It hard to explain why amateur astronomy has the same social stigma attached to it as twitching and trainspotting; let’s face it stars and planets are way cooler than a long-tailed tit and the 10.45 passenger train from Surbiton. But if you’re secretly hooked on plasma ball gazing then Star Chart will be right up your solar system. Like the free Google Sky Maps, this app uses your Android phone’s built-in GPS and compass data to display a real time virtual chart of the night sky. Just point your phone to the heavens and marvel as a map of our immediate galaxy unfolds.
It’s hard not to keep constantly referring to Google Sky Maps when testing Star Chart. Both are based around the same tech, both offer similar features but the Big G’s app is free while Star Chart costs £1.99. So what does this app bring to party to justify the extra outlay?
As soon as you point your phone skywards, the gulf in graphic rendering is clear. Star Chart has a backdrop of star clusters and vapourous illustrations from 15th century astronomer Johannes Hevelius, which dip in and out of view as you move the phone over constellations. Compared to Google Sky Maps skeletal mapping it’s a work of art while it also helps to put structure and form to these star patterns.
Star Chart’s one-upmanship on Google Sky maps continues with its cool educational fact boxes. Tap on a planet or individual star and an info window will appear. It’s a neat little feature, although it proved fiddly to accurately discriminate between stars when they’re in close proximity while planets in particular were, for some unknown reason, unresponsive.
Just like Google Sky Maps, you can decide what layers will appear on screen: planets, stars, constellations and Messier objects (a catalogue of astronomical objects compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier in 1771, factoid fans) while Latin names, images, reference grids and constellation lines can also be turned off if the view starts to get cluttered.
For astronomy neophytes, the search facility will help to find their bearings. You can hunt out planets, stars, constellations and those exotic Messier entities and Star Chart will provide handy directional arrows so you can locate them in the vast dark yonder. The AR mode can also be deactivated, letting you manually roam the universe at your leisure.
So is it worth shelling out a couple of quid for Star Chart when you can get near identical functionality for free on Google Sky Maps. Life of Android would have to say yes. The app is far more polished while the artwork flourishes and fact pop ups deliver that little bit extra for your night sky activities.
The bottom line
A must have app for both amateur astronomers and curious onlookers
Version reviewed 1.83
Requires Android 2.1 or later