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App Smart: An Expanding Universe of Space Apps


The official NASA app.

From the reusable rockets by SpaceX to the stunning photos of dim and distant Pluto, space is all over the news. While becoming an astronaut is out of reach for most of us, there are plenty of apps that can take your mind on a journey to the final frontier.

Start with the official NASA app, which is easy to navigate and is free on iOS and Android, and for Amazon Fire devices. The app features photos and videos, news about current missions, NASA tweets and more.

Using your location on Earth, the app can even calculate when you’ll next be able to spot the International Space Station. My favorite feature is the live video feed from the station itself: There’s something humbling and uplifting about seeing our planet from that vantage point in real time.

The NASA app is very educational, and it’s both fun and enlightening to browse through the news and recent images from NASA’s many missions.

Although the app is inherently technology-focused, the interface and controls seem slightly old-fashioned. Still, exploring the NASA app is more likely to enrich your brain than playing a round of Angry Birds Space.

The Space Images app (free on iOS and Android) offers a different way to learn about space. Coming from NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this app catalogs recent images of planets, moons, asteroids and other features of the cosmos, captured by NASA-affiliated space programs.

The app has easy-to-use, icon-based navigation, and you can sort by either the top-rated images or the latest photos from NASA, like those still arriving from the Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Pluto. You can zoom in to explore the images in greater detail, and explanations about the photos is available with just a tap or two.

This app is science-forward, meaning it requires some concentration. It won’t appeal to everyone, and children using the app may need an adult to explain some of the material.

While the NASA apps offer interesting photos of our planet snapped from space, for a truly 21st-century space image experience check out EO Science 2.0 AR from the European Space Agency (free on iOS and Android). To use it, you first print out a special image and lay it on a surface in front of you. Then you launch the app, click start and point your smartphone’s camera at the printout.

The app then shows you a 3-D augmented reality image of Earth spinning over the printout. You can move your phone to look around or zoom in on the image. Tapping on Earth changes the image to show different maps incorporating data obtained from space, including height and depth, land cover, and ocean chlorophyll concentrations.


The EO Science 2.0 app.

EO Science 2.0 AR won’t keep you occupied for long: While it’s visually attractive, it doesn’t contain much real science or explanation — you’ll have to search online for that information to better understand the maps. But the app is a lot of fun and will excite younger users.

For a completely different way to keep up with the latest news from orbit, take a look at Space, Astronomy and NASA News from Newsfusion, which is free on iOS and Android. The app aggregates news stories from a long list of online sources and covers NASA and European Space Agency news as well as breakthroughs in space science. Its interface has big, bold images and uses simple taps and swipes to navigate. You can even choose filters to see only the space news that’s relevant to your interests.

And remember that winter nights can be perfect for exploring space using nothing more than your own eyes, if the weather is cooperative and skies are clear. To help you understand what you’re seeing up there, check out my new favorite astronomy app: Night Sky.


The Night Sky Pro app, with the constellation of Aquarius.

Billing itself as “your own personal planetarium,” Night Sky acts like a virtual reality guide to what you can see in the sky above you: When you hold your phone up it shows a view of the stars as seen from your location. It also contains news about coming stargazing events.

The app’s detailed weather forecasting section predicts naked-eye star viewing conditions for the week ahead. And if you pay to upgrade to the pro version, the app offers even more features, including very detailed information about galaxies, planets, constellations, stars and satellites, all displayed in an attractive, image-heavy interface. Night Sky Lite is free on iOS and Android, but is limited in its features. The more complete versions cost $ 1 and up.

Have fun traveling to infinity and beyond from the comfort of your armchair.

Quick Call

Microsoft has a new, free iOS app intended to deliver news that’s relevant to your professional interests. The app, News Pro, connects to your LinkedIn and Facebook pages to learn about your work, then chooses news stories for you from various online sources. Released late last month, the app may be a bit buggy, but it’s an interesting way to consume news.


NYT > Technology

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