Kids In Space: Stargazing For Families (1)
If you’ve been reading here for a while, you’re probably aware of my nerd credentials. I love books, Lego, dinosaurs and anything to do with science, especially astronomy. One of the things I was most excited about when we had children was taking them out to experience the night sky for the first time. I came to stargazing a bit later in life, and feel like I missed out on the wonder of it as a child. We recently took our first family stargazing trip, and I’m happy – if not enormously smug – to say it won’t be our last. I made a few notes so the next time will be even better, and thought it might be useful to share them here.
When to go stargazing
To begin with, you need to decide on a date. As it’s likely you’ll be out pretty late in the evening, make this a Friday, Saturday or a day during the school holidays so children can sleep in or nap the following day. You also need to pick a clear night, although this is obviously harder to arrange in advance. If you’re able to be spontaneous, do the preparation for your trip and then wait for the ideal weather conditions to fall on a night which is convenient for you.
The time of year you chose will also have an impact. Evenings are darker during the winter so you’ll be able to go out much earlier. Clear winter nights make for terrific starry skies, but can, of course, be very cold. Lying back and staring at the sky on a summer evening is much more comfortable, but the warmer weather has drawbacks, too. As well as having to wait until much later in the evening for it to be properly dark, conditions tend to be hazier when it’s hot.
The ideal is to compromise; clear evenings in late spring or early autumn, plenty of warm clothes and staying up a little later than children’s normal bedtime should mean you get a great evening’s astronomy.
A note on the moon
Bear in mind how the moon will affect your stargazing. It’s wonderful to take a proper look at it and really soak in the details, especially through binoculars, but if you go out on a night when the moon is full, or near to full, you’ll find it harder to see some of the stars and constellations. The brightness of the moon will outshine them, acting as a type of natural light pollution. Both options – a moonlit night with fewer stars to spot, or an evening with the constellations in full view, but no moon to enjoy – have their pros and cons, so you need to consider which your children will enjoy most.
Finding the right patch of sky
If you live in the countryside, or a small village with very little street-lighting, you should be able to go out into your back garden and see as many stars as you like. In larger towns and cities, however, the light pollution means you’ll see much less. With lots of buildings and tall structures around, you’ll also have a very high horizon, so your overall view of the sky will be restricted. These two things together mean it’ll be hard to pick out more than a couple of constellations. The best option is to head out into the countryside. Ask friends or relatives who live in rural areas if you can visit and go stargazing together in their garden. Alternatively, contact local astronomy clubs or observatories for help and information.
Do the knowledge
Gather some information on stars, planets, the moon and the night sky before you go out and look at them. Reading through it with your children will hopefully build a sense of excitement about going stargazing. Although a sky full of stars looks amazing, if you don’t know what you’re looking for – or at – it can be overwhelming.
What you’ll see when you go out will depend to some extent on the time of year. A great tool to help you find out exactly what it is you’re looking up at is a planisphere. This is made from two circular pieces of plastic joined together in the centre, with stars, constellations and a list of dates on the outer rim. By lining up the date, month and year, you’ll be able to see what’s where in the sky above you at any given time. As well as being a valuable resource in advance of your stargazing experience, the planisphere will be a real help once you’re out in the dark, trying to identify things.
As an extra note here, there are some great apps which can also help you identify night-sky objects (I love Sky Guide), but you’re much more likely to remember the shapes of constellations in particular if you identify them manually to begin with.
What to take with you
Even summer evenings get chilly, so take extra layers you can put on later.
A blanket or deck chair
You can chose to lie down or sit in a position where your head is tipped back. The more comfortable you are, the less fidgety you’ll be.
With any luck, you’ll be stargazing somewhere very dark to get the best view of the night sky. The downside to this is that checking your star chart or planisphere is impossible with little or no nearby light. The solution is a torch, but you need to adapt it for your astronomical trip. It takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to properly adjust to the dark so you can see stars and other objects clearly. Switch on a normal torch with a bright white or blue light and all that adjusting will be undone in a second. Use a dimmer red light, however, and you’ll be able to check your charts and look right back at the sky with no problems. To make one, stretch a piece of red cellophane (used sweet wrappers are ideal) over the end of a normal torch, and use an elastic band to hold it securely in place.
While you really don’t need a telescope for your first stargazing experience, binoculars are a definite bonus. You’ll be amazed at how many more stars you can see, even with a pair which aren’t very strong. The detail visible on the moon is terrific viewed through binoculars, and you also have a better chance of seeing things like nebulae and star clusters, such as the Pleiades (Seven Sisters). If you don’t have a pair of binoculars, it’s worth asking friends and family in case they have some you could borrow. You can always invest in a pair if your children’s interest in astronomy develops further.
Snacks and drinks
One of the only real downsides to stargazing is how cold it can be. If things get really chilly, there’s nothing like a hot drink to warm you up quickly. Soup is great, but hot chocolate feels more like a treat and has real comfort factor. It’s worth making the drinks in a flask, even if you’re stargazing in your back garden. You’ll avoid having to readjust to the dark after making drinks in bright light indoors, and your mini stargazers also get to enjoy the fun ‘camping out’ vibe of drinking outdoors from a flask.
When I mentioned before that I’d made a few notes from our trip? It turns out, I made a lot of notes. This is part one of two. You can read the second post here.