One of my all-time favorite movies is “Contact.”
The movie, based on the book “Contact” by Carl Sagan, stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.
The plot revolves around a major discovery by Dr. “Ellie” Arroway, played by Foster. Ellie, a scientist with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program, discovers a signal from a distant planet that proves we’re not alone.
It’s the opening scene that sucks me in every time, when a young Ellie is encouraged by her father to explore the stars.
Ellie asks, “Dad, do you think there are people on other planets?”
Her father replies, “I don’t know ... if it is just us ... seems like an awful waste of space.”
As a kid, I was fascinated with space. My favorite star chart was a rotating circle set to my position on Earth. Set the chart to your coordinates, look down at the circle and look up to see the constellations.
It’s also one of the things I remember about my limited conversations with my father. He was sick most of my life, but he loved looking at the stars with me. In his own way, he encouraged me to stargaze and to wonder about what else was out there.
My attraction to space has only grown, and I’m passing down that fascination to my kids.
Or at least I think I am. Maybe I’m just annoying them.
Either way, it gives us time to connect, to ask questions, to explore.
Except now, with this generation, we have apps on our iPads and smartphones for stargazing. The good apps are packed full of interesting images, charts and information.
I asked my friend, Dr. Patrick Durrell, professor and director of the Ward Beecher Planetarium at Youngstown State University, about his favorite apps for stargazing.
“I have two stargazing apps on my iPad,” Durrell said. “Sky Guide and Sky Safari.”
“Both are good, and they allow you to see the sky in the direction in which you hold your phone,” Durrell added. “This can help with locating specific objects with the naked eye.”
Sky Guide, from Fifth Star Labs, was a 2014 Apple Design Award Winner.
“Sky Guide has great features like constellation outlines, locations of various celestial objects, and you can tap on objects to get more information,” Durrell said.
Sky Guide is available for Apple products and costs $2.99.
My kids’ favorite Sky Guide feature is night vision. When activated, the app changes their view to a red background to help their little eyes focus on the stars and not on the glow from the iPad. This is important for kids who have a difficult time switching their focus between screen and sky.
Sky Safari is another of Durrell’s favorites and is available for both Apple and Android devices for a small fee.
“Sky Safari has a lot of options to really customize the view,” Durrell said. “I really like the constellation outlines, and in Sky Safari they are from the old H. A. Rey outlines that I grew up with.”
If you’re looking for something more, Sky Safari offers “plus” and “pro” versions for $14.99 and $34.99, respectively.
You can follow Durrell on Twitter at @PatrickDurrell.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.