Astronomy Websites, Magazines, Software, and Apps

By Stephen P. Maran

Finding out about astronomy is easy. You can choose from a wide range of resources, including websites, apps for smartphones and tablet computers, magazines, and desktop computer software. The following sections offer some tips for finding the best information.

Astronomy in cyberspace

The Net offers sites on every topic in astronomy, and the resources are increasing at, well, an astronomical rate! If you want more information on planets, comets, meteors, or eclipses, the web offers good sites on every topic.

The editors of Sky & Telescope magazine maintain one of the best websites. Get your observational career started by checking out “This Week’s Sky at a Glance” on that site. It gives a well-illustrated, day-by-day (or night-by-night) account of planets, comets, and other current space phenomena.

In the United Kingdom, Astronomy Now magazine offers a website with an “Observing” section that posts regular announcements of easily seen sky phenomena.

Astronomy publications

You can purchase excellent magazines to expand your knowledge of astronomy and your skill at practicing it. Most amateur astronomers subscribe to at least one publication. In many cases, if you join a local astronomy club, you may have access to a subscription to a national magazine at a member discount.

Pick up a copy of each of the “big two” (literally, the biggest two) astronomical magazines: Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. Test-drive the publications for a month, and if you get more out of one than the other, go ahead and subscribe. You can do so from their websites. Both of these magazines are available in both printed and digital editions.

Canadian readers can get the bimonthly SkyNews: The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy & Stargazing, a slick, full-color publication.

Astronomy buffs in the United Kingdom should look for Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy to see which magazine they prefer.

In France, an excellent and well-illustrated magazine is Ciel & Espace; in Australia, look for Australian Sky & Telescope and its astronomy yearbook for that country. In Germany, Sterne und Weltraum excels.

Wherever you live, you’ll find that the annual Observer’s Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is very useful. Dozens of experts compile the handbook to help you enjoy the skies.

Software and apps for budding astronomists

A planetarium program, or “desktop planetarium,” for your personal computer is a real plus. So is a planetarium app for your smartphone or tablet computer. Such programs or apps show you what the sky looks like from your home every night. You can also use them to find out what stars and planets will be up in the sky at a future date or at a different location so you can check in advance what you may observe on an upcoming vacation or visit to a dark sky observation site. This software is terrific to look at before you step outside to view the night sky. Some astronomers use these programs to plan their observing sessions. They prepare schedules of objects to scan with telescopes and binoculars at different times of the night to use their “dark time” effectively. Amateurs with certain telescope models that feature computer control can use some planetarium programs to guide their telescopes to stars, planets, or other sky objects of interest.

Desktop planetarium programs are available over a wide price range (including free programs) with many different features. You can find some programs advertised in astronomy and science magazines and on websites (see the previous two sections); they’re updated occasionally for increased usefulness. You need only one program to get started, and that one may be the only program you ever need. The best way to select the planetarium program that suits you is to talk to experienced amateur astronomers at your local astronomy club. What works for them likely will work for you.

Start out with Stellarium as the personal planetarium program on your desktop or laptop computer. It’s a free, open-source program available for computers running most operating systems. It shows you the night or day sky at your place and time, or you can adjust it to check the sky at a later date. Visit the Stellarium website to learn about its many features, view sample screen shots, or download the program to your computer.

A great many astronomy-related apps for smartphones and tablet computers are available for your consideration. Here are some that might work well for you:

  • CraterSizeXL: Use this iPad and iPhone app to calculate the possible danger if a potentially hazardous asteroid is headed for Earth. Fill in the available information on the object, and CraterSizeXL predicts the impact energy in units of Hiroshima-equivalent atom bomb blasts, crater size, and more. Damage from an asteroid hit can be in the trillions of dollars, but the good news is that you can download the app for about a buck.
  • Sky Guide: This award-winning app by Fifth Star Labs creates beautiful maps of the sky, complete with musical accompaniment (which you can mute). Walk outdoors and spot some stars that you don’t recognize? Just turn on the app, press Sky Guide’s compass icon, and point the phone at the stars. Sky Guide (available for iPhone, iPad, and even for Apple Watch) displays a map of the region, names the constellation, draws lines between stars to indicate its shape, and prints the names of the brighter stars alongside them. It also shows you where the planets are and does much more. Check out the developer’s website.
  • Galaxy Zoo: This app is free for Android and Apple phones and tablets. It’s for citizen scientists who help advance the science of astronomy by classifying the shapes of an astronomical number of galaxies that the Hubble Space Telescope (and others) have photographed. Join more than a quarter million volunteers worldwide in this worthy effort.
  • Google Sky Map: If you have an Android phone or tablet, you can use this free app to identify visible stars and planets or to enjoy images of numerous celestial objects from NASA and other sources.
  • GoSatWatch: iPhone and iPad owners can use this app to learn where artificial satellites are orbiting and to predict when satellites will pass over your location (or any other) on Earth. Satellite Safari is a similar app for both Android and Apple devices.
  • SkySafari 5: This highly rated planetarium program (for Android devices, iPhone, and iPad) is available in different versions at prices ranging from about $1 for the simplest version to about $20 for the most advanced. The more you pay, the more features you get. With the basic version, you can point the phone toward the sky, night or day, and it identifies the celestial objects visible (night) or invisible (day) that are up in that direction. Start with the cheap version and see whether it does everything you need.
  • Star Chart: This free iPhone and Android app is a simple way to identify stars and constellations.