Try this tonight: Teach your kids to recognize these 4 constellations. You might just rocket their love of science into a whole new dimension.
Once, we navigated by the heavens. Now we mostly ignore the night sky in the rush of homework time, dinner time, and bedtime.
But so many of us, kids and adults alike, can be swept out of our mundane worries (and tiny screens) into a bigger, brighter galaxy if we take a little time outside at night. Plus, nothing banishes fear of the dark like spotting friendly faces in the sky.
Carve out a little time for a free, fun, family friendly astronomy lesson on your front sidewalk tonight—no telescope needed!
What you need:
- A clear night sky. If it’s raining, it’s best to wait a few days. If you live in the middle of a city, consider taking a drive to the outskirts for better viewing.
- EarthSky is a great resource for all things celestial. Use their neat calendar feature to figure out what’s visible—and coolest!—in the sky every night.
- If you have trouble finding any of these constellations, you can use a printed star map (try Sky Map Online to print one for your location) or an app (try Night Sky Lite or OSR Star Finder—both free) to help you find them.
1. The Big Dipper
Background: This group of stars is one of the easiest to recognize because of its brightness. The shape is also easy to spot—look for a giant ladle in the sky.
Finding it: If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you should be able to spot the Big Dipper low on the horizon to the North during fall and winter, and high above the horizon to the North during spring and summer. See EarthSky’s page on the Big and Little Dippers for more details.
Amaze your kids: Technically, the Big Dipper is an asterism, not a constellation—it’s a smaller part (either the head or the tail, depending on which way you look at it) of the main constellation Ursa Major (Latin for “big she-bear”).
2. The Little Dipper
Background: This group of stars (also an asterism) is harder to spot than the Big Dipper, but it’s got one thing going for it—Polaris, one of the brightest stars in the sky. It also is part of the constellation Ursa Minor, or “little she-bear.”
Finding it: From the Big Dipper, look up and to the right for a star brighter than the others. That’s Polaris, the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. The Little Dipper is a similar shape to the Big Dipper, but it’s backwards and upside down when compared to its big sister. EarthSky has more details.
By Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Amaze your kids: Polaris is also called the North Star or the Pole Star because it’s the star closest to the North Pole. As a yellow supergiant (read: super bright), it’s also easy to spot. Sailors as early as the 10th century used it to figure out where they were and where they were headed.
Background: Orion can be easier to spot than even the Big Dipper, once you know what to look for. In September, it’s visible in the early morning, before dawn. If you’re not a morning person, wait till December, when you can see it in the evenings.
Finding it: In September, look toward the southeast in the early mornings. You’re looking for four bright stars in a trapezoidal shape, with three bright stars much closer together in a diagonal line. The four stars are the corners of Orion’s torso, and the three stars are Orion’s belt. There are other stars that make up the figure, including a hunter’s bow and two arms, but those can be harder to find.
Bonus points: Head down from Orion’s right side toward the horizon to find Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the nighttime sky. And—if you’re raising a Harry Potter fan or two—perhaps more importantly, the source of Sirius Black’s name. See a helpful diagram at EarthSky.
Amaze your kids: Those four stars that make up Orion’s torso, clockwise from top right, are Bellatrix (another name source for J.K. Rowling), Rigel, Saiph (pronounced “safe”), and, best of all, Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetlejuice”).
Background: The shape of the constellation and the brightness of its stars make it relatively easy to spot. Named after a queen in Greek mythology who boasted about her beauty, it can also be an object lesson in the dangers of vanity.
Finding it: Cassiopeia is made up of five bright stars forming either an M or a W, depending on the time of year. It’ll be in the Northeast sky this September. See EarthSky for more details.
Amaze your kids: Cassiopeia—along with Ursa Major and Minor—are circumpolar constellations in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning they’re visible all year. Which leads neatly into the discussion of what people in Australia might see while looking at the night sky, and, if you haven’t had it yet, the whole “Are they standing upside down on the bottom of the Earth?” conversation. May the Force be with you.
With a little luck, just a few minutes of night-sky viewing will help awaken your kid’s curiosity and maybe even spark a new interest in science.
If so, head to EarthSky.org where you can learn about all sorts of cool celestial bodies you can spot in the night sky, from the Moon to meteor showers to planets—even the International Space Station.
Find a planetarium near you for space adventures you can experience in the daylight.