Stargazing With Your Family

Stargazing With Your Family
by Jay Ryan

We hear a lot about “space” in the pop media, but we mostly see pretty pictures taken by the Space Shuttle or the Hubble Space Telescope. Meanwhile, a lot of people would like just go outside and look at the night sky, to explore the mysteries of astronomy with their own eyes, rather than just look at pictures on the computer. 

Learning the sky poses many challenges, particularly for the total novice.  For people who live near big cities, the sky isn’t much to see from their own backyards.  Most of the stars are hidden behind the glow of the streetlights, and only a handful of the brightest stars can peek out feebly through this haze.

Also, most average people today don’t know a lot about the sky.  We hear that astronomy is the oldest science, and has a long, rich tradition, but we don’t hear very much about that, or how to understand and appreciate that history.  Maybe you’d like to learn about the sky with your homeschooled kids, but have no idea where to begin.  What’s a mom to do? 

Do Your Homework!

First, Do Your Homework!

The first thing you can do is try to find out what’s up there!  Familiarize yourself with the constellations for the current season before venturing outside.  You’ll want to find an effective depiction of the sky that will help you get a sense of which stars are actually visible.  Useful tools include star maps, computer programs, and live planetarium shows. 

Be careful when selecting a star map!  Many maps do not adequately indicate which stars are brighter than others, so you have no way of telling the difference.  Other maps present complicated “connect the dot” patterns between stars, and this only adds to the confusion when you can’t see such patterns in the night sky.  Avoid the common “star finder” planispheres, since these don’t give an accurate impression of the sky and are confusing for a beginner to figure out. 

A very good star map is included in each issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, available on most newsstands and bookstores.  Also, you can also learn a lot by experimenting with astronomy software.  An excellent program is Stellarium, which can be downloaded for free at http://www.Stellarium.org.  Also, there is much to learn from a live planetarium show, which usually includes a demonstration of the stars currently visible in the evening sky.

By reviewing the brightest stars and their patterns beforehand, you can learn to recognize some constellations before stepping outside!  There are only first-magnitude stars, which are the brightest.  These stars have names that are usually indicated on the star maps.  Get to know the stars by name!  Can you learn 15 stars over the span of a year?  If so, you can learn a lot of constellations!

Learn What You Can From Home

Learn What You Can From Home

Can you see any stars at all from your house?  If so, pick a clear, warm, moonless night to pitch a blanket in the backyard for a family star night.  Otherwise, go to a nearby park or other open place.  With everyone laying down and looking up, spot the constellations you learned from the star map.  Identify the brightest stars and use those to find the patterns of the constellations.  

The Big Dipper and Orion are the most famous constellations.  If you know these or any others, start with those and then learn the ones nearby.  For example, if you already know the Big Dipper, try to find nearby Cassiopeia!  Or if you know Orion, try to learn nearby Taurus and Gemini. 

If you learn the “neighbors” of the constellations you already know, you can expand outwards into the whole sky.  As the seasons pass and new constellations roll into the evening sky, you can rack up quite a number just by learning the neighbors of the neighbors! 

Don’t worry if you can’t find every single constellation shown on a star map.  There are some “fill-in-the-blank” constellations, formed of faint stars, that are hard to spot even from a clear, dark rural sky.  Most star maps include these faint constellations, which adds to the confusion for beginners.  If you focus on only the constellations that have bright stars with names, you can learn a whole lot without trying very hard.  

Here’s a tip for mom!  If you’re busy with everyday homeschooling, delegate the star-finding chores to dad!  A lot of dads are interested in astronomy, and this is one subject that dad can tackle to get more involved with the family’s home education.

Here’s another tip!  If you have little kids, get them looking!  Little kids are very observant and notice things that adults miss (especially the dads!)  They are also very good at recognizing shapes and patterns, and they can teach the older kids and the parents! 

Best tip yet!  Don’t run out and buy a telescope.  Learn the stars first, and look through someone else’s eyepiece before deciding to buy.  Instead, buy a pair of binoculars.  You can use binocs to look at the sky and also other things like birds and sporting events.

Planning a Stargazing Outing

Planning a Stargazing Outing

Once you’ve learned to spot a few constellations from home, head out somewhere under the real dark skies!  Does your family like to camp?  Plan to add some stargazing to your next campout!  If you can learn some constellations from the city, you will be ASTOUNDED at how bright they appear from under some pristine, velvety-black rural skies.  Also, you might have better success spotting all those faint “fill-in-the-blank” constellations shown on the star map that you couldn’t find from home. 

When planning a rural astronomy event, it is crucial to schedule around the phase of the Moon.  Even a little moonlight spoils the velvet-black quality of the night sky.  Never plan sky watching around the Full Moon!  Instead, plan an event near the New Moon, or at least after Last Quarter, when the Moon rises late at night.  These Moon phases are indicated on most wall calendars.  Also, try to plan around meteor showers, which are excellent sky sights!

For a one-night sky experience, find a local astronomy club in your area.  Such clubs are everywhere, and most have monthly public telescope observing nights.  These clubs include many veteran astronomers that would LOVE to give your family a tour of the sky and answer everyone’s questions.  Ask about scheduling a night for your entire homeschool group to attend.  Spend time looking through their telescopes before deciding to buy one of your own.   

Astronomy Resources
Astronomy Resources
There are a great number of astronomy resources for learning the sky.  You can start with Sky & Telescope magazine, which has been helping people learn the sky for over 70 years.  Visit their website at:  SkyandTelescope.com.  Also visit their “Community and Organizations” page to find an astronomy club, planetarium or observatory near you

Classical Astronomy is an astronomy site especially for Christian homeschoolers.  Stay informed of upcoming astronomy events by subscribing to our FREE email newsletter.  Also, check out Signs & Seasons, our homeschool curriculum that includes information for learning the constellations.  Visit ClassicalAstronomy.com and find us on Facebook!