Home Education Magazine
March-April 2001 - Articles and Columns
It's Only Natural - Barb Theisen
Star Light, Star Bright
The night sky has always fascinated me. Whether lying on the grass in our backyard as a child (up way past bedtime on a starry summer night) or sailing on the ocean (all alone in the cockpit on my night watch), I have always found comfort in looking up to see familiar companions like Ursa Major or Orion lighting the night sky.
Even today I have an almost nightly ritual of going up on the deck of our sailboat to simply gaze at the night sky. I find beauty in a small wedge of the moon glowing softly. I feel secure knowing Polaris is there to show me the way north. I like calling the Milky Way my home. Some people feel insignificant in the vastness of our universe. I simply feel great joy at belonging to something so wonderful.
Fortunately, both my daughters share this interest in astronomy. Perhaps they had little choice in the matter. Once when the girls were about four years old and we were sailing Canada, I woke them up and dragged them outside to see the Northern Lights. Now that's a light show! Disney can't even begin to compete with Mother Nature.
A few years ago, I took the girls along on a photo shoot. I was taking night shots of lighthouses (see them at www.sailawayphotography.com) and it just so happened that the comet Hale-Bopp was visible. Every morning I would get up at 3 a.m. to start my shoot, with every intention of letting the girls sleep in at the motel. Every morning I would go outside, see Hale-Bopp and rush back in to wake the girls. This incredible sight was just too good to sleep through.
And just last spring, I woke them at four in the morning to see the constellation Southern Cross while sailing the Caribbean. What a glorious sight that was! Yet the girls never have complained about their crazy mom.
Kenna and Kate have grown up looking forward to our Full Moon Nights, where we take part in an adventure under the glow of the full moon. We've cross-country skied, canoed, and had a picnic -- all by the light of the full moon.
Every August we look forward to our annual Perseids party, where we lay back and watch a meteor shower. Our study of flight several years ago (which started with the Wright Brothers while sailing North Carolina and culminated with watching a space shuttle launch in Florida) only heightened their interest in space.
This past year, with the help of my two daughters, I have gone from being a casual (yet enthusiastic) observer of the night sky to an amateur astronomer. Kenna is studying astronomy using the Stars & Stories software (available from Wildridge Software, (888) 244-4379 or www.wildridge.com), while Kate is taking a gifted astronomy course from the University of Missouri as part of a distance learning program. We all are having a great time learning about the universe.
It's easy to get your kids interested and involved in observing the night sky. No equipment is necessary and you only need to go to your own backyard to start looking.
Here is an easy project: On the night of the new moon, go outside and look for the moon. It won't be there. In fact, you may not see much of a moon until the second or third night. Each night, go outside and observe the moon as it gets larger (waxes). You may want to sketch it. After two weeks the moon will be full. Keep observing as the moon gets smaller (wanes) over the following two weeks. Find out the names of the phases of the moon and label your sketches.
While you and the kids are outside, you will probably want to look to see if you can find any constellations. The Big Dipper is probably The easiest to find. Look for Orion as well. Check your library for a book with a star chart - or map of the sky - to help you find your way around. Another great source for sky charts is Sky & Telescope magazine or their web site: www.skypub.com. I love their "This Week's Sky at a Glance" feature, which gives information on what is visible and where to look to find it. Be sure to mark your calendar for special events such as meteor showers, eclipses, visible comets, etc.
Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how many stars there were? Here is an activity where you can estimate the number of stars visible to the naked eye. Take an empty paper towel tube about 12 inches long. Measure the length and the diameter of the tube in centimeters. Look at the sky through the tube and count the number of stars that you can see. Write down the number of stars and the direction that you were looking (i.e. north, northwest, overhead). Repeat the activity by looking in a different direction of the sky until you have a total of four observations. Now do the following calculations and record all of your answers.
1. Find the radius of your tube by dividing the diameter of the tube by 2.
2. Find the area of your tube by taking your radius2 (radius x radius) and multiply by 3.14 (pi).
3. Find the area of the sky by multiplying 4 x 3.14 x the length of your tube2.
4. Find the average number of stars that you observed in your four observations by adding the four numbers and dividing the total by four. Finally, use the equation below to find the total number of stars visible to the naked eye.
Take area of sky and divide by area of tube. Next multiply the above answer by the average number of stars observed. This equals the number of stars visible to the naked eye. Wow!
Kate and Kenna think that www.space.com is an incredible Web site. They also recommend www.kidsastronomy.about.com and www.spacekids.com. Check these out. There are many other great sites as well.
Although no equipment is needed to start discovering the wonders of astronomy, you may want to use binoculars or a telescope for a more in-depth look at our galaxy. If you have a pair of binoculars, use them to see things such as craters on the moon. A telescope will allow you to view the rings of Saturn or even look beyond the Milky Way.
But don't worry if you don't have any special equipment. Christmas morning found us with a new telescope under the tree. Although I'm sure it will be much used and loved, it remained under the tree while Kate constructed special equipment to watch the Yuletide solar eclipse: She took a cardboard box, poked a pin through one end and taped a piece of white paper to the other end. We turned our backs to the sun and held the box in front of us. The sun shone through the pinhole and was projected on the white paper. With the help of this high-tech piece of equipment, we watched as the moon took a bite out of the sun.
(c) 2001 Barb Theisen
March-April 2001 Issue
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