Sky Survey: Your Window To The Cosmos

As the App Store has swelled in size, it has become increasingly difficult to find those sparse gems — apps that can be a real treat to stumble upon. Sky Survey happens to be one of them. I first heard about the app while watching an episode of Horizon on the BBC iPlayer service and, utterly captivated by its premise and development, decided to track it down.

The cornerstone principle of the app is nothing new; in fact, you may have heard of Night Sky as an app that also details the many celestial objects on show above our heads. However, that’s where the similarities end. The end result of Sky Survey is derived largely from one man’s painstaking efforts to capture the Milky Way in unprecedented detail; an effort that has yielded some of the most breathtaking images I have ever seen. Stick around after the break to lose yourself in space.

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What’s It All About?

We’ve all looked up to the heavens on a clear night to find ourselves engrossed in the shear natural beauty on display. We’ve also wondered what it is that we can actually see: what constellations are in view? Where are the planets? Well, wonder no more. Sky Survey serves as your personal information portal to the cosmos. The names of every star, constellation, planet and nebula in sight are thoroughly detailed with all you need to know just one tap away.

When I say the app is a portal, I mean, it actually is a portal — almost. Simply hold your iPad up to the sky and watch as the image automatically orientates itself to mirror the sky on-screen in astounding detail, thus allowing you to identify any object you desire. Information portal, window, wormhole — whatever you want to call it, it is amazing nonetheless.

The spectacular sights of the Milky Way as pictured from Earth.

The spectacular sights of the Milky Way as pictured from Earth.

The use of this app is not limited to nighttime, however. Though the device’s built-in gyroscope can be used for automatic orientation, it is also possible to navigate the panorama by dragging the image with your finger, revealing details otherwise not visible from your location. Searching for specific objects can also be done via the magnifying glass icon which allows you to scroll through a list — a very long list — of content.

Sky Survey can be customised to show as many, or as few, objects as you wish. For example, it is possible to remove constellation information from the display to allow a focus to be upon the planets. This menu also extends into further detail for the more knowledgeable stargazers looking for specific deep-space objects. Perhaps my favourite optional add-on is the “bright stars” feature, which shows the brightest stars in the sky at their full-exposure.

A highly customisable menu allows you to search for specific objects and to gaze upon them exclusively.

A highly customisable menu allows you to search for specific objects and to gaze upon them exclusively.

With the extraordinary level of detail shown in the images, it can be understandably difficult to distinguish between individual objects in dense clusters. To combat such a problem, the developer has provided a legend attaching various shapes to different kinds of object allowing them to be correctly identified. To find different objects in a cluster, double tap on the desired area to summon a list of all identifiable features in that area — each defined by their corresponding shape — making searching that little bit easier.

Double tap on heavily clustered areas to see a menu of every type of object contained therein.

Double tap on heavily clustered areas to see a menu of every type of object contained therein.

In terms of overall functionality, Sky Survey allows the focus to remain upon the spectacular content it boasts and, consequentially, navigation is slick and easy to use providing for an all-round enjoyable experience.

The Back Story

Though apps like Night Sky provide a similar base feature set, Sky Survey distinguishes itself with its polished quality and unique use of real, yes real, photographs of the cosmos taken from Earth. Rather than using computer generated dots to simulate stars and planets, Sky Survey’s developer, Nick Risinger, spent well over a year travelling thousands of miles across the USA and South Africa in order to create a breathtaking panorama of the visible Milky Way.

What he produced is a 5,000 megapixel mosaic featuring over 37,000 individual snapshots of the Milky Way, allowing you to peer back into the annals of time, to look upon distant galaxies as if they were specks of dust and to immerse yourself in the wonders of space.

My favourite constellation, Ursa Major, shown in incredible detail.

My favourite constellation, Ursa Major, shown in incredible detail.

It goes without saying that the app is fully-Retina display optimised, thus showing Nick’s work in all its glory — not quite. The images, though beautifully detailed, are amazingly not able to be shown at their full resolution, putting their clarity truly in perspective. Taken in remote stretches of desert with next to no light pollution to speak of, the images depict a spectacle that the vast majority of people will never set their eyes upon; for that reason alone, this app is one to be savoured.

After a small period of use, I discovered that the app excels when used alongside a telescope. The already mesmerising practice of astronomy was greatly enhanced by Sky Survey, as it allows you to locate specific celestial objects on the iPad and then to look upon them in real-time through a telescopic lens. I used this technique to gaze upon one of my personal favourite details of the entire panorama: the rings of Saturn. Perhaps not the most mind-boggling sight there is, but certainly one of the more special and widely-recognised sights that really shows off the app’s quality.

The ever-popular rings of Saturn are clearly visible in remarkable clarity.

The ever-popular rings of Saturn are clearly visible in remarkable clarity.

An impressive, yet minor feature is the incorporation of time and location. As mentioned, the app uses the built-in gyroscope to orientate to your point of view, however, what wasn’t mentioned was its ability to recognise time. As you move through the weeks and months of the year, you will notice subtle changes throughout the image. For example, as pictured below, the moon will correspond to the lunar cycle being experienced at the time you look at it. Granted, it may not be one of the more impressive features available, but it serves to show that the smaller details can really help make a product great.

Sky Survey even takes into account your location and time-zone to show the Moon's lunar cycle.

Sky Survey even takes into account your location and time-zone to show the Moon’s lunar cycle.

What Makes It So Good?

Asides from the obvious aesthetic beauty the app holds, there are other powerful tools on hand that make it so brilliant. You may have been wondering what the “i” icon is hovering on screen in the preceding images? Not only does Sky Survey give you the names of every distinguishable celestial object, but it also boasts baked in Wikipedia support. Simply select any object and tap the “i” icon to show the corresponding Wikipedia page.

Although Wikipedia is not the de-facto standard of astronomical academia, it is still more than capable of providing foundational information that can be used to expand the knowledge of everyone from beginners to long-standing enthusiasts.

Not only is the app beautiful, but it can also help educate every standard of astronomer.

Not only is the app beautiful, but it can also help educate every standard of astronomer.

Therefore, not only is this app great for kick starting an interest in science and astronomy, it can also help educate users further to help foster a deeper interest in the subject. The beautiful imagery combined with smooth, responsive and educational functionality provides a fully immersed scientific experience that can prove invaluable for children and students. Present Sky Survey as a window to the universe and allow youngsters to explore the Milky Way and, subsequently, the deeper recesses of their brains.

The Verdict

Functionally, I encountered no problems in my almost-daily use of the app, the interface and navigational controls are surprisingly smooth and intuitive given the complex and data intensive content featured throughout. Not only are the images supremely beautiful, but the software under-the-hood is powerful enough to be a functional educational tool that can be used to inspire a new generation of enthusiasts. All in all, there is not an ounce of ambivalence in my mind; Sky Survey is my personal favourite iOS app of all-time, and I see no reason why it can’t be yours, too. Give it a try for yourself.


Summary

Created using over 37,000 real photographs of the night sky, Sky Survey is your personal window to the cosmos. Immerse yourself in the incredible beauty of the Milky Way and learn about it at the same time!

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