Solar System ($13.99), an iPad app, lets you explore the Sun and its retinue of planets.
It has the same excellence in design and content as two Editors’ Choice iPad apps made by Touch Press, The Elements: A 3D Exploration and Pyramids 3D, including similar virtual reality rotatable 3D figures. Its image galleries, featuring pictures from NASA missions and elsewhere as well as artist’s impressions, are exquisite. The app is a good choice for students up to high school students and interested laymen alike.
Solar System in a Nutshell
The home screen displays a grid of icons; across the top are the Sun, Earth, and planets, as well as the asteroid belt, Kuiper Belt, and Oort cloud. Displayed under each world are icons for its moons (if any) or other relevant objects; Ceres, Vesta, and other asteroids appear under Asteroid Belt, Comets under Oort Cloud; and Pluto, Eris, and other icy so-called dwarf planets under Kuiper Belt.
At the screen’s upper left is an icon labeled Solar System, which takes you to a series of slides describing our solar system, or evolving knowledge about it, and how it compares with other recently discovered planetary systems. The Orrery button at upper right takes you to a digital depiction of our solar system, showing the planets, as well as orbits that you can toggle on and off. A slider at the bottom lets you speed up or slow down their motion. An information button shows a physical orrery, a brass, clockwork miniature model of the solar system; they were popular starting in the 18th century.
Pressing on Song takes you to a slideshow of space images set to an instrumental version of Biophilia, by Björk. The About button describes the app, a collaboration between Touch Press and British publisher Faber and Faber, with the imagery processed by Planetary Vision Ltd., and includes a Credits button.
Exploring the Planets
Each orb accessible through a home-page icon has at least one page devoted to it, and some (the Moon and Mars) have as many as nine pages, each page covering an important aspect of that world. In addition to Wegener’s jigsaw and the introductory page, Earth pages include one called Water World; one called Earth’s aura, about the atmosphere; Living planet details the development and nature of life on our planet; Earth’s umbrella, about the protective effect of greenhouse gases and the Earth’s magnetic field; and lastly, How do we know the Earth is round?
As planets and most of the moons depicted are spheres (more or less), the 3D functionality consists of the ability to rotate these worlds to see their entire surface area (or cloud belts, as the case may be.) Irregularly shaped asteroids look more dramatic when rotating. My favorite 3D depiction is one of our own world, titled Wegener’s Jigsaw, after Alfred Wegener, who came up with the theory of continental drift after noticing that the coastlines of Africa and South America. Swiping on the image of the globe takes you through an animation showing 400 million years of shifting land masses.
The opening page for each planet or moon contains the rotatable image, plus a brief description of that world. Pressing the Orrery button now takes you to the object. For instance, clicking on the orrery from the page for Io takes you to Jupiter, where its four largest moons, including Io, are in motion; their speed can be controlled through the slider. Clicking on Done takes you back to the Io opening page.
The spinning red crystal icon at the page’s lower left is WolframAlpha; clicking on it takes you to information on the planet or moon from that search engine, including physical properties, orbit, and current position in the sky.
To the right of the WolframAlpha button is an icon that takes you to an image gallery. Solar System includes a gallery for each planet, moon, or class of objects (asteroid belt, Kuiper belt, Oort Cloud, etc.). Clicking on a gallery thumbnail gives you a full-screen version of the image. Nearly all of the photos and illustrations are exquisite. The app’s author, Marcus Chown, quips in the About section, “No expense has been spared in the production of Solar System. The location filming budget alone has approached a trillion dollars. That, of course, is NASA’s expenditure, not ours!” Gallery images include ones from some non-NASA missions as well.
The rest of the icons and buttons at the bottom of the screen are concerned with navigation. A line of tiny images, starting with the Sun and including each planet and its moons in increasing distance from the Sun as you move to the right, lets you navigate to these object’s pages, a tiny Space Shuttle pointer sits under the icon for the orb whose page you’re currently viewing. To the right of this line of icons, Home and Back buttons are bracketed by left and right arrows. The arrows proved to be the easiest way to navigate within a section (for instance, among the 7 pages for Jupiter).
A row of white dots at the top of the screen—such as you find on the iPad’s home screen with its grid of apps—shows you where you are within the section. It can be used to navigate: tap one of the dots, and you’re at another page. It is awkward, though: While I was using the app while seated in a moving subway, navigating with the dots was hit or miss, mostly miss. The arrow buttons are much better, though I would have liked to have been able to advance through the pages by swiping them as well. (The presence of touch-sensitive 3D illustrations on part of the page may preclude that.)
Solar Walk (for iPad) is a similar app. Its 3D graphics aren’t as dazzling as Solar System and its navigation isn’t as intuitive, but it adds a few videos, a search function for geographic and planetary features, and the ability to email or tweet screen shots, or post them to Facebook, and sells at a much lower price. I can recommend both of these apps.
As an interactive e-book, Solar System provides a useful and engaging overview of the Sun, planets, moons, and other solar system bodies. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the 3D rotatable spheres are skillfully designed. The text provides a solid if somewhat succinct introduction to each world, covering important aspects of the object. It doesn’t include any outside links, but should nonetheless inspire students to do their own research.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc