My Top 3 Recommended Free Smartphone Astronomy Apps for Beginners

Wednesday, June 1, 2022 - 3:26 PM

5 minutes read

3 free apps to find constellations, visualize the Solar System, and spot the International Space Station

I get this question a lot: "Which smartphone app do you use to look at the sky?"

People want to know how to find constellations, planets, and stars, but don't know where to start. After a few years of trying different ones out and teaching people to use various apps, I think I've nailed down a solid answer.

Summer has nearly landed here in Montréal and I'm hoping this post gets you excited to download these apps, head outside, and start looking around.

All of these are free and available on Android and iOS.

PS: I don't make money from recommending these apps. I wish.

Trevor Kjorlien showing Star Walk 2

3 Types of Apps

Each app does a specific thing.

The first, Star Walk 2, is designed to help you find planets, stars, constellations, and the Moon.

The second, Solar Walk Lite, gives you a birds-eye view of the Solar System.

And the third, ISS Detector, helps you find the International Space Station when it flies overhead as a bright moving dot. It's visible to the naked eye and is really cool, trust me.

Star Walk 2

This app helps to show you what stars, constellations, and planets you're looking at in the sky.

I've used quite a few of these types of apps before. Some are great, some are terrible, and Star Walk 2 hits a real nice balance for being a free app.

After you download it, it'll ask for your location. This isn't for anything nefarious. It just needs to know where you are on Earth so it can show you what's in the sky.

After that, it might prompt you to sign up for a subscription. Say 'No thanks'. An occasional ad will show up, but that's the cost of free.

Screenshot of Star Walk 2 interface

Basics

Each corner of the app has a different function:

  • Top-left: toggle the compass on and off. When this is turned on, wherever you move your phone, that's what appears in the sky in front of you.
  • Top-right: change the date/time. If you want to go back or forward in time, tap this button, then use the scroll wheel that appears on the right edge of the screen. You can tap the minute, hour, and day to scroll more quickly.
  • Bottom-right: opens the menu to change settings. You can toggle different constellation artwork and effects.
  • Bottom-left: search for a specific planet, constellation, or star. The free version doesn't show everything, but it shows the basics.

There's a lot of functionality in here that I can't go over in a brief blog post.

But if you want to learn more, I use this very app for my workshops and events.

Download

For a beginner looking to get a free astronomy app, this goes a very long way.

Download for Android

Download for iPhone

Solar Walk Lite

I've included this second app because every time I bring this out during a workshop, people immediately ask the name for it.

It won't help you find things in the night sky, but it's educational and just kinda fun to play around with.

Solar Walk Lite lets you see the planets orbit around the Sun. You can change the time (forward and backward), and zoom in a planet to see some of its features, then tap to get a whole bunch more info.

Screenshot of Solar Walk Lite

Basics

When you open the app, it'll zoom in on Earth. Try zooming out with two fingers to reveal the Sun and the planets.

Then, take one finger and drag down to change your view so you're looking "on top" of the Solar System. Neat, huh?

From here, you can tap on different planets, move around them to see different features, and tap the little 'i' icon to get a whole bunch more info.

You may have already guessed, but by default this isn't to scale. Though there is a setting to change this, this app really shines by showing people the features of each planet.

Download

This app is perfect for when I need to teach about the orbits of planets. This has just enough features and doesn't get in my way.

I can't recommend it enough for anybody looking to teach about the planets in a visual way.

Download for Android

Download for iPhone

ISS Detector

This app is designed for one thing: to help you see the International Space Station when it flies over your location.

If you don't know, you can see the ISS as a bright, moving dot in the sky with the naked eye. It takes about 5 minutes to move across the sky and so you have to know when when and where to look.

Enter, ISS Detector.

Screenshot of ISS Detector

Basics

When you first open this app, it'll ask for your location. Again, nothing nefarious – it just needs to know your location on Earth so it can tell you when the ISS will pass overhead.

The screenshot above is from the tablet version of the app, but what you'll see is largely the same:

The app will show a list of upcoming times the ISS will be visible. Tap on one and it will give a bunch of information, including the time and direction. It will also show where the ISS currently is over the globe.

Pay attention to 2 things: Start Time and Start Direction.

Start Time tells you when you should look outside (this is really precise, actually).

Start Direction tells you which direction in the sky you should look. If you tap Radar it will ask to use your camera (give it permission), then show you where in the sky to look with a little white circle:

View of iPad with ISS Detector app showing where the ISS will begin to appear from

This little white circle will move as the ISS pass continues and should help you spot it much easier. Once you see it, you can put down your phone and enjoy the show.

Download

This is a fantastic app and has a bunch of other great features. Perfect for pros and newbies.

Download for Android

Download for iPhone

Wrap-Up

There's probably other fantastic free astronomy apps out there, but I've found this is a great starter kit for somebody new to the hobby.

And I swear by them: I use these in my workshops and events. If you want to come in person to learn about them, I often do workshops through spring, summer, and early fall.

Hope these help you out!

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