Of Stars & Smartphones


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have been interested in Astronomy and space in general for a long time, I remember the first Space Shuttle launch, watching Space 1999 and Blake’s 7, and Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night. I have only briefly owned a basic telescope but still like looking at the stars, especially now as where I live, on the edge of the countryside, has the advantage of darker skies at night away from streetlights. I find it very relaxing.

Recently I found that a moving light in the sky was the International Space Station – I felt I should have waved – and just the other night I looked out of the front window and saw the moon accompanied by two “stars” which turned out to be Jupiter and Saturn – the thought that these two bright points of light in the sky were two massive planets millions of miles away is still awe inspiring to me.

How do you find out what these points of light are though?

I still own two plastic discs which would be called old tech now called Planispheres which consist of a movable oval shaped window over a map of all the stars visible in the night sky from my latitude, you rotate the window round to match the date and time and it shows what stars can be seen then and where they are in the sky. Useful and non-dependant on batteries, it was still supplemented with technology.

In the nineties I received, attached to a computer magazine, a small program called Skyglobe. It was a pre-Windows program running in MS-DOS and gave a full, interactive view of the night sky on the computer, it could update in real time, showed the planets and the moon, the shapes of the constellations and you could even speed up time to see how the stars changed in the sky over the course of the year, all thanks to the wholly predictable nature of the motion of the Earth against the stars and planets. It was a fantastic piece of software, it had an elegant, uncluttered user interface that could be almost entirely hidden to just show the stars, operated via the keyboard, and it fitted on a single floppy disk. I still have a copy today that can be made to work, once you convince Windows to run it.

Even Skyglobe though has been superseded. On my tablet I now have a program (sorry, app) called Stellarium that looks fundamentally the same except that it has fancier graphics with a landscape rather than just a horizon line. This app can update in real time too, but to change the direction you’re viewing you can, of course, swipe and drag the image around rather than using arrow keys, it’s also just a little bit more portable than a PC with a CRT screen was before. One major change though is its ability to use the tablet (or phone’s) sensors to detect where you’re pointing it and show the same region of sky on the screen so you don’t even need to know which way’s north anymore.

Combined with telescopes that have been able to know where they are and point to any star you choose since the early 2000s amateur astronomy has embraced the digital – the old technology of mirrors and glass guided by new technology of GPS, smartphones and tablets and all driven by our fascination with knowing what’s out there.

2 thoughts on “Of Stars & Smartphones

  1. Stellarium sounds interesting. I loved the night sky where i used to live in Geeveston Tasmania. We had no street lights nearby and you could see the stars so well. It’s not bad up here in north west Tasmania either but there are a few trees and street lamps to contend with. Still a million times better than the city though.

    • It’s a terrific app, particularly on a tablet. At the end of the winter I read about Betelgeuse dimming unusually and as I hadn’t done any astronomy for a while I couldn’t remember where it was in the sky but the app helped me find it again! It is wonderful to be able to see the stars properly, I can imagine what it’s like in a city, even the difference between the town centre and here on the outskirts is noticeable. My best view was from a valley in the Lake District – no streetlights at all and the mountains silhouetted against the starry sky – it was the only time I’ve been able to see the Milky Way properly.

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