Seeing Stars on your iPad

Modern technology has opened up new worlds of discovery and exploration for those who cannot afford fancy scientific equipment. On your computer, you can scan the world with Google Earth, search through thousands of scholarly papers with the search engine of your choice, learn about the latest technological news, and generally find out all about the world around you with just a click of a button. A new Apple application offers a way to take the technology even further, providing an augmented view of the night sky to help you view the Heavens in a new way.

The application, called Star Walk, uses the GPS of your iPhone, iPad, or iPod to determine your location. If you’re on the iPad 2, it also uses the inbuilt compass and camera to improve fidelity. Pointing it at a patch of the sky then reveals the names of all the stars and planets in that region, drawing out constellations and making the sky infinitely clearer. If extra information is needed, a simple click on the object of interest will open the option to gather the Wikipedia article on the star, planet, or constellation you’re interested in.

The display is gorgeous as well, with stars twinkling and moving and the sun even casting a lens flare onto the display. The sky is not replaced but it is decidedly augmented, with every object picked out in vivid detail. As an augmentation to your reality, Star Walk functions perfectly, providing beauty and education with just a simple tap and a point.

If you lack any Apple products, the Android market also has a similar (and totally free) known as Google Sky Map. While a little more utilitarian in design – constellations are connected by lines without illustrations, and the stars are simple dots – the ease of use and the information gathered are the same. With a simple point, one can see all the planets (these beautifully rendered), find the phase of the moon, figure out the name of a particularly bright star, and generally explore the universe. In addition, the application is careful to not obscure the real sky. A few taps will put the application into ‘night mode’, in which everything is drawn in a dark red designed to not damage night vision. And if the sky is empty, a small enclosed gallery contains vivid Hubble images of nebulas, galaxies, and the planets.

These applications show the full potential of augmented reality. Designed to highlight the beauty already present in the sky and make it easier to explore and understand, these applications provide insight and information without replacing what they describe. With these, even the most casual backyard stargazer will be able to point out planets, constellations, and stars, and if their curiosity is provoked, they can study anything in the sky with as much detail as they need. Applications like these will make the universe outside our planet easier to explore than ever before and encourage curiosity, wonder, and awe in anyone who uses them.

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