Lie Back, Look Up

Family adventures with the night sky

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

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

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!

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!

Stargazing in August

Check out our What’s Up in the Sky this Month page for an idea of planets and constellations to view in August.  Don’t forget to print off the free Summer Sky Map as well!  (I tried a new layout for the seasonal sky map– a circular view of the entire sky instead of just the southern view.  Let me know how you like it!)

If you’re looking for a good video about what to look for in the night sky, check out Stargazers.  This is my favorite place to go for weekly videos on what to see  in the night sky.

Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) is landing soon!

The Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity rover, will be landing on Mars on August 5th or 6th (depending on your time zone).  This is an exciting opportunity to help excite your kids about astronomy and space exploration.  Today’s post includes all of the basics about the mission.  Stay tuned for a post at the end of the month about activities to do as a family to prepare for the landing.

When?  The Curiosity rover launched on November 26th, 2011 and will be landing at approximately 1:31am EDT on August 6th, 2012.

Where?  The Curiosity rover will land in Mars’ Gale Crater, near the Martian Equator.  (Go here to see where Curiosity is RIGHT NOW!)

How?  The spacecraft not only has the tough job of traveling the distance from Earth to Mars, but also had to include the launch vehicle which propelled the craft beyond Earth’s gravity.  The spacecraft is carrying a rover that will act as a portable science laboratory on the surface of the planet.

Instead of the airbag entry that has been used in past Mars missions, the Mars Science Laboratory will use a guided entry and a sky-crane touchdown system.  This is a new and unusual way to land a rover, and I imagine that NASA scientists will be holding their breath during the critical seven minutes!  (“Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror” video, describing the entry, descent and landing)

Why?  The Curiosity rover is an advanced science laboratory on wheels.  The Mars Science Laboratory is carrying the largest, most advanced set of instruments ever sent to the Red Planet.

The mission has many things that it hopes to accomplish, and it is helping to meet four goals of the Mars Exploration Program:

  • Determine whether life ever arose on Mars.
  • Characterize the climate of Mars.
  • Characterize the geology of Mars.
  • Prepare for human exploration.

The Mars Science Laboratory represents the new age of Mars exploration.  This is an exciting event for NASA and planetary scientists around the world.  Check back on July 27th for activities to help your family learn more about the Red Planet and prepare for the landing.

Transit of Venus 2012

Did you see it?!  The transit of Venus happened on June 5th, 2012 and was observable here in the United States.  We watched it here in Michigan from around 4:30pm until sunset.  This important astronomical event won’t occur again for over 100 years.

The transit of Venus that occurred in 1882 was of extreme importance in the astronomical community.  The data that was collected during this transit was used to calculate the Earth-Sun distance accurately for the first time.  Today, these types of astronomical events can be used to help excite your family  about astronomy.  I really feel that this was an important event for my family to see– it definitely gave us a sense of perspective.  Seeing the small dot of Venus against the sun, you really got an idea of how small the Earth is in our solar system.  Also, knowing that this event will not happen again in our lifetime, we had a great discussion about what life will be like in 2117 when the next transit of Venus happens.

You can often join your local astronomy club at gatherings for events such as this (like we did!).  These events are wonderful, because there are often quite a few expensive telescopes around, and their owners are usually more than happy to let you look through them.

It’s too late to view the transit of Venus, but there is still plenty of time to plan for some of the important astronomical and sky events upcoming in 2012.  Check back for more information later this year on the following events….

  • August:  the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars & the Perseids meteor shower
  • September: the Autumnal Equinox
  • October: the Orionids meteor shower
  • November: a penumbral lunar eclipse
  • December: the Geminids meteor shower and the Winter Solstice