Reach for the Stars! Exploring the Night Skies with Kids

by Eric & Jennifer Bryerton

On a clear night, the sky over your own backyard comes alive with a special kind of magic. Overhead, uncounted billions of stars and planets are arrayed in a dazzling light show that changes every night. Not everyone will discover a new comet or witness a never-before-seen celestial event, but it could very well be your good fortune to spot one of the planets in our solar system or make a wish on a shooting star. Best of all, stargazing is something you can share as a family, right in your own backyard.

Introducing your kids to the wonders of the nighttime sky can be pretty easy. You don't need a telescope to see planets, constellations, meteor showers, and more. Take a tour of the stars using a field guide, maybe some binoculars, and a bit of patience. It's a good idea for parents as the leaders of this stellar expedition to do a little advance work before taking the kids out for a look at the heavens. Check out the sidebar on PAGE XX for some good web sites and books for beginners.

To make the most of your stargazing, choose a moonless night. Make the night darker by turning out all of the lights in your house and backyard. If the neighborhood is still too bright drive out of town a bit - there are lots of quiet country roads in the county that are very dark and ideal for stargazing. Take a flashlight but try not to use it as your eyes will see more once they've fully adjusted. Tip: cover the flashlight with a bit of red cellophane paper held in place by a rubber band. You'll be able to read your star chart yet keep your eyes adjusted to the dark.

If you want to see a little more detail than the naked eye will provide, use your binoculars. Even better, mount them on a tripod as they jiggle so easily when held by hand. With the tripod you'll be able to sight something and get it lined up perfectly then the kids can take a turn, too. But you still won't find the craters on the moon or Saturn's rings," cautions UVA Astronomy Professor, Ed Murphy. He recommends a simple, good quality telescope "because you will see better detail and it is easy to use, you will enjoy it so much more." He also suggests shopping for a telescope from "Sky and Telescope" or "Astronomy" magazines rather than a department store because the quality will be significantly better for only a little more initial investment.

Once you have gathered your equipment for a backyard observatory and darkened the house, pull out an old blanket and hold a star party for the kids. You can lay down to gaze which is much easier on the neck and any sleepy little ones can just nod off snuggled with the family under the stars. Fun snacks might include star and moon shaped pb & j sandwiches or moon cubes (Swiss cheese) served with the drink of the astronauts, Tang.

As darkness sets in, the planets become visible. They're always the first objects in the night sky because planets are a lot closer to us than anything else, so they're going to reflect a lot of light and be very visible. Also remember the children's rhyme, "Twinkle twinkle little star." In contrast to sparkly stars, planets shine steadily. Since ancient times, the so-called naked-eye planets have intrigued and inspired onlookers all over the world.

Venus comes closer to Earth than any other in the solar system. Search for it low in the west up to two hours after sunset until late May. On June 8, Venus will pass in front of the sun as seen from earth. This last happened in December of 1882. Mars is visible high in the western sky at sunset, just above and to the left of Venus. By late May, it too will be lost in the evening twilight. It is always exciting for kids to discover it really is red. Kids may also be interested in learning about the exciting travels of the Mars Rover. You can see images daily at At sunset, Jupiter is already high in the eastern summer sky. The thousands of rings of Saturn aren't visible with the naked eye but you can see it high in the western sky at sunset. Mercury, the closest to the sun and the fastest, is also the trickiest to spot. After lining up with the other planets in March and April, Mercury is now too close to the sun to see.

In late March and early April this year star gazers had a rare treat when the "Fab Five", the naked-eye planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - reunited in the night sky, giving spectators a unique chance to see Earth's closest companions in one easy sitting not to recur again until 2036. For early risers, there will be another chance to see all the Fab Five planets reunited just before sunrise in December of this year and early January 2005. On May 12 to 16 look out for a mini-reunion with the naked-eye planets, when comet C/2001 Q4 lines up with Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. Summer vacations are a great time to stargaze. Camping is particularly good because the really dark skies make viewing much better. Also, heading to the beach at dusk can be terrific too. The water's edge with miles of sand and dunes is ideal to watch the moon break and spot the first constellations of the evening. Choose a quiet beach though - Hampton Roads/Virginia Beach is way too brightly lit by the city but further North Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is perfect. NASA operates Wallops Island Flight Facility near there as well - a great place to visit to connect the science to the stars. There is much more to see than just planets though. During summer, you can often witness dramatic meteor showers, collections of what are commonly called shooting stars. Nowadays there are also hundreds of satellites in orbit relaying communication signals, monitoring weather patterns, and more. Although space vehicles move relatively quickly, they can be easy to spot because they're very bright, steadily moving specks. In addition to satellites, you may also be lucky enough to spot the International Space Station (ISS). For information on ISS flyovers of our area and satellite activity, go to Airplanes can also be spotted flying overhead and sometimes something surprising will pass through the night sky - something mysterious you might not recognize. An Unidentified Flying Object can open up imaginative discussion with the kids about life beyond our planet.

