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Gearing Up for Astronomy

Click to See a Larger Version of Star Trails

The night sky is often an early obsession for children.  Since Montessori was an advocate for giving children real life experiences, what better way to study astronomy than to go to the source.  While simply going outside and looking up is a great place to start, there are simple ways you can go deeper and make the experience enjoyable for everyone.

For this post I interviewed my father, Ron Reuter.  He has been a serious, amateur astronomer for as long as I can remember.  I spent many nights as a young child in a remote field as he explored the sky; combining his interest with photography.  He has spent years in a local astronomy club; hosting star parties and helping others who are interested in the pursuit.  The tips given here are directly from him.

Taken June 24, 2001 by Ron Reuter

Let's start with the basics for making the most of any nighttime viewing experience.

Expect to Stay Outside for Some Time
There is a process that your eyes need to go through in order to adjust to the low light.  This can take up to 30 minutes.  If you can stay outside during that time, your eyes will be able to detect far more from the sky and allow you to see more.

Ambient Light is Not Your Friend
If you are near a city or any lit area, it can have a substantial impact on the level of visibility.  The further you can remove yourself from lit areas, the more you will be able to see in the sky.  This is a great time to call upon a friend or family member in the country.  State and National Parks also tend to be an excellent option for finding a darker environment.
The Dark Sky Takes Time
The sky does not reach it's darkest point at sundown.  The darkest skies may be hours following.  For that reason, it's easier to plan your star gazing adventures in the spring and fall since the days are shorter.  Late nights can be rough on children.  
Bring Layers
New star gazers are often surprised by how drastically temperatures can drop during the night.  Even in the summer, a 20 degree drop is not unusual.  Bring layers such as sweatshirts and jackets, especially for your children.  The temperature drop is often exaggerated since you are sitting with little movement.

Prepare to Get Comfortable
Staring at the sky for even a short time can lead to a sore neck.  A comfortable blanket to lay is a great option for prolonged viewing.  Chairs can work but make sure they can recline or it will become uncomfortable quickly.

Bring a Red Light
As mentioned above, it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.  Nothing will ruin it faster than turning on a flashlight.  However, using a red light will preserve your night vision.  I won't go into all the details but you can read more about it here.  It could be a fascinating study for an older child.  Here is an example of a red light:

Venus passing between the Earth and the sun.

Now that you have the basics down, let's look at ways you can approach your adventure.

Find Something Special to Observe
A meteor shower is one of the best, first viewing experiences.  But that isn't the only interesting occurrence that arises in the night sky.  Every Friday, Sky and Telescope publishes a weekly guide about interesting objects to view each day.  The guide will walk you through the easiest things to find, the best time to spot them, what direction to look, and an illustration to help you pinpoint the exact location.  It may be helpful to bring a compass if you aren't familiar with the area.

Another great option is to locate a star party hosted by a local astronomy club.  You can search for clubs here. 

Identify Constellations
If you're ready to go a little deeper, it is helpful to invest in a planisphere so you can begin to identify basic star constellations.  A planisphere is a star map in the form of a dial.  You turn it to line up the time of year.  It will show you what the night sky looks like on that night.  Learning to read a star map is the first step to getting more serious with astronomy.  Work on developing this skill until you are reasonably comfortable at locating major points in the sky.  A younger child may not be ready for this yet but if you learn the ins and out, you can guide them.
This is an example of a planisphere:

Please note that you will need one that is for your specific latitude.  Different locations on Earth will see a different sky.  You can visit this site from NASA and find your latitude by putting in your address.  Planisphere's generally come in 10 degree increments (50-60, 40-50, 30-40, etc).  Simply find which span your latitude falls under.  If are in the continental US, you are most likely either 30-40 (southern half) or 40-50 (northern half).

Get Up Close and Personal
If you're ready to get a closer look at celestial objects, you should consider investing in a set of binoculars for astronomy.  While many people think of a telescope as the top tool, the proper binoculars can offer just as good of a viewing experience.  Not only that but they are far easier to use.  They are more affordable and are more versatile since they can be used to observe any number of things.

When choosing binoculars, the numbers are important.  A good place to start is 7 X 50.  It's important that the first number is between 7-10.  Anything higher and it will be challenging to hold it steady and focus on small objects.  The second number should start at 50 but can go as high as you like.  The higher the number, the more you'll be able to see in the sky.  However, the higher the number, the larger and heavier the binoculars usually are so it's a balance.

You can find binoculars in all price ranges.  Choose what you can afford.  The more expensive the price, generally the better the quality.  Fine optics are expensive.  I highly recommend mounting your binoculars on a stable tripod.  This will allow you to bring something specific into focus and then share it with your child.  If not, it may be challenging for a young child to find the target and hold it steady.  You ultimately won't know what they are seeing.  Plus, small hands get tired quickly.  Most binoculars are mountable but the mid-range and higher end options often come with the tripod mount included.
In case you're wondering what I have:  Orion Mini Giant 9X63

But What About a Telescope
In the words of my father, "Don't invest in a telescope without help."  In his years of hosting star parties, he has assisted many frustrated families.  The quality of a telescope is critical.  Not only do you need amazing optics (lens and such) but you need a hefty, weighted base or the slightest bump and breeze will mean losing what you had centered.  This quality starts at $300 and that's only if you chose something with no electronics.  That can push a starter as high as $600.  The learning curve is higher than most people realize.  Finding a tiny object in the sky with a high powered device can be worse than finding a needle in a haystack if you don't understand the process.  The design of the eyepiece can be challenging for a young child; and double frustrating if they are simply trying to get a glance and accidentally bump it.

If you have an older child and the interest level warrants the investment, I would encourage you to contact a local astronomy group for guidance.  There are different types of telescopes; each with unique strengths.  They can walk you through the options and allow you to try their equipment.  This will ensure your investment is made wisely.  Once you take that step, they will be there to walk you through using it correctly.  Most astronomy clubs are filled with enthusiasts who want nothing more than to give you the best experience with the night sky.  You can search for a local club here.

 ***NOTE***  NEVER point binoculars or a telescope at the sun.  The magnifying power of the equipment can cause severe eye damage almost instantaneously.  You may have seen photos of the sun, such as the one below taken by my father.  However, these are taken by individuals who use highly specialized equipment and are well versed in safety.

I hope these tips help you take your first steps on astronomy exploration.  You don't need to invest a lot of money or time learning to give your child a stellar experience.

If you enjoyed the photography, you can follow Ron Reuter here.  He needs encouragement to post more!  You can follow me here and find me at Montessori Homeschooling.

***This post contains affiliate links (at no cost to you).  I want to show you what some of the products I mention are and this is an easy way to do.  You can click on them to learn more.  Keep in mind that I have additional notes listed when it comes to customizing the best option for your needs.***

Can't get enough astronomy???  This post is part of the 12 Months of Montessori series.  Please visit the links below.  There are some fabulous ideas on Astronomy!
Space Yoga for Kids | Sugar, Spice & Glitter
Gearing up for Astronomy | Grace and Green Pastures
Astronomy for Christian Children | Christian Montessori Network

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