Sky Maps and Smartphone Apps
Stargazing for Dummies
How many among us can look up at the night sky and point out prominent stars, planets, and other heavenly wonders, purely from memory? Certainly there are some of us who are blessed with the ability to discern patterns and locations in what appears to the rest of as a completely random and endless sky full of white dots.
Even if you are not one of ‘them’, the celestial know-it-all’s, there are still simple ways to enrich your star gazing experience with the use of a few simple, and free, tools available online and elsewhere. Here are a few of our favorites:
Sky Maps – There are several sites that offer free downloads of printable sky maps – our favorite is http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html We like to use these in remote areas where other cellular or GPS based maps may not be accessible. Printed sky maps are easy to use – simply hold them overhead, orient it to north, and you can easily start to match up stars with your map. Next thing you know, you’re finding constellations and planets and nebulae, and the sky patterns will begin to reveal themselves to you.
Smartphone Apps – These take printed sky maps to a whole new and interactive level. Working on the same principle of holding your phone overhead to align your screen with the stars, these apps can detect your location, zoom in or out, and show outlines of constellations. The apps we prefer are: Google Sky Map, Sky Safari, and Sky Map. All are available through the App or Play Stores, and are free in their basic versions. All of them will place more celestial knowledge at your fingertips than Copernicus had on his best day.
Also available to the amateur stargazer are affordable, GPS-guided telescopes, that combine all the functionality of the Smartphone Apps with telescopic power. Now you can identify celestial objects, and see them up close. Most of these telescopes start in the $400 range, and can exceed upwards of $4000. Experience has shown us that the less expensive telescopes are more than sufficient. Unless you want to explore deep-space objects, most telescopes will only turn small white dots into slightly larger white dots, and therefore the extra expense is not justified. For viewing closer objects such as the moon and planets, smaller and less-expensive is the way to go. Our favorite for many years is a slightly older version of the Meade ETX80, which starts around $300 (http://www.meade.com/products/telescopes.html?cat=16)