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Pick up your device to identify the stars

We spent a few nights in the heart of central Pennsylvania last August with one mission: stay up late to watch the Perseid meteor shower.

The meteor shower is an annual event. It’s identified on the family calendar alongside other important dates like birthdays, Christmas and Halloween. Sure, we may not be opening presents or dressing in funny costumes, but we use it as another reason to celebrate.

Our viewing location this year was as rural as you can get without camping deep in the woods. Location was important because it meant we were far away from light pollution. We learned our lesson about light pollution during past meteor showers.

If you want to see a lot of “shooting stars” (i.e., our kids’ term for meteors that streak across the night sky), you need to be away from the city and suburbs. Too much light means you’ll see fewer meteors. You also have to be willing to stay up late, something our kids never seem to mind.

I also learned that our kids are incredibly impatient when it comes to waiting for the elusive shooting star. Truth be told, I already knew they were impatient. But quite frankly, so was I.

“Where are these things?” I remember thinking to myself on a particularly crisp August night a few years ago. We were lying on our front lawn in Liberty Township, just north of Youngstown that year — and yes, as it turns out, there was enough light from the Valley to cloud our view.

Even though we didn’t see as many shooting stars during those early viewing attempts in the ‘burbs, I used it as an opportunity to teach our kids about constellations, planets, moon phases and satellites. We could still make out constellations and other brighter objects.

It was also around this time that we started dabbling with stargazing apps. There are many free and freemium (i.e., free to try, pay for extras) apps available for iOS and Android devices. We figured that if we really wanted to learn about the night sky, it’s helpful to have a robust tool.

We’ve tried many apps over the years, and some are very good. We still use our favorites. They include apps like Sky Map, Star Tracker, Star Roam and Star Walk (and Star Walk 2). They’re all excellent apps in their own ways.

But thanks to a Zoom call I overheard with my daughter’s fifth-grade science teacher (thanks Ms. Marla Dull), we learned about another powerful stargazing app.

Our new favorite is Sky View, and it’s so good that we dropped the extra $1.99 for premium access. You can also get the free version, Sky View Lite. Both are available for iOS and Android devices.

Download the app and point your device to the sky.

Thanks to the AR overlay, you can quickly identify stars, constellations and planets. It also identifies leftover rocket parts floating in space. Turns out, there’s a lot of space debris. You’ll also find satellites like Hubble or the International Space Station. Touch an object on your screen, and you’ll get more information and (in some cases) links Wikipedia entries.

Now thanks to Sky View, we can still observe our favorite celestial bodies, even with the bright lights of the big city nearby.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is a professor of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his blog at www.adamearn.com.

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