Constellations have guided captains of ships, inspired poets, helped farmers follow the planting seasons, and entranced children for centuries. A couple of handy reference tools will help you orient yourself for family adventure in the night sky. A star map is the easiest way to get a fix on what's in the night sky: Simply take a star map, point the map and yourself to the north, and look up. What you see on the map should more or less be what you'll see in the sky. You can find a good monthly map (and it is free!) at Also known as a star wheel, a planisphere is the secret decoder of the sky. Spin this handheld wheel to match your current date and time, and you'll get a customized map of the sky. This device costs $10 to $20. You can find them online and at bookstores and science shops.

In imaginations, bears and heroes, crabs and flying horses, have all made their way to the stars. On a really dark night, you can see as many as 2000 stars! Trying to tell which is which is difficult. The constellations help by breaking up the sky into more manageable bits. They are used as mnemonics, or memory aids.

The Big Dipper is the best-recognized constellation. It's said that wishes made on it in summer won't fall out because the bowl is facing up. The Big Dipper is part of a larger constellation called the Great Bear. Its handle forms the bear's tail. If you look at the bowl of the Big Dipper, you'll find two pointer stars that aim straight at Polaris, the North Star, which in turn forms the tip of the Little Dipper's handle. As every Boy and Girl Scout knows, if you can locate the North Star, you don't need a compass. Kids in other countries see the Big Dipper as different shapes: English call it the Plough; Poles call it the Wagon; and Hindus call it the Seven Wise Men. The Big Dipper was also a very important part of the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape from the South. There were songs spread among the slave population saying follow the "Drinking Gourd" to a better life - a secret message telling them to go north.

Other fun constellations for budding astronomers to discover this summer using their star map or planisphere include Draco, or the Dragon, which winds around the little dipper. The Swan, or Cygnus, is a magnificent constellation with outstretched wings as he flies along the Milky Way. Hercules wielding a club is another easy one to pick out during the summer months. Scorpion really looks like a scorpion with many bright stars. There are so many - over 80 constellations to find. And, while you're enjoying a balmy summer evening why not make up some constellations of your own. It's a lot like watching for shapes in the clouds.

For families interested in an outing, UVA's McCormick Observatory offers wonderful free public nights the first and third Fridays of each month. The McCormick 26-inch was the largest telescope in the United States at the time of its inauguration in 1885, and is still the fourth largest telescope of its kind in the U.S. And, while you are waiting for another turn at the telescope you can sit in the 116 year-old observing chair that turns and reclines on rope-operated pulleys. Professor Ed Murphy says that the chair always fascinates the kids and there is often a line to try it out. The observatory also has a slide show, small museum display, and volunteers sometimes bring actual meteorites out for the kids to handle. In the lawn area amateur astronomers or students will sometimes set up smaller telescopes for impromptu viewing and question & answer sessions.

Our UVA Astronomy Department also operates the Fan Mountain Observatory out in Covesville. Susan Haas, author of Free Union Country School's Charlottesville and Beyond, says that "this is about as bad as it gets: waiting for 6 months for an open house, applying for advance tickets, driving all the way to Covesville to stand in line… But if you are dyed-in-the-wool stargazers then there is no other place to be each April and October." Fan Mountain is only open two nights a year - watch the Calendar for the next date and details on getting your free tickets. The observatory offers a slide show, several small telescopes, and the big 31” and 40” scopes that many older kids say are amazing. This isn't an activity for smaller children though unless parents are willing to take turns, alternating participating in tours with playing outside with the kids but school-age kids will get a lot out of the experience. Parents who've taken small kids suggest slipping in and out of your tour group as interest ebbs and flows, it is a pretty relaxed program.

The Museum of Natural History-UVA has stargazing programs at Ivy Creek Natural Area. Astronomer led programs often begin with a slide presentation and conclude with sky viewing that is fun for all ages. The Virginia Discovery Museum offers Starlab, a scientifically accurate portable inflatable planetarium that is used for outreach to schools and for special events.

For inside views of the stars (read: without mosquitoes) head to The Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond for large-screen planetarium shows. Right now UVA's Department of Astronomy is sponsoring a special planetarium show on Black Holes through June 13. Also at SMV monthly "Live Sky' planetarium shows hlight current sky events and point out prominent stars and constellations visible to the naked eye.

An interest in space comes easily to kids because they are natural scientists. Stars, in all their blazing glory of red, blue, green, yellow, and more, are pulsing and moving, swirling around in their galaxies which are pretty amazing to learn about. Setting up your own backyard star parties may become a regular tradition for your family and perhaps you'll visit a nearby planetarium or an observatory. Whether or not your young scientists are inspired to become astronomers or astronauts, it is certain that you'll open up words of wonder and possibility with the magic of the stars.

Special thanks to Professor Ed Murphy of the UVA Astronomy Department for sharing his extensive knowledge.

Jennifer has a background in education and Eric is an engineer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. They both enjoy hosting backyard star parties for their two daughters throughout the year.

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