Lie Back, Look Up

Family adventures with the night sky

Lie Back, Look Up - Family adventures with the night sky

Modeling the Earth-Moon-Sun Relationship

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One of the trickiest, yet most important, Astronomy concepts for children to understand is the Earth-Moon-Sun relationship. The idea of rotation and revolution, while extremely basic, is the foundation of understanding motion in our solar system. These three objects have the greatest impact on our lives– the Moon orbits the Earth and the Earth orbits the Sun. The Earth rotates on its axis (once every 24 hours) and causes the Sun to rise in the east and set in the west. The moon orbits the Earth (once every 29 days, in respect to the Sun), causing lunar phases.

Having children construct a model is one of the best ways to help them understand these motions. You can purchase the activity here and have your child assemble the model below– you only need paper, scissors, and two brass paper fasteners.

OrreryPic

You can also have them act out these motions. Tell your child that you will be the Sun, she will be the Earth, and have her hold a ball (representing the moon). Then ask her to orbit around you, representing a year. Then she can add in the orbit of the moon around her (the Earth). Once she has these two motions down, she can combine them. You can ask her to try and fit  12 full revolutions of the moon around her, while orbiting the Sun only once– it gets a little tricky!

There are many ways to help your child understand the Earth-Moon-Sun relationship. Once they have the basics of rotation and revolution down, they are ready for season and lunar phases!

How To – Safely! – Observe The Solar Eclipse With Kids!

Eclipse Viewing with Kids

The chance to see an eclipse event in the sky is a wonderful opportunity to get  children excited about astronomy. On Thursday, October 23rd, millions of us in the United States will have the chance to see a spectacular partial solar eclipse. Unlike a total eclipse, only part of the sun is covered by the moon during a partial eclipse. The map below (from http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html) shows that unless you are in the extreme northeast of the country, you should have a view of the event.

eclipsemap

Safety First!

Never look directly at the sun with your unaided eyes, through binoculars or through a telescope– serious damage can occur. Sunglasses are not enough! You can find solar filters for binoculars and telescopes from many different sources. If you purchase a solar filter sheet, you can customize a filter for your own scope. You can also purchase a pre-made filter to fit the size of your scope. I prefer simple solar shades for eclipse viewing for children.

The most economical option is to make your own pinhole projector for viewing the eclipse. The quickest way is to take two sheets of stiff white paper and using a pin, poke a small hole in the center of one sheet. Aim the hole at the sun, and holding the other sheet behind it, move it back and forth until you get a good image.

pinholeprojectionpaper

Viewing Tips

The Solar Eclipse Explorer site from NASA is my favorite place to find specific eclipse times. After selecting your geographic area, you enter your city coordinates (latitude, longitude, altitude & time zone) and click on our current century. It will generate a list of eclipses for this century along with beginning, maximum, and ending times for your location. This is a great way to make sure that you are looking up at the right time! For those of us in the eastern part of the United States, the event will be cut short by the setting sun. Because the sun will be low in the western sky for most of us, it is important to find a vantage point  with a good view of the western horizon.

Helping Kids Understand

The best thing that you can do to prepare kids to view the partial solar eclipse is to help them understand the Earth-Moon-Sun relationship during this event. During a solar eclipse, the moon is between the earth and the sun. (This is different than a lunar eclipse, which is when the earth is between the sun and the moon.) A solar eclipse is when the moon blocks out the sun, from our vantage point here on the earth. A “partial” solar eclipse just means that the moon will not be blocking the sun completely at any point. Here is a great video of Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining eclipses.

eclipse

Having kids explore Earth-Moon-Sun motions in a kinesthetic way (with their bodies) really helps them understand these relationships. One great activity is to turn on a light source in a darkened room. A single light bulb works great– just take the shade off of a table lamp and draw the shades. Tell your child that his or her head is going to represent the earth, and have him hold an orange (or any spherical object) out in front of him to represent the moon. He can model the lunar phases by spinning around, holding the orange in front of him.  As he turns, he should see different portions of the orange lit up, representing the many phases. Then, have him stand with his head, the orange, and the light source lined up, so that the orange is directly between his head and the light. This represents the times when the moon is directly between the earth and the sun, during the New Moon phase. If the moon orbited the earth in the same plane that the earth orbits the sun, then we would have a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse every month! But, the moon’s orbit is inclined about 5 degrees to the earth’s orbit. Twice a month, these orbital planes intersect– but not always during the right positions for an eclipse to happen. On average, some type of eclipse ends up happening about 5 times a year, but each can only be viewed in certain locations on the earth.

