Have you or your child ever wondered what the difference is between a morning and evening star? Can we see our own solar system from Earth? Why do planets seem to change position in the night sky? How come some stars appear to twinkle and others do not? Is it possible to see satellites from here?
With autumn and winter skies generally clearer than at other times of the year, introducing kids to the fine art and science of stargazing can be a fun experience for all. From books to star maps to winter night hikes, first telescopes, lectures, and trips to the local observatory, knowing how to surf the universe, in a manner of speaking, can turn curious kids into budding stargazers and even accomplished young astronomers.
Often considered complex and daunting by the uninitiated, the night sky is bursting with constellations–88 in all–though not all visible at the same time of year. And while sources say it is possible to see a thousand stars on a single clear, moonless night, in addition to this, five Milky Way planets, several star clusters, a spiral galaxy, the occasional comet, and even the International Space Station are also visible under the right conditions–just waiting for young observers to pick them out.
To get started, star maps or charts that show the location of each night sky object, and available online or found in astronomy magazines and books (try your local library), are a good bet. Magazines such as StarDate, Sky & Telescope, and Astronomy offer monthly maps that show changing planet locations, among other things.
According to stardate.org, learning the scales astronomers use to measure positions on the surface of the night sky is key to identifying objects, with varying methods such as a “grid of right ascension and declination on the celestial sphere used in the same manner as latitude and longitude on the Earth’s surface.” But for beginners, using your arm (the width of one finger at arm’s length equals approximately one degree, while your fist equals 10 degrees) is a good way to go.
Early on, experts suggest planning some backyard viewing time on a clear night though light pollution from cities may mitigate what you see. This may be followed by a trip to the local wide open state park where viewing may be less obstructed. A pair of binoculars can assist in your efforts to see the stars and other objects.
While your local planetarium is a great place to learn about astronomy if you’re lucky enough to have one within driving distance, universities often have their own astronomy departments and observatories on campus. Attending a lecture (depending on the age of the child) and requesting to use the research-grade telescope can enhance your child’s understanding of the night sky. Generally there is a teacher or student on duty who can provide assistance, and in fact some college observatories are open to the public on certain nights without a special request. Additionally, many states organize star parties for amateur astronomers at specific locales where attendees gather to view the night sky, and maybe partake of available meals and lodging (to find them, just type “star party” into your search engine).
Finally, when purchasing your own telescope, research suggests you may want to start with something basic and work up, depending on your child’s age and sustained interest. And who knows, with the holidays approaching, if conditions are right on that very special eve, an object may streak across the night sky–picked up by a budding Galileo (called “the father of modern observational astronomy”) with his or her backyard telescope–that will make the art and science of stargazing a truly magical experience!