Why do we have “seasonal” constellations?

If you’ve been visiting Lie Back, Look Up for awhile (or any other stargazing sites), you’ve probably been reading about the different constellations that you can view each season. You might also be wondering why we see different constellations each season. Understanding this explanation involves visualizing the Earth-Sun relationship in our solar system, as well as our solar system’s position in the Milky Way Galaxy.

It is helpful to remember that the stars are always up in the sky, we’re just not able to see them during the day due to the brightness of the sun. Without the sun shining during the day, we would be able to see the winter constellations during the daytime in the summer (and vice versa). Because the Earth changes position around the sun throughout the year, we get a different view of the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy during different times of the year.

Looking at the drawing above, you can see that on December 21st, we are able to see the stars in the constellation Gemini at night. We would not be able to see the stars of Sagittarius on December 21st, because they would be in the daytime sky. If you are looking to explain this to your kids, it is a great idea to “act out” the drawing above. Print out pictures of the constellations in the drawing and place them around the room. Use a basketball to model the sun in the center. They can rotate to experience day and night, and walk around the sun to model the orbit throughout the year. Have them stop in different positions throughout the year, and ask them which constellations they would be able to see at night. They will have to spin around in their position to face away from the sun, in order to view the nighttime constellations.

Where is the Big Dipper?

When most people are asked to identify one “constellation” in the night sky, their first answer is often the Big Dipper.  But, in fact, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Bear), and is not an actual constellation by itself. The Big Dipper is what we call an asterism, which is an interesting and well-recognizable star pattern, while not one of the official 88 constellations. The Dipper can be found in many myths and legends, and is called by many names– including the Drinking Gourd and the Revolving Man. Regardless of what people have called it, it has been used throughout many cultures and many generations as a celestial tool for navigation. This is due to the fact that the Big Dipper can be seen year-round, and changes position in the sky throughout the year.

While most of us don’t plan on using the Big Dipper as a navigational tool anytime soon, it is helpful to know where to find it in the night sky throughout the year.

Here you can see that in the fall the Big Dipper is oriented like a spoon resting on the horizon, ready to catch the falling leaves of autumn. In the winter the Dipper is upright on its handle, like an icicle hanging down from the bowl. In the spring the Dipper is upside down, like it is pouring out heavy springtime rains; in the summer it is upright on it’s bowl, with the handle pointing up to the heavens.

The reason that the Big Dipper changes position like this is because in the northern part of the sky, all of the stars appear to rotate counterclockwise around Polaris, the North Star. Keep in mind that all of the stars “appear” to rotate in the sky due to the fact that the earth is rotating on its axis. Because the north pole is tilted towards Polaris, all of the stars in this part of the sky appear to rotate around this fixed point. This is why the Big Dipper appears to rotate around Polaris in a counterclockwise direction throughout the year.

The Big Dipper printable is available for you to download, with the drawing and seasonal explanation above.  Hopefully, this handy reference sheet will help you year-round while stargazing.

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.


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!

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.

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.

Giveaway Winners

A big thank you to everyone who helped celebrate the launch of Lie Back, Look Up. I’m so pleased and humbled at the support that I’ve received for this site. A special thank you to my sister-in-law and friend, Meagan Francis. Her support and advice have been priceless. I hope that you all continue to visit, and please let me know if there is anything that you’d like to see here.

Congratulations to the three giveaway winners:

I will be contacting you via email so that I can send out your planispheres, which will hopefully aid in your stargazing pursuits. Again, thank you for visiting, and don’t forget to Lie Back, Look Up for essay help writers!

Stargazing Snacks

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 a free printable, as well as tutorials and videos.  Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!

Getting kids excited about stargazing is important if you want to inspire a love for the night sky.  One way to do this is to involve them in gathering and making the snacks for your stargazing session.  Of course any favorite snacks will do, but for younger children, helping to make “themed” snacks can add a level of excitement.

Each of these snacks can be made by small children, with the assistance of an adult– my two oldest children (7 and 4.5) have both helped me to make these. While working together, each snack allows for discussion of an astronomy topic. These treats are also ideal for packing up and eating later, which is important if you are going to take them stargazing!

Meteorite Krispie Treats

Seeing a meteor shoot across the sky (often called a “shooting star“) is a very special thing to catch in the night sky. When these particles fall to the ground, we call them meteorites. Most meteorites (86%) are the rocky type, called chondrites.  These are usually about 4.5 billion years old, and represent leftover material from the formation of our solar system. For more information on meteorites, check out the meteorite hunting show, Meteorite Men on the Science Channel.

For this easy treat, just follow the directions on the back of your favorite rice cereal box. Instead of pressing the mixture into a pan, let it cool slightly and have your children form it into meteorite-shaped lumps. Be sure to butter your child’s hands first, or you’ll have a very sticky mess on your hands– literally! While making these, we discussed the many different sizes of meteorites and how fun it would be to be a “meteorite hunter”. Once these have cooled, they pack up nicely for your stargazing trip.


Lunar Phase Sandwiches

This is another very simple snack to assemble, with a great topic to discuss with your kids while you are making it– lunar phases. There are many great sites out there describing the different phases of the moon. I especially love this video, made by an elementary class for a science project. Beyond learning the names of the phases, I think that one of the most important concepts to understand in astronomy is WHY we see different phases of the moon.  This is a concept that I will cover in a later post (along with activities), but for a good introduction, try one of these on-line explanations. Be sure to stress to your kids that lunar phases are a result of different parts of the moon being lit up as it’s orbiting the earth, having NOTHING to do with the earth’s shadow on the moon.

For this snack, assemble your child’s favorite sandwich (ours are peanut butter & jelly), and then cut each out with a large cup. At this point, all of your sandwiches will be “full moons”. Next you can use the same cup to cut a few into crescent and gibbous moons, and a knife to cut a few into quarter moons. For older children, you can set the sandwiches out in order of the occurring phases, from new to full moon.

Constellation Cookies

This is a great snack to bring to a family stargazing session. Kids love making cookies, especially when they get to use their creativity to decorate them. You can decorate your cookie bars with the seasonal constellations that you will be viewing, or let your children use their imaginations and make up their own constellations.

Begin with your favorite bar cookie recipe (I like to double this one), but be sure to go very light on the amount of chocolate chips that you add into the dough. After pouring the dough into the pan and smoothing the top, use chocolate chips to design your constellation. You can do the entire sky (using a seasonal sky map), or focus on one or two of your favorite constellations. My seven year-old used our Summer Sky Map (kids version) to make Scorpius, and my four year-old made up her own constellation.

You can use this same idea with individual cookies, icing each one and then decorating it with chocolate chips or sprinkles. A healthier version would be to make a pan of granola bars and decorate with raisins, or spread rice cakes with peanut butter and decorate with blueberries.

Solar System Fruit Kebabs

For a healthy snack, gather your favorite fruit to make these delicious kebabs. Use any spherical fruit, or scoop different types of melon with a melon baller. We used green and purple grapes, watermelon and cantaloupe.

Your children can assemble them using bamboo skewers. Point out the different sizes of fruit, and discuss how different the terrestrial (Mercury, Venus, Earth & Mars) and Jovian (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus & Neptune) planets are in size. You can also decide which planets are most similar to the different fruit in color. Do you have any extra-small spheres, maybe blueberries? Those could be dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Makemake, Eris or Haumea. If you were to make the solar system to scale, the Earth would be the size of a blueberry and the Sun would be the size of the entire watermelon!