By Nate Adcock on Sat, 04/10/2010
Just when I start to get bored with my iPod touch, a new app comes along that makes it like new again. The app in this case is Solar Walk from VITO. I have reviewed the amazing Star Walk previously here (a celestial viewing app), but was wondering when they would get round to adding 3-D planet exploration to the mix. There's a great (and free) PC app out there that does this called Celestia, and Google Earth also has some pretty awesome planet/star-gazing features. The Solar Walk app is so well-done, I can lose myself for hours at a time with it. And instead of wasting that time with a mindless game or video, I am actually learning stuff at the same time! Wow....!
You can download Solar Walk here, and if you want/need an extra-solar celestial viewer (also well-done with mucho great features) you might want to grab Star Walk as well. The 2 apps are a matching set, and should pretty much cover your mobile cosmos-gazing needs. I downloaded the app directly from the App store on my iPod touch (version 3.1.3 firmware), and had no issues running it. The app is some 52MB, which considering the well-done visuals and music you will experience, is not too bad.
The app starts up with a typical splash screen/progress bar, and the loadup time is about the same as you might expect from a 3-D game. Your journey begins with ethereal background music as the display zooms into a real-time sim of earth as seen from space. You'll notice that there is already a gentle motion and that the time slider on the right (and the date/time sequence above) are changing slowly. The initial startup sets time in forward motion so that the rotation of planetary bodies (and their moons) in our solar system is apparent. Pinch zoom and finger gestures make it very easy to navigate about.
A quick zoom (couple of inward pinches) out will reveal the moon as it rotates around earth. A drag of the finger will tilt the axis of rotation to an edge-on view of the plane of the elliptic. The orbits of the planets and their satellites are highlighted, and the direction of movement is easily discerned.
Solar Walk allows you to quickly view the solar system from any angle and determine relative orbital velocity and position of all bodies therein. Okay, that sounded way too geekified. In other words, you can view all the cool stuff in our solar system in a very cool way, ok?!! Star Trek looking cool!
The date/time display at the top indicates a “now” selection to allow you to quickly return to current solar system status. You can also use the time scale slider at the far right to rifle through years, days and hours while noting the planet motion. You can even drag it up/down to pinpoint specific motions. In this manner, you can note when important solar system system events are going to occur (or have occurred in the past), like planet alignment, retrograde, and if these events will be easily viewable from Earth. A top down view is handy for noting when orbiting objects are at their closest approaches to one another. It would be neat if you could also view well-known comet activity, and maybe even a few of the larger asteroids. Maybe these are features we can expect to see in the near future.
Solar Walk has a simple menu and selection scheme. You can can easily tap on an object (say Jupiter or one of it's large moons like Io) to switch to a zoomed view relative to the object and it's satellites. If you zoom way out, you can use the rocket menu icon in the lower right to fly in towards the object to a zoomed view again. To return to an overall solar system view, simply tap the icon in the lower left.
You can do a lot more than zoom, pan and otherwise sweep across space, though those things are cool enough. You can actually learn a lot about our Sun, planets, and their moons by selecting the “I” icon in the upper left of the display when viewing a particular item up close. The details are pretty in-depth, and for planets, will even include a 3-D cross-section cutaway of the crust and core. Pretty impressive! The music that accompanies your journey is a nice mix of synthesized electronica that does not become too monotonous, though it is at times pretty heavy on the phase shift. It's still a perfect touch to this well-done application, and I foresee both VITO cosmos-viewing applications being major winners for iPhone, iPod touch and especially the new iPad!
I do have a few gripes with the new app. For one, it lacks a search widget (included in Star Walk), which would make navigation even easier, as it can take a few swipes to locate and zoom to obscure objects like Iapetus (1 of 8 moons circling the ringed planet). I would also like more information available via links, possibly to external content. Celestia uses nineplanets.org for it’s back-end, which is chock full of useful and interesting info. The free Google Earth (PC version) does a really good job of tagging and linking tons of additional information from external sites (amazing imagery and data from probes, and orbiting telescopes, etc.) into the sky viewing modes. But remember that Solar Walk is a standalone app that doesn't currently require a net connection. Still, the info screens can be a bit sluggish coming up for an app that only has to grab local data, and not every object includes very much useful info. Neptune has at least 8 satellites that I know of, including a rather large one called Triton, but I can’t seem to locate any of them in Solar Walk. Even if a visibility threshold was applied to smaller moons, they should at least be shown as rotating dots or something. Really though, for a $2.99 version 1.1 application, the Solar Walk product is still a pretty outstanding effort. You can go grab it and start unlocking the mysteries of our solar system by going to the link below!