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.
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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 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 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 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 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) 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) 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.