 I got my first smartphone, and in 2016 I got the job of writing the ‘Binocular Highlight’ column for Sky & Telescope magazine. I decided it was time to drag my ass into the 21st century, and since I was finally in a situation in which stargazing was bringing in money instead of consuming it, I could afford a decent astro app. I went with SkySafari 5 Pro, and it didn’t take long for it to eclipse almost all of my other astronomy tools put together in terms of how often I referenced it and how much I relied on it. Four years later, I’m on to SkySafari 6 Pro, and I’m sure that when 7 is released I’ll trade up.

For the Binocular Highlight column, we plan for and illustrate a 5-degree circle, and the ability to zoom the SkySafari screen to show a 5-degree field is extremely useful for planning my observing and my writing.

Also, I started noticing at public outreach events and star parties that basically everyone else was using planetarium apps. For people just starting out, they offer a ton of functionality that a planisphere doesn’t. Allow me a metaphor. I firmly believe that Wikipedia is how encyclopedias are supposed to work, and that the beloved World Books and Encylopedia Britannicas that I grew up with were about the best possible implementations of that idea in paper, but hobbled by not having hyperlinks, not being available via wifi, not being continually updated, etc. Similarly, even thought I love planispheres, I can admit that they are basically physical planetarium apps that restrict you to one latitude, one magnification, and a tiny subset of stars and deep sky objects. The digital apps are more intuitive, period, and not just for beginners. Experienced folks use them all the time, too, and for the same reasons: faster, easier, more information. Nowadays I find myself hauling out my phone almost every observing session–to check the positions of Saturn’s moons, or the classification of the components of a double star, or, most often, simply to find the distance to a celestial object.

I’ve enjoyed chasing the moons of Saturn this summer, and SkySafari has been clutch for making identifications — only after I’ve made my own sketches, to avoid spurious detections.

My app use in the field took another jump when I got the NexStar 8SE. Before I got that scope, I was pretty darned proud of my knowledge of the sky. I didn’t quite know all the Messiers by heart, but I could find probably 3/4 of them without even checking an atlas. But the NexStar taught me a hard truth: I may know most of the constellations backwards and forwards, but I know very few stars by name. Caph? Nunki? Alpheratz? Might as well be Farsi, Swahili, and Linear B to this monolingual doofus. So when it comes time to find alignment stars, out comes the phone, because with a handful of exceptions–Polaris, the Summer Triangle, the Winter Hexagon, and a few favorite doubles–I don’t know what these darned things are called.

Oh, hey, there’s Nunki!

(Aside: in a way, this reminds me of what it was like when I first started stargazing in the fall of 2007. Every month, new stars and constellations were up in the eastern sky. I still remember vividly the first time I got up before dawn to see the spring constellations. I’ll get a taste of that in the coming year, as I have to keep familiarizing myself with new alignment stars.)

So to sum up, actually using planetarium apps myself, and seeing how much they opened up the sky to other people, forced me to belatedly pull the stick out of my butt.

The bright, popular double star Eta Cassiopeiae consists of a Sun-like yellow main sequence star and an orange dwarf, which lie only about 19.5 light years from Earth. I didn’t know that until the star party at the park last Saturday, when someone asked if the Eta Cass companion was a red dwarf, and I was able to look up the answer in SkySafari.

There’s another, larger point, which is that I think it’s stupid to criticize how anyone else enjoys the night sky. I’m glad I missed the GoTo wars of the 90s and early 2000s, and I have no time for the limited conflicts that are going on right now over Electronically Assisted Astronomy–essentially, looking at the night sky with night-vision googles, with or without a telescope–and smart telescopes like the Stellina and eVscope. It was always pretty selfish and short-sighted to worry about how anyone else was engaging with the night sky. It’s not like people who have different preferences regarding their gear or observing habits are hurting anyone. Surely we should be able to focus on what matters–our shared love of the cosmos, and getting out to enjoy it–and not whether anyone else is doing stargazing the “right” way. And that’s especially true now, in a year that sees the world shambling among catastrophes like a shell-shocked orphan. With all the horribleness going on, I just don’t have it in me to be upset at other people when they’re not hurting anyone else, especially over something as innocuous and ultimately positive as stargazing.

To the (near) future: the moon will visit Jupiter and Saturn on the evening of October 22.

So I say, bring on the technology. Cameras, electronic eyepieces, smart scopes, light enhancement devices, and the things that no-one has yet thought of. There is plenty of room out there in the dark for those things to coexist with traditional stargazing, and if they bring a few more folks into this wonderful pursuit, so much the better. If the expense bothers you, go look at what people spend on boats and motorcycles, let alone gambling and drugs, and also, check out what serious astrophotographers spend on the rigs that get their photos into Sky & Tel and Astronomy, and also, seriously, just mind your own beeswax. If dealing with the computerized gizmos isn’t your cup of tea, or you feel like using night-vision goggles is cheating, fine, I’m pretty sure no-one will ever force you to use them. I’m also pretty sure that no matter how fancy the hardware and software gets, there will be times that I feel like heading out with nothing but a manually-driven scope or some trusty old binos for “unplugged” observing. But I’m going to try to not close myself off to any more observing experiences a priori, without even trying the new things to see what they have to offer. That was dumb.

3 comments

  1. I was kind of an astronomy technophobe for some time, relying solely on charts, atlases, and binoculars to star hop. Goto? Forget about it!

    Then I discovered Stellarium. It has become an indispensable tool for planning observing sessions. The PC version offers better functionality, but the mobile version is handy in the field, helped me track down Neptune for the first time.

    I still refuse to own a smartphone, but I use a 10″ Android tablet loaded up with Stellarium as well as Sky & Telescope apps like Jupiter Moons, Mars Profiler, Triton Tracker, etc.

    Rather than shortcuts and “cheats”, these tools have expanded my horizons and education.


  2. A good app that is totally basic but easy to use for an overall big picture look at the sky in every direction at a certain time is Pocket Universe. I have the Apple version on my iPad, but it probably also has a PC and/or Android version


  3. “Rather than shortcuts and “cheats”, these tools have expanded my horizons and education.”

    I feel exactly the same way.

    Hadn’t heard about Pocket Universe, so thanks for that recommendation, Doug. A recent addition for me is Satellite Tracker, which I use to keep up with ISS passes. A couple of nights ago we watched a dead-overhead, horizon-to-horizon pass, right after sunset. I should do a whole post on that.



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