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NASA Visualization Explorer (for iPad) Review
NASA Visualization Explorer (for iPad) pictorially highlights recent findings in both Earth science and astronomy by the agency’s fleet of satellites.
(3.5 out of 5)
- Visually stunning images, videos, and simulations
- Detailed and informative captions
- Good social media integration
- No links to additional material
- Requires a good Internet connection.
NASA isn’t only about looking outward to space; they’ve had a fleet of satellites look at Earth from space for more than 40 years. NASA Visualization Explorer (for iPad) combines images, videos, and simulations from both the cosmos and our own planet in a series of informative and visually stunning stories, each highlighting a different finding or aspect of NASA’s work.
When you open the app, clicking on a menu icon at the screen’s lower left corner brings up the full menu of available stories, identified by title, date, and an associated image. Clicking on any one of these stories brings up an image (or video) and caption, while along the bottom are thumbnails with more images and/or videos related to the caption. You can shrink the caption to show a full-screen image, or advance to the next story (or previous one) by clicking a right or left arrow.
A button on the lower right corner on the screen lets you share a story on Facebook or Twitter, e-mail it, or open it in Safari on the NASA Visualization Explorer Web site, which also includes the content of all the stories.
Clicking on a gear icon to the right of the menu icon takes you to information about the app. The About tab discusses the app’s creation by the Goddard Space Flight Center, while Instructions gives you a basic primer for using the app, and there’s a link for sending feedback to the app’s development team.
Serious Internet Required
In using this app, you’d benefit from a fast Internet connection, as some of the videos can take a long time to load. One can access some previously viewed content when not online, but for much of the material (and to download any new stories), your iPad needs to be connected to the Internet.
Climate, Comets, & Vegas
I found the first entry, titled Artificial World Captures Reality particularly interesting, as it describes NASA’s use of computer models that it uses in both short-term weather models and long-term climate models. NASA satellites in earth orbit relay immense amounts of data back to Earth each day, and scientists create a numerical model based on the data. As new data comes in, they tweak the model in an attempt to get a better approximation of reality. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center uses a supercomputer-based climate model called GEOS-5, which—at least in the short term—is able to predict shifts in weather patterns.
Many of the stories are timely, like one about the survival and amazing performance of sun-grazing Comet Lovejoy, including videos of its reappearance after an exceedingly close encounter with our star, and a later video of the comet, now sporting a long tail, taken from the International Space Station. Another story that gained some play in the press was the discovery by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope of antimatter bursts released by thunderstorms. It, too, is featured in NASA Visualization Explorer.
Many of the stories detail changes observed over time by satellites, ranging from local phenomena such as Las Vegas’s shrinking water table to large-scale changes such as the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland and rising mean global temperatures. The app provides both evidence supportive of global warming and NASA’s reasoning and conclusions. Whatever your views on the subject, it’s a good place to start a discussion or debate.
The app is regularly upgraded. In 2012, new entries have consistently been added to NASA Visualization Explorer at the rate of 8 or 9 a month.
The free NASA Visualization Explorer gives iPad viewers a look at what NASA’s satellites are studying—both in space and on our own world. It could use more outside links, and its video-heavy nature may make for slow download times over some connections. Still, it provides dazzling visuals and, in many cases, detailed explanatory text of some timely and compelling stories, and is definitely worth a try.
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By Tony Hoffman, PCMag