The night sky has enthralled young and old alike since the beginning of humankind. A clear night sky filled with stars, planets and the moon instills a feeling of place, importance and insignificance all at once.
For children in particular, the stars represent wishes, the moon a benevolent source of light and the planets fantasylands to one day visit.
Here are some resources to use with your child to enhance their connection to the night sky and spark their imagination beyond our Earth.
Types of Moons
Full Moon: The moon is fully illuminated; the Earth is between the moon and sun.
New Moon: The dark side of the moon is towards the Earth, the moon is between the Earth and sun.
Crescent Moon: A sliver of moon, immediately before or after a new moon.
Waning Moon: Bright area of the moon is decreasing in size.
Waxing Moon: Bright area of the moon is increasing in size.
Blue moon: A second full moon in the same calendar month.
Black moon: A second new moon in the same calendar month or the absence of a full moon in a calendar month, which can only happen in February.
Note: February 2018 will have a black moon, or no full moon. Because there is no full moon in February, there will be a Blue Moon in both January and March.
Full Moon Names in the Northern Hemisphere:
October: Hunter’s Moon or Harvest Moon*
November: Beaver Moon
December: Cold Moon
January: Wolf Moon
February: Snow Moon
March: Worm Moon
April: Pink Moon
May: Flower Moon
June: Strawberry Moon
July: Buck Moon
August: Sturgeon Moon
September: Corn Moon or Harvest Moon*
* Note: The Harvest Moon is the full moon that occurs closest to the fall equinox, which can happen in September or October.
The night sky varies based on the time of year and your location on the planet. If you find your child is interested in identifying constellations and/or planets, you may want to check with your library for picture books on constellations, order sky maps, purchase an app for your smartphone/tablet or print off resources from Web sites showing the night sky for your specific date and location.
When you’re ready to venture out for stargazing, you will want to choose a clear night, seek out a place away from city lights and try to find a view unobstructed by trees and buildings.
Some quick planning can make the outing fun and comfortable, such as packing flashlights, books or reference materials, a journal and pencils, blankets, beach chairs, snacks, drinks and binoculars.
Once you find a good location, be sure to give your eyes about 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness, perhaps using that transition that time for storytelling about some of the constellations.
Constellations are groups of stars that have been given a name based on a shape they form in the sky. The Greeks in particular were instrumental in documenting and naming the patterns in the sky.
Pointing out constellations can be a good time to talk with older children about the difference between astronomy, the scientific study of the universe and celestial objects, and astrology, the primitive astronomy that interprets how the positions and movements of the stars, moon, planets and sun influence humans.
With winter approaching, below is a small sampling of constellations you may be able to identify along with a brief introduction to their stories.
Aries, the ram, 1st sign of the Zodiac, which was sacrificed to Zeus, its golden fleece given to King Aettes and later stolen by Jason and the Argonauts.
Taurus, the bull. 2nd sign of the Zodiac. One of the easiest constellations to find. Look for Aldebaran, the red giant star, as the bull’s eye, which is said to be staring at Orion. Slaying Taurus is known as the seventh labor of Hercules. Stories also tell of Taurus being Zeus in disguise as a white bull in order to entice Europa to get on his back so he could carry her off to Crete as his mistress.
Gemini, Latin for twins, 3rd sign of the zodiac, the two bright stars, Castor and Pollux, are the heads of the twins, sitting to the north and east of Orion and near Taurus. Although coming from the same mother, mythology tells that the twins had different fathers. Zeus, a god, fathered Pollux, making him immortal. Castor’s father was mortal. Pollux was so sad when Castor died that Zeus made Castor immortal as well, which allows them to be together in the sky forever.
Orion, the great hunter. One of the most well-known constellations. The son of Poseidon, who liked to hunt on Crete with goddess Artemis, he died from a scorpion bite or from Artemis bow. Look for Orion’s belt. It’s three bright stars in a row. Use Orion to help you find other winter constellations.
Canis Major, the greater dog, one of Orion’s hunting dogs, so fast that he was elevated to the sky, contains the brightest star in the sky – Sirius, the “Dog Star”.
Note about Polaris, the North Star: Many people mistakenly think the brightest star in the sky is the North Star, but Polaris is only about 50th in brightness. Polaris is an important star because it always appears due north, never rising or setting, remaining directly over the North Pole.
Our solar system has eight planets including Earth. Only four of the eight are terrestrial, meaning you could hypothetically stand on them. These planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, which have rocky surfaces. Jupiter and Saturn are comprised of gas. Uranus and Neptune are called ice giants. Ceres and Pluto are considered dwarf planets and not counted as in the eight.
Planets are often visible at night as very bright “stars”. To tell the difference between a star and planet when stargazing, look for stars to “twinkle”. They look that way because of the way light is passing through Earth’s atmosphere.
Planets move in position from night to night, because they are orbiting around the sun, just as we are. Stars appear in the same position related to each other. For example, the stars of the Big Dipper stay in the same shape as though painted in the sky that way.
Ideas on how to add to the stargazer fun:
- Tell the Greek myths and stories of the constellations.
- Prompt creativity by asking children to name their own star grouping and tell a story about it.
- Have each person in the group add on to the Greek mythological stories.
- Ask children to draw a picture based on the star groupings they see.
Questions to Ponder:
What is a shooting star?
Shooting stars are not really stars at all. Also called falling stars, these are streaks of light created from meteoroids, which are bits of dust and rock, burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Can we see the moon during the day?
Yes, if the sky is clear and the moon is not near full or new, you can often see it during the day. You are most likely to see it when the moon is bright and high in the sky. Planets and stars are also shining during the day with the brightest sometimes visible with a telescope.
What is the closest star to Earth?
The sun is the closest star. The Earth, the moon, the other planets and everything else that orbits the Sun makes up our solar system.
What’s a solar system?
A solar system is the sun and all of the objects orbiting, including planets, moons, comets, meteoroids and asteroids.
What is the “cloud” or hazy band of white in the sky at night?
That’s the Milky Way Galaxy. Our solar system is part of the Milky Way along with 200 billion other solar systems, gas and dust all held together by gravity. The best viewing of the Milky Way is away from light pollution when the moon is absent.
A special thank you to All The Sky for providing such stunning photography for this educational post.
© T. Credner & S. Kohle, AlltheSky.com, http://www.allthesky.com/copyright.html
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