Every now and then, we get asked to review astronomy tools. This time it’s a nifty app called Cosmic Watch, available on both Android and iOS devices. It was written by a team of Swiss developers, and at its core is simply an astronomical clock. But as you explore the beautiful interface, and work through its many options, it becomes clear that the app offers so much more.
So what exactly is an ‘astronomical clock’? According to the Cosmic Watch PR team, it’s a timepiece that also displays the phase of the Moon, as well as the locations of the Sun, Moon and Planets. This very interesting, especially if you are as fascinated by our Solar System as i am, even though it’s not particularly useful to an astronomical observer; the 3D display is centered on a globe of the Earth, making it hard to predict what you’d see if you went outside and looked up.
Fortunately, there are a few extra display modes worth looking at. The watch will reveal the time at any point on Earth, just by tapping it on the display. But is also an astronomical navigator, an armillary sphere, a radix chart, time travel machine, solar system simulator and eclipse detector. This is why the Cosmic Watch can show the position of the sun as well as the moon in the zodiac as well as the place and time of past, present and future solar eclipses and other celestial constellations. It allows viewers to view space from a realistic perspective based on their location. Unlike the mechanical astronomical clock, which has been around for over two millennia, the app offers a tangible representation of the solar system and the universe in 3D and makes the user the center of the cosmic movement.
So defeinitely a fun way to better understand the celestial sphere, and clearly a very useful tool for teachers trying to demonstrate concepts like the difference between sidereal and local time, or explain the retrograde motion of the inner planets. But what is it like to actually use?
First impression: It’s gorgeous! On initial launch, you’re presented with a simple Blue Marble representation of the Earth, surrounded by a representation of the Celestial Sphere – the imaginary sphere around the Earth upon which all the stars and planets appear to move, and which still forms the basis of the most common coordinate systems used by observational astronomers. The sphere updates in real time to show the locations of the Sun, Moon, planets and constellations.
Tap the icons down the left, and the view switches, adding extra information, or even exploding the celestial sphere outwards so show the Earth floating through space. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that you can speed or slow time, see how the Solar System was arranged at any time in the past (or future), and activate entirely new display modes.
Where to get it
The app can be downloaded from either Google Play, or Apple’s App Store, for whatever your local currency’s equivalent of 4 Swiss Francs is. But there are plans afoot to take the Cosmic Watch beyond the realm of mere apps as well – there will soon be both an attractive wall clock and a table surface version, both with the same touch interface. No word on the price for these devices, but I imagine they’ll be priced for a more premium market!