There are many free and easy to access astronomy-based digital resources that can help fill your time if you’re social distancing during the Covid-19 outbreak. The phone apps, websites and software I will detail in this column are just a sampling. I don’t pretend to know every product. There are many I’ve simply never tried. What follows is just a couple of resources that I’m familiar with that can make it easy for you to start an astronomy hobby at this difficult time.
My nephew can nonchalantly walk down a street and, with his phone, take a photograph that looks like it belongs in a New York City art studio. He says he has an “eye” for it. My grandson can pick up a pile of stripped wire and somehow turn it into a three-dimensional replica of a baseball player with bat in hand. These are skills and abilities I can only dream of. Luckily for all of us, basic amateur astronomy doesn’t require this level of talent. Now, more than ever, there are tools that make it easy to expand our knowledge of the night sky and, perhaps, become observers as well.
There are countless phone apps. I use two. The first is the free version of “Night Sky.” After entering your location, it provides constellation outlines and names, galaxies and, really, everything else. As you scan the sky, it moves with you so that at any moment you can put a name to everything you see, as well as plenty of more distant objects that require magnification. You can search for countless celestial points of light and even aim your phone below the horizon to see what is either about to rise or has already drifted out of sight until the next day.
The second app is “Planets.” It lets me see which planets are observable at any given time, and even gives me the phase of the Moon. Again, these are just two of many, so experiment to find those that feel best for you.
Similarly, there’s no shortage of websites. There are three that I would start with – NASA.gov, skyandtelescope.com, and space.com – that are easy to access. With my short attention span, I have a desire to keep my own astronomy hobby very low-key. These sites offer something for everyone with plenty of links to more advanced material. No surprise here: you can’t really go wrong with NASA.
Last year I taught an introductory astronomy class at Patagonia High School. The students, if I’m able to read into a teenager’s mind, seemed to really enjoy my use of the Stellarium software, which I projected onto the wall. It is described as a “planetarium for your computer.”
Check with a computer tech if you have any worries about open source material. Apple computers require changes to some default settings to allow this software to download.
Once you have it safely installed, it really is excellent. My favorite feature is the ability to zoom in on an object. Going from the fuzziness of the Orion Nebula to being able to count stars within that giant cloud is a serious eye-opener. The program also lets you go back in time or into the future. Projecting it onto a big-screen TV from your computer will give you endless enjoyment.
Finally, there are many purchasable programs that can be downloaded directly to your computer. A search on Amazon for “astronomy software” shows that there are myriad options.
For me, the apps, websites and software, above all else, serve a single purpose. I love astronomy because it brings me moments of awe. Anything that boosts and enhances those moments is gold. And today, experiencing awe is a much-needed respite to the challenges we face. But it doesn’t have to be that special. All the tools I’ve mentioned can help to reduce stress and anxiety. This is a health benefit we can all use. I hope our beautiful dark skies give you some peace.