We are SUPER-stoked about SUPERMASSIVE

SUPERMASSIVE banner

We’ve been in the lab for the past two years working on something really big. It’s so big, in fact, that only one name seemed to fit: SUPERMASSIVE.

SUPERMASSIVE is an add-on for Sky Guide that gives you access to three amazing features:

+ HIGH DEFINITION ZOOM
Enjoy seamless detail in thousands of galaxies, nebulae, clusters and planets!

+ 50× LARGER CATALOGS
Dive in to 114 million stars, the complete NGC/IC catalog and so much more.

+ CINEMATIC TOURS
Discover the cosmos with breathtaking tours, an exclusive audiovisual series.

Who is SUPERMASSIVE for?
In short, it’s for people who love astronomy! If you like exploring the beauty and vastness of the universe, this is your ticket. We’re offering a free two-week trial period followed by a $9.99 USD annual subscription (prices vary by country). Try it and see if you like it!

How do I get it?
Update to the latest version of Sky Guide and look for the new SUPERMASSIVE option in the main menu.

Happy exploring! And let us know what you think!

The Perseids are Coming!

It's getting to be our favorite time of the year up here in the Northwest. August means warmer nights and one of our favorite meteor showers—the Perseids!

With enough patience under a remote, moonless sky, even the most novice observer is bound to catch a glimpse of a wayward meteor. Often little more than fleeting slivers of light—or dazzlingly bright by fortunate chance—meteors are small specks of cosmic debris (typically smaller than a grain of sand) colliding with Earth's atmosphere at tremendous speed and burning up upon entry. 

The misnomer 'shooting star' is a popular term for meteors, carried over from a time when the nature of these cosmic charms was still unknown. It is now known, however, that meteoroids (the term for a meteor prior to entering Earth's atmosphere) are mostly cometary in origin. Therefore, when Earth crosses the former path of a comet, it passes through a field of leftover debris and a meteor shower occurs. Whatever direction the Earth happens to be travelling at the time of interception generally gives the shower its respective name.

So how does one best view this year's Perseids? There are a few important tips to keep in mind if you are planning to watch: 

1. Timing. The peak date for the 2016 Perseids will be August 11-12 but in reality you don't need to view them on the exact peak date to enjoy them. You could try tonight, in fact, and you'd be sure to catch a few! If you're not interested in early morning viewing, these next few evenings are a better time to get out there because the Moon is still a crescent (read on for why this matters).

2. Darkness. Meteors can be bright but most of the time they are relatively faint so you'll want to find the darkest sky possible. Not only does that mean getting far away from city lights but also checking if the Moon is likely to spoil your darkness. We have a first quarter Moon to contend with this year, so early morning observing will be better than the evening hours (you'll have to wait until around 1:00AM for the Moon to set on August 11).

3. Where to look. Many people are under the false impression that you must know exactly where to look to watch a meteor shower. While it is true that meteor showers do originate from a point in the sky (the Perseids radiate from Perseus), as long as this radiant is above the horizon it is best to relax your gaze and let your eyes wander. Meteors will be seen streaking across many parts of the sky. But if you're looking for the sweet spot, use Sky Guide to point you in the right direction.

4. Patience. Meteor showers vary in both strength and rate so don't be disappointed if you don't see one right away. When it comes to meteor showers, those who wait are sure to be rewarded!

Creating Unforgettable Moments with Sky Guide

At Fifth Star Labs we normally don't blog about personal things but I just had to share this story because it reinforced why I love working on this app.

Long story short? I got married! We had a beautiful seaside ceremony, delicious food at the reception and some pretty spectacular toasts from our friends and family but it was the way the night ended that really put an unforgettable twist on an already perfect evening. It was about 10:55pm and my lovely bride was somewhere on the dance floor when Fifth Star Labs Co-Founder, Chris pulled me aside. His message? He had been looking through the list of upcoming Iridium satellite passes with Sky Guide and saw there would be a magnitude -6.7 flare at 11:09. What?!? How perfect! Plus, our venue was going to kick us out at 11:00 anyway so what better way to clear everybody outside? I had our MC make the announcement about the special event that was about to happen and everybody shuffled outside to stand along the dock for a clear view.

