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Classroom Stories: Sky Maps and Apps

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Credit: Vadym Drobot / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Everyone has their favorite sky maps, planispheres, and apps. I am no exception! Here are two resources that I go back to again and again as I prepare for class or for observing sessions.

Sky Maps is my favorite source for star charts. The star charts are free, have the right amount of detail for introductory students, and they photocopy well. The back page has a list of objects that can be seen with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a telescope.

At the beginning of each semester, I bring a stack of these star charts to hand out. I explain how to use them (pointing out, for example, that East and West are switched and asking the students why this might be), and then explain that during the semester, we’ll be figuring out all of the object types on the back.

I then tell them to go observing. I suspect that few of them actually do, but for some reason, they do not thereafter complain that I didn’t teach them the constellations! Go figure…

At various times and in various classes, I’ve used different planetarium programs on the computer. At the moment I teach in the planetarium, so this is not as critical a question as it has been in the past.

When students ask me for a recommendation, I recommend that they look at Celestia, which is open source and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Celestia is a 3-D program so students can use it both as an Earth-bound sky simulator and as a space simulator.

It’s not the easiest planetarium software to use, but the price tag more than makes up for getting lost in the universe once in a while!

I’m not particularly fond of using phone apps for looking at the sky because I find that they are too sensitive to the tilt of the phone. This makes sharing them difficult, even with someone standing next to you. As well, I’ve always been disappointed at what I can find out about the objects in view.

Perhaps I’m just grumpy, but if I can click on something, I really want to be able to click on something and find out all about it. I don’t miss that functionality with a paper star chart, but I do miss it when such a vast informational repository is already available in my phone!

What maps and apps have you found useful for your students? Feel free to comment with your own favorites!

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