We’re all captivated by the wonder of our galaxy—its faraway planets, many moons, and falling stars. On clear summer nights, this vast expanse seems to beckon us to journey into deep space. Though you can’t climb into the family rocket and take a spin—not yet, anyway—you can take your little ones on a tour of the heavens from the comfort of your own backyard. All it takes is a little imagination, a blanket, a flashlight, and some handy printouts from a website or two.
To prepare for liftoff, it helps to know where you’re going and what you might see. After all, your kids will have lots of questions. You may have a star chart at home, but if not, we recommend downloading the free, easy-to-use software at stellarium.org. Once the program is running, choose a city close to you, and you’ll see a night sky that looks just like the one outside your window with major stars and planets labeled. You can also visit Sky and Telescope magazine’s website (skyandtelescope.com) and click on “This Week’s Sky at a Glance” to learn more about upcoming celestial events.
Start with the Moon
The Moon is the largest and brightest object in the night sky. That makes it a good place to start family observations.
Use a landmark in your yard to keep track of where and when the Moon rises each evening. Watch how it crosses the sky each night.
Create Moon notebooks with your children. On clear nights, draw pictures of the Moon and write the date and time next to each one. As time passes, your kids will see all of its phases. Explain that the Moon doesn’t make its own light. As it circles Earth, different parts of the Moon are lit up by the Sun’s rays. That’s why its shape seems to change.
When the Moon is full, look at its pattern of light and dark patches. See the Man in the Moon? Explain that the dark areas are large, flat lava plains. The light areas are hilly and full of craters.
Reach for the Stars
The best time to see stars is on a moonless night. As soon as your family gets settled, ask everyone to close their eyes and count to 100. This will help your eyes adjust to the darkness. When you open them up again, stars will seem to fill every corner of the sky.
Ask your children how many stars they think there are. The Universe contains billions of them. But we can only see about 2,000. The rest are too dim or too far away.
People who lived long ago named some of the brightest stars in the sky. Using the Stellarium program or the Sky and Telescope website, practice identifying some of the stars you see.
Ancient peoples thought they saw patterns among the stars. They gave them names like The Big Dipper, Scorpius, and Cassiopeia. Use the Sky and Telescope website to help you locate some of these summer constellations; they’re easy to spot. Then imagine and name your own.
Pick a Planet
The first “star” you see at night might be a planet. How can you tell? Stars twinkle, but planets give off a steady light. Like the Moon, a planet doesn’t make its own light. It reflects the light of the nearest star. Planets are smaller than stars, but they look big and bright to us because they are much closer to Earth.
Most of the planets will be hard to spot this summer, but Jupiter and its four largest moons will be in the ideal position for viewing on August 14. You’ll need binoculars or a telescope, so be sure your children have practiced using them before the big night.
Meet Some Meteors
A shooting star is really a meteor—a bright streak of light that we see when a small rocky body from space enters Earth’s atmosphere. You can see them any night of the year, but there are two excellent opportunities this summer:
Look for the Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower from July 18 to August 18. The flashes of light will radiate out from the constellation Aquarius. The best viewing will be on July 28 and 29 after midnight, when the Moon has set.
The Perseids Meteor Shower will produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak on August 13 and 14. Look toward the constellation Perseus in the northeast after midnight.
Spot a Spacecraft
Shooting stars last just a few seconds. If you see a steady light cruise across the sky, it’s probably a spacecraft—a satellite, the space shuttle, or the International Space Station (ISS)—orbiting Earth.
It’ll be easy to spot the ISS all summer long. To find out where and when to look, go to spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings. Click on “Go to Country” in the Sighting Opportunities box, then select your state and town. Once you’ve spotted the spacecraft, watch your child’s interest in astronomy shoot to infinity and beyond.
Celebrate the Science Behind the Stars
Exactly 400 years ago, stargazing became a science. That’s when Galileo Galilei, sometimes called the father of modern astronomy, built his first telescope and pointed it toward the heavens. His observations and discoveries shaped the way we view the universe today.
To celebrate the birth of astronomy, the International Astronomical Union and the United Nations have dubbed 2009 the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009). Whether your child dreams of becoming an astronaut or simply enjoys the awesome beauty of a star-filled sky, the IYA2009 provides the perfect opportunity to spend some family time exploring the universe. Find all the educational materials and resources you need to continue your space odyssey at astronomy2009.org.
For places to go to learn more about astronomy, click here.