Star Walk Raises iPad to Stellar Heights
Oct 11, 2010 5:00 AM PT
During one of my annual vacations to Maine, I remember being huddled on a beach with a bunch of shivering souls one cold evening in June as an Acadia National Park ranger tried to take us on a tour of the night sky with an underpowered laser pointer.
I have no doubt she could see Taurus, Hercules and Pisces in the twinkling sky, but I left the session chillier but no wiser about exploring the firmament after sunset. I could have used Sky Walk that night.
Star Walk is an astronomy app for the iPad. It uses all the tablet's assets to bring the night sky to life in a dazzling and arresting way.
We've all seen pictures of the dark heavens with the stars in the constellations neatly tied together like a picture in a kid's connect-the-dots book, but when we actually gaze on the pinpoints of light in that sea of ebony overhead, the connections are less than apparent.
Star Walk will fix your position using the iPad's location capabilities. It uses that fix to calibrate the app's "digital compass." The compass allows you to point the iPad at the night sky and see a graphic representation of it on the tablet's screen. You can see the stars in a constellation and the outline of its namesake on the display, then lift your eyes to where you're pointing your iPad and see the real thing in the sky.
Built-In Web Access
When you launch Star Walk, it politely asks you for permission to use your location for its calculations. Then it displays a screen of astronomy data for the day. You can also move through time from the screen, viewing daily data for yesterday, for example, or tomorrow.
Information on the screen includes the rising and setting times for heavenly objects like the sun, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as their elevation from the horizon in degrees. It also contains the phases of the moon.
When you close the data screen, you'll see a portion of the night sky. You can move around the sky by dragging your finger on the screen. Double tapping the screen will enlarge the area tapped. Pinching the screen will reduce the visible area in size.
If you want to learn more about an object on the screen, you can tap it then tap the "i" button at the top left corner of the display. Some of the narratives have links to Wikipedia for additional information. Unlike most iPad apps that include links to the Web, though, Star Walk displays information inside the software so you don't have to leave the app to see the additional information.
You can search for heavenly bodies, too, by tapping the magnifying glass at the lower left of the screen. Search lists are organized into four categories -- constellations, solar system, stars and "messier." Messier items are things like star clusters and nebulae. When you tap an on a search list, the program jumps to a star map that displays the object and its surroundings.
The Perfect iPad App
The main menu for the app can be called up by tapping an icon in the lower right of the display. From the menu you can activate the "live" view -- where you point the iPad at the sky and a facsimile of it appears on the screen -- and see a "picture of the day."
You can also bookmark screens from the menu and see your current location on the face of the earth.
In addition, settings can be customized from the menu. You can toggle "night mode" -- where the information on the screen is displayed as red on black -- and toggle the display of constellations, as well as control the brightness of the screen and toggle the app's sounds and music.
A "time machine" feature can be activated by tapping the clock icon at the upper right of the screen. It lets you display what the sky looked like at different points in time.
Sky Walk is a perfect iPad app. It embodies everything that distinguishes the tablet as a unique platform for enriching our daily lives. It's especially appealing for those of us who gaze on the stars at night and ponder their mysteries.