If you give an Astronomonster the moon, he’s going to want the solar system. If you give him the solar system, he’s going to want the universe. And if you give him the universe, he’s going to want a parallel universe simultaneously.
At least that is how it is going in my house. It all started with an admiration for the moon. I showed my Astronomonster the Moon episode of The Universe. He became obsessed with the planets and wants to watch The Universe all the time. Then I checked out some solar system books from the library, like these and these. He wanted to look at the planet pictures and watch The Universe at the same time. I gave him a set of solar system window clings. He played with those all day the day he got them.
Now, they aren’t as interesting as the Solar Planets app on daddy’s Droid. But playing with the original Solar Planets app wasn’t always good enough, because he could only scroll on the solar system picture and click on a planet which took him to a page full of text about that planet. He wanted The Universe playing simultaneously. And then Daddy found an upgrade to the Solar Planets app called Solar Planets 3D where you can scroll through the planets, make them rotate, and turn them around however you wish. This app doesn’t have text on it, but links to online information about them.
And then he saw me playing with Stellarium, a free, home planetarium software program where you can simulate the night sky according to dates, put on constellation outlines, zoom in on stills of the planets and the moon, and more. Astronomonster loved it so much he was acting monstrously when I had to tear him away from it in order to cook dinner. And tonight I found a web app for him which is an interactive tour of the solar system where you can zoom in on a planet, make it rotate, and orbit around it. He liked that even better than Stellarium and acted even more monstrously when we had to tear him away for dinner.
There are A LOT of great apps and programs and sites for astronomy enthusiasts these days. Other night sky programs you can access are Celestia and Nightshade. While Stellarium confines you to the surface of the Earth, Celestia lets you travel throughout the solar system, to the stars, and even beyond the galaxy. And to quote from Nightshade’s description: “Nightshade is free, open source astronomy simulation and visualization software for teaching and exploring astronomy, Earth science, and related topics. Nightshade is a fork of the award-winning Stellarium software, but tailored for planetarium and educator use.” So there are three awesome programs, all of them free, which are bound to have something to fit your needs. And there are probably more to choose from as well.
For more website astronomy goodness, check out some of the stuff on NASA’s Solar System Exploration site. There’s a page full of interactive multimedia fun. For phone apps, here is a page of the 15 Top Astronomy Apps for iPhone and iOS. Here’s a review of some Android astronomy apps.
Oh, and I’ve been meaning to play with the Universe Sandbox, but haven’t had the time yet. With such descriptors as: “Ultimate Power – Spawn massive stars, launch asteroids, and manipulate gravity with just a few clicks” — and “Easy to Use -Intuitive, game inspired controls make creation and destruction effortless” — and “Real Physics – Uses Newton’s law of gravity to simulate the motions of the planets, moons, and stars” — it sounds pretty awesome!
Happy app hunting, everyone!