Satellite Safari is a realtime, visual guide to hundreds of satellites in orbit. This universal iOS app will tell when they pass overhead and where they are right now. You can follow along in orbit, with the satellite, see what it looks like, look at the ground track from space or watch it pass overhead from your location on the ground. It's also the official app for the Kickstarter SkyCube mission.
Every once in a while, a developer is blessed to have developed a mathematical and code architecture for a technical app, only to find that it is uniquely suited to a brand new (but related) app. That's exactly what's happened to Tim DeBenedictis at Southern Stars Software.
Mr. DeBenedictis started with SkySafari, a sky chart app previously reviewed here at TMO, (given a 5/5 rating) and then found that his code was a stepping stone to further adventures with this satellite tracking app. It even has similar controls because, well, we're dealing here with the sky, orbits and time.
You start by identifying a satellite of interest, say, the International Space Station (ISS). There is extensive satellite information and a photo. Also included is information about the next visible pass, the time and coordinates of rise, culmination and set. Not included, directly, is the stellar magnitude of the satellite for each night time pass -- which for an experienced observer could help pick out the object as it starts its pass. However, the information is included in the satellite info.
To select a satellite, use the search button in the toolbar at the bottom. Then select NOW, and get "info" on the satellite. A text list of passes, either all or just visible passes will be displayed. On the satellite info page, you can tap the center button at the bottom to show the skytrack. While I've focussed on the ISS here, there are many, many other satellite of interest available. The screen shot (left) is just a sampling.
You can observe the satellite as if you were traveling along with it in orbit ("satellite"), and even do a "fly-around". Or from far above, observing the ground track ("ground"). Or from a distance, obtaining a sense of its orbit with respect the earth ("orbit"). See below. The latter is seen against an astronomically correct sky. You can turn on city identifiers and atmosphere to get a feel for the visibility of the satellite from orbit. Particularly nice is the use of iOS gestures to control the geometry of the display to see things just the way you want them.
Satellite view of ISS over earth at night.
The sky is astronomically correct.
I've known Mr. DeBenedictis for a long time, and with my interviews combined with the review of Sky Safari, I've come to trust the mathematical expertise of this developer. However, just for fun, I compared some ISS passes to this website. They matched perfectly. Anything else is beyond the scope of this short review, but I should note that the developer has years of experience with this kind of math, and I regard this app as authoritative. Along with that, there need be no concern when the app asks for your location. It's part and parcel of this kind of technical application.
ISS ground track view with observation footprint
It's a beautiful thing when an app is so cleverly designed that one hardly needs any documentation. This app is built that way. Even so, the developer is never satisfied with second best, and so he has included a really good help function in the toolbar at the bottom. In fact, the documentation, typical of this developer, is awesome to behold in its clarity. It would be hard to ask for anything more.
Settings are basic in version 1.1
Satellite Safari supports the Kickstarter project, SkyCube that will launch in September, 2013. After successful deployment from the iSS, "you'll be able to request your own images of the Earth, and broadcast your own radio messages from orbit as 'tweets from space', using this Satellite Safari app on your iPhone or iPad," according to the developer. It looks to be great fun.
Satellite Safari 1.1 for iOS is a Universal app. It's compatible with any iPad, iPone 3GS or later and iPod touch 3G or later. English only. Version 1.2 with minor bug fixes, automatic DST support and push notifications has been submitted to Apple.
This app is also available for Android is available on Google Play, also priced at US$4.99. It runs on Android phones and tablets, and requires Android version 2.2 (Froyo) or later.
This app works on many levels. Amateur astronomers, wanting to get a photo of the ISS, could use it to plan the pass. Government and military people could use it for all kinds of planning operations. And teachers, students and even casual users just wanting to learn more about particular satellites could learn a lot.
Orbit view showing the satellite track (green line)
Cities and atmosphere have been enabled.
What's truly amazing is the computational and graphics power that this app showcases for a tablet like the iPad. Plus it's a beautiful showcase answer to any student who asks, "Why do I need to learn science and math?" Any student should take note of the career this developer has staked out for himself.
The app is fairly new, and is growing and developing. I expect more improvements down the road, but it's already great and earns 4.5/5.
Mr. DeBenedictis asked me to add the following credit.
The only thing I would add would be some credit to my co-developer Bill Tschumy. Sure, I did the math & graphics, but Bill is responsible for all the UI buttons and controls and layout, and without that stuff, the underlying core code is useless. Bill is as much a stickler for quality as I am, if not more so. He's been pushed both of us to great heights over the course of our careers, and Southern Stars would not be what it is without him. So please make sure his name is in the story too, prominently. Bill deserves it.