Stargazing is one of the most underrated pastimes for families. It’s educational — kids get to learn about the solar system in a fun, hands-on way and grow their love for science. It encourages the whole family to get outside and spend time in nature. It’s great family bonding. Not to mention that the kids will be excited to stay up past their bedtime, when it’s dark enough to see the stars. It’s just a bonus that stargazing is a largely screen-free way to keep kids entertained.
That doesn’t mean you have to put away your phone completely, however. There are some apps every amateur astronomer should download so they can figure out where in the sky they should be looking — and what they’re looking at. Astronomy apps can also help with planning your stargazing adventures so you know the best time to set up in the backyard, a nearby park, or even take a trip outside the city to get away from light pollution. Some apps even help preserve your night vision so you’re better able to see stars, planets, and meteor showers.
To pick out the best astronomy apps, Fatherly talked to Bart Fried, executive Vice President of the Amateur Astronomy Association of New York, and Matthias Schmitt, an astronomy educator at Cedar Breaks National Monument and executive producer of Space Racers, an animated series for preschoolers about the solar system. Here are their top recommendations for astronomy apps for families.
Planetarium-Style Astronomy Apps
Both Schmitt and Fried recommend this free, open-source planetarium as a great option for beginners because it’s so easy to use. The app shows the most realistic night sky for any place on Earth. Tilt your phone it in the sky and use it to find everything from deep sky objects like galaxies or planets and their natural satellites. The app combines a realistic and accurate night sky simulation with a gigantic amount of online imaging and sky object catalogs. You can try the web version without downloading it first, and if you end up liking the tool, there’s an award-winning mobile app available on both Android and iOS.
To use this app, simply hold your phone to the sky and it’ll help you locate planets, constellations, satellites, and millions of stars and deep sky objects. SkySafari also has an Augmented Reality mode to blend a simulated sky chart with the sky above you. A unique feature of SkySafari is the historical travel option, which allows you to see the night sky anywhere from Earth many years into the past or future. This app is especially friendly for beginners because of the Tonight’s Best feature, which tells you which objects you’ll get the best view of tonight if you’re browsing the sky looking for interesting things. The basic version costs $4.99 in the iOS App Store, and there are more advanced options that feature more stars, asteroids, and other sky objects. The most advanced option, which costs $49.99, includes every comet and asteroid that has been discovered.
This app is so fun it got a shout out from Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes. So what’s the big deal with Star Walk? It’s actually quite similar to SkySafari. Launch the app and point it at your night sky, where you’ll see stars, planets, and satellites. As you move your phone, the map will update in real time. It also uses Augmented Reality to help you navigate, and offers a time machine option to explore the map of the night sky from years ago. What makes this app different is that, unlike SkySafari, it’s available in both the iOS Apple Store and Google Play store and it’s free, although there are in-app purchases available to enhance your experience.
Dubbed the planetarium in your pocket, the Night Sky app makes it more convenient than ever to study the galaxy from our planet. By aiming your device skyward, you're able to see a complete 3D map of the sky above, including artful illustrations of constellations, planets, stars, and satellites. It even sends push notifications to alert the biggest of astro nerds about imminent astronomical events. The Night Sky app is free on the iOS Apple Store.
Moon Apps We're Over the Moon For
Schmitt says the Moon is often a neglected object. But with it being so visible and apparent, it can be a great place to start as an amateur astronomer. The Moon app is free and great because it works offline, so you can take it outside without connectivity worries. It allows you to view the current moon phase, what the moon will look like on a certain date, and it provides a countdown clock to major moon events. It can also send you notifications about moon phases and tell you what the moon phase was when you were born. Available on the iOS Apple Store.
Fried recommends the Lunescope app because it offers a widget on your phone that shows you what the moon is doing and what phase it’s in down to the exact second. Apart from this defining feature, it also offers a ton of features you won’t get in other moon apps, including a detailed lunar map, options to explore moon landing sites like those of Apollo and Surveyor, and it displays all lunar eclipses with exclusive visualization. Available on the Google Play Store.
Practical Astronomy Apps
This free app helps preserve your night vision, so you can get around in the dark when stargazing without compromising your ability to see celestial bodies. It allows you to adjust for brightness, but not much else. It’s simple but effective and highly recommended if you’re in a very dark area and need a source of light that won’t disrupt your stargazing. Available on the the iOS Apple Store.
Light pollution is a real problem for amateur and expert astronomers alike, says Schmitt. The free Loss Of The Night app measures light pollution and figures out dark areas which may be good spots to stargaze. You can also become a contributor to the app, which is a citizen science project, and report how bright the sky is where you live. Available on the Google Play Store.