Coolest app I've seen all month: Solar Walk

Tour the solar system with this dazzling astronomy app, which lets you fly Google Earth-style from one planet to another, learning along the way.

Screenshots absolutely don't do Solar Walk justice. See that blue dot? It's the Hubble telescope. And you can zoom in to watch it fly over the Earth. In real time.
Screenshots absolutely don't do Solar Walk justice. See that blue dot? It's the Hubble telescope. And you can zoom in to watch it fly over the Earth. In real time. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Do you dream of traveling to the stars? Unless you've got $20 million and change for a ticket to orbit, Vito Technology's Solar Walk is about as close as you're going to get.

This jaw-dropping iOS app provides a wholly interactive 3D model of our solar system, one that's had me hooked for days. It's the kind of thing you can imagine a science teacher using in the classroom of the future -- except that we don't have to wait.

Solar Walk works like an outer-space edition of Google Earth, letting you rotate, zoom, and circle around our little blue orb. You also get to see various satellites and their trajectories; tap any one of them to zoom in, see a close-up rendering, and learn all about it.

Had enough of Earth? Zoom out and tap any planet or moon to catapult right to it. Or use the search option, which lets you pick a planet, satellite, star, or geographic area to visit. (Wolf 359, anyone?) For any given item, a tap of the information button brings up all sorts of interesting data -- sometimes just raw figures, but often a mini encyclopedia's worth of facts and info.

Solar Walk offers bookmarked views for things like the rings of Saturn, an ISS flyby, and the ridiculously cool Sunrise from Hubble. Next, check out the mini-movies: a jaw-dropping size comparison of the planets, an awesome animated (and narrated) explanation of solar eclipses, and a documentary-style look at the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft.

All this looks cool enough on the likes of an iPhone or iPod, but obviously it benefits even more from a bigger screen. On an iPad, it's truly spectacular. But if you really want to have fun, mirror this app to an Apple TV. There's even a 3D option if you happen to have those cheesy old cyan-red 3D glasses lying around. I wasn't able to test that, but I don't imagine it could compare to modern 3D tech.

Don't let that stop you from enjoying one of the best apps I've seen this month -- heck, this year. Solar Walk is a steal at $4.99, an educational tour de force that also happens to be endlessly fascinating.

 

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