Watching the heavens on a nightly, or even casual basis? The web and modern technology has certainly altered the landscape of modern astronomy, (mostly) for the better. Once, we all huddled around cardboard planispheres, illuminated by red flashlights; now, it’s now a common sight to see illuminated smartphone apps accompanying telescopes at star parties, all waving skyward with virtual planetarium programs guiding users around the night sky.
It’s long been humanity’s dream to do something useful with our smartphones. Sure, we can take selfies, and post pictures of our meals, but true smartphone greatness has eluded us. Until now, that is.
Thanks to NASA, we can now do some citizen science with our ubiquitous devices.
For over 20 years, and in schools in over 110 countries, NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program has helped students understand their local environment in a global context. Now NASA has released the GLOBE Observer app, which allows users to capture images of clouds in their local environment, and share them with scientists studying the Earth’s climate.
“With the launch of GLOBE Observer, the GLOBE program is expanding beyond the classroom to invite everyone to become a citizen Earth scientist,” said Holli Riebeek Kohl, NASA lead of GLOBE Observer. The app will initially be used to capture cloud observations and images because they’re such an important part of the global climate system. But eventually, GLOBE Observer will also be used to observe land cover, and to identify types of mosquito larvae.
GLOBE has two purposes. One is to collect solid scientific data, the other is to increase users’ awareness of their own environments. “Once you collect environmental observations with the app, they are sent to the GLOBE data and information system for use by scientists and students studying the Earth,” said Kohl. “You can also use these observations for your own investigations and interact with a vibrant community of individuals from around the world who care about Earth system science and our global environment.”
Clouds are a dynamic part of the Earth’s climate system. Depending on their type, their altitude, and even the size of their water droplets, they either trap heat in the atmosphere, or reflect sunlight back into space. We have satellites to observe and study clouds, but they have their limitations. An army of citizen scientists observing their local cloud population will add a lot to the efforts of the satellites.
“Clouds are one of the most important factors in understanding how climate is changing now and how it’s going to change in the future,” Kohl said. “NASA studies clouds from satellites that provide either a top view or a vertical slice of the clouds. The ground-up view from citizen scientists is valuable in validating and understanding the satellite observations. It also provides a more complete picture of clouds around the world.”
The GLOBE team has issued a challenge to any interested citizen scientists who want to use the app. Over the next two weeks, the team is hoping that users will make ground observations of clouds at the same time as a cloud-observing satellite passes overhead. “We really encourage all citizen scientists to look up in the sky and take observations while the satellites are passing over through Sept. 14,” said Kohl.
The app makes this easy to do. It informs users when a satellite will be passing overhead, so we can do a quick observation at that time. We can also use Facebook or Twitter to view daily maps of the satellite’s path.
“Ground measurements are critical to validate measurements taken from space through remote sensing,” said Erika Podest, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is working with GLOBE data. “There are some places in the world where we have no ground data, so citizen scientists can greatly contribute to advancing our knowledge this important part of the Earth system.”
The app itself seems pretty straightforward. I checked for upcoming satellite flyovers and was notified of 6 flyovers that day. It’s pretty quick and easy to step outside and take an observation at one of those times.
I did a quick observation from the street in front of my house and it took about 2 minutes. To identify cloud types, you just match what you see with in-app photos of the different types of clouds. Then you estimate the percentage of cloud cover, or specify if the sky is obscured by blowing snow, or fog, or something else. You can also add pictures, and the app guides you in aiming the camera properly.
The GLOBE Observer app is easy to use, and kind of fun. It’s simple enough to fit a quick cloud observation in between selfies and meal pictures.
Download it and try it out.
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons probe made history as it passed within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of Pluto, thus making it the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet up close. And since this historic flyby, scientists and the astronomy enthusiasts here at Earth have been treated to an unending stream of breathtaking images and scientific discoveries about this distant world.
And thanks to the New York Times and the Universities Space Research Association‘s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, it is now possible to take a virtual reality tour of Pluto. Using the data obtained by the New Horizon’s instruments, users will be able to experience what it is like to explore the planet using their smartphone or computer, or in 3D using a VR headset.
The seven-minute film, titled “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart“, which is narrated by science writer Dennis Overbye of the New York Times – shows viewers what it was like to approach the dwarf planet from the point of the view of the New Horizon’s probe. Upon arrival, they are then able to explore Pluto’s surface, taking in 360 degree views of its icy mountains, heart-shaped plains, and largest moon, Charon.
