Space is deep and endless, but so too is the information from telescopes, probes, orbiters and other spacecraft. Now would-be explorers can unravel it on their mobiles, with no spacesuit required.
Free on iOS
The discovery of exoplanets - planets orbiting other stars, or alien planets if you prefer - is one of the most productive and intriguing areas of space research. This app, developed by astrophysicist Hanno Rein, lists all the more than 2000 exoplanets documented so far, plus the known solar planets and a few others, and is regularly updated with new discoveries.
Each exoplanet is listed with all the physical parameters calculated for it so far - its mass, orbital period, distance from Earth, whether it is in its sun’s habitable zone, and so on - plus web links for further information. You can sort and filter the list, generate correlation plots, see where planets are on a map of our Milky Way galaxy, use an augmented-reality mode to see where planets would be in the sky, and read exoplanet news.
The Apple-only app is free but with sometimes-intrusive adverts; these can be disabled for £1.49. It also offers several paid add-?ons, for example to add moons and asteroids to the database, or a list of unconfirmed planets from the Kepler space telescope, which is responsible for the majority of exoplanet discoveries so far.
Solar System Scope Pro
£1.50 on Android or iOS
This virtual orrery (a model of the solar system) lets you visualise the planets and asteroids and their orbits at any time in the future or past. You can drill in on each object to see its orbit, composition and moons (if any), rotate the orrery in 3D, or switch to a map of the night sky to help you locate objects.
There are also free versions of Solar System Scope on the web and on Android, but the latter has banner adverts which will not help your night vision if you are using the virtual reality view to help study the real heavens. It might be worth testing to ensure that the app works as expected on your device though.
Testing is valuable because sky-watching apps depend on your device’s internal electronic compass and GPS. This can cause problems if your phone behaves in a non-standard way, or more likely, if a software update changes how the phone presents its location capabilities to apps. For example, we found that this and some other apps had apparently not been updated to work on Android 5 Lollipop, although they worked fine on Android 4.
Latest Space News
Android, free with ads
With so many space agencies and projects to track, keeping up with the latest news in space exploration can be a challenge. You could probably do a similar job with a newsfeed reader such as Feedly, but it would take a bit of work to set up, whereas this app is ready to use.
Latest Space News will automatically query more than a dozen newsfeeds - the list is pre-configured, but is pretty comprehensive - with options to alert you on new news, how often to update, and so on. The list includes several image-heavy feeds such as Astronomy Picture of the Day, so a Wi-Fi connection might be advisable.
The busiest are of course the Nasa and Esa feeds, and a few of the others are not available in English, but there is still plenty to read. Plus, there is an option to open stories in the system browser, in which case you could run the foreign language ones through a translation service.
Android, free with ads or £3.19
Derived from the website of the same name, Heavens-Above is a free Android app for anyone interested in what is going on above their heads. It provides a live sky chart, with planets in view, constellations and satellites. You can opt to orientate the chart in map mode or with east and west flipped so you can hold it above your head while you look at the night sky.
Topping the list of visible satellites is the ISS of course, but the app also lists Iridium flares, where one of this constellation of communications satellites appears to light up briefly as its antenna reflects the sun, and even bits of orbiting junk such as discarded rocket bodies. It lists radio satellites too, some along with their uplink and downlink frequencies in case you have a directional receiver.
As well as the sky map, you can pull up a list of nightly events for tonight or another date, add interesting satellite passes to your diary, and identify an object in the sky by orienting your phone towards it - there is an optional red-on-black mode to preserve your night vision. You can also search for a specific satellite in the Heavens-Above database and see a plot of its orbit, along with data such as its mass, brightness, country of origin, and where, when and how it was launched.
Free on Apple
It’s our closest neighbour and 12 humans have walked there, but no one has been back in over 40 years. One thing we Earthers have done though is send robot spacecraft, in particular to more accurately map the Moon and investigate its geology. And one result of all that effort is that we now have pretty good 3D lunar maps, enabling us all to at least make a virtual visit.
This is where Moon Globe comes in. Although there is also a 2D view meant mainly for telescope users, the app’s star feature is its interactive 3D globe, enabling you to spin the Moon in any direction. You can examine the dark side and the poles, search for named terrain features, zoom in to see where spacecraft landed or crashed, adjust the solar illumination for date or angle, and more.
For 79p you can upgrade to Moon Globe HD, with what its developer describes as “slightly better resolution”. And the same developer now offers a Mars Globe app too, with over 1500 surface features noted.
Although Moon Globe is only for Apple devices, there are several other lunar apps for Android. Perhaps the closest is Moon Globe 3D (85p), although Moon Atlas 3D (free) is also worth trying.