After a few minutes of waiting it began to emerge. The murmurs of "where?" and "do you see it?" were quickly replaced with oooohs, ahhhhhs and cheers as the satellite grew far more bright than any star or planet in the sky. Some were convinced they must have just seen a low-flying airplane. Others had just seen their first satellite. For Chris and I, it was one of our best public demonstrations of Sky Guide ever and it's a moment I'll not soon forget.

So now that I've convinced you this is something you absolutely must see, how do you go about seeing it? Well, we make it pretty easy.

In Sky Guide, tap the Search icon and then the Satellites category. You'll see two subcategories titled Brightest and Iridium. Tap on Iridium and you should see a schedule of upcoming flares listed. If not, be sure you have the flares tab selected near the top.

Now before we go into choosing the perfect pass, what exactly is an Iridium flare? Back in the late 90s, a fleet of satellites were launched by a company called Iridium Communications, providing service to satellite phones, pagers and other gadgets to any surface location on Earth. But their design has a curious side-effect: their highly-reflective antennae reflect sunlight back to Earth at very specific angles. In other words, if you catch those glints at the right time and place, you are in for quite the spectacle.

What makes for the best pass? The brightest one possible, of course! The most intense Iridium flares are at apparent magnitudes of about -8 and are very rare for any given location. Most of the flares you'll see in the Sky Guide list will probably be less bright, at magnitudes of -1 or -2. That's still bright enough to see from any light polluted city, but for a real showstopper you're looking for passes of at least -6. Sky Guide displays these magnitudes in the far right column of each flare listing. Other columns include the N/S/E/W direction and the angle above the horizon so you can predict whether you'll have a clear view. Selecting any of these flares will take you back to the sky view and show you where the satellite is currently located. Make sure you are in automatic pointing mode (either tap the Compass button or simply hold your device up to the sky) so you know where to be looking in the real sky.

You'll probably find that it takes quite a few days—sometimes weeks—to see a really bright flare. If you have opted-in to Satellite Passes (navigate to Sky Guide Main Menu > Notifications > Satellite Passes), Sky Guide will automatically alert you of these super bright flares 3 minutes in advance. Alternatively, if you want to schedule manual reminders for any particular flare, you can always swipe left on a flare listing and tap the Alarm icon.

That's it! Super easy, right? So next time you're out with friends and family, the weather is good and it's getting dark, pull out Sky Guide and treat everybody to an unforgettable experience.

Binoculars for Astronomy: Boring or Breathtaking?

Think you need a telescope to enjoy astronomy? Many department stores would have you believe so, peddling their (500X!) plastic trinkets at ‘bargain’ prices. But astronomy has always been and always will be a game of light—and maximizing the amount of that light passing through your pupils is the secret to bright and sparkling views. Emphasis on the plural: pupils. We have two eyes and by only using one of them, your brain is operating at half-signal!

Many experienced observers find that binoculars provide some of the most enjoyable, awe-inspiring views of the heavens—and for good reason. Binoculars are used with both eyes, which provides bright, spacewalk views of rich, wide-field expanses. Open star clusters shine with gem-like brilliance and even the brighter nebulae and galaxies can be appreciated. Plus, they are much more portable than most telescope setups, meaning you will be more likely to use them. Lastly, they are a dual-purpose instrument, so you can use them for terrestrial, daytime viewing as well. Not so with most telescopes, which typically provide mirror-image or upside-down views.

So what are the most important things to look for when shopping for astronomical binoculars? There are a number of factors that will directly impact your viewing experience but we find the following to be the most important:

  • Apparent field of view: This specification tends to be listed in different ways, sometimes in degrees and sometimes in feet @ 1000 yards (If you see a field of view spec listed in feet @ 1000 yards, simply take the number, divide it by 52.5 and then multiply it by the magnification to get the apparent field of view in degrees. If it is listed in degrees of true field of view, take this number and multiply it by the magnification). Bigger is better with apparent field of view because tunnel vision is no way to get that spacewalk feeling. We really like binoculars with apparent fields of 65 degrees or larger!