This represents the most detailed and clear look at Pluto to date. A few decades ago, the few maps of Pluto we had were the result of close observations that measured changes in the planet’s total average brightness as it was eclipsed by its largest moon, Charon. Computer processing yielded brightness maps, which were very basic by modern standards.
In the early 2000s, images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope were processed in order to create a more comprehensive view. Though the images were rather undetailed, they offered a much higher resolution view than the previous maps, allowing certain features – like Pluto’s large bright spots and the dwarf planet’s polar regions – to be resolved for the first time.
However, with the arrival of the New Horizons mission, human beings have been finally treated to a close-up view of Pluto and its surface. This included Pluto’s now-famous heart-shaped plains, which were captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) while it was still several days away from making its closest approach.
This was then followed-up by very clear images of its surface features and atmosphere, which revealed floating ice hills, mountains and icy flow plains, and surface clouds composed of methane and tholins. From all of these images, we now know what the surface of this distant world looks like with precision. All of this has allowed scientists here at Earth to reconstruct, in stunning detail, what it would be like to travel to Pluto and stand on its surface.
Amazingly, only half of New Horizon’s images and measurements have been processed so far. And with fresh data expected to arrive until this coming October, we can expect that scientists will be working hard for many years to analyze it all. One can only imagine what else they will learn about this mysterious world. And one can only hope that any news findings will be uploaded to the app (and those like it)!
With the ever-increasing affordability of technology, Virtual Reality is making its way into people’s homes. Systems like the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR when it’s released next Fall, are becoming increasingly common. These systems, and others to come, will allow people to not only watch VR movies and play VR games, but also to explore space from the comfort of their own homes. This won’t be the only intersection of Virtual Reality and space, though.
NASA, as is often the case, has already blazed a trail when it comes to VR and space. They’ve been using VR to train astronauts for quite a while now. They have a whole lab dedicated to it, called the Virtual Reality Lab, located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. At this facility, astronauts use VR to prepare them for working aboard the ISS.
NASA has flirted with other VR solutions as well. They used an Oculus Rift and a VR Treadmill combined with Mars footage from the Curiosity rover to create a virtual walk on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s use of VR is the most advanced around, naturally, but it’s not something most of us will ever encounter. For the rest of us, VR is making it’s way into our space-loving lives in other ways.
A company called Immersive Education has created a VR simulation of the Apollo 11 mission. It allows users to re-live the mission. You can look around the inside of the spacecraft, look out the window toward Earth, even watch and listen as astronauts walk on the surface of the Moon. The company promises “Historically accurate spacecraft interiors and exteriors.”
Here, Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke checks out the Apollo 11 VR on Oculus Rift.
Companies DEEP Inc. and Freedom 360 collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency to create a VR film called “The Edge of Space.” They used 360 degree cameras to record the view from a balloon that reached an altitude of 40km above Earth. Check out their video here. To get the real interactive effect, visit their page to download their app and view it.
Then there’s what I call virtual VR. Or you could call it “headsetless” VR, I guess. Though it lacks the immersion of full VR, it’s still cool. It’s a virtual planetarium from Escapist Games Limited, called Star Chart. Star Chart allows users to cruise through the Solar System and the Universe, checking out stars, nebulae, planets and other objects along the way.
This is just the beginning of VR’s entertainment and educational capabilities. With the growing affordability of VR, and the technological advancements to come, there’s going to some great implementations of VR technology for we space enthusiasts. I expect that in the next few years, we wannabe space explorers will be able to explore the surface of other worlds with VR, right in our own living rooms.
Observational astronomy is a study in patience. Since the introduction of the telescope over four centuries ago, steely-eyed observers have watched the skies for star-like or fuzzy points of light that appear to move. Astronomers of yore discovered asteroids, comets and even the occasional planet this way. Today, swiftly moving satellites have joined the fray. Still other ‘new stars’ turn out to be variables or novae.
Now, a new and exciting tool named Starblinker promises to place the prospect of discovery in the hands of the backyard observer.
