In this week’s column we are moving away from our desktops and laptops. We are stepping outside and gazing up with awe upon the clear fall sky. Out to our solar system and beyond.
The days are rapidly getting shorter, especially in this our northern piece of the continent. The longer nights give us an excellent opportunity to take a little time away from our desks and appreciate the night sky.
We walk into our yards with our mobile smartphones in hand of course. A recent update brought my attention back to the very first mobile application I installed on my first Android smartphone, Google Sky Maps.
Most of us can find Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) on a clear night. With a little coaxing we may admit to looking up the constellation that goes along with our astrological sign, Aquarius in my case. But thinking of all the time and interest that has gone into the mapping of the sky and naming of constellations across history and I have to say, my knowledge of astronomy is pathetic.
I know the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) when I see them. But don’t ask me to find them. I don’t recall what they are adjacent to. Cool fact: the Pleiades are one of the most commonly noted star clusters across history with the earliest known representation of the constellation dating from 1600 BC. Oh, and I can always find Orion because of his belt. But that’s about it.
Google Sky Maps changed all of that. With Global Positioning System (GPS) on and within the range of my wireless Internet I can browse and identify all the major cosmic objects using my phone. From stars to planets, constellations to Messier objects, a whole catalogue is opened up before me.
Going right to work, I locate the usual suspects, e.g. The Big Dipper, by eye, and then line up my phone to see if the location matches, even roughly. Satisfied that I can find something on the map that I can see with my eyes, I try the reverse. Those stars line up in an interesting pattern, let’s try to see that on my little screen. Turns out they were part of the constellation Cassiopeia. I added one to my repertoire of boring party tricks!
A neat feature is that the application ignores the horizon. It shows you a line where it is to be found for orientation purposes but there’s nothing stopping you from peeking into the southern hemisphere to see how their night is shaping up. Incidentally, through the floor of my office, somewhere off the coast of Tasmania, the Sun is almost directly overhead with Saturn just up and off to the left. I’ll never make a cent off of knowing that, but I still think it’s cool.
In all seriousness, it’s a great application. I’m keeping an eye on it since Google has released the source code behind Sky Maps to the public, commonly known as open sourcing it. This means anyone interested in adding to the functionality or building something from what’s already there can go ahead without free of legal issues.
You aren’t limited to an Android phone either. A quick search on the web found me quite a few options of iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry and yes, even Windows phones. I hope to make a habit of adding a constellation to my collection here and there as the months go by. Some applications even map meteor showers!
Check it out. Get outside, get some fresh cool air and really try to notice what you see every night.
The universe is waiting.
Jon Reid is an IT professional working in Corner Brook. His column appears every other Tuesday in The Western Star.