Go For It!

Eclipse viewing is such a great (and easy!) opportunity to share an astronomy experience with your children. As long as you are prepared for safe viewing, give it a try on October 23rd!

For more ideas on sky-viewing activities to do with your children, visit Stargazing with Kids.

Please note that the Amazon links are affiliate links, and if you do click through and purchase, I will receive a small commission.

sThe Eclipse

I stood out in the open cold
To see the essence of the eclipse
Which was its perfect darkness.I stood in the cold on the porch
And could not think of anything so perfect
As mans hope of light in the face of darkness.

– See more at: http://allpoetry.com/The-Eclipse#sthash.kD8GmEO9.dpuf

The Eclipse

I stood out in the open cold
To see the essence of the eclipse
Which was its perfect darkness.I stood in the cold on the porch
And could not think of anything so perfect
As mans hope of light in the face of darkness.

– See more at: http://allpoetry.com/The-Eclipse#sthash.kD8GmEO9.dpuf

Family Stargazing

You don’t have to be an expert astronomer to stargaze with your kids; you can learn right alongside them. Stargazing as a family can be a lot of fun, but what you do need is time and patience—if you have a hard time locating objects in the sky, imagine how hard it can be for a 6 year old! The most important thing that you can do for your child is to help them to appreciate the beauty of the night sky, and to help them become children who look up and wonder.

Provide opportunity 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the roadblocks for parents stargazing with their children is the timing—it obviously has to happen at night, right? While actual “star”gazing needs to happen when it’s dark, there are some astronomical events that can be seen in the daytime such as eclipses, viewing the moon at certain phases, and rare planet transits across the sun. These can provide some great introductory opportunities for children, but the real excitement definitely happens at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is certainly a great idea to learn a constellation or two, or find out which planets are in the sky so that you can point them out to your children on the way to the car after seeing a late night movie. These can be great learning opportunities for your children, but to really inspire a sense of wonderment about the sky, you need to be intentional about setting aside “stargazing time”. If you are a family that regularly camps, this can be a great time to stargaze. You are often already up later than usual, and normally in a dark area away from city lights. Another idea is to set up a “family stargazing party” in your own backyard or someplace close to home—just keep in mind that the amount of light around will determine how many objects you will be able to see in the night sky.

Comfortable environment

The best way to ensure a positive experience for you and your child is to provide a relaxing and cozy setting. Standing up with your neck craned to look up is only comfortable if you plan to be out for just a short time. If your plan is to be out for longer than a few minutes, have a blanket to lie down on or reclining beach-style chairs to relax in. Have with you any materials that you might need—a planisphere, a current night sky map, a flashlight (paint the lens with red nail polish so that it’s not too bright), and guidebooks from the local library.

Snacks are a great thing to have for children if they start to get bored—why not go with the theme and get Moonpies or make Meteorite Krispie Treats. This can inspire a lot of fun with young children, and you can re-name almost anything with a “space” name— i.e. “Cosmic Crackers” or “Martian Milk Chocolate”. For older children, bring their favorite snack along as a special treat.

While a nice summer night is probably the most comfortable, consider stargazing in the winter. Early winter nights are ideal for children who have earlier bedtimes. Just put on your winter gear and don’t forget the hot chocolate!

Bring something else to do

While we would all love for our children to have the time of their lives gazing up at the sky for hours, this might not be a reality for most children. Have some things planned other than just stargazing.

  • Bring along your Stargazing Diary and Constellation Cards.
  • Have your iPod programmed with a special playlist of space-themed songs, or just a few of everyone’s favorites.
  • Check out a few astronomy books from the library and take some time to read various constellation myths.

