SkySafari 5 Plus is the intermediate version of Simulation Curriculum's trio of planetarium-style iPad apps, which depict the starry sky in the direction you are holding your tablet. SkySafari 5 Plus costs $14.99 and is an especially good choice for beginning astronomers, though it's good for more serious amateurs as well. It shows a beautifully rendered sky and all the stars you're likely to see in a small telescope, plus numerous galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, comets, asteroids, and satellites. SkySafari 5 Plus also has the ability to control a computer-driven telescope.
Although it can't render the sheer number of stars and other objects as our other astronomy Editors' Choice Luminos - Astronomy Companion, SkySafari 5 Plus contains more data for each object, and includes more detailed descriptions, as well as images, for the more prominent objects. The two apps complement each other: SkySafari 5 Plus is best for beginning and intermediate stargazers, and Luminos is a good fit for intermediate or advanced amateurs. SkySafari 5 Plus offers enough to earn its own Editors' Choice.
The SkySafari Family
SkySafari 5 Plus can render many more objects than the basic version of the app, SkySafari 5, which costs $2.99. That version is intended for casual stargazers, and lacks the ability to control a telescope. SkySafari 5 Pro, which costs $39.99, is geared to advanced amateur astronomers and researchers, can render an enormous number of celestial objects: 27 million stars, 740,000 galaxies, and every comet and asteroid ever discovered.
Like the Pro version, SkySafari 5 Plus lets users control a computerized telescope through the app. Its range of objects—2.6 million stars, 31,000 deep-sky objects (galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae), and 18,000 asteroids, comets, and satellites should suffice for the vast majority of observers. It shows stars as faint as magnitude 13, about which is about one 650th of the brightness of the faintest star that can be seen with the naked eye, and about the limit of what seen through a small telescope from a suburban sky.
SkySafari 5 Plus can be used with an iPhone (including Apple Watch support) or iPad. I tested it on an iPad Air 2 running iOS 9.2.
Design and Features
Like other so-called planetarium apps, SkySafari 5 Plus shows the stars and planets in the direction you point your tablet. The app's depiction of the night sky fills nearly the whole screen. In the upper left corner are the location of the observer (or any other preset location), in latitude and longitude, and the azimuth and altitude of the star field that's at the center of the screen. In the upper-right corner are the date and time, the size of your current field of view, and information about the view's scaling and the direction you're pointing. Along the bottom of the screen is a bar with icons titled Search, Info, Center, Settings, Time, Scope, Orbit, Compass, Night, SkyWeek, Tonight, Share, and Help. As you might guess from that list, the taskbar is a bit cluttered, and chances are that you will only use a portion of these icons regularly. For instance, Scope is only useful if you use your iPad to control a computerized GoTo telescope.
The Search function lets you look for stars, constellations, planets, satellites, meteor showers, and deep-sky objects—which include galaxies, star clusters, nebulae. You can find them either in drop-down menus or by typing the object's name into a search field. From Settings, you can add or remove labels, constellation figures and lines, adjust the brightness and color of stars, modify telescope-control settings, and change the foreground (which by default depicts the Mauna Kea observatories). Stars below the horizon are grayed out by default, though you can set it so the area below the horizon is transparent (making the sky one continuous sphere) or translucent.
SkySafari shares one fun feature with the Sky Guide: View Stars Day and Night app: If your iPad's sound is turned on, you will hear a musical note when you touch a star or other object. The note's pitch seems to be random, unlike with Sky Guide, where the pitch was coordinated with the star's color and temperature, with cooler red and orange stars sounding a low tone, and hotter white and blue stars emitting a high pitch.
Pressing the Time button lets you see how the sky changes when you move forward or backward in time, by calling up a digital clock just above the taskbar. Pressing Compass realigns the sky to correspond with the compass direction. The Night icon puts the app into Night Vision mode, in which the screen is red and the stars muted, to preserve your eyes' dark adaptation. SkyWeek gives you Sky & Telescope magazine's list of sky events for the week.
The Info button provides data on whatever object you have highlighted (by tapping the object on the screen). Brighter or important objects include images and descriptive text—several screens full for the most prominent objects, like the Pleiades or Orion Nebula. This is one thing that sets SkySafari 5 Plus apart from many planetarium apps, including Luminos, which has more cursory data, and fewer and shorter descriptions.
SkySafari 5 Plus shows an impressive number and variety of cosmic objects, and it stands out for the thoroughness of the information it provides. Its rendering of the sky is beautiful, and nearly as appealing as Sky Guide's magnificent sky. As with Luminos and SkySafari Pro 5, you can use the app to point a computerized telescope. SkySafari Plus 5 doesn't include as many stars, comets, or asteroids as Luminos, nor does it have the resources in setting up an observing schedule found in Luminos, but it has more information on the objects it does show, and earns an Editors' Choice as an educational astronomy app.