For iPod touch or iPhone users, I ardently encourage you to purchase the Star Walk application. Vito Technology has done a wonderful job with the star viewer. The App has a night viewing function (the screen turns black and red), time machine function, and a Digital Compass for the 3Gs phones. I used this App continuously while taking Astronomy this past Spring. Star Walk even sends photos of the day to your device, which are spectacular.
The next gadget I got this year was a Galileoscope. Volunteers for the International Year of Astronomy have been packaging and sending these replica telescopes to stargazers around the world. It is a $20 kit that has 20X to 50X refractor lenses similar to what Galileo used to view the surface of the moon. After using this telescope one frigid night with Michael, the experience made me appreciate Galileo's feat. We were unable to view Jupiter clearly but Galileo saw four of Jupiter's moons with this type of device. If you are just the least bit curious, order one of these telescopes.
The last plaything that I found this year was actually an avatar (a digital alter ego). I listen to Astronomy Cast on my way to and from school. In of the podcasts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay mentioned Second Life. They were talking about how to enhance knowledge of astronomy with the internet. Second Life is a virtual world started in 2003 by Linden Lab. Each user over 18 gets to create an avatar which represents a vision of him or herself. I'll tell you, it is a time waster. You can spend many hours perfecting everything from your physical features to your clothing. However, if you like simulation games, you'll love Second Life.
How does this tie into astronomy? Once a user designs his or her digital body, he or she can teleport. There are slurl's (Second Life links) that aid in travel to locations within Second Life. The International Year of Astronomy has locations on Explorer Island that share astronomy facts with the public. It is a futuristic looking world (see photo at the top).
The well designed part of Explorer Island has avatars participating in real world launches and presentation at places like NASA or the Adler Planetarium. This is way cool. I hope to have more time to experience these events.
Well, I hope I opened your eyes and minds toward the final days of the International Year of Astronomy. Now that the nights are clearer and full of stars, think about looking to the heavens. If your night is not so clear, consider checking in with Explorer Island. It might be time to get a Second Life.