Category Archives: software

Cool app: Cosmic Watch

Often astronomers speak of an appreciation of the clockwork of the solar system, whether it’s the movement of the planets around the Sun or of moons and other objects in their trajectories through our neighborhood. An app called Cosmic Watch is a gorgeous representation of that clockwork for your smart phone or other iOS device.

Cosmic Watch, created by Celestial Dynamics LTD out of Switzerland—where else would you have your watch made?—is billed by the company as “the world’s first 3D interactive astronomical clock.” But they flip the concept upside down; while most astronomy apps have a point of view of looking up from the planet at the sky, Cosmic Watch gives you the view of Earth from out in space, and allows you to see the movement of everything around it.

Cosmic Watch screenshotI took the screenshot at left just as I was starting to write this article (click it to see it bigger). In this basic view, the face of the clock runs around the ecliptic, and the Moon, Sun, and planets are shown in the spots where they’re directly overhead. You can spin this view to look at the lineup from any angle. Change the settings and you can show the outlines of the constellations, or switch between views of the celestial sphere representation or a more open sky.

There are three other main views.

The astronomy view depicts the locations of the planets and constellations and allows you to decide if you’d like to view equatorial coordinates and various rings such as the ecliptic, the celestial equator, or Earth’s equator and tropics.

The astrology view takes a look at how solar system objects are moving through the zodiac.

solar system view lets you track the orbits of the planets around the Sun. These features are not limited to your current time or place. You can set Cosmic Watch to any time and date and any location on Earth, and you can set it spinning at a quicker pace to enjoy the motions of the cosmos.

Oh, and you can tell time with it, too! In fact, it’s essentially a graphical representation of what “time” is for us: the pace of Earth’s rotation with respect to the Sun.

It’s quite a versatile tool. The Cosmic Watch website points out that you can use it as “a realtime worldclock, time travel machine, an astrolabe, an antikythera mechanism, an orrery, an armillary sphere, or an astral-chart generator.” It has made the “best app” lists of Wired and The New York Times, among others.

My device is an iPhone 6. I imagine that the app would be even more enjoyable on devices with larger screens.

There’s a trailer about Cosmic Watch below. It’s available on Google Play and the iTunes Store. We recommend it!

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Causing mayhem and mass destruction in the Universe Sandbox

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if the Sun somehow vanished from the solar system, or wanted to watch planets smash into each other, or thought it would be fun to bombard the Moon with asteroids, you’re in luck! You can do all of those things and more with a computer game called Universe Sandbox2. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox2, gave a demonstration of it at this week’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“It is software that allows you to ask fantastical questions about the universe and see plausibly true answers,” Dixon said.

Universe Sandbox2 sells for $25.

The possibilities are vast. The slogan for Universe Sandbox2 is “create & destroy on an unimaginable scale,” and the software delivers. It lets users tinker with an incredible number of variables, from the mass and density of objects to the chemical makeup of their atmospheres. Eliminate all of the carbon dioxide and see what happens! Move the Moon in closer to Earth and watch the chaos. For all of the interesting science questions it can answer, Universe Sandbox2 also appeals to our inner 12-year-old.

“People like to collide things,” Dixon noted, and clearly he is one of those people.

“It’s a physics simulation, so in addition to doing interesting things with orbits, you can also do interesting things with collisions,” he added.

Universe Sandbox screenshot

Screenshot from Universe Sandbox2 of an object colliding with Earth.

Those mash-ups got a lot of oohs and aahs from the attendees at the meeting at the University of Washington. It was fun to see what Earth would do to the ring system if it were placed in orbit around Saturn. (Spoiler alert: Disruptive!) Dixon raced through dozens of scenarios, and that only scratched the surface.

He said the results shown in Universe Sandbox2 are “plausibly” true because they have to make some compromises. They don’t simulate every object or every particle out there because that would take way too much computer oomph.

Plausibly true

“It’s a very simplistic simulation; we’re not doing any pressure waves or dark matter,” Dixon said, “but it still is pretty cool.”

So when Mars smacks into Earth in an attempt to see if a new moon would result, you don’t necessarily have all of the data you would like.

“You really would want to have like a billion pieces,” Dixon said, but “because we’re trying to do this real time on modern-day desktops or laptops, you can’t have as many pieces as you want and get it still to run in real time.”

“We’re undoubtedly wrong in a lot of cases, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in the simulation,” Dixon noted. They’re revamping the way the program handles stellar evolution and are working to improve planetary climate simulations. Part of the challenge is that they’re often simulating events for which there is not yet a scientific answer.

“We’re trying to solve things that are not well-defined or understood,” Dixon said. That’s not to say they’re just making stuff up.

“Being realistic is really important to me,” Dixon said, but they want to let users come up with their own crazy scenarios. “One of the goals of the software is to allow ridiculous premises but then carry that to a realistic conclusion.”

Humble beginnings

In a way, Universe Sandbox2 has been in development for 20 years. When Dixon was in middle school his father downloaded a simple gravity simulator from a BBS list. (Remember those?) It didn’t have many features, but it caught Dixon’s interest.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the motions of gravity,” he said, “and gravity is a really simple formula, too. It’s always fascinating how this really simple formula can do these really beautiful and organic interesting motions.” Later on in middle school Dixon coded his own simulator. He’d tinker with it every once in a while, then became serious about it about ten years ago.

“This was not like the grand ambition. It was a thing I was working on for fun, and now it’s turned into this crazy thing,” Dixon said. “What started as a personal side project is now what myself and eight others do full time.”

“I think if I had a time machine and I went back and showed my younger self what it’s become, I would have been overwhelmed and wouldn’t have started on it,” he laughs.

“This is a passion project that I’m fortunate enough to continue working on.”


