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Pocket Universe ups the astronomy app ante

When the fireworks stop and the smoke clears, it would be a great weekend to look at our beautiful summer skies. Pocket Universe [App Store] is a US$2.99 app that has been updated to make star finding easier for those that have a new iPhone 3GS.

The app uses the position sensors and the compass to orient your phone to match the real sky. As you turn or tilt the phone, the sky map changes to give you a very accurate picture of where you are pointing, with lots of labels and links to more information. This is one of the first examples of an augmented reality app to hit the platform since the introduction of the 3GS.

If you have an older iPhone or iPod touch running OS 3.0, you can tilt the phone to match where the real sky is, but you'll have to manually set the direction you're facing.

This changes everything for the novice astronomer. I tried the feature and it worked really well, even though I was near a large metal building. As I turned my phone the display of the sky changed very rapidly to keep up with my movement.

Other nice features from the last version are intact. You can tap the 'locate' button to find any object that is above the horizon. Select it and it centers on the map. Tap a pop-up for more info and you get a quick summary of the object. In the new version of the app a further tap gets you a Wikipedia entry.

You also get a list of meteor showers, lunar phases and a very nice 'tonight's sky' feature that tells you right away what's up and worth seeing.

Some things I'd like to see improved: The app could support finger-pointing to an object to identify it in addition to going to the locate menu, and the Virtual Sky feature is buried in an options menu. I'd like to see an onscreen button to turn it on and off.

The 3GS features are similar to a Celestron product called the Sky Scout that is a dedicated astronomical instrument. The Sky Scout has a lot more information, and audio tours of the skies, but it costs $200.00. If you're really serious about the stars and planets I'd give it a look.

Meanwhile, another favorite astronomy app, Distant Suns [App Store] has been updated recently, and is now on sale for US$3.99. It has added features to the wonderful tour guides and now includes more information about the objects displayed, including travel time at light speed to the planets. It also includes some breathtaking images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

This is the International Year of Astronomy, so it's a great time to get outdoors and look up. It's fun to do, and the iPhone apps really make it a more compelling and educational experience.

Here are some screen shots of Pocket Universe in operation:

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