The ‘comet of the century’, ISON, streaked into the Sun about a week ago and people from all over the world were vying for a look. When it may or may not have reappeared a couple days later, astronomers were unsure if it was still a comet or if our local star had disintegrated it. At the same, another celebrity comet — Lovejoy — is still out there, and around December 22, is slated to come closest to the Sun. In other astronomy news, ISRO just launched its Mars Orbiter Mission; China, its Chang’e 3 moon-lander; and NASA, its MAVEN mission. It’s the season to search the skies, and here are three apps that’ll get you started.SkySafari
SkySafari costs Rs. 190 and is available for iOS and Android devices. It received very positive reviews from Sky & Telescope, the gold-standard go-to for astronomy technology news. On the downside, it is huge — almost 150 MB — so you might want to store it on your SD card. On the upside, it has pictures and information about 46,000 stars, 220 of the ‘best-known’ star clusters, nebulae and galaxies, and other well-known comets and asteroids.
It has great visuals drawn from NASA’s database — including from the Hubble Space Telescope’s — and includes astronomy history from the last 100 years. There’s also an encyclopaedia to surf through. Other features like Time Flow let you animate the next few months of the sky overhead in minutes, a ‘Night’ control, and a built in compass that gives you tilted perspectives of the sky-chart. If you’re interested in astronomy, SkySafari will be your latest time-suck.Regular Moon Globe
For free, this iOS app will tell you all that you need to know about the Moon — and there’s a lot to know! It uses satellite imagery with a database of how and where its surface rises and dips to provide pretty accurate rendering of the moon on your iPhone or iPad.
The app comes in two variants — the HD version has better rendering and resolution and costs around Rs. 60 ($0.99). Both versions come with multi-touch interactivity that let you spin the natural satellite around, view the Moon as it’d look through a telescope from where you are, simulate sunlight on its surface and study the shadows, plot the sky-chart with the compass mode, etc.
Different points on the Moon are also labelled. Clicking on them will tell you about the features, their history, and any spacecraft that have landed nearby and when.Rocket Science 101
Rocket Science 101 (shortened as RS101) is a for-kids app available for free for Android and iOS devices, and comes from NASA itself. It’s unfortunate that ISRO doesn’t have such an app because RS101 helps you learn about the American organization in a very intuitive and engaging way.
You start by selecting your favourite space mission, building it part by part, understanding how different components work together, launch it, and then place it in orbit by firing or jettisoning different engines. Along the way, you learn about factors like weight, thrust and size, and how they come together to affect how your rocket works.
It’s a great app for kids, but adults are bound to be bored after a couple hours on it. Anyway, it’s free and definitely worth a shot.