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Explore the heavens with your iPhone or iPad, discovering everything you can see in the night sky – and what lies beyond
From the dawn of humanity, people have been fascinated with the night sky. And as technology has evolved, we’ve increasingly been able to explore the heavens, discovering nearby planets and mapping out everything from stars to distant galaxies. With an iPhone, much of this power now exists in the palm of your hand.
Armed with the right app, you can zoom around constellations by swiping a finger, tapping on items to learn more about them. Should the urge take you, it’s possible to travel through time, project the stars on to the daytime sky, control a telescope, and even sit a virtual orrery on your desk – or make it so massive you can move around the planets.
This round-up covers what we consider the very best astronomy apps for iPhone, covering a range of budgets and requirements – whether you’re a dedicated amateur astronomer stargazing every night, or just someone keen to know a little more about what’s above our heads.
Sky Guide AR
$3/£3 • v6.6 • 221 MB • By Fifth Star Labs LLC
The night sky is one of the most beautiful things any human can gaze upon, and yet many of the apps for exploring it are oddly utilitarian. Not Sky Guide AR, which is easily the best iPhone astronomy app for a great user experience.
The app oozes class from the moment you fire it up. There’s noodly ambient audio that is just on the right side of being pleasant rather than irritating; the visuals are thoughtful and subtle rather than gaudy; and all the important options you need are one or two taps away, using interface components that don’t require you to shave your fingers down to a point.
You can use the app to time travel, turning the cosmos into an absurdly pretty swirling vortex of light that might even hypnotize The Doctor. And for those times when you’re staring at a blue sky, wishing you could see the stars, Sky Guide’s AR smarts will blend the two together on your iPhone’s display. This has practical benefits, too, for example when used with the time travel functionality to figure out exactly where a particular celestial body will be later on.
Responsive, surprisingly svelte, and visually bewitching, Sky Guide AR should, without doubt, be your entry point into a world of iPhone stargazing.
SkySafari 6 Pro
$20/£20 • v6.0.4 • 1.9 GB • By Simulation Curriculum Corp.
The price of this app might hint at the kind of user it’s for – and if not, the clue is in the name. SkySafari 6 Pro is the best iPhone app for the serious stargazer.
That’s not to discount the likes of Sky Guide AR and others, because they, too, are packed with data and details. But there is a sense SkySafari’s competition tends towards mainstream and casual iPhone stargazers. By contrast, this app dials down the glitz, but ramps up the pro-oriented feature set accordingly.
As you manually explore the virtual heavens, the app provides precise positioning data regarding what you’re looking at. If you have a compatible telescope, you can connect the app to it, tilting and panning your device to rapidly help you find what you want to see in the night sky. And before it gets dark, SkySafari enables you to plan targets for stargazing sessions, with filters such as object types, time ranges, and constellation.
Perhaps surprisingly, all these features don’t rob SkySafari of immediacy, although it is a mite less friendly than Sky Guide AR. However, if you do dive in, be mindful that this is an app that needs a certain level of time investment and dedication to truly get the best of its deep and powerful feature set.
$10/£10 • v3.1.1 • 775 MB • By USM
To some extent, this standard version of Redshift almost feels like a halfway house between Sky Guide AR and SkySafari. (The Pro version is more of a direct competitor to the latter app, what with its telescope control functionality.) But the reason it makes our list is because it’s the best iPhone app for flying through space.
Virtual space flights certainly aren’t unique to Redshift, but they’re managed really nicely here. Pick a target, tap the rocket icon and you’re hurled through the heavens in a manner that would make Captain Kirk decidedly jealous. You can then orbit the target until dizzy; and if you rock up at a planet, you can land and see what the sky looks like from its surface.
If you’re a fan of configuration and details, you certainly get your money’s worth, too. There are loads of settings for tweaking Redshift’s display, labels aplenty, and positioning details as you scoot about the virtual sky. This does somewhat come at the expense of aesthetics, though – Redshift isn’t a pretty app, and it can feel cluttered and fiddly. Still, if you want plenty of stargazing power in your hands, this app shines.
Free • v5.5.1 • 528 MB • By iCandi Apps
Should you not be willing to spend any money on your virtual stargazing habit, you may quickly find yourself downloading all kinds of cruft from the App Store. Avoid wasting your time and just grab Night Sky, which is easily the best free iPhone astronomy app.
Despite costing nothing at all, the app still gives you full compass-based or manual control over the virtual heavens. There’s a warbly ambient soundtrack, and shiny illustrations to represent constellations. And if you tap on an object, you get to check out its details – some of which are very much on the extensive side.
There’s also a great feature in Night Sky Tonight. Prod a button and you’re treated to an animated view of the sky, which can be quickly scrubbed between sunset and sunrise. Scroll and you get to see what planets and satellites will be visible, and whether the conditions make it worth venturing outside in the first place.
There are some downsides to the app. The manual view is a bit twitchy, the audio crackles a bit, and one of the fun bits (an augmented reality orrery) sits behind a monthly subscription rather than being a one-and-done IAP. Still, iPhone stargazers on a very limited budget won’t find anything better than Night Sky on the App Store.
Solar Walk 2
$3/£3 • v1.5.6 • 629 MB • By Vito Technology Inc.
All of the apps covered so far explore the wider night sky; but if your interests are – relatively speaking – closer to home, download Solar Walk 2, which is the best iPhone app for exploring the solar system.
In this digital orrery, you watch the planets go about their business and travel between them. Visually, it’s smart – if zoom-happy – with nicely detailed planets. Major conurbations on Earth pleasingly light up as night descends, and satellites fly by. Elsewhere, Saturn’s rings look superb as its many moons orbit.
Some of the nicest elements of Solar Walk 2 happen away from planet-hopping, though. Infographics provide insight into how each planet in our solar system compares to Earth. Planets can also be cracked open to examine their internal structures. A gallery provides photographs for anyone wanting to get away from the ‘computer graphics’ universe for a bit.
There is, however, IAP lurking. You must shell out for 3D models of space missions and satellites, objects of the extended solar system, and the calendar’s space exploration history. The cost is $9/£9 for permanent access or $1/£1 per month. Whether that sounds good will depend on how keen you are on space exploration – and the app itself. Our advice: grab a month’s access and see how you go. Or just stick with the basic app, which is – for the most part – rather lovely anyway.
Free • v17.1.0 • 134 MB • By Hanno Rein
This thrillingly sci-fi app is a 3D map of the galaxy that you can fly around. Zoom right in and our solar system’s planets orbit as constellations dance beneath. Zoom out and an explosion of red lines links the Sun to very distant exoplanets. Then travel colossal distances in an instant, and watch exoplanets orbiting their parent stars.
Free • v2.3 • 84.2 MB • By Michael Howard
Even more focused than Solar Walk 2, Moon Globe gives you a virtual moon to twiddle with your fingers. You can spin the Earth’s satellite about, cooing over real-time lighting, spotting terrain features, learning where Apollo 11 landed, and boldly saying “one small step for man” until everyone asks you to stop.
Free • v4.0.4 • 51.5 MB • By NASA
Assuming you’re online, NASA gives you access to a treasure trove of astronomy delights. There are thousands of beautiful images and videos, a slew of TV channels and news articles, and live streaming video from the International Space Station, where you can watch the Earth slowly turning beneath one of mankind’s greatest achievements.