What are the essential iOS apps for the backyard astronomer? Here are some of the most notable iOS apps that round out suite of operational and educational apps for the amateur stargazer using an iPad or iPhone.
Previously, I looked at some notable apps for the Mac to be used by a slightly more serious observer who needs a session planning app and, perhaps, some apps for editing photographic images.
The iPad, while it is capable of controlling a GoTo telescope with, for example, SkySafari, can also be used in fun ways by the amateur astronomer. For example, holding it your lap to get your bearings as you use binoculars, learning the features of the moon with a lunar map, or using educational apps.
The goal here is to recommend some very good, respected apps for beginners that are in typical use, have been well reviewed or which have been recommended to me. Not only would it be impractical to list every available astronomy app, but there is also a range of quality in astronomy apps. It's a special endeavor that requires considerable technical expertise. So it's best to thoroughly assess any astronomy app, read the reviews, and size up the developer's credentials.
The links below are to the paid iPad app when applicable.
1. Sky Charts. Star Walk by Vito Technology was the earliest and remains one of the best sky chart apps. Lately, however, my own preference has become SkySafari by Southern Stars.
Note that there are three versions of SkySafari. The basic SkySafar 3i for US$2.99 is a great place to start. However, if you want a larger catalog of sky objects and/or telescope control, SkySafari 3 Plus and SkySafari 3 Pro are great choices at extra cost. TMO gave it a rare 5/5 (outstanding) rating in a review.
SkySafari Pro for iOS (on iPad Air, cropped)
2. Observational Aids. Sometimes it's helpful to assess what you can expect to see through the telescope, especially when looking for a deep space object. AstroAid by iLanga, Inc is an app that will help you do that by inputting data for your telescope and eyepiece optics.
Observer Pro by Joshua Bury is a session planning app that will help you prepare a night session and estimate when sky objects will become visible. It's highly rated.
For a fast assessment of your position, the Universal Time, and the times of, say, sunset, civil twilight, nautical twilight and astronomical twilight, there is no better app than Nav Clock by Split Rail, Inc.. It's one of my personal favorites.
Nav Clock for iPad is awesome.
There are occasions when an astronomer needs to know a lot more about the Sun's position than simply sunrise and sunset. Sun Seeker 3D by ozPDA tells you almost everything you can know about the position of the Sun for any day of the year. Plus, augmented reality allows you to find the Sun even on a cloudy day. TMO gave it a great rating in a review.
Emerald Observatory by Emerald Sequoia, LLC looks like something Captain Picard would have on his own tablet. On the drop dead gorgeous display is a wealth of information about the sky and planets. Here's the review.
Emerald Observatory: drop dead gorgeous.
Moon Globe HD by Midnight Martian is a high resolution lunar map that supports the iPad's multitouch screen for navigation. It is detailed and beautiful.
3. Education. Solar Walk by Vito Technology, Inc., is a very good app that teaches you about the solar system with a 3D model. TMO has previously reviewed it, and since then, it has gotten better and better.
Solar Walk: you feel like you're there.
Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox is a grand tour of the universe by a gifted physicist and educator. You'll be taken on a grand tour of the universe starting from subatomic particles and going all the way up to galaxies, the origin of the universe, neutron stars and black holes. I highly recommend it. Here's the review.
Another awesome educational app is NASA Science: A Journey of Discovery. The app leads the user on a journey of discovery of the planet Earth, our Sun, the solar system and the universe. It has the latest information on NASA's science missions to the planets and the questions they seek to answer.
NASA Science by, of course, the experts.
4. Astronomy Weather Forecast. Before you can start planning for an observing session, it's helpful to know what the weather is going to be that evening as well as the phase of the moon. The weather: sunset, cloud cover, humidity, low temperature and so on will help determine a start time and what clothing you'll need. The phase of the moon will tell you whether you'll be doing some casual observing of the moon and planets during a bright full moon or perhaps some deep sky photography at new moon or after the moon in partial phase has set. Recently, my attention was drawn to Scope Nights by Egg Moon Studio. It has a nice GUI compared to the website apps, and it's a Universal app.
Scope Nights on iPad.
5. Scientific Calculator. While many astronomers have a good, physical, scientific calculator or two handy, such as the HP-35s from Hewlett Packard, if you prefer to have one on your Mac, I give my highest recommendation to PCalc by TLA Systems, Ltd. One of the newest features is the Samurai Night theme which, while not strictly all red illumination, is fairly good for nighttime use.
PCalc on iPad (RPN notation)
Amateur astronomy is a huge field that encompasses a long scientific history, huge choices for equipment and a great many books and iOS apps on the subject. As I mentioned above, it's virtually impossible to cover the possibilities in a single article of this size. However, if you want to get started with amateur astronomy and, say, an iPad, the links here should be helpful.
Previously: "12 Essential Mac Apps for Amateur Astronomers". This article was updated on January 20, 2014 to add the weather app Scope Nights.
Teaser image via Observer Pro