Kids In Space: Stargazing For Families (2)
Hello. This is the second of two blog posts on astronomy for families and children. If you missed the first part, you can read it here.
All done? Then let’s continue.
When you arrive at your chosen stargazing location and find yourselves in the darkness, allow time to adjust to the light before you start looking for anything specific. It will take between 15 and 30 minutes for your eyes to fully get used to the darkness.
Due to the way the human eye works, you’ll also find that if you want to see a faint star or night sky object, it’s easier to look slightly to the side of it. Try looking directly at the faint light to see how this works. It’ll disappear, but if you then move your eyes just a fraction to the left or right, you’ll be able to see it again.
While you’re adjusting to the darkness, set up your kit and viewing position. Settle into your deckchairs or spread your blanket out on the ground, lie down and look up at the sky.
If the moon is visible, it will probably be the first thing to capture children’s attention, whether it’s full or not. If you’ve done some reading ahead of time, they’ll hopefully know that the moon doesn’t actually ‘shine’ or give off its own light, but rather reflects sunlight. Point out any details you can see on the moon’s surface – craters, or the flat, grey-ish areas known as mare (seas). Use binoculars, if you have them, to see even more details.
Once your eyes are properly adjusted to the darkness, you should notice that all of the stars in the sky aren’t as white as they appear at first glance. Some are a blueish colour, others more yellow and some orangey-red. If the reasons why aren’t something you’ve already looked up in the astronomy books, make a point of finding out later on; it’s a good idea to have some follow-up questions, particularly if your children are showing interest in the subject.
Join the dots
From looking at individual stars, move on to spotting constellations – shapes made up by groups of stars. Don’t get too bogged down trying to work out how Cancer is supposed to look like a crab, or Leo like a lion (it’s often a very big leap of imagination). Instead, just enjoy spotting the groups and seeing how they all fit across the sky. Start off with one of the more easily identified constellations, such as the saucepan-shaped plough (Ursa Major), Orion (the hunter), Cassiopeia (shaped like a ‘W’) or, in the southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross. The visibility of these will vary according to the time of year and your location.
From that one constellation, you should then be able to navigate your way around the sky and find others. Use your planisphere, and look out for other pointers and identifiers, too. Sirius, the dog-star, is the brightest in the night sky and forms part of the constellation Canis Major (the great dog). During summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, you should be able to spot three very bright stars directly above you in the middle of the sky. These make up what’s known as the summer triangle and the stars are each part of a different constellation. Altair is in Aquila, Vega is in Lyra and Deneb is in Cygnus, the swan. By spotting those three, bright stars which form a simple triangle overhead, you can quickly find three whole constellations.
Solar system planets
Once children learn to identify constellations, they might find it confusing that there’s sometimes an extra ‘star’ in among one they know. Check your planisphere, and you’re likely to discover it’s a planet, wandering across the sky. Just like Earth, they’re moving around the sun, and make their way through the stars accordingly. As a beginner, if you’re unsure about whether you’re looking at a star or planet, one of the easiest ways to tell is by checking for the ‘twinkle’. Stars, as the nursery rhyme points out, twinkle, but planets, don’t. They appear as round, flat discs of light, even though they look similar in size to stars. This is easier to spot with our closest neighbours – Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – and will become even more clear through binoculars.
The nearest of the planets is Venus, roughly 100 times further away from Earth than the Moon, and it’s also the easiest to spot. In fact, you and your children might already have done so without realising it. Often referred to as the morning star or evening star (depending on where it is in the sky and therefore when it’s visible to us) it’s so bright, you can sometimes see it just before sunrise or after sunset when the sky is still light. It usually sits quite low, near to the horizon and, apart from the moon, is the brightest object in the night sky. If you do see it when there’s still some daylight, be very, very careful not to look – especially through binoculars – unless you’re certain the sun is below the horizon. You should never look directly at the sun with the naked eye, and it’s even more dangerous through binoculars. There’s a very real risk of losing your sight if you do so, and it’s obviously vital to stress this to children.
While it’s fun to spot planets, you won’t really be able to discern much detail with the naked eye, or through binoculars. You might see that Venus goes through phases and is sometimes a crescent, like the moon, rather than a round disc, or notice that Mars has a strong reddish tint to it, but not very much else. If you find Jupiter and are using binoculars, look very closely for four tiny specks of light surrounding it: these are the largest of the planet’s moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. If children show a particular interest in planets, consider a trip to a planetarium or observatory after you’ve been stargazing. Thanks to space probes, astronomers know a huge amount about our solar system and visually, it’s amazing. The relative closeness and, in the case of a planet like Mars, similarity to Earth, can also help children make more sense of such a big subject.
Other things to look out for
The things listed above are those you’re most likely to see on your first stargazing trip, but it’s possible you might get an extra treat or two as well.
A meteor, or shooting star, is a streak of bright light in the sky, caused by a small, solid object (a meteoroid) entering Earth’s atmosphere from space. If you’re lucky, you can spot a random meteor at any time, but at certain times of year, you might find yourself observing a whole shower of them – sometimes up to 50 per hour. The internet will be able to advise you when these are due to happen.
Comets generally appear once every couple of years (the really bright ones less often) and take days, weeks or sometimes months to move across the night sky. They’re basically big balls of dirty ice – a mixture of frozen water, gasses and dust, or dirt – with more particles of ice and dust trailing along behind them. To most observers, they just look like fuzzy blobs moving very slowly across the sky. Again, you can find out when to expect them by searching online.
If you spot an object high up in the sky that’s moving too slowly to be a meteor and too quickly for a comet, it might be a man-made satellite, such as the International Space Station. These usually appear as bright-ish spots of light that move steadily across the sky from west to east. Use binoculars, if you have them, to take a closer look and be sure it’s not just a high-altitude plane you’re watching (don’t ask how many times I’ve made that mistake…).
The Milky Way
The milky way is a wide fuzzy, milky-white band of densely packed stars which can be spotted stretching across the sky in very dark, clear viewing conditions. You’re most likely to see it during summer or winter months in areas with virtually no light pollution. You’ll need to allow plenty of time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness before you realise it’s up there, and if there’s a bright or full moon, you probably won’t get a glimpse at all. It is an amazing sight when you do find it, though, especially when you realise that what you’re looking at is our home galaxy, made up of hundreds of billions of stars, including our own sun. Ask your children to think about how big their home town is, the country they live in, the size of the Earth, how far away the moon is, the other planets in our solar system, the size of the sun and then remember that however huge all of it seems, it’s just one in a galaxy of a hundred billion. And our galaxy is one of 150 billion others. It’s a great way of putting the night sky and everything they’re looking at into perspective.
A good night
Take a showbiz tip and try to leave your children wanting more. Gauge their interest and also how alert they are lying down in the dark, and try to leave before they get bored or sleepy. If they protest, promise you’ll come again soon – it’s a great sign that they’re interested. Hopefully, they’ll be inspired to learn and find out more about astronomy when you get home and you might just have sparked a wonderful new hobby.