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Astronomy in the time of apps

Astronomy in the time of apps
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First Published: Tue, Mar 22 2011. 10 00 PM IST

Super Moon: Use technology to get the hang of astronomy.
Super Moon: Use technology to get the hang of astronomy.
Updated: Tue, Mar 22 2011. 10 00 PM IST
Did you watch the moon on Saturday night?
When I was young, my father would make us watch many astronomical events. We observed partial and full eclipses, saw a comet and meteor showers, some planets at the crack of dawn, and Saturn (or was it Mercury?) at dusk when the sun had just gone down and the sky was a flaming orange.
Super Moon: Use technology to get the hang of astronomy.
We learned how to remember the names of planets (M, Vem, J, Sun, P—each letter denotes a planet), were shown pictures of distant galaxies and constellations and talked about solstices and equinoxes. We didn’t have a telescope; there was a pair of very basic binoculars but I don’t remember ever using it. We would watch what was visible to the naked eye. Spotting the Big Dipper was a no-brainer.
My father had an almanac that he would buy from the local bookshop for less than Rs 100 in the beginning of every year. I forget the name but I think it was published in Kolkata. That was his Bible. When in doubt, he would refer to it. And then there was a pocket guide to astronomy, a coffee-table astronomy atlas, and clippings and charts of the night sky from some newspapers.
Over the years I lost interest in sky-watching but something must have got drilled into my head that I searched the Internet last week for this phenomenon called “Super Moon” when our celestial neighbour is closest to the earth in many years, watched a YouTube video on it by Science@NASA, and made an effort to step out of the house and look for the moon late Saturday night.
I also downloaded this brilliant astronomy app called Star Walk on my iPhone that was ranked by The New York Times in November as one of the top 10 must-have apps . Turn it on and it tells you everything that is there in the sky above you (it can detect your position automatically)—stars, planets and constellations, the position of the various clusters in deep space, the waxing and waning phases of the moon, the time a planet rises and sets and where to find it in the sky. There’s also a Time Machine mode that enables you to go into the future to see how the sky will look at that point.
Star Walk (the app costs $4.99, or around Rs 225, for iPad, and $2.99 for iPhone) is a real-time pocket planetarium. As I write this and look at the screen I know that the moon is south of where I am and that if I were to step out I might spot Saturn a little north of the moon in Virgo constellation. You can tap on any dot on the screen to read more about it: The shining dot near the moon is Spica, the brightest star in the Virgo constellation. If you get lost in the universe you can come to your position without any effort.
The advantage of having such an app on your iPhone is if you see a bright object in the sky and wonder what it is, all you need to do is to tap the screen on your phone and you get the information you want. You can also choose the mode to see only those stars that are visible to the naked eye.
For those with a more serious and abiding interest in the subject, there is this other talked-about app, Star Map (it also has a more expensive Pro version that costs $19). From what I gather, it’s packed with information and is easy to use. Wired says “it’s loaded with features for even the most obsessive astronomers”.
Depending on the level of your interest there are more apps for the iPhone or iPad; for serious amateurs there is Equinox Pro for Macs. But I am not even an amateur astronomer; I just have this occasional curiosity about the objects in the sky and turn to technology—websites, YouTube videos, apps—when I read about an astronomical event like Super Moon.
I still have the pocket guide to astronomy but technology provides you with real-time experience. And it’s also a lot more fun.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at thesmartlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Mar 22 2011. 10 00 PM IST