Wishing upon a star is an iconic activity steeped in everyone’s childhood desire to attain happiness and fulfillment. Actual stargazing can help make parents’ dreams for their children’s well-being come true, as well.
Children are exposed to imagining the larger celestial realm through popular films, science fiction literature and pop songs, plus more tangibly via current sky events. Consider news of the meteoroid that exploded over Russia in February and the latest images from the surface of Mars beamed to us by the NASA rover Curiosity. Experiencing the excitement of early knowledge can bolster academics while fostering a calming sense of the order of nature’s rhythms.
“Astronomy ties into every educational domain—physics, geometry, algebra, history and ecology,” advises former elementary school teacher Hiram Bertoch, of West Valley City, Utah, owner of the KidsKnowIt Network, which maintains 10 free children’s learning websites, including KidsAstronomy.com. Standing in awe at the wonders of the universe can also instill a centering sense of humility in the face of such grandeur.
Autumn is one of the best times for channeling youngsters’ intrigue in constellations, given the clearer skies and comfortably cool nights. This year, families can anticipate a special viewing of the Comet ISON, which is expected to be visible from much of the United States in late November.
Sky & Telescope magazine’s online guide, Getting Started in Astronomy, offers easy steps for parents to put stars in kids’ eyes. Check out its This Week’s Sky at a Glance link. Find an open space like a park or wooded clearing to reduce ambient light and use sky maps in hobby publications or astronomy books from the library as guides.
Binoculars are the best tool to start getting familiar with the night sky—they augment the naked eye enough to identify many Moon craters, Jupiter’s moons and the crescent phases of Venus. Planetariums, science and children’s museums, nature centers and astronomy clubs often hold public family events that include access to telescopes; some loan or rent them out. Find local clubs and facilities at SkyandTelescope.com.
Other opportunities include NASA’s Night Sky Network of astronomy clubs, Astronomy magazine’s youth programs, SpacePlace.nasa.gov and Astronomy.com/kids programs. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops both offer astronomy merit badges.
When a family’s interest continues sufficiently to buy a telescope, test preferred models at many potential settings before finalizing a purchase. According to the online guide, a first telescope should provide high-quality optics that limit diffraction (the spreading of light as it passes through the lens system to the eye) and a sturdy, smooth-working mount. More advanced telescopes have built-in computers and motors that can be programmed to point at specific spots in the sky.
Rising Stars on Earth
If trying to emulate Galileo is a challenge, youngsters can relate and aspire to the cadre of young scientists profiled in Astronomy magazine’s “Astronomy’s Rising Stars” story in July, available via most public libraries. Being a “self-described computer nerd” led Mark Krumholz, Ph.D., an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics in his 30s at the University of California-Santa Cruz, to conduct massive-star formulation simulations. By “plugging in the laws of physics and turning the crank,” he has shown why some stars heat gas around them to appear much larger than others. Colors vary, as well.
Stargazing was the catalyst for Anna Frebel, Ph.D., an assistant physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. “I consider myself fortunate that my initial passion led to becoming a professional astronomer,” says this scientist, who is credited with discovering the most chemically primitive star; the oldest known star as of 2007, at about 13.2 billion years; and the red giant star S1020549.
Whether early steps lead to a later career or as a heavenly hobby, helping to convert a child’s, “What’s that?” to a happy, “I know what that is,” becomes worth encouraging. As Bertoch observes, “Kids have an innate excitement about what’s out there.”
Randy Kambic, in Estero, FL, is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to Natural Awakenings.