Killer App

The iPhone is an amazing device. I have heard that some people use it as a phone, too, but it really is an extraordinary portable computer. It is faster and more powerful than the Sparcstations I used as a grad student, and will fit into your pocket. And most importantly, you can fit an entire planetarium on it.

There are many good planetarium programs that you can access on laptops, but it is really not that much fun to lug them around on camping trips or even out on to the roof at night. But now, thanks to the iPhone (and the iPod Touch) there has been a great leap forward.

The iTunes AppStore now has a number of astronomy themed apps, including apps that tell you the distance to the Moon correct to a meter. But the most impressive of the lot has to be the ones that produce skycharts and let you search for and find stars, constellations, and deep sky objects at any time, from anywhere. There are four such available now: Starmap, GoSkyWatch, iAstronomica, and iStellar.

I have only tried Starmap so far, and it is incredible. The developer says that there is a PRO version in the works, but this one is already plenty good for me.

It is quite well known that, unlike amateur astronomers, professional astronomers are quite ignorant of the night sky. Really, if someone turns us around to face North, we might figure out where Polaris is, but that’s it. Oh, and we can usually find the Moon. And daytime, we can point to where the Sun is, provided it is not cloudy, which though it often is in New England. True story: I still haven’t set eyes on the star which formed the basis of my PhD thesis (α Triangulum Australis; in my defence, it is only visible from the southern hemisphere). But all that is in the past, now I can rediscover my amateur roots, now I am feeling pretty confident that I can find anything, even dear old α TrA, all I need to do is cross the Equator and point with my tricorder.

  1. Cong:

    I’m not an iPhone user and never will be, but I was still amazed to find this: iPhone port of IRAF.

    10-20-2008, 1:59 am
  2. vlk:

    Oh happy joy! Oh frabjous.. damn.. alas, it hasn’t been updated for the new iPhone 2.x firmware.

    10-20-2008, 2:30 pm
  3. JPCh:

    I don’t see Stra Walk in tags. I’m surprised, because I see it as one of the best applications. Try it out too.

    12-12-2008, 1:59 pm
  4. vlk:

    Thanks for the pointer. Star Walk isn’t in the tags because it didn’t exist when I wrote the post.

    I had a chance to look at it, and it is indeed good, and I especially like the quick and easy way it lets you change the time. But I think Starmap is still at the head of the class, both for its larger location database (it even lists the Galapagos!) as well as having more configurable settings. I especially miss a magnitude threshold in Star Walk.

    12-16-2008, 5:35 pm
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