There is some serious choice when it comes to astronomy apps on the app store, but when in doubt, people will almost always flock to the big names or familiar faces of the software world. Google is one such familiar face (or logo, anyhow), but it’s familiar for good reason: it produces great software, and its Sky Map app is one such piece of software. Or it should rather be said that it was a great piece of Google software – it has since been gifted to non-Google developers and made to be open-source.
Developing history aside, this a simple app that doesn’t have the flash of its competitors, or indeed the comprehensive features of many paid-for astronomy apps out there. However, it’s still a fantastic tool for simple navigation of the skies, and this review covers its worthiness of your mobile device’s precious memory in a little more detail below.
Taking Astronomy Into Your Own Hands
Open up the Sky Map app, and you’re treated to a clean and simple augmented-reality-like representation of the night’s sky. This involves pretty much the same sort of interface of many other star mapping apps, in that you must first calibrate your device’s compass, after which time the app will utilise the tilt sensors on your device as well as its GPS to determine your location, and present you with a geographically-specific and highly accurate mapping of virtually all of the visible objects in the night sky. Many other apps’ features are stacked high from here, but Google’s Sky Map’s remaining features are essentially just based around this one simple-yet-effective interface.
Other navigation options in the app are really just variations on the same theme. Automatic mode allows you to move your phone in order to bring up different points of the sky. The other alternative is going into manual navigation (achieved by tapping the slider tab on the right of the screen), where you can tap and drag on the screen to navigate the skies if you happen to be looking for a specific object that isn’t in your immediate scope of view. So it’s like having Astronomy Now’s Start Chart, only it’s interactive, and it’s a much more dynamic experience – the automatic navigation really makes you feel in control of your astronomical observation.
Taking Things Even Further
You may notice the tabs on the left-hand side of the screen too: these are useful for drilling down various layers of the night sky. With these (or from the main Settings menu accessed in the top right-hand side of the screen), you can control which objects are displayed in the sky map overlay on your phone. You can toggle stars, constellations, messier objects, and our solar system, as well as dynamic events such as meteor shows. For the more technically minded, you can also enable the horizon as well as the RA/Dec grid, the latter allowing you to view more accurately the objects in the night sky.
Sadly, there’s no ability in this app to tap on the objects in the sky in order to pull up more information about them. The app does offer images of various objects in the sky in the Gallery section however. Images of the more well-known planetary bodies such as Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Jupiter are fascinating to look at. There’s some lesser-known objects you can take a look at here too, ranging from the Hercules Cluster to the Eagle Nebula. The nebulae photos in particular are massively mesmerising, with avid star-gazers likely drawn into their colourful beauty for many minutes at a time.
The final feature worth noting in this app is the “Time Travel” function, which essentially pulls up a map of the state of the sky at any particular date or time.
Great for a Free App
You’re not getting heaps of content when you download Google Sky Map, but this isn’t the intention of the app. It’s real purpose is to provide a light and simple alternative to the more technically demanding apps like Mobile Observatory. Google’s Sky Map was mesmerising when it first came out. Though the more advanced astronomy apps of today have really eclipsed Sky Map in many ways. The GPS/motion sensor is a little lag-laded too, causing a little delay in movement when you’re in automatic navigation mode.
The simple design of Sky Map should appeal to those looking for an easy-to-use alternative to more complex sky-mapping interfaces of the likes of Aciqra and Mobile Planetarium.