Now Starmap has been expanded to improve its usefulness as an astronomy learning tool. Starmap Media was recently released as both an add-in to Starmap and as a free standalone app. As with many iOS apps, "free" isn't the whole story. There are in-app purchases to provide most of the content, so at the first level, Starmap Media functions as a specialized audio book reader for a series of "astronomy lessons" or stories.
But what's really cool is that the "lessons" are integrated with planetarium software that knows the time and location and what is visible in the sky at any given time (apart from such spoilers as clouds). So if you go outside on a clear night this week and fire up "Wandering the Summer Sky," the app will point you to the various objects of interest while the narrator tells you what to look for and why. It's like having an astronomer as your personal night-sky tour guide. It doesn't answer questions (yet), but it's still pretty amazing.
While there are a few free stories or "star tours" supplied with the app, most are in-app purchases that cost 99 cents each to download (once downloaded, Internet access is not needed to use the stories). There are stories for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced topics. The writing, production, and narration are smooth and professional, with many multimedia features built in. These include animated overlays that explain the shapes and positions of objects and patterns in the sky, diagrams and pictures of nebulae, galaxies, etc., as well as historic and mythological background.
Another intermediate story, "More Than Meets the Eye," points you to a couple of seemingly minor constellations as background for a nice explanation of stellar magnitudes and measures of sky viewing quality. The advanced story "The Arcturus Stream" talks about the behavior and properties of the easy-to-find star Arcturus, and about some aspects of star formation that can be inferred from the amounts of heavy elements such as metals that are present or absent in a star's spectrum (the "rainbow" of light from the star that astronomers use to determine what elements are in a star, using a telescope instrument called a spectroscope).
What about the cost? I think of it like a subscription to Sky & Telescope magazine. The sky is big, with many things to see and learn, and it changes through the year. This is why astronomy magazines sell, even though there are many astronomy books out there - they keep you up to date, show you things you may have missed, present information and recent research in new ways, and tie stories to current events such as spacecraft launches and encounters. Starmap Media stories are like astronomy magazine articles read by a professional narrator and keyed to what you can see in the sky right now (there is also a "couch mode" for exploring when skies are cloudy or the objects are out of view). You only buy the ones you want (you can download a brief free preview of any paid story to see if it interests you). Once downloaded, the stories are yours to enjoy whenever you like.
Starmap Media is a really cool way to add to your enjoyment and learning while exploring the stars and planets. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, try it out the next time you are out looking at the marvelous night sky.