Stargazing: A Fun Family Activity!
With children out of school and the weather staying warm through the summer months, spending time outdoors can be both fun and educational for families. In fact, the Perseid Meteor Shower, which NASA considers “the best meteor shower of the year,” runs through August 24th. The prime viewing day is August 12th.
One outdoor activity, in particular, that presents learning opportunities for children is stargazing. It is a very accessible activity for families and is great excuse to introduce children to astronomy. To start, parents can teach their children the foundations of cosmos, such as major constellations, planets and the moon.
One star that you and your family can look out for late into the summer is known as Sirius. It is the brightest star in the constellation, Canis Major, which means “big dog” in Latin. Sirius is thought to be the root of the term, “dog days of summer,” since ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians noticed that during peak summer, when the heat is most intense, it moves out of the night sky and appears at dawn, rising closely with the sun. It was believed that the power of the sun and Sirius caused the stretch of hot weather each year.
Here are some ideas on how to view Canis Major and other major constellations in the night sky.
Skywatching Tools: The night sky can be viewed without any equipment, but binoculars and inexpensive telescopes can enhance the experience. A pair of 7×50 binoculars is the most popular size and ideal for skywatching. For telescopes, the main features to look for are a high-quality lens, a solid mount and a set of three eye pieces so that you can change magnification. There are also several Star Gazing apps, such as SkyView, that you can download on your tablet, or phone to help your child find planets and constellations.
Start with the Moon. Viewing the moon is a good starting point for children. It is our nearest neighbor in the night sky and doesn’t have to be viewed with binoculars, or a telescope. Have your child start by making out the brighter, light-colored patches on the moon. Some of those patches have mountain ranges and craters of all sizes. Have your children take photos of the moon in its monthly phases and create a photo collage.
Explore Planets. With the unaided eye, your child can view five planets, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets can be seen on evenings and early mornings throughout the year. Venus can be seen as the brightest object in the western sky during the evening, while Mars, Jupitar and Saturn can be seen at dawn. As a fun experiment, have children hold their binoculars while watching Jupiter. They will be able to observe it’s four largest moons and ask them to draw the positions of each moon beside Jupiter, then they can check back later to see how the moons have shifted positions. Have your children point out major constellations, such as The Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt.
With just your eyes and a good star chart, your family can take a journey through the universe right from your own backyard.