The advent of photography in the late 19th century upped the game… you’ll recall that Clyde Tombaugh used a blink comparator to discover Pluto from the Lowell Observatory in 1930. Clyde’s mechanical shutter device looked at glass plates in quick sequence. Starblinker takes this idea a step further, allowing astro-imagers to compare two images in rapid sequence in a similar ‘blink comparator’ fashion. You can even quickly compare an image against one online from, say, the SDSS catalog or Wikipedia or an old archival image. Starblinker even automatically orients and aligns the image for you. Heck, this would’ve been handy during a certain Virtual Star Party early last year hosted by Universe Today, making the tale of the ‘supernova in M82 that got away’ turn out very differently…
Often times, a great new program arises simply because astrophotographers find a need where no commercial offering exists. K3CCD Tools, Registax, Orbitron and Deep Sky Stacker are all great examples of DIY programs that filled a critical astronomy need which skilled users built themselves.
“I started to code the software after the mid of last month,” Starblinker creator Marco Lorrai told Universe Today. “I knew there was a plugin for MaximDL to do this job, but nothing for people like me that make photos just with a DSLR… I own a 250mm telescope, and my images go easily down to magnitude +18 so it is not impossible to find something interesting…”
Starblinker is a free application, and features a simple interface. Advanced observers have designed other programs to sift through video and stacks of images in the past, but we have yet to see one with such a straight-forward user interface with an eye toward quick and simple use in the field.
“The idea came to me taking my astrophotos: many images are so rich with stars, why not analyze (them) to check if something has changed?” Lorrai said. “I started to do this check manually, but the task was very thorny, because of differences in scale and rotation between the two images. Also, the ‘blinking’ was done loading two alternating windows containing two different images… not the best! This task could be simplified if someone already has a large set of images for comparison with one old image (taken) with the same instrument… a better method is needed to do this check, and then I started to code Starblinker.”
I can see a few immediate applications for Starblinker: possible capture of comets, asteroids, and novae or extragalactic supernovae, to name a few. You can also note the variability of stars in subsequent images. Take images over the span of years, and you might even be able to tease out the proper motion of nearby fast movers such as 61 Cygni, Kapteyn’s or even Barnard’s Star, or the orbits of double stars. Or how about capturing lunar impacts on the dark limb of the Moon? It may sound strange, but it has been done before… and hey, there’s a lunar eclipse coming right up on the night of September 27/28th. Just be careful to watch for cosmic ray hits, hot pixels, satellite and meteor photobombs, all of which can foil a true discovery.
“A nice feature to add could be the support for FITS images and I think it could be very nice that… the program could retrieve automatically a comparison image, to help amateurs that are just starting (DSLR imaging).” Lorrai said.
And here is our challenge to you, the skilled observing public. What can YOU do with Starblinker? Surprise us… as is often the case with any hot new tech, ya just never know what weird and wonderful things folks will do with it once it’s released in the wild. Hey, discover a comet, and you could be immortalized with a celestial namesake… we promise that any future ‘Comet Dickinson’ will not be an extinction level event, just a good show…
Download Starblinker here.
Think you’ve discovered a comet? Nova? A new asteroid? Inbound alien invasion fleet? OK, that last one might be tweet worthy, otherwise, here’s a handy list of sites to get you started, with the checklist of protocols to report a discovery used by the pros:
–How to Report New Variable Star Discoveries to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
-The Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams (they take emails, too!)
–How to Report a Comet by veteran comet hunter David Levy
–How to Report a Discovery via the International Astronomical Union
-And be sure to send in those Starblinker captures to Universe Today.
If you’re like us, you’ve been following the news closely as the New Horizons mission speeds towards Pluto. Want to follow it even closer? Check out the free Pluto Safari app now available from the developers that brought us the award winning astronomy app ‘SkySafari 4.’ It is available in both iOS and Android.
The fully interactive Pluto Safari provides a countdown in time and distance for when New Horizons will reach Pluto on July 14, 2015. It will also give you the latest position of New Horizons and Pluto, providing 3-D views of the Solar System and the Pluto system, as well as 3-D models of the spacecraft. By using the Time Controls, you can run through the mission, backwards or forwards, to see the mission step-by-step. Just so you don’t get lost in time and space, the status bar always displays the current date, time and location.
