The day is almost here. After nearly a decade in flight, New Horizons is finally set to sail past Pluto, a world that was still a planet when it departed Earth.
And to help our own world prepare to see the former ninth planet for the first time, longtime educational software makers Simulation Curriculum released an app called Pluto Safari that puts the journey in context.
If you’ve taken an introductory astronomy course, you’re probably already familiar with their software. The company has found great success with their Starry Night program over the past 20 years. More recently, they’ve focused increasingly on educational programing that’s used in both middle school and high school classrooms. And Simulation Curriculum has also pushed into mobile platforms with the Sky Safari application, which is where Pluto Safari comes in.
Pluto Safari Program Manager Pedro Braganca says that the company’s engineers were especially excited about the New Horizons mission, but thought the official mission app was too static. He pitched the project as a way to both teach and help people enjoy the mission.
“A few of us were really excited about this mission and we really wanted to get to a different type of audience — a mass consumer type of audience — someone who wouldn’t necessarily pay 99 cents for an app but might download it if it were free,” Braganca says.
The app is more than just a pretty interface too. Engineers went to painstaking lengths to make sure their information was accurate. After their virtual New Horizons went astray, the team realized they were using numbers based on Pluto’s center of gravity instead of the gravitational center between Pluto and its large moon, Charon.
“We can say with a really high degree of confidence that Pluto Safari probably has the highest accuracy of the Pluto software out there,” Braganca says.
And, in addition to the interactive display that allows users to experience the flyby, the app also includes a timeline with mission highlights, a news section where many of the latest images are posted, along with sky location and a poll so people can weigh in on whether or not Pluto is a planet.
Interestingly, as New Horizon’s views of Pluto have gotten better, the votes have increasingly pushed toward “yes.”
“Most of the people who voted no were in Europe,” Braganca says.
The app won’t be outdated after tomorrow either. Designers also highlighted some of the larger Kuiper Belt Objects and plan to continue updating Pluto Safari as New Horizons moves on in the solar system.
“We’re going to follow the mission throughout. They will (likely) be visiting another KBO after the flyby, so the app won’t die,” he says.
Eric Betz is an associate editor of Astronomy. He’s on Twitter: @ericbetz.