The night sky is full of beauty, intrigue and fabulous stories. It is teeming with life and constantly changing. Go on an adventure by exploring the night sky with kids - you don't even need to leave home!
Exploring the night sky doesn’t require much preparation or equipment. Here are suggestions on what to look for and what to talk about – why not tonight?
Best place and time
The best place to start is wherever you are! Home or a nearby park is great.
Lights from a city or town can overpower some objects in the night sky, but if it is a clear night you will see the biggest and brightest features from anywhere.
Dusk is the best time to start stargazing with kids. They will enjoy pointing out the stars or planets that appear as it gets darker. Dusk is also the best time to spot satellites.
How far away is space?
Space is not very far away. If you could drive to space in a car it would only take an hour or so to get there. Space starts about 100km above our heads, then it continues so far that we cannot measure it.
We use rockets to reach space, but this is still expensive and risky. Some people are trying to invent better ways, such as lifts to space on very long cables. Really.
What to look for in the night sky
1) Spot a satellite?
See any lights streaking across the sky? It would be amazing if it was a shooting star, but most likely it is a satellite. Hundreds of satellites can be seen with the naked eye from Earth if they pass above you, particularly away from bright city lights. Dusk is the best time to spot satellites, because they are still reflecting sunlight.
2) Wave to astronauts!
The International Space Station can be seen from the ground when it is passing over your location. It is a big space craft with a team of astronauts living on board. It constantly travels around the Earth. To find out when you can see the International Space Station from where you are, visit NASA’s Spot The Station website.
3) Hello Moon
That big rock in the sky known as the moon appears to be shining brightly because it is reflecting sunlight. Notice the shape of the moon tonight - is it a big circle full moon, a sliver of a new moon, or something in between? The moon changes shape because of the angle of sunlight that is reaching it.
Kids love to hear stories about how man landed on the moon! Can you believe it happened almost 50 years ago? Blow the kids minds by telling them the computers that took man to the moon were much slower and simpler than your smartphone or tablet.
Do the kids want to go to the moon? While there are no plans to send humans back to the moon, the US are considering sending robots to collect moon rocks – perhaps the kids can control one of these robots from Earth in the future?
4) Star light, star bright
Those dazzling stars you can see are basically massive balls of gases that are shaped like, well, balls.
Star patterns (constellations) in the night sky have many interesting names and stories. Ever seen Dorado the Goldfish or Cetus the Whale? Yep, they’re up there. What shapes do the kids think they can see in the stars?
An easy star formation to spot is the Milky Way, especially if you are not too close to city lights. It looks like a long milky patch. It is made up of billions (yes, billions) of stars.
Milky Way (image courtesy of NASA credit A Fujii)
5) Get a star map
The sky changes every night. Star maps are a great way to identify what you’re looking at in the sky. Here are some ways to get one:
- Get a free star map app, such as SkyView or Sky Map. Point your smartphone at the sky and the app tells you what you’re pointing at.
- Search the internet for a star map for your location in the current month.
- Look up a guide about the current night sky, such as Scitech’s Sky Tonight.
Use your star map to look for the star Alpha Centauri. It’s near the Southern Cross constellation. This is the closest star to us (after our Sun). We say it's close, but it would still take thousands of years to reach it with today’s spacecraft!
6) Our neighbouring planets
You can see all sorts of planets in the night sky, including gas planets (Jupiter, Saturn), ice planets (Neptune, Uranus) and terrestrial planets (Mars, Venus, Mercury).
Planets look like stars to the naked eye, though they can be brighter and flicker less. Use that star map mentioned earlier to find the visible planets. A junior telescope will help kids see planets more clearly.
Back to daytime
We can’t see much in space during the day with the naked eye, so daytime is an opportunities to discover more about space and to plan what to look for after sunset. There are plenty of great activity kits and books about space, as well as downloadable activities on the internet.
You don’t need to know all the answers to explore the night sky with kids – questions are more important than answers. You can take note of kids questions and later search for the answers together.
Exploring the night sky during the night or day is an easy and wonderful way to get kids more curious about their world!