Stargazing apps are out of this world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 11:36am

If you sometimes feel like a prisoner to your own smartphone, just point it upwards. Using any smartphone's built-in digital compass, accelerometer, gyroscope, and GPS, augmented reality smartphone apps such as The Night Sky, Star Walk and SkySafari will help you identify planets, stars and satellites up above, but are they anything more than a novelty?

To find out I head to one of the darkest places on the planet - the Australian Outback - with those three apps in search of the Milky Way, star clusters and nebulae impossible to see in the northern hemisphere.

The prize at the end of my digitally aided search is something that requires only weather apps and a dose of good luck: the very rare total eclipse of the sun over an ocean horizon from the crescent-shaped beach of Queensland's Palm Cove.

Armed with a pair of 10x50 binoculars and a motorhome - the kind you could easily spend a few months in - I spend the previous week searching the local Atherton Tablelands near Cairns for clear night skies. In places such as Tinaroo and Lake Eacham, I find the elusive Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades (aptly known as the "jewel box" cluster) and the wondrous Orion Nebula to name but a few, although some of the apps are of more help than others.

Star Walk spins on its axis several times, seemingly unable to cope with my sudden change of hemisphere. But once it gets a fix it's incredible; the field of view moves relatively slowly, it's possible to pinch and zoom-in on stars, and touch anything for more information. A Sky Live page puts up a list of when the planets, moon and sun will rise and fall that night. Type "Andromeda" into the search box and an on-screen arrow points you in its direction until you've turned to face it. For serious stargazing there's an essential red version (as there is with all three apps), which affects your night vision far less than the bright, white light usually emitted by a smartphone.

The Night Sky is the app to go for if you just want a casual, but guided glance upwards now and again since it identifies only major objects. In Hong Kong this is fine - it won't get you to look for deep sky objects such as star clusters or other galaxies - although some planets are represented as brighter than they are; it shows Uranus as a major object despite it being very difficult to see with the naked eye.

Easily the most comprehensive stargazing app is SkySafari 3.2, which presents more than 46,000 stars and planets to scale. As well as showing you what's directly in front, the app lets you swipe to travel around the area of sky you're gazing at while also allowing you to skip forward in time, perhaps to see tomorrow's night sky. SkySafari is more of a reference guide for geeks and owners of telescopes, but it's easy to use, and looks stunning.

Stunning is also the word to describe Palm Cove beach - the setting for the eclipse - although the drive from the darkness of the Atherton Tablelands is damp and cloudy. "It's called the wet tropics for a reason," says a fellow motorhomer, adding, "I hope you haven't come all the way to Australia to see the eclipse."

I have. However, while I wait for dawn to break, the clouds part and out come the apps once again, although by now I've started to recognise some constellations and even galaxies by sight. Unless you spend some time with the sky, these apps can be easily misused. Proof of that comes on the beach just minutes before the early morning eclipse when, just before dawn, I overhear one British woman showing a fellow eclipse-watcher her new app. She is pointing at the horizon and saying: "So that's Jupiter or Venus, I think." I can't resist telling them both that the bright planet is Venus, but I also point out the Southern Cross constellation to the southeast, something I've so far been too jet-lagged to stay up and look for until almost dawn.

Her immediate response is to ask where that is on her phone.

"You don't need the app - just look," I reply. If we're not learning the real night sky from these apps, what are we doing? I tell her to follow "the pointers", Alpha and Beta Centauri, to find the Southern Cross, although I neglect to mention that I've double-checked all of this using Star Walk. Minutes later we need no help in finding the morning sky's main event as the light around us fades to twilight, then darkness and a chill. For two minutes and three seconds, 60,000 people along this stretch of the Australian coast gaze up at the "ring of fire", the eclipsed sun's white, wispy corona pulsing around the moon. Jupiter even appears just to the left.

Although fleeting, totality has cued up a spectacular climax as small beads of light flowing through the valleys on the edge of the moon join up in a powerful flash of sunlight that appears to light the sky in a pink glow for barely a second. This "diamond ring effect", perhaps nature's most precious sight, signals the end of totality as the moon's shadow moves out across the Great Barrier Reef.

The light returns and Jupiter instantly fades from view, but the memory of what I've witnessed will stay with me forever - as will my new "app-reciation" of the night sky.

Jamie travelled from Cairns, Queensland with Maui Motorhomes, which is located close to Cairns Airport and across Australia.