Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Starmap Media: Personal Trainer

Starmap was the first astronomy app I bought when I got my first iPod Touch in 2008. Although I had used astronomy software like Stellarium on PC, I was amazed at the possibility of having a planetarium in my pocket. Something I could take outside with me and hold up to the sky to help identify objects, or search to find the expected positions of stars and planets based on current position and time. All with a simple touch, drag, and pinch-zoom interface. Over time, other astronomy apps emerged, I got an iPhone which included GPS and compass, and Starmap added even more features. Life is good for fans of iOS devices and night skies.

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.

I tried out a few of the stories at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels (full disclosure: I was given  free reviewer access to a number of stories). For example, "Stellar Smoke Rings" is a 12 minute story labeled intermediate. It points you to and explains several well-known planetary nebulae including the Ring Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. It was easy to follow the instructions to find the correct area of the sky. The narration waits for you to get there and touch an OK button. You can press pause at any time and an interactive contents list pops up, allowing you to jump backwards or forwards as needed.

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).

Any problems? For one thing, even the "advanced" stories I've seen so far don't seem very advanced for someone with a serious interest in astronomy who has done much reading. I have studied a lot of astronomy over the years, but I don't mind a review of a familiar topic presented in a fresh way. And the star tours include topics from recent research, such as the idea that the stars in the relatively fast-moving Arcturus stream may have originated in a small satellite galaxy that was gravitationally captured by our Galaxy. It's also nice to have a professional narrator presenting the material "in context" as you look at the star or constellation in question. It's like having a "personal trainer" for star gazing!

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.

If you have an iPad, a bonus is that the free Starmap Media app is a universal app that works well on either iPhone/iPod Touch screens or larger iPad screens. The Starmap app itself comes in two versions, one for small screens and a more expensive HD version for iPads. You may want the HD or iPhone "pro" version for other features (such as expanded catalogs and telescope control), but it's nice that the Starmap Media star tours and sky displays work well on any iOS display (you can use the iPhone version of Starmap on an iPad, using the 2x button to fill the screen, but the fonts etc. don't look as nice when you view a scaled version of an iPhone app on an iPad).

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.

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