Space, as a certain iconic TV franchise sagely observed, is the final frontier—but alas it’s a frontier not many of us will get a chance to explore in person. Fortunately, there are plenty of apps out there to help you get a little taste of outer space, and we’ve rounded up some of the best ones available.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can now point your smartphone up at the sky and “see” exactly which stars, constellations, planets, and even satellites are directly above you at any time throughout the day. It’s pretty cool and you’ll definitely want to try it out. Whether you’re an Android or iPhone owner, there’s an app out there for you. Here’s the pick of the bunch.
SkyView (iOS/Android, $1.99-Free)
SkyView is simple and straight forward app. Simply point your smartphone at the sky and SkyView does all the hard work, identifying galaxies, stars, constellations, planets, satellites, and even the ISS and Hubble. It’s stylish looking and fascinating, backing up such sights with thousands of interesting facts.
You can schedule alerts for upcoming celestial events so you don’t miss any of the action, plus there’s a time travel feature allowing you to move into the past or future to see different occurrences.
For iOS users, there’s additional Apple Watch support including an ‘at a glance’ look at what’s going on. iOS users will need to cough up a reasonable $1.99 (as will Android users interested in the premium version), but there’s a SkyView Free for Android users that want to take the app for a test drive.
Night Sky (iOS, Free)
Night Sky is a popular and polished iOS only planetarium app. The core application and many of the great features (like Apple Watch integration) are free, but there’s a subscription model for advanced features.
One of the most popular advanced features is the “Grand Orrery” which uses the iPhone’s AR capabilities to bring the solar system into your home, in a manner of speaking. By using ARKit, you can walk around the entire solar system via your phone, walking up to planets and zooming in on certain details. Current space missions can be viewed, plus you can participate in sky tours for a guided path around the night sky or even just parts of the world map.
It’s a little gimmicky, sure, but it’s the ideal app for inspiring younger users to be excited about space and our solar system. The premium features will run you $10 a year which isn’t a bad admission fee for such a polished product (did we mention that in addition to the AR solar system you can also tour the moon?)
Star Chart (Android, Free)
Similar to Night Sky but for Android, Star Chart is a simple combination of AR and GPS technology. Pointing it at the sky will show everything off in real time, including the current location of every star and planet visible from Earth. There’s a tour guide, voice controls, and an easy mode for displaying all 88 constellations.
You can also opt to move back and forth in time to see any period of time from 10,000 years ago to 10,000 years into the future. It’s a fun way of bringing the solar system to life.
Star Walk 2 (iOS/Android, $2.99-Free)
Star Walk 2 offers a lot of similar features to previously mentioned apps, but it does so in a very stylish manner. Identifying a constellation instantly turns it into a gorgeous looking arrangement to form the shape, while even the satellite tracker manages to look more impressive than just a bunch of dots and names.
Elsewhere, you can find and study deep sky objects such as meteor showers, planetary nebulae, star clusters, and more, plus it’s possible to view the sky at different wavelengths.
iOS owners should expect to pay an additional $2.99 for everything Star Walk 2 can offer, while Android users get the basic build for free or upgrade to the premium app for $4.99 .
Stellarium Mobile Sky Map (iOS/Android, $2.99-Free)
Focusing on realism, Stellarium touts itself as being a planetarium in your pocket, whether you’re an iOS user or Android device owner. The app shows an accurate vision of the night sky map, demonstrating what you can see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. While it’s not quite as stylish as some other apps, it’s very informative. The app offers a catalog of over 600,000 stars, with an extensive array of nebulae, galaxies, and satellites.
Each of these objects is not only identifiable but you can further investigate stars with additional statistics and even photos.. Realistic views of the Milky Way, plus simulations of the sun rising, setting, and the effects of light pollution are also available.
For the budding astronomer, it’s a great way of seeing things that would otherwise only be possible with a telescope and it puts a veritable Wikipedia of star data in your pocket.
Sky Guide AR (iOS, $2.99)
Proving you can have style and substance, Sky Guide AR is a great app (provided your iPhone is fairly up to date on account of how many newer features the app relies on).
Apple Watch support means it’ll send you a notification when an event is about to happen above your location, such as when the ISS is due to fly over. 3D Touch support makes it a breeze to Peek and Pop previews of articles you’re searching, and it also enhances your ability to filter through the sky. A Notification Center widget provides an at a glance view on the solar system, including rise and set times for the Sun, Moon, and other planets.
For an additional $10 per year, you can enjoy high definition zooming, 50x larger star and deep sky catalogs, along with cinematic tours. Yes, you’ve got to pay a fair chunk for all this but it’s worth it if you’re a keen astronomer that likes the layout and features of the app.
Image credit: Sun God/Shutterstock, Quentin Fede/Wikimedia.