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Mobile star maps, astronomy aids and other apps can bring a bit of that wonder down to earth and right into the palm of your hand. The best stargazing apps can turn your smartphone into an augmented reality viewfinder, navigation aid, and even your own portable planetarium. Check out 15 of the best space-watching apps for your Android or iOS device.
For more coverage of stars and space, visit our sister site Space.com. (Image Credit: Jassada Watt/Shutterstock)
SkyView Free (Android, iOS: Free)
Terminal Eleven's SkyView (Android, iOS) gives you a good idea of what to expect for good all-in-one stargazing and sky guide apps. SkyView uses your phone's screen and sensors to give you an augmented reality view of what's up in the sky. Users can turn their smartphones and tablets into AR viewfinders for identifying stars, planets and constellations; the app can display an object's track in the sky as well as information on select objects, planets, and satellites. SkyView also includes a "time travel" feature that allows you to view the sky as it would have appeared in the past, or will appear in the future, based on what we know of each object's movements.
Night Sky (iOS: Free)
Night Sky on iOS is another gorgeous app that takes full advantage of Apple's push for AR apps to deliver a really nice-looking augmented reality sky map. Users can view thousands of stars, satellites, planets and constellations; Night Sky takes things further with Apple Watch support that brings the sky map down to your wrist. Users can hold up the Apple Watch to identify objects in the sky, or look down to view a "celestial compass" that gives an overview of objects visible tonight. A new addition with the introduction of ARKit in iOS 11 last year is the AR Grand Orrery that displays a virtual model of the solar system that you can circle around and view.
SkySafari (iOS: Free)
SkySafari has long provided excellent sky guide apps for amateurs and professionals alike, and the latest version of this flagship app has taken a freemium approach. The new version offers up a rich offline database of stars, planets, and other celestial objects that you can view on an AR star chart, complete with animated visualizations and info about the history, mythology and science behind these celestial objects. The $2.99 Cosmos Collection in-app purchase unlocks additional features such as narrated tours of the heavens, orbit mode and galaxy view. Even more advanced versions, SkySafari Plus and SkySafari Pro, include an expanded database and more features such as support for WiFi-controlled telescopes. Android users can still turn to the older Sky Safari 5.
Pocket Universe (iOS: $2.99)
Pocket Universe is another great all-in-one sky watching app that provides both a portable sky map as well as a wealth of extras like augmented reality modes. Users can view a map of the sky above, complete with labels and constellations, as well as track individual objects and planets (with a "show me" mode to guide your aim). An augmented reality orrery lets you view the solar system in your own living room, and the app includes extra activities and resources like quizzes and Wikipedia links to various objects.
SkyWiki (Android: Free)
SkyWiki provides users with a simple kit of helpful features for stargazing, including a GPS-assisted starmap, a calendar of celestial events, compass, and a "periscope" chart that displays vital information. The Skymap automatically calibrates based on your device location, showing you a projected night sky; crosshairs indicate where your phone is pointed at right now to help orient your viewing. The periscope view also provides sunrise and sunset times, as well as altitude and heading info, and a similar spread of facts about visible planets and the sun and moon. A helpful night mode changes most text and UI elements to red in order to protect your night vision.
Star Rover (Android, iOS: $1.99)
Star Rover (Android, iOS) is another sky map app that turns your phone into an AR viewfinder to help you locate stars, planets and constellations simply by pointing with your phone. The view is configurable, with users able to toggle constellations, the names of planets and major stars, and equatorial and azimuthal grids. You can configure the app to display the sky based on your current location, date and time, or go time-traveling by setting the location, date and time yourself — that latter feature lets you view the night sky as it was in the past, or as it will be in the future.
Cosmic Watch (Android, iOS: $4.99)
Cosmic Watch (Android, iOS) does more than just tell you the time. The app provides users with a slick mobile planetarium and AR sky guide depicting the planets, stars, and constellations. The sky guide view has numerous layers that you can toggle on or off, such as constellations and star names, a sky gradient, and coordinate guide lines. You can view the night sky as it is right now, or use the time machine feature to see the sky in the past or future. You can also turn things around with a 3D view of the globe or a geocentric or heliocentric view of the solar system. Cosmic Watch also happens to be pretty good at telling the time, in case that's useful to you.
