Google Sky Map Takes to the Stars

With Sky Map for Android, Google Pittsburgh develops a stargazing app to help users learn about the night sky.


 

Kevin Serafini and John Taylor heard about the Android, a secret smartphone project that was still under development, during their first week at Google Pittsburgh. The phone would have a compass and GPS, and these two new co-workers—who also happened to be amateur astronomers—thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make an app that was like a planetarium that recognized where you were looking?

For their first few months at Google Pittsburgh, they went about their jobs, but in the back of their minds, they were always thinking about the Sky Map app. In August 2008, when the Android test device finally arrived at the office, Taylor put together a pitch to get people interested. He took a photo of a compass, a rolled-up atlas and a carpenter’s level—all taped haphazardly to an office telephone—and playfully labeled the photo “Sky Map Prototype.”

“That’s basically what Sky Map is,” says Serafini. “It gets your location from [the] GPS. It knows what direction you’re facing by the compass. You have the map to know what the sky looks like depending on what direction you’re pointing, and, oh yeah, there’s also a phone there.”

That was the beginning of the Google Sky Map for Android. Just point your phone to the heavens, and a labeled map will appear to tell you what celestial figures you’re seeing. If you’re looking for something particular, just type it in the search box, and an arrow will show you which direction to point the phone until you reach it. And while nothing beats the memories of a glow-in-the-dark constellation book, this does seem a bit more user-friendly.

Google Sky Map for Android was developed under a Google program called “20 percent time,” where employees spend 20 percent of their time—or approximately one day each week—working on projects that interest them that aren’t necessarily related to their everyday jobs. Google Sky, an extension of Google Earth, was a 20 percent project, and so was Gmail. Serafini and Taylor pitched Sky Map as their 20 percent project and assembled a team. They completed their app in November 2008, and it became an official Google app in May 2009.

So, you may be wondering: How’s the app doing out there in the world? Because it’s not linked to the network, people can use this anywhere—from hiking in Alaska to lounging on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean—and they do. One user told the duo he taped his phone directly to his telescope. But, better yet, people are using it here in Pittsburgh.

When Deborah Knox approached the duo to help with Deep Sky, an urban stargazing party in Lawrenceville, they were thrilled to have Google sponsor the event. Volunteers from the company, including Serafini and Taylor, came out to spend that cool July evening with 600 other community members. As an almost full moon rose in the sky, attendees used the technology to help locate the five planets that were visible that night.

In October, Google Sky Map volunteers visited an event with the Girls, Math & Science Partnership, a program of the Carnegie Science Center. Organizer Athena Aardweg explains that using the phone app “allows the girls to experience what technology can provide them … but in a cool way.” And in that way, Sky Map—and its developers’ support of community events—is much more than just another app; it actually stirs our curiosity and encourages us to learn.

To view a Web version of the app, visit google.com/sky.

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