April 2, 2012 at 5:45 PM ET
None of us living today will ever get beyond our celestial backyard in real life, but there's a fleet of apps out there that can blast you through hyperspace to explore — and understand — the far frontiers of the cosmos on your tablet computer. The latest app is "The Wonders of the Universe," a multimedia spin-off of physicist Brian Cox's coffee-table book and TV documentary series of the same name.
The app, sold by Harper Collins for the iPad 2 and the new iPad, organizes more than 200 interactive articles, two and a half hours of video and hundreds of graphics to do a show-and-tell that ranges from subatomic quarks to the largest scales of the cosmic web.
To navigate through this virtual universe, you use your fingers to swipe, spread and pinch the pictures and icons on the screen. First you select one of the cosmic scales, then you tap on a topic, and then you can watch a video or read all about what you're interested in. Extrasolar planets? Colliding galaxies? Black holes? The big bang and the big chill? It's all at your fingertips. And thankfully, there's also a tutorial that shows you how to do all that swiping, spreading and pinching. The video clips from the show are streamed on the fly, so you'll want to make sure you have a fast wireless connection. But at an introductory price of $6.99, all that content is hard to beat, even if it a lot of it lives in the cloud rather than in your tablet.
There's lots more to the iPad universe than "Wonders." Here are four other iPad / iPhone apps I touch upon (literally!) in the video above:
Star Walk: This $4.99 app takes advantage of your tablet's GPS and compass capabilities to provide an augmented-reality view of the night sky. Want to know where to look for Venus and the Pleiades star cluster? You can either hold up your iPad and scan around for the right sight, or do a search for "Venus" and follow the pointers on your screen. If you focus in on a star or planet and tap on the "information" button, you can get quick facts about the object in question. You can also look around for the International Space Station or other satellites passing overhead.
The Night Sky: This 99-cent app doesn't have as many bells and whistles as Star Walk, but it works on the same principle: Hold up your iPad, and the app will tell you what you're looking at — whether it's a constellation or star, planet or satellite. It's also available for Android devices.
Solar System for iPad: Astronomer/writer Marcus Chown has created a beautiful $13.99 app for the iPad that presents the solar system in full, with loads of text, video, pictures and graphics. You can pick and choose your planets, and give them a spin while you're at it, or make your way progressively from the sun all the way out to the icy frontier of our solar system. As the author of "The Case for Pluto," I particularly appreciate the fact that Chown gives dwarf planets, asteroids and comets their due.
Solar Walk: The folks who brought you Star Walk have also come out with Solar Walk, a $2.99 app that gives you a 3-D virtual model of the solar system. You can zoom all the way out to the Milky Way, but it's more fun to zoom in on one of the planets and find out what's going on in real time. When you focus in on Earth, you can find out the position of major satellites in their orbits. Tap on the International Space Station and you can watch it passing over our planet's landscape. You can even click a 3-D button, put on your red-blue glasses and geek out to the third dimension.
There are lots more space-themed apps for tablets and mobile phones, including the free GoSkyWatch planetarium app, Exoplanet and GalaxyCollider. I've mentioned some of these apps previously, but what are your favorites? Feel free to share your recommendations in the comment space below.
More about science apps:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.