Sky Map (Android: Free)
Formerly a Google project that's gone open source, Sky Map is a neat augmented reality app that turns your smartphone or tablet into a mobile planetarium. Sky Map uses your phone's many sensors to calculate your geographical position and then display a detailed star map based on where your device is pointed. The map includes the constellations, the names of stars and planets, and makes for a great companion app for stargazers. A night mode ensures your low light vision doesn't get ruined, and a time travel feature lets you view the sky as it looked in the past, or as it will be in the future.
Star Walk 2 (Android, iOS: Free)
Vito Technologies' Star Walk 2 (Android, iOS) is an augmented reality star chart that displays the stars and planets in the heavens above you. In addition, the app includes detailed information on the history and mythology of the various constellations, stars and planets, as well as a coordinates viewer for easy reference. A Time Machine slider lets you view the skies of the past or the future, and you can tap on individual objects for more details. A night mode allows you to stargaze without burning out your night vision, and an augmented reality view overlays the star chart over your camera view.
Solar Walk 2 (iOS: $2.99)
Rather than a virtual planetarium, Solar Walk 2 (iOS) is a pocket orrery, modelling the position of the sun, planets, moons and other assorted celestial objects in our solar system. Lavishly animated and illustrated, users can zoom in on each of the planets, moons and even a number of space craft and satellites to view stunning images, infographics, and detailed writeups of each object. You can also zoom out and view the entire solar system in motion, the app modelling each celestial body's movements over time. The older Solar Walk app is also available on Android devices.
Stellarium Mobile (Android, iOS: $2.99)
Stellarium has long been a well-regarded open-source planetarium app on desktop devices, and it also has a paid mobile version on Android and iOS for those times when you want to take your sky guide with you when stargazing. The app features a catalogue of more than 600,000 stars on a zoomable map that can also be used as a viewfinder and star or satellite identifier by pointing your phone up at the night sky. Users can display asterisms and constellations from different cultures, as well as search for artificial satellites.
Sky Guide AR (iOS: $2.99)
Another old favorite for iOS stargazers is Sky Guide, a handy GPS-assisted sky map and recognition tool for spotting and identifying constellations, stars, planets and satellites. iOS 11 added a new twist as Sky Guide AR now includes an augmented reality view that overlays the star map on your camera view. As with the best star map apps, Sky Guide uses your phone's sensors and screen to display a map of the sky wherever your phone is pointed at, identifying stars and planets. In addition to showing you the sky as it is now, you can also time travel to view the sky as it was or will be on particular dates. Apple Watch support lets you receive notifications for things like the International Space Station flying overhead; you can also view solar activity or a Moon complication.
Red Shift (Android: $4.99, iOS: $9.99)
Redshift - Astronomy (Android, iOS) turns your mobile device into a mobile planetarium. Much like Star Walk, you can use the app as a mobile star map, pointing the app to the sky to illustrate constellations and celestial objects. In addition, Red Shift can take you on a 3D flight around the Solar System, exploring planets and moons, including some of the latest data on Pluto and Charon from the New Horizons mission. In addition, the app contains a rich database of more than 100,000 stars and 70,000 deep sky objects, as well as dwarf planets, comets and asteroids.
GoSkyWatch Planetarium (iOS: $3.99)
GoSkyWatch Planetarium is another old favorite in the mobile sky map field, an iOS universal app originally featured way back with the iPad 2 launch. GoSkyWatch Planetarium serves as a sky map and star finder, displaying a labeled star field based on your current location and device orientation, with a search arrow that can guide you to a selected stellar object. Users can adjust brightness and night mode for late night viewing, view constellations, experience time lapse animations of stellar movement and consult sunrise and sunset times.
SkEye (Android: Free)
SkEye is a mobile planetarium app for Android devices that doubles as a PUSHTO guide for optical telescopes. SkEye operates like most other star map apps, with a built-in catalog of stellar objects, a search function and a time machine mode for viewing the night sky in the past or future. Users can also attach their Android device to their telescope's optical tube assembly, and with some alignment calibrations, they can use the app as a PUSHTO guide for aligning telescopes to objects they wish to view.