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Review: SKY SAFARI Android App

Last week I finally dived off the cliff and leapt into the 21st century by upgrading my phone, going from a perfectly practical Nokia N72 Blackberry wannabe to a so-called “Smartphone” – a rather beautiful Galaxy Note. I wasn’t planning to, not originally; originally I wanted to buy an Android tablet, specifcally a Galaxy Nexus, honestly just because I wanted to use some of the astronomy apps I’ve seen other people using. But the Nexus proved amazingly hard to get hold of – no stocks in any of the big PC retailers in my area, and excuse after excuse from Argos whenever I went in (“We have some but they’re all in the warehouse, none in the shops, but you can order home delivery for an additional fee..?” Yeah? Thanks, I don’t think so…) but suddenly I had a lightbulb moment – why the hell was I buying a tablet when I was overdue a phone upgrade, and could get an Android *phone* without paying any extra money? IDIOT!!!!

So, into Phones4U I went, and when I walked out again I was the proud, if rather apprehensive, owner of a brand new Galaxy Note, not exactly sure what I could do with it but looking forward to finding out.

By the next day, having played about with it experimented with it for a few hours I was ready to download some apps. Exciting! First of all, obviously, I had to get myself a “sky chart” app, one of those fancy programs that show you what’s visible in the sky when you aim your phone at it. I quickly found a couple of free ones which were very impressive, if a little limited in aesthetic appeal. And they did exactly what they said on the tin – when I pointed my phone at the sky, a chart appeared on the screen showing *that* region of the sky, with everything labelled. And when I moved the phone, the display changed too! Magic!

But they weren’t the ones I wanted. I’d seen other people using apps which showed quite beautiful depictions of the sky – glittering stars, the Milky Way airbrushed on in absolute realism, the classical constellations painted on the heavens in glowing purple… oh, I wanted that app. I wanted “Sky Safari”..!

I found it, installed it, and started to have a play about with it…

And after half an hour or so I honestly felt like I’d walked into the Android wardrobe, pushed my way past the coats and jackets and come out into an astronomical Narnia.

There, inside my phone, was the night sky. All of it. Like Bill Murray trapping a ghost in a yellow and black trapdoor box, some kind of cyber-sorcery had dragged the whole of the heavens into my phone and trapped it there, for me to do with whatever I wanted. Looking at the display, scrolling it, panning around it, seeing the constellations swim across the screen as smoothly as liquid Mercury flowing across a glass table, it was… quite a Moment, up there with the Moment I had when I first saw the Orion nebula through a pair of binoculars as a ten year old, and up there with the Christmas Day morning when I unwrapped my first telescope.

That might sound a bit over the top, but I honestly can see myself falling in love with the night sky all over again, now I have this app and this phone.
Here’s why…

That’s what you see on the screen. By touching the screen and swiping your finger you can pan left or right, bringing different constellations into view, all painted in beautfiul colour and gorgeous detail. You can zoom in on objects to magnify them, in increasingly greater detail… Look at Jupiter…

It does the same for star clusters, galaxies and nebulae too.

There are lots of options, choices, preferences, whatever you want to call them, which allow you to change the appearance of the night sky. Here’s the pretty, painted constellations view…

…but you can switch to the more practical view…

The way the Milky Way is shown is particularly beautiful…

The whole display is customisable, with a choice of foregrounds, and options to include or omit realistic sky colours at sunrise and sunset. You can change the hour, day, year… it’s like having a time machine in your pocket.

So far – thanks to the godawful Cumbrian weather – I’ve only managed to use the app under a clear sky once since buying it a week ago, and when I did it was fantastic. Sweeping the phone around… there was Jupiter, just clearing the horizon… there were the stars of the Plough… there was Vega…

I knew them all already, of course, I didn’t actually need the app to tell me what they were, but standing there it was very easy to imagine the thrill non- or beginner astronomers will feel when they turn this app loose on the sky. It was a thrill for me to go outside with my first star atlas as a kid and find a couple of “new” stars, but today’s beginners will be able to go out and identify DOZENS of stars on the first time they use this app. I could almost feel jealous of them for having that experience to look forward to…!

I’m only just beginning to sense the potential of this thing. I can imagine standing in the shadow of Kendal Castle on a cold, frosty night in December and sweeping my phone across the sky, spotting dozens of new things. I can also imagine using screenshots from the app in my Outreach work, showing people the beauty of the night sky with it. And I’m looking forward to using it in the future to help me find and follow newly-discovered comets as they appear in and move across the sky.

…but I had a bit of a problem there. When I first installed the app I went forwards in time to next March, to see if it would help me find the much-anticipated Comet PANSTARRS – and there it was! A bright dagger of light shining in the NW sky after sunset on March 2013 nights!

…but yesterday, after accepting the latest update to the app, I was aghast to find that Comet PANSTARRS had vanished for some reason. It was just gone, there was no sign of it. It had been plucked from the sky – and the app’s database – by some mysterious force, which was incredibly frustrating. Also, the painted figure of Aries had suddenly become warped, and twisted, as if the Ram had been involved in a tragic transporter beam accident. Something had gone wrong somewhere…

I emailed the Skysafari team, and very helpful they were too. I might even – consideing the time difference thing – have been the first person to make them aware of the problems. They’ve already figured out how to put Aries back together again. But so far no sign of any help with the comet problem. I hope that PANSTARRS will find its way back home into my phone when the app updates its daabase in another few days…

So… that’s it… after Ooh! and Aah! ing at it on other people’s phones, iPads and tablets for many months I finally have Sky Safari myself, and I love it. It’s already making me look at the sky in a new way, a fresh way, and I can’t wait to use it outside on a cold Cumbrian autumn night, when the winds are blowing golden leaves across the top of Kendal Castle hill and the stars are flashing and fluttering above me… I’m going to discover so many new things, I just know it…

Now, if I could just have my comet back, to let me make a load of teaching slides, everything would be perfect!

If you have an Android phone or device you must install this app on it, it’s as simple as that. If you’re already “into” astronomy it will make the night sky come alive again for you. If you’re not, well, it will open your eyes to a whole new world of wonder.

So, stop reading and go and get it now, right now! The sky is waiting!

Note: I installed the lowest-priced most basic version, but there are two other versions, “Plus” and “Pro” with more features. They can be used to control telescopes and have much bigger databases, of course, but if you just want to look at the sky, and learnm what’s “up there” the basic version will do you very nicely.


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