Kid’s Corner: reading the stars

Welcome back to another week of Kid’s Corner with me, Angelique! This week our adventure takes us to the night sky to explore the stars, galaxies, shooting stars, and planets. Try to pick a night when there’s no moon so that it’s as dark as possible in your area. Find a place that is dark in your backyard, try to turn off all the lights around you to minimize the light pollution. Grab your binoculars or a telescope, if you have one (or at least your bug spray!), and get cozy in your pajamas. Allow your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark in order to best see the stars come into focus.

Useful Vocabulary:

Light Pollution – brightening of the night sky caused by street lights and other man-made sources which has a disruptive effect on natural cycles and inhibits the observation of stars and planets.

Comet – a ball of rock and ice that circles the sun

Meteor- a piece of rock or dust from space that enters the Earth’s atmosphere

Constellation – a group of stars forming a recognizable pattern that is traditionally named after its apparent form or identified with a mythological figure.

Galaxy – a large group of stars, dust and gas

Myth – a traditional story about the early history of a people

Nebula – a cloud of dust or gas in space

It’s time for a bedtime story, for every star is part of a story or myth that started in ancient times. Our local galaxy, the Milky Way, is composed of 200 billion stars. To all of us on Earth, on a clear night it appears as a hazy band across the sky. Most of the stars of the Milky Way are densely packed into the center, but due to our perspective, we only see a band or what looks like a swath of stars extending out. If we were able to see the Milky Way from a great distance, we would be able to see what looks like a spiral galaxy. Look for a few of the following constellations as you look to the sky:

Cassiopeia – named for a Greek queen, she angered Poseidon, the god of the seas, by boasting of her beauty. When she died, Poseidon flung her into the sky. Look for the five stars that appear as a “W,” which show Cassiopeia sitting on her throne.

Orion the Hunter – Orion, a Greek hero, was a hunter that was killed by a scorpion. The gods hung his body in the sky. Look for the three brightest stars that make up his belt, Betelgeuse; to the left is Orion’s shoulder, the other stars are his shield, and his sword is made up of the Orion nebula.

The Big Dipper – part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major (the Great Bear), it is made up of seven stars and looks like a ladle. The Big Dipper will help orient you to finding other constellations.

To learn more about Cepheus, Andromeda, Canis Major, Leo, Taurus, The Southern Cross, and Pegasus, read about the myths they are based on how sailors and explorers over time have been guided by the constellations.

Recently this past month, many lucky stargazers were able to spot the Comet Neowise. The staff from Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium were able to capture a shot. We won’t be seeing it again for another 6,800 years!

Fiske Planetarium, University of Colorado at Boulder

One of my favorite things to look for at night are shooting stars, as a kid I always felt so lucky to spot one. I can’t remember if any of the wishes I made came true or not but just spotting one felt so special. Shooting stars happen when rock debris enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. The streaks of light we see are the shooting stars.

As the sun goes down, you can see a lone bright star: if it’s not moving, and doesn’t twinkle, you’ll know that is the planet Venus. It is the closest planet to Earth, and after the moon, the brightest object in the sky. Most of the time, it is covered in clouds, but if you get a clear night, you may see a crescent shape. Another planet that can be seen with good binoculars are Jupiter and its four largest moons. (Unfortunately you won’t be able to see its stripes unless you have a telescope.)

Other activities you can do is keep track of the phases of the moon, from full, crescent, waxing, and waning. As the seasons change, you can spot the harvest moon or possibly view an eclipse. Gather your family and head outdoors and observe how everything changes around you every night throughout the year. This is a fun activity to do as a family, especially if any of you go camping and have the opportunity to get far away from the lights of houses, traffic, and buildings.

There are some helpful apps you can download on your phone to help you learn to identify the constellations, such as Google Sky, SkySafari, Star Tracker, International Space Station, Skyview, NASA, and Star Walk 2.

A few other online resources to learn more about our night skies and take part in programming are STAR Net and locally, Fiske Planetarium’s Astronomy Fix.

Further Reading

Find these titles in our catalog! Happy exploring!!

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