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    Celestial navigation by Smartphone
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2010 Aug 13, 18:03 -0700

    David asked if there were any iPhone apps for celestial navigation. There are, and there are also approaches for using these handheld computers that let the navigation enthusiast create computational tools from scratch without jousting with the beast of actual smartphone programming.

    First of all, most modern handhelds/smartphones can open and run fairly sophisticated spreadsheets. You can develop and test a spreadsheet on your main computer, email it to yourself, and then open it on your handheld, and you have everything you need. NavList member Peter Hakel has an extensive set of celestial navigation spreadsheets available for a low price. George Brandenburg also recently described a spreadsheet he wrote to load on his iPhone based on my "19th century methods" navigation class.

    For a smartphone celestial solution that goes beyond the spreadsheet approach, you may also want to look at the long-established "StarPilot" software by Luis Soltero which has recently been ported to iOS and runs on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch in addition to the more traditional TI calculators. Here's a nice description of the iPhone version of this software by an independent party:


    NavList members will notice at least one familiar name in the comments section. Luis Soltero has this priced at over $70 which is very high for an iPhone app but I can see that he's trying not to undercut pricing on other platforms. It's an issue...

    Does anyone know of any other celestial navigation or traditional navigation software for smartphones? There are plenty of astronomy products available including some that may be of interest for navigators, like Google Sky Map, which is an excellent "star finder" and of course there are mountains of GPS navigation products. But how about software products more specifically connected with celestial navigation?

    And now, someone please grab me a soapbox... I have some preaching to do. :)

    The smartphone revolution is a true revolution. Scientific calculators still have their place (I have several in my home, and a nice virtual one on my smartphone, too). But today, VAST computing power is available in handheld devices accompanied by an extraordinary suite of sensors. Most smartphones have cameras and microphones which can be programmatically accessed. Many have accelerometers, GPS, WiFi Internet access, bluetooth, etc. (and yes, mobile telephone capability). Most of the newer ones have magnetic compasses. And the newest iPhones have a digital gyroscope, too (in addition to the three standard linear accelerometers). The computing power available is comparable to what was found in a laptop computer just ten years ago, and the built-in software on the latest is slick and powerful. The operating systems range from the fading Palm OS, to the stumbling Windows Mobile, and up to the heavy-hitting Blackberry, iPhone/iOS, and Android. Nearly all of these can open spreadsheets, and they all have thriving communities of developers.

    I realize that many celestial navigators prefer the computing devices they have had for some years over "kids' toys". Scientific calculators feel "serious" and naturally cell phones seem like kids' toys at first glance. But don't let that feeling keep you from accessing the amazing computing power you can hold in your hand. These are serious computers. And you don't have to buy the latest to get the capability... There are used early-generation iPhones and iPod Touches available for less than a hundred bucks and likewise for the other mobile platforms. As long as they're not physically broken, you can have your amazing 21st century pocket computer without the cell phone contract, and you can still use them as Internet browsing tools if you can find a wireless network (and watch movies, play great games, listen to music, etc., etc.).

    I am waiting for a complete cel nav app that uses the built-in camera on the smartphone. I find about one minute of arc resolution on the camera in my phone (an HTC Hero running Android, by the way). Imagine entering a DR position to the nearest degree of latitude and longitude. Then take one photo showing some unspecified bright star above the horizon, turn and take another showing some other unknown bright star and the horizon. The device would identify the stars based on the DR altitudes and the approximate compass bearing and "instantly" display a celestial fix accurate to the usual one nautical mile or so that we expect from celestial navigation. Not much fun when the machines do all the work, but it would be interesting to see it done! And it still might be the sort of thing that could be leveraged to get folks interested in traditional celestial navigation...

    PS: This postscript is NON-NAVIGATION-RELATED. Since many of you may never get around to seeing where this technology is going, let me describe some fun with computer vision... Every now and then, I play with "Google Goggles" on my phone to see what it can do. Just now I grabbed an old paperback science fiction novel off my bookshelf. The book is "Against the Fall of Night" by Arthur C. Clarke. I pointed the phone at it and let it read the cover of the book. The fonts are fairly "funky" early 1950s art fonts. So the software accessed the phone's camera, sent what it found to Google's servers and it returned its results: the Wikipedia page for "The City and the Stars" (which was a 'complete rewrite' of "Against the Fall of Night"). This is a fairly obscure, yet remarkably accurate result! Next I picked up "The Maya" by Michael D. Coe. I pointed the phone at just the title on the cover at a skew angle with a portion of the very colorful artwork (an ancient Maya painting) visible behind it. The author's name was not visible, and only a small portion of the cover art was visible. Ten seconds later, the software returned a FULL photo of the cover of the book, a link to amazon.com where I could purchase the book and read reviews of it, the Wikipedia article about the author, Michael Coe, and a link to an image of the Mayan painting that was the source for the artwork on the book's cover. That's about as good as it gets. Then, I pointed the phone at my Casio "fx-260 solar" scientific calculator. In this case, for its first results, G.G. failed, and it tried to find information on the "Casio EX-Z60". But for its first matching image result, it found the exact calculator model with links to the manual for it, where to buy it, etc. Oddly, for its third result, the software provided a link to a comedy club around the corner from where I am right now in Chicago (the software seemed to be saying "I give up... go see a show!"). And finally, I opened a recent issue of the Economist and found an image of an engraved 19th century portrait in a book review. Google Goggles did its thing and correctly identified the portrait as the author Emily Dickinson. It's impressive.

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