German Aerospace Center launches educational app to let kids track the ISS | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 14.11.2013
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German Aerospace Center launches educational app to let kids track the ISS

Ever wonder where the International Space Station might be, when you'd be able to get a glimpse of it flying past or what star looms over you? An app from the German Aerospace Center can tell you.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has joined the many scientific institutions and companies to issue an app of its own. Called DLR_next, the app lets users track the exact location of the International Space Station (ISS) at any moment and even follow it across the night sky.

"It is possible to see the ISS with the naked eye. When it is illuminated by the sun but the sky is dark, the ISS is brighter than the brightest star and crosses the horizon from the west in three to four minutes,” says Volker Kratzenberg-Annies, DLR's coordinator for education and outreach.

The app tracks the ISS and puts the space station’s flight plan on a user's smart phone screen making it impossible to miss on a clear night, Kratzenberg-Annies told DW. "I can see that right now it’s flying somewhere under my desk, because it’s over Australia."

In addition to tracking the ISS, users can also point their phones at stars and get information on what they see.

Space: the gateway science

"What we wanted to do with the app was to take the fascination with the stars, with space and the universe and use it to show young people about the many opportunities offered in the natural sciences and technology," says Kratzenberg-Annies.

Screenshots of the DLR_next app Photo: DLR

The app is available for Android phones with an iOS version coming soon

He says the app presents the most interesting pieces of information gathered from DLR experts in a number of fields, including astrophysics, energy and transportation, in a compact and easy-to-understand manner.

"We consciously created the app to appeal to young people who are not yet really interested in the subjects, because we want to get them excited," he added.

Presenting the information in a smart phone app, currently available for Android phones, with an iPhone version coming within weeks, was a clear choice for reaching young people on the devices they are already using.

"You need to keep up with the times and because many young people are using smart phones as a means of getting information wherever they are, the app was the next logical step," Kratzenberg-Anniessays.

Smart phone apps could be a way to increase students' interest in the sciences and research fields and take learning outside of the classroom, according to Steve Vosloo, a mobile learning expert at UNESCO.

"Well designed apps, from both a learning outcomes and a user experience perspective, can present scientific principles, especially physics, in interactive and engaging ways to aid understanding," he told DW. "The apps can be used anywhere and at any time and can also help take science into the real world where the principles are applied and understood in practical terms."

It has to look good

As with all other apps, science apps have to look good, be easy to use and let people share what they learn to be effective in piquing people’s interest in science and research, says Sören Schewe, a science blogger at

"If an app looks nice, works well and contains great information, I think it can get people interested," Schewe says. "You just install it on your device and it's there. It's not difficult."

Schewe says he plans to test DLR_next, but has had lots of experience with a number of other science apps, including one by the German chemical and pharmaceutical company Merck, which presents the periodic table of the elements (iOS, Android). "It's really colorful and looks great and fits my Nexus 7 - it's one of the apps I use a couple of times a week."

There are a host of other science apps, targeted at people who already know their way around the basics of science and who are looking for detailed information in their field of study. For instance, the ArXiv app (iOS, Android), hosted by Cornell University in the United States, provides access to a database of scientific research papers. "You choose your favorite categories and when there are new papers I can see what is new. Maybe I'm interested and if not, I can click it away."

DLR will surely be hoping that Schewe and others find their app interesting enough not to click it away.

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