Whatever you do, please take this time to put away the media devices! This is a great opportunity to “unplug” with your child. Resist the temptation to quickly check your email or send that text that you forgot about earlier in the day. Your children will take your lead on this. If bring your laptop along, it won’t be long before they are begging to watch that YouTube video or check Facebook.

Have age-appropriate goals

Stargazing with small children (8 and under) is very different than with older children. Smaller children will most likely not be able to stay up as late as older children. This doesn’t mean that you have to wait until children are older to begin stargazing—start with some of those daytime events such as eclipses and looking at the moon during the day. Discuss where the sun rises and sets, and how high it is in the sky that day. (Remember, the sun is our nearest “star”!) When you do have an opportunity to have your young children up past sunset, aim for shorter stargazing periods—15 or 20 minutes of looking up at the sky is suitable for children 8 and under, especially for the first few times out.

Keep the developmental stage and attention span of your children in mind as you begin to look at constellations and other objects. I have found that one or two new constellations are about all that most people (including adults!) can remember at a time. It’s best to focus on remembering one constellation than introducing 7 or 8 that you can’t remember.  The ability to “connect the dots” of a constellation in the sky can be very hard for children depending on their developmental stage. For children who have a hard time “seeing” the constellations, encourage them to find their own. They can look for different shapes that the stars make in the sky, or find the first letter of their name in the stars. Utilize your child’s imagination—have them make up their own myths about constellations that they see. Check out books from the library on constellation myths and use this time to tell a few stories.

Holiday Gift Guide for Stargazers

As the holiday season descends upon us, it’s time to start thinking about gift giving. And if you are like me, I get tired of buying the same old socks and scented candles for friends and family members. This holiday shopping season, consider these affordable, unconventional gifts– appropriate for seasoned astronomy enthusiasts and young stargazers alike!

Gifts for her

(These are taken right from my own wishlist!)

Zodiac Constellation Necklace makes for a great gift for mothers! You can show that special someone in your life that you are thinking about them by buying them this beautiful necklace with their zodiac constellation stamped into it. Mothers love to have a little memento reminding them of their children– consider buying a charm with each child’s zodiac constellation and put the charms together onto one chain.

This stylish hoodie with Ursa Major embroidery is the perfect way for her to show off her love of the constellations. This shop has several other types of clothing with constellation embroidery– all stylish and comfortable looking.

  This 2013 Desk Calendar would look great on a bulletin board or posted on the fridge. Each calendar has a beautiful sketch of a zodiac constellation. Don’t forget to circle the important dates in astronomy for the upcoming year before you wrap it!

A custom hand-stamped constellation ring is an elegant choice for the astronomy-loving woman in your life. You can choose any constellation, and this gorgeous ring won’t tarnish!

Gifts for him

The Ursa Minor Constellation Decal is a great gift for men and women alike– and you don’t even need to put it on a computer! It also works on car windows or any other smooth surface that might need some livening up!

A Vintage Constellation Chart  is the perfect gift for the guy who loves all things astronomy and all things vintage. The 8×10 size is perfect to hang in a den or office. It’s a beautiful reproduction, so you don’t have to worry about it falling apart. The constellation chart shows both the northern and southern hemispheres, so it’s a great gift for anyone in the world!

A Stars and Moons Fire Pit looks great to cozy up to on a chilly night. It would add a celestial touch to every backyard campfire, and set the stage for stargazing! What better way to tell the guy in your life that you’d love to spend some cozy nights stargazing around this beautiful fire pit.

This custom leather luggage tag is absolutely beautiful. You can have the artist custom stamp his initials, and even customize the constellation! There isn’t a more thoughtful gift for the astronomy-loving guy in your life.

Gifts for the kids

Here is THE BEST constellation book for kids and adults alike. By the famous creator of Curious George, this book does an amazing job of pointing out the constellations with very easy-to-understand drawings. Every child should have a copy of this book!

This is a great low-cost telescope kit for beginners. The Galileoscope allows kids of all ages to build and observe with a telescope similar to (but much better than) Galileo’s. Thirteen year-olds can assemble this with supervision, and younger children with adult help. The process of building the scope is beneficial in itself, and then at the end you have a great beginning telescope to use! It helps to have a tripod to attach the scope to, and then you can enjoy gazing at the moon or Jupiter!

