Exploring Space Without a Spacesuit
Have you ever gone out on a gorgeous clear night in an area away from streetlights and just looked at the moon and stars? Do you remember your sense of the wonder of it all? This issue we are going to cover some ways to explore the moon, solar system, and stars right from your own home.
The best way to start any scientific endeavor is to simply take a look. Observing the night sky will raise your child’s interest and start the questions flowing. Check the newspaper for the weather, phase of moon and local times when the moon will rise and set. Take your children out on a clear night with a pair of binoculars or a telescope, if available. Try to find an area away from lights. Look at the moon. Search for the planets. Look for constellations (clusters of stars that make recognizable shapes). Tell your children that the moon is bright, so don’t stare at it with binoculars for too long. This might be a good time to remind your children to never look directly at the sun during the day either, especially with a telescope or binoculars. Sunlight from the sun, or even the reflected sunlight from a bright moon, can cause severe eye damage.
A flashlight is helpful to point to distant objects in the sky. Look for objects that are red or blue instead of white. Can you see that the second “star” from the end of the handle in the Big Dipper is actually two stars? Have your children find groups of stars that seem to go together and make up their own constellations. Our family recognizes the earthworm, the blimp and the vacuum cleaner. A flashlight covered with a red filter (such as red tissue paper or plastic wrap) will make it easier to see to draw your constellations on paper. When our eyes are exposed to bright lights, even briefly, it takes a few minutes to regain our night vision. The red filter will provide enough light to see the paper but not enough to interfere with night vision.
If your children are hungry for information, a good “field guide to the heavens” is the Whitney Star Finder by Charles Whitney (reference 1). It even contains a chart for finding constellations based on season and location.
Before modern times, many people wondered about the moon and it’s phases. Many tales were woven to explain this marvel. Some of these stories can be found in the easy reader books Armadillo Ray by John Beifuss (reference 2), which also contains a fact page about the moon, and Maya Moon by Marianne Mitchell (3). Then check some websites for current photos and information of the moon (4, 5, 6).
The most obvious features on the face of the moon are the impact craters. Your children can create and study craters. Fill a large pan or mixing bowl or deep pan (preferably unbreakable) halfway with colorful flour, such as whole wheat or corn meal. Then gently add a layer (an inch or so) of white flour. Take the bowl outside, if possible, and set it on a flat surface. Have your kids stand on a secure chair or stepladder and drop various round objects into the flour. The results should be some interesting craters and splash patterns, which are the patterns of debris shot out of the crater with impact.
This summer Mars will be brilliant in the evening sky because it is in the part of its orbit that brings it close to the earth. Even a small telescope may be enough to see the ice caps and dark markings on the planet’s surface. There are many websites to visit on the topic of Mars (7, 8, 9).
One simple way to study all the planets is to create a mobile or poster of the solar system. How complicated a project this can be will depend on the age and interests of your child. Use your imagination. We have made models of the solar system (and constellations too) using piles of soapsuds on the bathroom mirror. Check the StarDate Teacher Guide for more information (10). When the mobile is completed, ask some questions. Why do we have night and day? What is an eclipse? Why do we have seasons? A sophisticated model can help answer some of these questions.
Another way to explore the solar system is to take an Internet tour, such as Scholastic’s Internet Field Trip (11).
If you are interested in more information about constellations, try National Geographic’s website Star Journey and click on star chart (12). Besides viewing the constellations on the Internet, your children can also make constellations by poking holes in a heavy piece of paper and shining a flashlight through in a dark room. For a more sophisticated model using a tin can, check the Everything Kids Space Book for “Canned Constellations” (13). This book contains a number of activities, including how to build a homemade telescope and a miniature rocket.
Your teenager is ready for more difficult activities? How about a project to design a spacesuit for the surface of Mars, or even better, Venus? Investigate the controversy whether Pluto is really a planet. Figure out a better calendar after checking how others have done it. Investigate what plants would grow in a futuristic space station and how to make food from them. For more information check the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) (6, 14). I got really interested in nebulae while researching this column. SEDS and some other Internet sites have real photos from the Hubble Space Telescope (for example, resource 12). What amazing dust bunnies!
Finally, a trip to a cool planetarium may be just what your family needs on a hot summer day.
As you can see, the exploration of the solar system can lead in many different directions. And there are still many questions to be answered.
Hope you and your children “blast-off” soon!