 

  • Exit pupil: This is the biggest factor in determining how bright the image will be and in astronomy, brighter is better. Exit pupil can be calculated by dividing the objective diameter by the magnification (for example, with a pair of 10x50mm binoculars, 50mm ÷ 10 = a 5mm exit pupil). The human eye can dilate to a maximum pupil size of 7mm (if you are reasonably young and your eyes have fully dark-adapted) so finding binoculars with a 7mm exit pupil will maximize the brightness of the image. But we find that exit pupils of 5mm provide sufficient  brightness for most observers and viewing conditions.

 

  • Eye relief: This is especially important for eyeglass wearers but greater eye relief really makes viewing more comfortable for everyone. Generally, at least 15mm of eye relief is recommended for the most comfortable viewing. 20mm is even better but you shouldn't need any more than that.

 

  • Magnification: One might assume that greater magnification is better for astronomy but that’s too simplistic. Keep in mind that many star clusters span multiple degrees and low power can be quite suitable for such objects. It’s also important to consider that magnification has a direct impact on the exit pupil, and diminishes brightness (see exit pupil, above). Lastly, if you are holding binoculars by hand, higher magnifications tend to appear unstable, causing stars to jitter wildly. Unless you plan on using a mount (which defeats the attractive portability of binoculars), we would advise against choosing anything above 10X magnification.

 

  • Optical and Build Quality: This is a more difficult specification to judge on paper but will also determine the quality of viewing (and the price). Fully multi-coated optical surfaces will improve the contrast. Terms like ED, HD, or APO generally imply the use of higher index glasses and there will be less chromatic aberration (different colors of light not coming to focus at the same point) and field curvature (out-of-focus stars toward the edges of the field). Waterproofing and fogproofing usually means that the optics are sealed from the elements and gas-purged, which is helpful if you live in more humid regions or plan on using your binos in wet conditions (perhaps you are a hunter?).

 

So what binoculars should you get? That really depends on how much you’re willing to spend, so we’ve selected a number of binoculars at different price-points, from get-the-job-done budget models to a high-end spacewalk experience:

$44.99 Bushnell PowerView 10x50 Wide Angle Binocular
What we like about them:
- Great apparent field of view (65 degrees)
- Good exit pupil (5mm)

$88.55 Nikon ACULON A211 10x50mm Binoculars
What we like about them:
- Great apparent field of view (65 degrees)
- Good exit pupil (5mm)

$227.00 Leupold 10x50mm BX-2 Acadia Binoculars
What we like about them:
- Good apparent field of view (58 degrees)
- Excellent eye relief (19mm)
- Good exit pupil (5mm)

$359.95 - Celestron Granite 10x50mm Binoculars
What we like about them:
- Great apparent field of view (65 degrees)
- Good eye relief (17mm)
- Good exit pupil (5mm)
- Good optical quality
- Waterproof and fogproof

$699.00 - Steiner 10x56mm Nighthunter XP Roof Prism Binoculars
What we like about them:
- Excellent apparent field of view (68 degrees)
- Good eye relief (17mm)
- Great exit pupil (5.6mm)
- Great optical quality
- Waterproof and fogproof

$2,399.00 - Leica 10x50mm Ultravid HD / Black Armored Binoculars
What we like about them:
- Excellent apparent field of view (67 degrees)
- Adequate eye relief (15mm)
- Good exit pupil (5mm)
- Excellent optical quality
- Waterproof and fogproof

But what about Brand XYZ 25x100mm? Why are those not listed? Don’t get us wrong. Big binoculars are pretty neat too—one of us owns a pair of 15x80mm Steiners, in fact—but they get pretty difficult to hold steady without some type of support and we believe that defeats one of the main benefits of binocular astronomy, that is, ease of use and portability. Besides, even 15X or 25X doesn’t give you enough power to pick out planetary details anyway, so is the extra magnification even worth the hassle? A keen observer might notice that most of our recommended binoculars are 10x50mm—that is no coincidence! We find 10x50s to be an ideal balance between brightness, field of view and weight—an astronomical sweet spot! But don’t let that limit your options if you prefer something else.

As developers of Sky Guide, we get a lot of questions about which telescope to buy, but the truth is that for many people, binoculars are a better place to start. Follow these guidelines when shopping for your own pair and you'll be on your way to enjoying some of the best sights the night sky has to offer. Good luck and happy stargazing!