The best stargazing apps are an essential part of the modern amateur astronomer’s toolkit. They allow you to look up the stars and planets for a given night, and travel back and forward in time to see when certain objects rise and set, as well as showing the phases of the Moon.
If they’re on a mobile device, the best stargazing apps can be pointed at the sky to quickly identify constellations and asterisms, perhaps singling out a particularly bright point as Venus or Sirius. Pair them up with some of the best telescopes or best binoculars and these apps can help you track down night sky targets.
Even if you’re not prone to standing round at night with your phone in the air, you can use stargazing apps to predict what’s going on in the night sky, and know when to be outside, looking up, to best appreciate it. Meteor showers can be traced to their radiant, planetary conjunctions and eclipses timed to the minute.
They have their uses during daytime too, as they make excellent learning platforms for anyone trying to get a handle on what night-sky objects look like without having to stand outside in the cold. Learning the shapes of the constellations helps immensely when you go out to look for them, and you can even learn the names of the major stars too to impress your friends.
Here, then, are the best stargazing apps on the market today, from those that run on your phone to those that require a PC, those that connect to your telescope, and those that can be downloaded for absolutely nothing.
SkySafari 6 Pro: Best stargazing app overall
A comprehensive app from the more expensive end of the market, Skysafari 6 Pro is festooned with information about the night sky – you’re almost guaranteed to learn something from it, even if you’re a veteran stargazer steeped in astronomical lore.
That comes at a price, however, and this is an expensive app. It’s $39.99 with IAPs on top, so you have to really want it. Get it installed on your phone and tablet and point it at the night sky, however, and the investment you’ve made makes itself plain: the app can identify constellations, or you can connect it to your telescope and have it guide you around the stars. A great feature is ‘Tonight’s Best’ – a guided tour of the finest sights on show that changes as the year goes on.
As an educational tool, SkySafari 6 Pro can be hard to beat, and there are a lot more features that we go into in review. The only complaint is the price.
Stellarium: Best stargazing app for realistic night skies
The mobile version of the well-known open-source desktop app, this is a superb app that’s notable for the quality of its constellation illustrations. Unlike its Windows and Mac counterparts, however, you need to pay for it. Which is fair enough, programmers have to make a living too.
What you get for your money is a database that contains more stars than any other app, but not as many asteroids as Sky Safari. It isn’t as polished as that app either, though the way it pinpoints your position using GPS and displays the sky above you is spot on – so the sky you see displayed on your phone will be fairly similar to the real sky above you. You can locate and label your favorite constellations and planets, and even track satellites as they traverse the sky above, and access lore and stats about the stars and planets you select, including stories from different cultures.
Zoom in, and you can access HD photos of nebulae and galaxies, though some such as the Pleiades could do with an update. Pointing your phone at the sky will reveal the objects you can see, while the app also easily connects to most telescopes. Overall, this is one of the better astronomy apps out there.
Star Walk 2: Best stargazing app for beginners
Available as paid-for and free versions, the latter displaying ads and lacking features, Star Walk 2 is an augmented reality experience for the night sky, designed to be experienced through the phone screen rather than by connecting to a scope. It’s easy interface makes it well-suited to beginners.
Let the app view the sky through your phone’s camera, and it will overlay constellations in the direction you’re facing. You can also track the movement of planets and, if you pay for the upgrade, objects such as the International space Station and the Starlink satellites. There’s even a calm audio track you can turn off any time you want.
We liked the ‘Visible Tonight’ section that guides you to spectacular objects you can definitely see on a given evening, with photos and a link to its Wikipedia page for more information. Even at its most expensive, Star Walk 2 is a low-cost way to experience augmented astronomy, and the free version is perfectly usable if you can live with its limitations.
SkyView: Best stargazing app for learners
This easy to use and low-cost app (there’s a free version) has been around for a long time, but received many upgrades along the way. Its interactive star map recognises night-sky options and constellations, showing their paths when they cross the centre of the screen.
This is where the app falls down slightly – you need to be very precise in your positioning to get the information you need. Move slightly away from the object you’re interested in, and the details vanish – perhaps the designers had a stable tripod mount in mind rather than handheld viewing. We also found the AR screen to be extremely dark, even for viewing at night, but the graphics are clear and the illustrations of constellations are attractive.
When you do have it properly aligned, however, there’s a lot of info on offer, as you can bring up full descriptions, and even link out to the object’s Wikipedia entry for more.
The free version contains the details of fewer stars and constellations than the paid-for app, but doesn’t burden you with ads. You can upgrade by buying packs of extra stars and satellites, and even a music package. Telescope integration is limited, but there’s enough detail and functionality on offer here to make it attractive to amateur astronomers.
Star Rover: Best low-cost option
A nicely designed app that’s not too expensive, Star Rover is let down slightly by the size of its database, which doesn’t contain as many stars and other objects as its competitors’ do.
This in no way makes Star Rover a poor app, however – 120,000 stars is still plenty, and it contains all the most interesting and brightest ones. It offers similar functionality to other apps, giving an augmented view of the night sky with constellations marked with illustrations, and tracks for the planets and other notable objects. While there’s a search feature that can ferret out any area of the sky you’re interested in looking at, there’s little additional information on offer once you’ve found what you’re looking for.
Due to its basic interface and blurry font, the app is starting to look rather dated, and could do with an update. Despite this, it’s perfectly usable, has a complete moon-phase and eclipse calendar, can show you objects yet to rise above the horizon, and is extremely competitively priced.
Starlight: Best stargazing app for the basics
A rather basic app that’s not only cheap, but comes with an ad-supported free version, Starlight is deceptively simple.
The app offers an augmented view of the heavens, with plenty of information on offer. Find something interesting, tap the screen twice, and you’ll be immersed in details about it. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in man-made objects such as the International Space Station, you won’t find it here – its database covers natural objects only.
And while it’s possible to zoom in and find dimmer stars that can be obscured by light pollution, there’s not much detail about them here. Stick to the brightest objects in the night sky, and Starlight will fill you in nicely, with links out to Wikipedia to flesh out the facts.
The ads in the free version take up rather a lot of the screen, so if you’re serious about this beginner’s guide to the galaxy, you’ll get a better experience by paying up. It’s only $2/£2, although for that price you could also get one of the above options that we rate slightly better. The main reason to go for this option? It’s limited database means that you’ll just get the basics when you’re stargazing, so you can focus on learning the main stars first.