April 13, 2024

Brighton Journal

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The new app always points to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy

The new app always points to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy
Zoom in / Image of Galactic Compass in action on an iPhone.

Matt Webb/Getty Images

On Thursday, designer Matt Webb unveil A new iPhone app called Hungarian compassWhich always points to the center of the Milky Way, regardless of Earth's location during our journey through the stars. The app is free and available now on the App Store.

While using Galactic Compass, you place your iPhone on a flat surface, and a large green arrow on the screen points the way to galactic center, It is the rotational center of the spiral galaxy in which we all live. At this center is a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*It is a celestial body from which no matter or light can escape. (So, in a way, the app tells us what to avoid.)

But truthfully, the location of the heart of the galaxy at any given time isn't exactly useful, nor does it constitute practical knowledge – at least for people who aren't James Tiberius Kirk. Star Trek V. But it may inspire a sense of awe about our place in the universe.

Screenshots of Galactic Compass in action, captured by Ars Technica at a secret location.
Zoom in / Screenshots of Galactic Compass in action, captured by Ars Technica at a secret location.

Bing Edwards/Getty Images

“It's amazing that we always have a sense of the direction toward the center of the galaxy,” Webb told Ars Technica. “Your perspective flips. At first, it seems arbitrary. The middle of the Milky Way seems to fly across the sky, while the Earth spins and moves in its orbit.”

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Webb's journey to create Galactic Compass began a decade ago as an offshoot of his love of regular astronomy. “About 10 years ago, I taught myself how to point to the center of the galaxy,” Webb said. “I lived in an apartment with a great view of the stars, so I was using augmented reality apps to identify them, and gradually learned my way around the sky.”

While Webb initially used an astronomy app to help locate the galactic center, he eventually taught himself how to always find it. He described visualizing himself on the surface of the Earth as it rotated and tilted, understanding the ecliptic as a line across the sky and recognizing the center of the galaxy as an invisible point moving predictably through the constellation Sagittarius, which lies on the ecliptic. By visualizing the Earth's orbit throughout the year and determining its orientation in space, he was able to point in the correct direction, improving his ability through daily practice and comparison with the augmented reality application.

With a little help from artificial intelligence

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is thought to resemble the Andromeda Galaxy (as seen here) if you could see it from a distance.  But since we are inside the galaxy, all we can see is the edge of the galactic plane.
Zoom in / Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is thought to resemble the Andromeda Galaxy (as seen here) if you could see it from a distance. But since we are inside the galaxy, all we can see is the edge of the galactic plane.

Getty Images

In 2021, Webb envisioned turning his ability into an app that would help take everyone on the same journey, featuring a compass pointing toward the center of the galaxy instead of Earth's magnetic north. “But I can’t write applications,” he said. “I'm a decent enough engineer, and a hobbyist designer, but I've never explored native applications.”

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This is where ChatGPT comes in, turning Webb's vision into reality. With the AI ​​assistant as his programming partner, Webb went step by step, crafting a simple application interface and integrating complex calculations to determine the location of the galactic center (which involved calculating azimuth and elevation for the user).

However, programming using ChatGPT has its limitations. “ChatGPT is very intelligent, but it's not human, so it has to do the 3D calculations,” he says. “I had to learn a lot about quaternions, a technique for combining 3D rotations, and even then, it's not perfect. The app has to lie flat for it to work simply because my calculations crash when the phone is upright!” “We will fix this in future releases,” Webb said.

Webb is no stranger to ChatGPT-enabled creations that are more fun than practical. Last month, it launched a Kickstarter for an AI poetry rhyming clock called Poem/1. With his own design studio, Actions, not factsWebb says he uses “whimsy and play to discover the possibilities of new technology.”

Stranger or not, Webb insists that Galactic Compass can help us think about our place in the wide universe, and he's proud that it recently peaked at number 87 on the US App Store's travel chart. In this case, though, it's Spaceship Earth that travels across the galaxy while every living human comes along for the ride.

“Once you can follow it, you start to see the center of the galaxy as a true fixed point, and we're the ones moving around. And there, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, stays still.” Like an eternal rock. We go through our days, it’s always there.”

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