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How It Works: Astronomy - Observing The Mysteries of Space

If looking to the stars has you confused, check out this stargazing primer, with tips from an astronomy expert

Mar 03, 2020

Understanding the universe beyond earth is a big task, but it’s easy to get started thinking beyond earth’s atmosphere if you’re interested in learning more. Kidzworld interviewed Alison Klesman, Senior Associate Editor at Astronomy Magazine for tips on getting started. You can be recognizing constellations, following planetary paths, and even helping professional astronomers by adding your observations by the time you finish reading this article! 

Many people look up into the night sky and get inspired by the vastness of space… but while you’re staring out into the stars looking as though you’re searching for a ride back to your home planet, you might be confused about what exactly you’re looking at. 

Getting Started – an Astronomy Primer

When you want to learn more about a topic, ask an expert. Kidzworld contacted Alison Klesman, the Senior Associate Editor at Astronomy Magazine to get her advice about how to begin to make sense of the night sky.

"One really good way to get started in astronomy is to go to a local planetarium or science museum, or just visit their websites to check out the activities they offer. These institutions often have talks, observing nights, and extracurricular activities with amateur and professional astronomers who can answer questions and tailor an experience for age and other interests. I personally work a lot with the Adler Planetarium, which has an entire teen program dedicated to teens interested in science.

One of my favorite apps is called Star Walk — it uses your device’s GPS to recreate the sky in real time as you hold it up and move around. It’s a great way to identify constellations, stars, and deeper-sky objects, right when you’re looking at them. It also has a list of “what’s up right now” in the sky and information about the visible planets, sun- and moonrise/set, and a lot more. You can also enter an object you want to find, and the display will point you in the right direction as you move it until you get there! 

Alternatively, Skymaps.com has free printable (or downloadable) night sky charts that are updated each month to show the sky overhead. And the book The Stars: A New Way to See Them by Hans Augusto Rey (the same H.A. Rey who wrote Curious George!) has been recommended to me many times as a great starter guide. 

For younger kids, two of my favorite resources are the NASA Kids Club and ALMA Kids."

teens lead underwater search for meteoritesAt the Adler Planetarium, teens lead the search for meteorites from a 2017 fireball that crashed into Lake MichiganCourtesy of Adler Planetarium

How to Look at the Night Sky

You know by now that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But did you also know that, because the earth rotates in a constant direction, the planets 168 and stars in the night sky do as well? 

Check out this 5-minute video that explains how to get into the right position to observe the night sky and how to read astronomical chart directions.

Getting Oriented To Better Learn The Night Sky: Stargazing Basics



Practice Astronomy Without a Telescope

Start with this free download of a card deck that helps you identify and memorize the constellations from a Professor Environmental, Geographical, & Geological Sciences at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania

Create your own star wheel, or planisphere, or you can visit their interactive sky chart online for a view of the night sky personalized to your location. 

Make your own star wheelMake your own star wheelCourtesy of Skyandtelescope

If you have a smart device, download a free app like Night Sky, Star Chart, and Sky Safari that use your GPS location and phone’s camera to help you identify exactly what you’re seeing when you look up. 

You might already know that you can use the position of the sun in the sky to tell the approximate time during the day, but did you know that you can also tell time at night by looking at the stars? As the earth turns, the planets appear to follow the same line at night – the ecliptic – that the sun travels across the time during the day.  If the earth moved in a steady, unchanging line, the stars would stand still, and would be in relatively the same place every night.  But because the earth is on an axis and tilts toward or away from the sun depending on the season, that path varies depending on the time of year. That’s where a star clock comes in. A star clock uses the positions of The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia depending on the time of year to help you figure out approximately what time it is! Not only is it a great tool, it’s also a fun project.

spitzer cosmic distance latter from NASA JPL caltechThe Spitzer Cosmic Distance Ladder allows astronomers to confidently measure vast distancesCourtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Your Career as Amateur Astronomer Starts Tonight

Alison at Astronomy Magazine pointed out that not all discoveries have been made by professionals. Some discoveries have even been made with the “naked eye” (without a telescope).

"One of my very favorite citizen science projects is called Zooniverse. Their website has a whole host of activities. Each project is designed to be easy to understand and easy to use, although some are better for younger audiences and some are better for older kids. No telescope is required at all — basically, this site lets users look at real data to help real scientists do things like find extrasolar planets, characterize glitches or noise in their data so they don’t think it’s a real find, and there’s even currently a project that lets users look at old constellation maps to determine which constellations the drawings are trying to show.

Many of Zooniverse’s discoveries have come from amateur astronomers young and old. Specific ones I can think of are the “green pea” galaxies, Hanny’s Voorwerp, and a four-planet extrasolar system around a Sun-like star 597 light-years away.

The International Astronomical Union also has some good suggestions for getting involved in astronomy and astronomy research. And, again, checking out a local planetarium or astronomy club is a great way to find out whether there are more local, hands-on projects that need participants. 

Additionally, the American Meteor Society allows people to submit reports if they see “fireball” meteors at any time. Submitted reports help the society to identify where the meteor came from and where any potential material that might have hit the ground is located. That’s pure chance, of course, but anyone who sees a fireball can report it."

Know About Celestial Events In Time To Observe Them

The editorial team at Astronomy Magazine publishes weekly reports for astronomy hobbyists called “The Sky This Week” highlighting one thing to look at in the sky each night for every week of the year.

For kids just starting out, the best way to find out about upcoming NASA launches is to go to the source. Visit NASA’s launch schedule or NASA TV, to observe NASA launches, landing, spacewalks, news, and footage from inside the space station. 

Alison also suggests checking out the American Meteor Society’s calendar of meteor showers and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s list of upcoming astronomical events.

Astronomy Magazine sky guideA sky guide lets you know when and where to look for the biggest events all year longCourtesy of Astronomy Magazine
What's Your Star Power?

Are you a super-star-gazer with thoughts of going "to infinity and beyond" or are your feet planted firmly on the ground? Tell us your stargazing stories in the comments below, and share this article with your star-struck friends and family members!