I held my second astronomy night last Thursday, and despite a table giving way and causing two gallons of hot cider to spill, everything went very well. The massive 8-inch cannon of a telescope, on loan from our local CESA cooperative, gave us great views of Jupiter and its four moons. The fancy (i.e., complicated) telescope that I purchased last year gave us good views of the moon and my two smaller (i.e., a lot simpler to aim) telescopes gave us views of the Galaxy in Andromeda and the Great Cluster in Hercules.
But the real star of the night (pun intended) were the two iPads that Scott Schiller and I had on hand. The app Starwalk was heavily featured in the original iPad commercials and for good reason: It’s fantastic. Hold it up to the sky and it shows you in real time what constellation you are looking at. Do the pinch-zoom thing and you can see deep-sky objects visible in your telescope. Adjust the clock, and you know what will be visible in a few minutes or a hundred years from now.
My students and their parents huddled around the screens looking up at the sky at stars they had always seen but never known the names of. The real fun happened, as predicted by Starwalk, at exactly 7:36pm. That was when the International Space Station flew overhead as a bright orange spot in the sky, it and its three astronauts flying cruising at 18,000 MPH. My students and their parents were in awe as it cruised by. Its square shape could be made out through binoculars. Exactly 7:42, as predicted by Starwalk, it passed again under the horizon.