Friday, November 22, 2019

Astronomy tools

Again, I try to keep my equipment portable and inexpensive. You won't get clear, crisp photos of the crab nebula with my setup, but you might be surprised what you can do with it.

As always, my central and most expensive piece of equipment is my computer, currently a…..

Motorola Moto E5 Cruise phone

In preparation for excursions into astronomy next year, my phone is packed with camera and astronomy apps and I have loaded my SD card with astronomy field guides.

This phone has 16 gigabytes of internal memory and an added SD card with another 31 gigabytes, plenty for my purposes. It's moderately priced (between $100 and $200 dollar) and it even serves as a phone!

The camera gives nice results with 8 megapixel resolution plus video and will magnify to 8 times (though the result at 8x is grainy).

Camera hardware

I supplement my phone's camera with a fanny pack full of hardware that I've collected over time including phone clamps, assorted tripods from  desk-size to an eight foot tall tripod. I also have an assortment of standard quarter inch screws, nuts, and bolts that I can use to attach the phone-camera to hardware that isn't particularly for cameras, like Erector set parts and pipe clamps.

I've also collected microscopic, telescopic, fish-eye, etc. lenses and eyepiece adapters for my assorted binoculars, monoculars, and rifle scopes. All this "stuff" is inexpensive at places like American Science and Surplus, Home Science Tools, and numerous other suppliers that cater to the backyard scientist.

The a packrat.

Open Camera

Mark Harman

The camera in my Android phone isn't all purpose but camera apps are inexpensive or free and they all have their special features. The camera that came with my phone is great for point-and-click photography, but there aren't many bells and whistles. 

The Open Camera app allow quick series of shots and allows for time/date/location stamped photos. It also provides slow motion and Bluetooth shutter release capabilities.

Snail Camera

The Snail Camera app is very flexible with lots of color, contrast, etc. settings. Practically anything you can do with a DSLR camera except change lenses (but see the mention of my packrattery above.)

It even lets you take multiple and extended exposures. The timed exposure is important for astronomy because you will be trying to capture some dim images.

Note: astronomy requires a remote shutter release and stable mount. With telephotography, barely touching the camera will move it quite enough to lose the object you're photographing. The tripod should also have fine adjustments because aiming a phone camera with a telephoto lens is hard enough.

USB Camera app

Infinitegra Inc.

This app, plus a USB to microUSB plug converter lets me connect other cameras and webcams to my Android. This doesn't work with some smartphones (it requires the phone to be otg, On The Go, enabled) but it's had no problem with my Motorola. If you wonder if you're phone has the right software, there are free apps that you can download (if you have an Android phone, the Google Play store will have what you need) that will test for otg.

Heavens Above

Chris Peat and Jen's Tinz

This app will keep you up to date on things happening in the sky including satellites and their tricks, like Iridium flares.


My favorite astronomy app, the Stellarium is a planetarium you carry with you on your phone. There are also versions for laptops and desktop computers. It will orient you to where you should look in the sky and, like big planetariums, it's loaded with educational extras.

Night Sky Guide

Shiny Objects LLC

This is a no-frills table of observable objects and where to observe them, plus an observation log that you can save as a csv (comma separated values) file.


Sky map, calendar, astronomy news, image gallery, compass, and periscope all rolled into one package. (The periscope tells you where the sun, moon, and planets are right now, indoors or outside.)


Atmospheric conditions are important for skywatching. Pollution, dust or light, can create a beautiful sunset, but they can also wreck an astronomical outing. This app provides a summary of weather and predictions for your area.

That's a lot of apps but they will all fit on one phone and are all free or inexpensive. They are programmed for an Android phone but many have versions for other kinds of phones, tablets, and laptops. If not, there are probably similar products that you can find with a little Internet search.

That's my lineup, Track down yours and join me for a year of sky watching and physics.

If you find references or equipment that you just can't do without, add a comment to the blog to let us know about it.

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