Tickets to your local planetarium make a great gift for all ages. Take the time this winter break to visit a planetarium near you! Planetarium trips are especially fun for those of us in the Midwest during the winter season– the cold weather can make stargazing sessions a little tricky. You will usually find that tickets to a one-hour show are very reasonably priced.

There are many books out there with astronomy themes– fiction and nonfiction alike, for two year-old and twelve year-olds. You can foster your child’s love of reading and of astronomy with one gift!

Viewing the Orionids Meteor Shower as a Family

The Orionids meteor shower will peak on the nights of October 20th and 21st this month, as the Earth passes through the debris from Halley’s Comet. With this shower occurring on the weekend, it is a great opportunity to stargaze as a family.

This meteor shower will originate from the Orion constellation, which you can find in the southeastern sky late into the night. The best time to view the meteors will be between midnight and dawn, with peak viewing in the hours just before dawn on the 21st. While this early morning viewing time isn’t for everyone, it is a great chance to make stargazing a  very special time for your family.

Be sure to get your children to bed early on Saturday night, and then wake them in the pre-dawn hours for this special chance to  see some “shooting stars“. Set up a cozy spot in the yard, have their stargazing diaries ready, and prepare a few snacks as a surprise. Sneak in to wake up your children in the early hours, while it is still dark, and tell them to grab their jackets and hats.  Be sure to have your stargazing playlist ready to go!

Fall Equinox Activity

Here at Lie Back, Look Up, you will find plenty of stargazing and astronomy activities to do with your family. Many of these activities include free printables, as well as some tutorials and videos. Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!

The autumnal equinox, occurring this year on September 22nd, is a great opportunity to help your kids explore why we experience seasons. The explanation behind the occurrence of seasons is one of the biggest misconceptions in astronomy. Many children believe that the Earth is closer to the sun in the summer and farther in the winter, thus the seasons. And while some children understand that seasons have to do with the tilt of the Earth, many still have trouble explaining how this results in seasons.

One of the greatest activities that I’ve done with my middle school students to help them understand this concept (as well as seasonal constellations) is “kinesthetic astronomy”. This involves using your bodies to model the objects and movements in the solar system. The original idea and complete lesson plan for this activity can be found here. You can modify this activity to focus only on the “reason for the seasons”, as explained below.

Reason for the Seasons

Begin by explaining that you will be using your bodies to model the Earth. The North Pole is at the top of your head, the South Pole at your tailbone, and the equator would be your waist. Use a basketball or other round object to model the Sun. Position yourselves so that you are facing the sun. Point out where your home would be on your body–  North America would be on your chest, so when you are facing the sun, North America is experiencing daytime. Explain that the Earth rotates on its axis, which would be an imaginary line, going straight up out of your head and straight down out of your tailbone. Model the Earth’s rotation on its axis by spinning counterclockwise. Model the Earth’s orbit (revolution) around the sun by traveling around the sun. Kids can have quite a bit of fun by rotating and orbiting at the same time!

Once your child understands those two basic motions, rotation and revolution, you can begin talking about the tilt of the Earth’s axis. The North Pole of the Earth’s axis is tilted toward the star Polaris, which is 500 light years away. Have your child tilt from their waist approximately 23.5 degrees from vertical. Now you can again practice rotating and revolving, but this time incorporating the tilt of the axis. This can be very tricky but a lot of fun! Remind your child that they must keep their bodies tilted toward Polaris the whole time. The direction of the tilt should not change as you rotate and revolve.

Have your child move through the Earth’s orbit around the sun slowly. Point out that at one point his or her chest is pointed toward the sun and at one point it is tilted away from the sun. Also, there are two in-between points in the orbit. You can also mention that the tilt of the Earth’s axis has not changed (it is always towards Polaris), but their orientation to the sun has changed because of the Earth’s tilt and revolution. When the Earth is tilted toward the sun we experience summer and when we are tilted away from the sun we experience winter. The two in-between points are fall and spring.