View the Universe Sandbox2 teaser below. Purchasing through this link supports not only Universe Sandbox2 but also Seattle Astronomy in our efforts to tell interesting stories.

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Astro Biz: iLanga

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

ilangalogoToday’s Astro Biz is iLanga Software Development and Environmental Consulting based in Kirkland, Wash. What’s so Astro Biz about that? Founder Paul Rodman notes that the company was founded in the middle of winter. From the iLanga website:

Having not seen any sunshine for months we decided that “Sun” was an appropriate name for the company. However, it was already taken. We hauled out a multi-language dictionary and looked up “sun” in other languages. “iLanga” is the Zulu word for “The Sun”. It is common to prefix Zulu words with lower-case “i”. Since we created the company it has become common practice to prefix company names with “i” or “e” to denote the fact that they are Internet-related. We wish it known that we didn’t follow this trend in our naming.

As an added astro-bonus, iLanga makes and sells astronomical software, including the fantastic AstroPlanner that we at Seattle Astronomy often use to plot our observing sessions. It’s the first Astro Biz that’s actually in the astronomy business!

More info:

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

Astro Biz index

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Sky Guide developers win Apple Design Award

A pair of Seattle-area software developers are getting some much-deserved recognition for their astronomy app. Chris Laurel and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs, recently received a 2014 Apple Design Award for their gorgeous iOS app Sky Guide.

Laurel and Risinger

Chris Laurel, left, and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs and designers of Sky Guide, an astronomy app that has received a 2014 Apple Design Award.

Laurel is a software developer whose titles include Celestia, an open-source application for astronomical visualization. He has consulted with NASA and the European Space Agency. Risinger is a renowned astrophotographer and designer perhaps best known for his panoramic photo survey of the Milky Way that consists of more than 37,000 individual images. Laurel tells Seattle Astronomy that the idea for Sky Guide germinated as a way to allow people to view Risinger’s imagery.

The first version of Sky Guide came out a little over a year ago, in May 2013, and Laurel says they’ve had the good fortune to be selling well right from the start.

“We have a good app, but it also takes some luck to get the exposure that you need to sell enough to keep yourself employed,” he says. A lot of the luck came in the form of support from Apple, which featured Sky Guide on the app store not long after it launched.

Sky Guide

A screen shot from Sky Guide.

“If you make something that the platform owners like, then they want to feature you because it shows off their devices and software,” Laurel notes of the support from Apple. Soon Sky Guide was featured as the Starbucks app of the week.

“That’s a free download; we don’t get money, but it gets you a lot of people looking at the app,” Laurel says, and that created some buzz. “Once you get enough users using it, then they tell their friends, so you have this sort of organic thing going.”

Laurel says the Apple Design Award came as something of a surprise, but says they’re deeply honored by the recognition from the company. Reviews have been great; Sky Guide was featured as one of the hot products for 2014 in the January issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Laurel, who is vice president for activities for the Seattle Astronomical Society, says he and Risinger are gratified at the interest the amateur astronomy community has shown in Sky Guide, but notes that this wasn’t their target customer group.

“We were going for a broader audience,” he says, explaining that Sky Guide doesn’t have features such as telescope controls that are offered by other astronomy apps. “We’re going for an audience of anyone who might look up in the night sky and say, ‘What’s that star?'”

We love Sky Guide for its gorgeous look and for its great depth. In addition to Risinger’s superb photography, the app features music and sounds by Mat Jarvis and a wealth of information about bright stars (by James B. Kaler) and about constellation mythology (by Ian Ridpath.) A cool filter feature lets the user see objects as they would appear in various wavelengths, including microwave, infrared, h-alpha, and x-ray.

The Apple Design Award is well-deserved! Sky Guide is available for iPhone and iPad for $1.99. Check it out!

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Checking out JupiterMoons

Yesterday was a beautiful day in the Seattle area and the evening began mild and clear, so I decided to take a break from some work tasks, drag the telescope out to the deck, and have a few quick looks at Jupiter. It was also my first time to give a test drive to the new “JupiterMoons” iPhone app that I purchased from Sky & Telescope a couple of weeks ago.

Jupiter's Moons from Sky & Telescope

The “Jupiter’s Moon” app for iPhone from Sky & Telescope magazine shows you at a glance which of the planet’s Galilean satellites is which, and also includes times for the day’s events involving the moons and the Great Red Spot.

JupiterMoons doesn’t give away any secrets. You can get the same information from your favorite astronomy magazine or software package. In fact, S&T has Javascript utilities on its website that do the same things. But there are three advantages to the app that I can think of. First, my iPhone is almost always in my pocket, so whenever I wonder what’s up with Jupiter the answer is handy. Second, on the app what you see is what you get. I always find those squiggly charts of Jupiter’s Galilean moons difficult to interpret, and usually have to take off my shoes to translate Universal Time into Pacific Standard. When you fire up JupiterMoons you get a snapshot of which moons are where right now and where you are. You can also look up times past and future. The view can be flipped or inverted to match the view in the gear with which you’re observing. Finally, the app is easy to read at night. There’s even a night mode that runs it in red light—not that we’re getting much in the way of night vision in our city backyards, but the feature may be important if you have a good, dark observing site.

JupiterMoons iconA couple of other features are useful. Tap on the “events” button and you get a listing of the current day’s transits, eclipses, and occultations of the moons and their shadows, and transit times for the Great Red Spot as well. The “learn more” tab leads the user to some quick facts about Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Alas, there were no events going on during the short time I had for observing yesterday, save for the GRS being in view. But I was able to identify the moons, and JupiterMoons would have let me know if there was a double shadow transit or some other notable event coming up later in the night.

JupiterMoons is a great little app to enhance your impromptu viewing sessions. At $3 it’s a steal. It’s available for iPhone and iPad from the iTunes store.

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