The app will also show you where Pluto is located in the sky from your location. Who doesn’t want to look up in the exact spot where Pluto is, knowing that New Horizons is there too? But the app allows you to do even more: the simulator provides an accurate depiction of the sky, and you can touch and drag to change the direction you are looking, and zoom in and out to adjust your field of view.
Pedro Braganca from Simulation Curriculum, the company that developed the app told Universe Today that the info on the app will be updated throughout the mission as new data becomes available. Simulation Curriculum created the 3D model of the spacecraft, but the surface texture maps for Pluto and Charon were created by Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute.
“The maps are both scientifically accurate (from Hubble data) and aesthetically pleasing,” Braganca said via email. “Obviously we’ll replace these textures with the ‘real’ Pluto map whenever that gets released post-flyby.”
If you’re newbie and only now hearing about the New Horizons mission, you can go back in time to review the mission since it launched on January 19, 2006, and explore all the mission milestones in the interactive Solar System Simulator. There’s also a detailed multimedia guide to Pluto and its history.
Want to give a piece of your mind to the IAU for the controversial demotion Pluto to a dwarf planet? The app has a “poll” that also allows you to weigh in on Pluto’s planet status.
You’ll also get alerts to the latest news from New Horizons on the milestones, data, and discoveries.
Additionally, Pluto Safari has interactive educational information for all ages.
Braganca shared an interesting story about they worked with JPL to get even intricate details in the app correct.
“On the orbital/trajectory data side, when we were developing the simulation of the Pluto-New Horizons encounter, we were unable to show New Horizons passing through Pluto’s shadow,” he said via email. “Our calculations appeared to be correct, and we were using the latest position data available for Pluto/NH from JPL Horizons – so it was a bit of a mystery. To help us figure this out, we contacted Jon Giorgini, Senior Analyst at JPL. Jon confirmed that the latest New Horizons maneuver was not yet modeled in the spacecraft reference trajectory. There was also a couple thousand km uncertainty in the Pluto system barycentric position, as determined from the ground. Jon updated the JPL Horizon data to the latest available information and we were then in close agreement with the Pluto-encounter with the new values.”
You can use the app from the desktop on your computer if want a larger view than on your phone by going to the app’s website, PlutoSafari.com.
To download Pluto Safari for iOS 7 and later, click here.
To download Pluto Safari for Android 4.1 and later, click here.
As New Horizons gets ever-closer to Pluto, Pluto Safari provides a great way to feel like part of the mission.
“The New Horizons Pluto flyby is a rare chance for science to touch the general public,” said Braganca. “With a free app, we’re capturing a new generation at this teachable moment. The Voyager missions of the 1980s inspired engineers who went on to develop today’s mobile technologies. Who knows we might inspire today’s young learners to accomplish 30 years from now?”
The folks at Cosmoquest have released a cool new citizen science app for Android! “Earth or Not Earth” allows players to test their knowledge of Earth, as well as learn more about the fascinating geology of the rocky worlds in our solar system. You can also challenge your friends on Facebook to beat your scores, thanks to the Facebook integration feature.
“Earth or Not Earth” was developed by Southern Illinois University graduate student and Cosmoquest developer Joseph Moore. Moore designed “Earth or Not Earth,” and included two additional game features: “Matching” and “Pick 2.” The images used in “Earth or Not Earth” are public domain, and are sourced primarily from NASA planetary science missions, with more images to be added to the app in the future.
The app does cost $1.99 USD, and the Proceeds from “Earth or Not Earth” help fund the programmers at Cosmoquest, as well as citizen science programs, educational programs, and future mobile apps.
The user interface for “Earth or Not Earth” is pretty straightforward. After installing the app, the initial screen will prompt users to login with their Cosmoquest credentials (or create a new account). While some may see this as an annoyance, a Cosmoquest account allows access to many of the other citizen science projects Cosmoquest offers, such as Moon Mappers, Asteroid Mappers, and others.
After logging in, users are able to select one of several game-play options.
Players can start with the “Learn” section, which allows users to learn more about the rocky worlds in our solar system. Additionally, users can learn about geologic features such as craters, volcanism, fault lines, and even man-made surface alterations.
After learning about the processes that shape and alter rocky worlds in our solar system, users can test their knowledge with the “Earth or Not Earth”, “Matching”, or “Pick Two” mini-games.