To explain why the tilt towards or away from the sun causes seasons, you can remove your object representing the sun and instead use a flashlight to represent the sun. Stand in the middle while your child orbits around you (with the tilt), and shine a flashlight at his chest. Have him stop when he is tilted toward the sun and look at the flashlight beam on his chest. It should be concentrated in a small circle. This shows that in the summer, the sun’s rays are very direct on the Earth. Next have him stop when he is tilted away from the sun and look at the flashlight on his chest. It should be spread out, which shows that in the winter, the sun’s rays aren’t as direct on the Earth. In the fall and spring positions, the Earth is in-between the positions of direct and indirect rays.

Here is a great interactive to test their understanding after the activity!

 

 

Back-to-School free printables

Many of us are busy getting ready to send our children back to school, and some of our children have already started. Being a parent and a teacher, I find this busy time of year to be very exciting– full of new beginnings and new possibilities. Starting the school year in the most organized way possible helps to lessen the inevitable stress that comes with the busyness. I’ve put together a few printables, with an astronomy theme, to help during this back-to-school time.

The first printable contains four bookmarks and two binder/book labels, and the second printable is a homework chart for your child. There are many printables out there for bookmarks, charts, etc.– but only at Lie Back, Look Up can you find these unique ones for your astronomy-loving kids.

Bookmarks/Labels

Homework Chart

Stargazing Playlist

Here at Lie Back, Look Up, you will find plenty of stargazing and astronomy activities to do with your family. Many of these activities include free printables, as well as some tutorials and videos. Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!f

A important thing to remember when stargazing with children is that you need to give them something to “do”. Many children will become bored with just looking up at the sky for long periods of time, so bringing along a great music playlist can help keep everyone occupied.

Stargazing Playlist

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star…..Elizabeth Mitchel & Lisa Loeb

Galaxy…..Jason Mraz

Why Does the Sun Shine?…..They Might Be Giants

Why Does the Sun Really Shine?…..They Might Be Giants

Galaxies…..Owl City

Star…..Earth, Wind & Fire

Bright Morning Stars……The Wailin’ Jennys

What is a Shooting Star?…..They Might Be Giants

Here Comes the Sun…..The Beatles

The Galaxy Song…..Monty Python

These are just a few of my favorite astronomy-themed songs. I especially love the entire Here Comes Science CD by They Might Be Giants– it is filled with fun science-themed songs for kids, which my seven and four-year old can listen to for hours. So let me know, what is your favorite stargazing-themed song? Feel free to take a brake for custom essay service online!

Viewing the Perseids Meteor Shower as a Family

Coming up on the nights of August 11th and 12th is a great opportunity to watch a meteor shower. Many people consider the Perseid Meteor Shower to be one of the best shows of the year, with up to 100 meteors per hour viewable in a dark sky. Start watching after sunset, and as soon as the sky is nice and dark you should be able to see plenty of meteors lighting up the night sky.  The waning crescent moon doesn’t rise until after midnight, so you won’t have to worry about the light of the moon obscuring your view.

This meteor shower is a great opportunity for stargazing as a family. If you are blessed with a clear, dark sky, even the youngest child should be able to spot a few meteors streaking across the sky. You might have a hard time snapping a picture with a point-and-shoot camera, but the memories that you’ll capture with your kids will last a lifetime.

Don’t forget to bring along your child’s Stargazing Diary and a few snacks. And stay “tuned” for next week’s post on my suggestions for your Stargazing Playlist– just in time to view the Perseids!

Family Activities to prepare for Curiosity’s landing on Mars

Here at Lie Back, Look Up, you will find plenty of stargazing and astronomy activities to do with your family.  Many of these activities include free printables, as well as some tutorials and videos.  Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!

The landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars on August 5th can be an exciting event for your family.  Your first step is to brush up on the basics, then choose a few of these activities to do together.

