Brush With the Stars: Family Night out That's Free!
Elizabeth Wells - Your Family Today
When it comes to family entertainment, there’s no bigger bargain than gazing at the stars. Lying back in the grass, looking up at the heavens -- it’s a memory your kids will hold onto forever.
And it takes very little planning on your part. Here’s how to get started:
Find a map of the stars
Picking out the constellations is much easier when you know where to look. Many Web sites -- such as Think Quest, Kids Astronomy and Encyclopedia Britannica -- offer maps of the night sky in different seasons.
Pick your spot
You can view many of the stars from your yard, a park or even a rooftop, but the best viewing is away from city lights. Head for an open field or a quiet lake, where there are no streetlights. (If you have access to a country location, your results will be even better.)
In addition to your map, you should bring a flashlight, a small notebook and pen, and a printout of a mythological story or two. You'll also want to include a few creature comforts, such as lawn chairs, blankets and bug spray.
Read up before you go
The best time to learn about the constellations is before you find yourself lying in a field in the dark. There are plenty of books and Web sites that can fill you in, but here are some basics: The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper are parts of two larger constellations known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The Dippers, which look like ladles in the sky, are good reference points for the other constellations.
First locate the Big Dipper. The two stars on the outside of its ladle are called the Pointers. Follow a straight line from the Pointers upward from the ladle to the North Star. The North Star, also called Polaris, is the end star on the handle of the Little Dipper. Polaris isn't the brightest star in the sky. It isn't even as bright as five of the brightest stars in the Big Dipper, but it is the brightest star in its region of the sky. Sometimes it's hard to see all the "inside" stars of the Little Dipper. Once you've locked in on the Dippers and know that you are facing north when you face Polaris, you will be able to identify other constellations in the sky more easily.
Tell stories of the stars
Mythology is full of stories about the constellations. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, for instance, are the bears in almost all mythological sky references. When you locate constellations, share the stories with your kids. Or use the stories to guide your search of the sky.
Write it down
Record each constellation in your notebook after you find it, noting the date, time, weather and any other important observations. The log will help you keep track of what you have seen and when.
It took hundreds of centuries for the stories of the constellations to emerge. Don't expect to find everything all in one evening. The more nights you spend exploring the skies, the more you'll find up there.
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