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Discovering the Universe with Your Family

By Tavi Greiner

Astronomy’s impact on human history is almost as fascinating as the stars themselves. Since the dawn of humankind, the heavens have been a source of wonder and discovery. Sailors navigated the seas, rulers proclaimed their eminence, and cultures sought their destinies, by and in the stars.

Today, the heavens are no less intriguing, no less spectacular, and no less evocative. We still look to the stars with fascination and we continue to probe their origins. The difference is that although we can begin to answer our questions with greater certainties, we are finding today’s truths even more fantastic than yesterday’s fictions.

There was a time when the splendor and the science of the universe belonged only to those who could afford the equipment and understand the computations that were necessary to astronomy. Modern technology has changed all that, bringing astronomy to our backyards and even to our laps. Today, we can all explore the heavens -- we can see the brilliance up close and we can learn about the science. Best of all, we can do it together, as friends and as families.

My fondest memories of my father are the evenings that we spent looking at the stars together. I will never forget our discussions, our journeys to distant worlds, and the way that he directed our path from star to star. Years later, those moments have inspired me to turn out the lights and share the heavens with my own children. With today’s technology, I am able to bring the brilliance and the science even closer than my father could. I can keep my children’s attention a little longer and I can show them very real, very exciting possibilities for their own futures.

Family StargazingThe subject of stars and planets is naturally intriguing to young children. However, their wonder can be quickly diminished by pesky insects and bad weather. Their fascination often turns to boredom by too much time spent fumbling with complicated equipment and technical charts. Children need fun, comfort, and certain simplicity. Parents need affordability. Fortunately, there are many exciting, uncomplicated, and very reasonably priced ways to share astronomy with your children.

Many books, of all reading levels, offer colorful pictures and easy-to-understand science. Stock your bookshelves with your children, and without. Share some of the new titles right away; let your children discover others themselves. Some books even feature glow-in-the-dark constellations or pop-up solar systems and galaxies.

Display the evening sky on your children’s bedroom ceiling with a mini planetarium. Some even include recorded commentary. Children can lie in their own beds to pick out constellations and they can fall asleep counting stars instead of sheep. Even less expensive, and no batteries required, are kits with easy-to-apply, self-stick stars and planets. Whether randomly or systematically placed, the glow-in-the-dark objects bring the sky indoors.

Slooh Explore Space Live Telescope CardOne product, Slooh Explore Space Live, brings “live” astronomy to your desktop. The Slooh Explore Space Live Telescope Card connects you directly to powerful online observatories.  These are the same observatories professionals in the field of Astronomy use to explore space.  We can see amazing celestial targets, typically difficult to find and view with consumer telescope equipment, in real-time through Slooh’s easy to use web interface.

Slooh is also the only “telescope” that includes astronomers. The site broadcasts nightly SkyGuide programming featuring experts who narrate the cosmos and answer questions in real time. This family-oriented website includes simple point and click imaging technology, enabling my family to take our own pictures of space. All these features are available at far less cost and without the hassle of a conventional telescope set-up.

Another enjoyable, rewarding way to share astronomy with your children is in our own backyards. Backyard observing need not include costly equipment, although a simple sky map and a pair of binoculars do add to the fun. Consulting a sky calendar for special events is a bonus. Most important is fun, comfort, and safety, and of course, a clear night.

Choose the darkest area of your yard and spread out a blanket or set up some chairs. Stash a flashlight nearby for occasional trips into the house. Mist the area, even your blanket and chairs, with an insect repellent to promote fewer annoyances. Encourage everyone to pick a spot and get comfortable. Then relax and chat about your day as you allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Family StargazingThe more accustomed your eyes to the darkness, the more apparent our celestial neighbors. As though springing from nowhere, stars begin to sparkle and twinkle against a dark blanket of sky.  This is when you can begin to point out the more obvious favorites. Nicknamed The Seven Sisters and accompanied by a romantic legend, Pleiades is a magnificent star cluster in the constellation Taurus. The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest neighboring galaxy and is easily spotted just north and west of Pleiades. Speaking of galaxies, you can follow one of the spiral arms of our own Milky Way straight across the sky. Brimming with shimmering clusters and glimmering cloudy regions, this arm’s orientation depends on the season. Summer’s Milky Way extends North to South, and in the winter it stretches from East to West.

Playing games with stars is especially appealing to children. See who can identify which constellations, or connect the stars to create your own constellations. Nearly any given night will include meteors, or shooting stars.  Instead of making the traditional wish, try to name the constellations through which the meteor passed.

At least one planet is nearly always visible throughout the year. In late winter to mid-summer, Jupiter is one of the most obvious objects in the sky. Binoculars will reveal four of its sixty-three moons. Venus is a marvelous diamond in either the pre-dawn and sunset skies, depending on the season. Its thick blanket of clouds reflects our sun’s light so that it outshines any object in the sky. Saturn is probably the most breath-taking sight of any. As seen through a telescope, its rings speak an ethereal serenity unmatched by any celestial wonder. Even without a telescope, Saturn is obvious as a golden-hued “star”.

Not to be forgotten is our own moon, with all its craters and mountains. This one object, alone, can provide endless hours of discussion and exploration. If you do any solo observing, be sure to exclaim excitement at finding a particular object. Children will almost always come running to share in the fun. Finally, keeping your observing sessions light-hearted and to a reasonably length will encourage anticipation of future sessions and perhaps even independent “research” for future targets.

Children are curious; they’re natural born explorers. Appeal to their curiosity and not only will you open new worlds for them, you may develop an interest that sparks a trip to an observatory or hosting or participating in a star party. Better still, you may develop a treasured family pastime. And that’s a universe of memories.

A Child's Introduction to the Night Sky Illustration Credits
All illustrations appear in:
A Child's Introduction to the Night Sky
By Michael Driscoll, Illustrated by Meredith Hamilton
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Copyright © 2004

 

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