Here’s a bright note: the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has meant less light and air pollution, which makes for better stargazing. There’s something special about looking up into an expansive twinkling sky that sparks the imagination, encourages curiosity, and reminds us that we’re connected to a much larger, long-living universe.
“I love that anyone, from anywhere in the world, can look up at the sky at night and see the same stars and constellations that humans have seen since ancient times,” says Caity Sullivan, education associate at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science.
And it’s easy and fun for families to do. “Lots of kids already love space and want to learn more,” Sullivan says. “The best advice I can give is to get outside and look up. Maybe pack some snacks and a cozy blanket; make it a fun star-hunting adventure.”
Sullivan suggests downloading free star-viewing apps like Stellarium (www.stellarium.org), or WorldWide Telescope (www.worldwidetelescope.org), “which allows you to fly through the universe,” she says. And if you’re really serious, consider OpenSpace (www.openspaceproject.com). “Fair warning — it’s a hefty download, but it’s very close to the software we use for live shows in our planetarium theater at the Museum of Science,” she says.
For the starriest views, pick a night during the new moon phase (when the moon is barely visible), or when the moon sets earlier in the day or rises late at night. “But the moon is an awesome thing to look at too,” Sullivan says. “And you can still see some stars when the moon is out.”
The best viewing is in places with little to no light, and on a cloudless night with low humidity, as extra moisture in the air can obscure your view. A clear view of the horizon also helps. “With these conditions, you can even see the hazy band of our Milky Way galaxy stretching across the sky,” Sullivan says.
There’s plenty to see from your own backyard, though. Start with the Big Dipper, visible high in the northeast and part of the larger Ursa Major constellation. Move around the sky from there. The Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) is close by, with the North Star marking its handle. Follow the arc in the handle of the Big Dipper, to find Arcturus, a very bright, red star.
Orion, Canis Major, Taurus, and Gemini are all bright constellations visible in early evening, low in the west. “Catch these while you still can, since this is the last chance to see them until next winter,” Sullivan says.
Young stargazers may be interested to know that in looking at the stars you’re looking back in time. “Light takes time to travel through the vastness of space, so... you’re seeing the star as it was hundreds of years ago,” says Sullivan.
You can spot several planets this time of year, too. In the evening, look for Venus in the west. Early risers can catch Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all visible in the southeast, early in the morning. “You can actually spot the reddish hue of Mars,” Sullivan says. “And Jupiter and Saturn are close together in the sky, with Jupiter being the brighter of the two.”
Reading stories about the stars and planets adds to the fun. “Some of my favorites include the Greek story of Orion the Hunter and Scorpius the Scorpion, as well as the Chinese love story related to two stars, called The Cowherd (Altair) and the Weaving Girl (Vega),” says Sullivan. “Or make up your own constellations and stories to go with them.”
Older kids might want to start a star-watching journal, recording and drawing what they see . Sky & Telescope magazine’s website (skyandtelescope.org/homeschool-resources) has a trove of homeschool astronomy resources, from links to observatory livestreams, NASA’s Kids Club, and astronomy podcasts to downloadable star charts and activity packets.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org