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Smartphone in hand Watching out for falling stars.

American stargazers could be forgiven for shaking a fist at the heavens this weekend. The Draconids meteor shower is expected to yield intense shooting-star activity, but by the time the sun sets on the United States, the action will most likely have ended.

Fortunately, you can still track and watch coming meteor showers and other astronomical phenomena if you have a smartphone loaded with Meteor Shower Guide or Meteor Shower Calendar, and two great star-viewing apps, StarWalk and Google Sky Map.

Now is a good time for stargazing, particularly with children. The night sky is more clearly visible in mid-evening than in the summer months, and for people in the Northern states, it's not so cold that everyone will run inside after spotting Orion's belt.

Of course, a clear sky is crucial, so a good weather app is important for planning. My favourite, MyWeather Mobile, is free on Apple and Android. It's slower to load than my other go-to weather app, Weather(PLUS) (also free on Apple and Android), but it offers a fuller spectrum of weather information and longer forecast periods.

Oddly, none of the major weather apps include information on moon phases, which is an important detail for lawn-chair astronomers, since it's hard to see celestial objects in a brightly lit sky. But you can find moon phases on both of the meteor-specific apps on my list, Meteor Shower Guide and Meteor Shower Calendar. Both offer schedules of the year's meteor showers, along with ratings and the moon's phase on the date of the shower's peak.

The extra cost of Meteor Shower Guide is justified in the additional information you'll glean from it. The Draconids, for instance, "are very slow-moving meteors," the app says. Hourly meteor rates are typically low, it added, "but on several occasions outbursts of 50 or more meteors per hour have been reported."

For people who miss the Draconids, though, Meteor Shower Guide and Meteor Shower Calendar offer an alternative - the Northern Taurids shower, which starts on October 20 and peaks on November 12.

Ideally, the apps would account for the likelihood that you would see a shower in your particular region, and then identify the least moonlit nights for stargazing. But they leave that sort of legwork to you. Likewise, you must go online if you want to identify the best available spots for stargazing in your area. ClearDarkSky.com, a website for astronomers, publishes state-by-state lists of public and private observation spots and an astronomer's forecast.

To my knowledge, no app yet exists with such information. I'd give it a week.

General astronomy

It's surprising that neither Google Sky Map nor StarWalk include this information in their own apps, since they feature so much else. Both have long been the standard for the general astronomy category, and for good reason. If you hold a device toward the sky and look through the viewfinder, it labels the celestial objects beyond. No more guessing about whether that dot is a planet or a star; no more mistaking the Big Dipper for the Little Dipper.

Of the many features on Sky Map, the one for meteor showers is the newest. In the 'settings' section of the app, there are several so-called layers, for viewing different objects. If you want to just see planets, for instance, you can uncheck stars, constellations and other elements on the list. If you want to put yourself in the best position to view a meteor shower, though, uncheck all else and point the device skyward. When there is a shower predicted, graphics will point to the area where meteors will most likely appear. If you know the name of the meteor shower, you can also type it into the search box and the screen will show the general location.

Screen on time-travel mode

Star Walk uses a different approach. In the Calendar section, the app lists important astrological events like solstices and meteor showers, along with more information on each item. If you tap an event in the calendar, the screen goes into a time-travel mode, in which the sky appears as it would on the date of the event, with an arrow pointing to the part of the sky where you'll see a simulation of the event.

One of the nice aspects of this feature is that you can point the device in the direction of the event and see if it would be visible from your yard. It feels almost like cheating. But the app would have come in handy for me this summer, when trying to help my younger children cross a big item - 'see a shooting star' - from their bucket list. On the first night we tried, only one of them saw a meteor, with expected emotional results. The next night we tried again, and - miracle of miracles - we all saw a few just before the clouds rolled in.

Serendipity has its place, no doubt. But a little smartphone-aided serendipity never hurts.

Back in Time is a beautifully executed lesson on the history of the universe and the evolution of life on earth.

Great for high school students or parents who'd like to tutor younger children and enjoy a first-rate experience of their own. ... Zappos fans should check out the company's mobile app (free on Apple and Android), which makes browsing and buying from the company easier and faster. ... 'Hanging with Friends', a word game from the makers of 'Words with Friends', may be equally addictive. -

Muscat Press and Publishing House SAOC 2011

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Date:Oct 10, 2011
Words:925
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