Ask Dr. C– Your Personal Mars Expert

This website allows you to “ask” questions about Mars to a computerized scientist.  While typing your questions to a virtual scientist has its limitations, this site does a pretty good job of interpreting your questions and giving back detailed answers.  Dr. C seems to know quite a bit about Mars, and this can be a fun way for young children to learn a little more about the Red Planet.  You can also ask him questions about the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Earth-Moon-Mars Balloons

Constructing a scale model of Earth, the Moon and Mars can help kids to gain some perspective on the size of Mars.  Using a blue balloon for Earth, a white balloon for the Moon and a red balloon for Mars, first have your children blow them up to the sizes that they think the three celestial bodies would be relative to each other.  Once they’ve done this, write the name of each using a permanent marker.  Now use the table below for the scale sizes for each balloon. (Note that Mars’ two moons, Phobos & Deimos, are included in the table.  This is a great thing to point out to your child– that using this scale, Mars’ two moons would be the size of grains of sand!)

Your older children can determine on their own what the scaled down size should be by dividing the actual diameter (in kilometers) by a factor of 638.  (i.e., Earth’s diameter is 12,756, so dividing it by 638 gives a scale size of approximately 20 centimeters.)  You can give your teenager a challenge by having them come up with a scale factor to use in this model, then ask them to blow up their balloons using that scale.  They will probably come up with a different scale, but as long as they can get the balloons that size, it will work!

Design a Martian Calendar

Harness your child’s creativity by asking them to create a Martian calendar.  Discuss with your kids the definition of day (the time it takes a planet to rotate once on its axis) and year (the time it takes a planet to orbit once around the Sun).  Once they’ve designed it, you can have them construct their actual calendar on the computer or by hand.

Here are a few facts that might be useful:

  • One Martian day = 24.6 hours (not much longer than the Earth’s!)
  • It takes Mars 670 of its days (687 Earth days) to orbit the Sun
  • Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos
  • Mars has a tilt similar to the Earth’s, so Mars has seasons too!

Some questions to ask your child:

  • Are you going to have weeks?  If so, how many days will you have in a week?
  • Are you going to have months?  How many?  How many days/weeks in a month?  What will you name them?
  • Will you need to have any “leap years”?
  • Are you going to have holidays?

Visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (virtually) and watch a few cool videos

This NASA website has quite a bit of detailed information on this mission, but my favorite part are the fantastic videos.  You can watch everything from Robotic Arm Target Practice to Building Curiosity: Mars Rover Power.

Creating Craters

Craters are a very common planetary surface feature, found on all of the terrestrial planets.  We don’t see very many on the Earth’s surface due to the process of plate tectonics and surface weathering.  Planets like Mars, without any active plate tectonics or flowing water (at least, not at the present!) have a greater number of craters, which indicates a much older surface.  Impact craters are caused by projectiles, traveling at very high velocities, hitting the surface.  Exploring the effect that the size and velocity (speed) of the projectile can have on the size of the crater can be a fun and educational activity for kids.

Materials:  flour, cake pan, cocoa powder, ruler, and three different sized “projectiles” (marbles, coins, rocks, etc)

Procedure:  Pour about an inch of flour into the cake pan to represent the  rock and dirt on the planet.  Before each “impact”, smooth the flour using the ruler and sprinkle a thin layer of cocoa powder on the surface.

Effect of Projectile Size:  First have your kids make a hypothesis about how the size of the projectile will affect the size and shape of the impact crater.  Then have them create a data chart and record the sizes of their three projectiles.  You can also have them draw a picture of each projectile and the impact crater that it makes.  To make the craters, hold the projectile one meter above the surface of the flour and drop it.  Have them measure the size of the crater in their data chart.  Repeat this for the other projectiles and discuss the outcome.  (Don’t forget to add a thin layer of cocoa powder before each “impact”.)

Effect of Projectile’s Velocity:  Have your kids hypothesize again about how the velocity, or speed, of the projectile will affect the size and shape of the impact crater.  Choose one of the projectiles to use for all three speeds.  Choose three different heights from which to drop the projectile (the higher the drop, the higher the velocity of the projectile).  Measure the size of the crater each time, then discuss the outcome.

Watch a Mars Movie

No, I don’t mean science fiction like Disney’s John Carter.  I mean a great NOVA movie like Is There Life on Mars? (which you can watch on-line for free!).  A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets: Mars is a great video on the basics of the Red Planet.  This is my favorite series on planetary science, and you can download each episode on iTunes for $2.99.