Kids are naturally curious about everything, including the night sky. Astronomy for families is easier and more fun than you might think! We have an entire universe of planets, stars and galaxies always right above us. All you have to do is look up!
The Quad Cities Popular Astronomy Club has public observing sessions and the John Deere Planetarium nestled in the campus at Augustana offers education programs and public viewings although now all put on hold due to Covid-19. There are still many ways to immerse yourself and your family in the wonderful world of space!
The first, most obvious thing is to get to a dark location. In the metro QC, that may mean driving a bit out of town to get away from light pollution.
Download a stargazing app! I have the app StarTracker on my phone. Basically you open the app, point it at the sky and voila! You have a handheld guide to the stars. There are many apps available on both Android and iPhone.
You can also use binoculars or a telescope to view the moon and other “naked eye planets” While learning about astronomy for families, you’ll learn that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can all be seen with the naked eye, depending on where they are in their orbit. Some planets, such as Mercury are best viewed at dusk in July while others, like Mars at dawn. The first half of the month Venus will be too close to the sun to see but will be visible again soon in the dawn sky later in July!
If a telescope is something that interests you, I recommend doing your research first. What do you want to look at? How complicated is too complicated for you? A beginners telescope you can get for the same price as a family night at the movies but a more advanced will put a dent in your pocket book. If you just want a good look at the moon, then a nice pair of binoculars or a beginners or children’s telescope would be just fine. If you want to see the rings of Saturn or the Andromeda Galaxy, you will need to get something a little more advanced.
As you become more knowledgeable about astronomy for families, you’ll become familiar with the three basic types of telescopes, reflector, refractor and compound, and what kind of mount would work best for you. For example, with an equatorial mount you align an axis with earth’s rotational axis so you can track objects as they move in the night sky! Since here in the Quad Cities we are in the Northern Hemisphere, you would align with Polaris aka the North Star. For a beginner, these telescopes are complicated and require time and patience to learn, so don’t get discouraged!
Another way to get kids learning is hands on! Grab a piece of foil, roll the edges up to hold the flour in while shaping it into a circle and pour some flour in the center, have you kids gently drop different sized rocks in the flour to create craters, just like the moon! You can also play match the phases! Draw, color and cut out the phases of the moon and on a separate piece of paper, draw the phases again, listing the name of the phase, have your child match them. I have to say, it’s rewarding to hear your five year old go outside and say how beautiful the waxing gibbous is!
NASA also has a “STEM at home for students” web page where you can play games, get instructions on how to build a straw rocket, find coloring pages, e-books, and more!