“Earth or Not Earth” Displays images from various NASA planetary missions. The goal for the player is to determine if the image is of Earth, or Not. For those looking for a greater challenge, the “Matching” minigame provides an image that players must try to match to a rocky world, or a planetary geology process.
The most challenging mini-game in “Earth or Not Earth” is “Pick Two”, where players select two images that belong to the same world out of several shown on screen. With some images being in color, and others in black and white, players must rely on the knowledge gained from the “Learn” feature to make educated deductions about which images belong to which world.
Fans of planetary science will find “Earth or Not Earth” a challenging, yet entertaining and educational gaming experience. Gameplay is quick, and makes for a nice break between meetings, or something to pass the time while waiting to catch the bus.
“Earth or Not Earth” is available from the Google Play store at: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.cosmoquest.earthnotearth If you’d like to learn more about how the app was developed, Cosmoquest has a blog post available at: http://cosmoquest.org/blog/2013/12/got-earth/
A new app called “Sky Live” was just released from Vito Technologies and it will save you countless planning hours in your stargazing agendas. Vito Technologies, through a super-secret process, has discovered a way to give users a sky watching forecast anywhere in the world for up to 7 days in advance.
Were you planning a camping trip to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower? Is Venus going to be in the perfect spot in the sky to pull out your telescope and have a sky watching party? Sky watching is heavily dependant upon weather conditions and all that careful party planning is out the window when a bank of clouds settles in.
Universe Today and Vito Technologies is giving away 10 free copies of this app. How do you enter your name for this “appy” goodness?
In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, October 7, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.
More info on this app from the Publisher:
What it does: The main screen gives you one number: let’s say 78%.
Same as Fahrenheit degrees in weather, this percentage gives you at-a-glance info on how good tonight is for stargazing. The number is calculated with a special formula that takes into account things like is there anything interesting in the sky tonight, how cloudy, how bright is the Moon, etc.
Why it is different:
The formula for our Stargazing Index is superbly original and highly confidential. Combined with stunning space images, we hope this will be the most beautiful and accurate stargazing forecast on the AppStore.
– New app from the developers of Apple Design Award winning stargazing app with over 7 mln users
– Designed specifically for iOS7 (but will work on everything starting with iOS 5): blur and parallax, stunning graphics
– Detailed info on stargazing conditions for any location in the world for seven days ahead
– Moon phases
– Rise, set, culmination/azimuth for the most important objects: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and the International Space Station
– Weather forecast
– Light pollution
– The International Space Station position over the map
– ISS crew data
Once again, we are giving away 10 promo copies of Star Walk by Vito Technology. Whereas we provided 10 free copies for the iPhone, this contest is for 10 free copies for your iPad. What a great teaching tool this app can be: as parents, many of us are looking for interesting and educational activities to do with their kids. What better way to support family learning than by looking at high resolution, beautiful images of the night sky while learning the properties of various celestial objects? Vito Technologies have recently launched Dino Walk and Geo Walk. Look for a promotion in the coming weeks for their other app, Solar Walk.
More information can be found on Vito’s website.
From the developer:
Let’s find out more about our neighbouring planets in the Universe, play around with them determining the speed of circulation, time, choosing a particular planet to become the centre of the Universe, seeing the moons of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Uranus. The 3D model in the Solar Walk app is the scaled reproduction of the real Solar System and the Milky Way galaxy.
Here is how you enter to win a free copy of Star Walk for the iPad:
In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Thursday, September 12, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.
We have another great app giveaway for you, our valued readers. Star Walk is an app that allows you to point your iPhone at the night sky to provide names and descriptions of all the objects you are seeing. Furthermore, you can click on any individual star, satellite, planet or constellation and an in depth description will conveniently pop up on your screen. Whether you live in the city with lots of light pollution or in the country where there are more stars than black, this app will fill you in on all of the celestial objects you can (or can’t) see.
From the developer:
Star Walk is an award-winning Education app that allows users to easily locate and identify 20,000+ objects in the night sky. The 360-degree, touch control star map displays constellations, stars, planets, satellites, and galaxies currently overhead from anywhere on Earth. Highly praised and the winner of a 2010 Apple Design Award, the latest update allows users to enjoy unprecedented eye candy and interactivity of the star map, achieved with the new camera and high resolution of the new device.
Enter to win one of 10 free copies of this app for your iPhone. How?
In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, August 19, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.