Some of my most memorable evenings have been spent star-gazing. Many years ago I sat around the campfire on an African safari marvelling at the stars. I hope that one day my kids enjoy a similar experience.
In the meantime, winter evenings are the ideal time to get outside and explore the night sky with your kids.
What do I need?
- A clear dark sky. Light pollution is an issue in much of the UK but even if you live in a city you’ll be able to see some objects once your eyes have acclimatised.
- Warm clothes, as a clear sky in winter usually means frost.
- A pair of binoculars if you have them. You don’t need a telescope!
Top 10 things to look for in the night sky
This list is always going to be rather subjective, but I’ve picked some favourites I’ve enjoyed looking at with my kids.
The easiest thing to spot in the night sky! But have you ever looked at it closely? Take a look through your binoculars.
The moon’s surface is full of craters from asteroid impacts. These can still be seen as the moon has no atmosphere to protect it and there’s no erosion to wear them away. You should also be able to see the lava fields. These look like large expanses of sea, hence they’ve been given names such as the Sea of Serenity.
You can demonstrate how craters are formed to your kids by getting them to drop marbles from varying heights into a tray of shallow flour.
2. International space station
The space station is usually visible for a couple of minutes each night and shows as a small dot very high up moving across the sky. It’s the third brightest object in the sky so visible from most places. Check out when you’ll be able to see it by adding your nearest city into the NASA website.
The NASA site is a great resource in general so if you want to watch a video of life on the space station or find out about onboard experiments this is the site to visit.
There are numerous websites which will help you locate the planets, as this changes depending on your location and the time. My favourite is Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun. You can see Saturn through binoculars but will need a telescope to view the rings.
Saturn is one of the gas giants, so named because it’s made mostly of gas. As with the other planets in our solar system (except Earth) Saturn is inhospitable to life with atmospheric winds of 1,100 miles per hour and storms that last for months. On the plus side it does experience seasons and its summer lasts for 8 Earth years although it’s still incredibly cold!
Comets are large dusty balls of ice and rock which usually live a long way out in the solar system. We can see them if they head towards the sun as their trails become visible when the heat from the sun turns the ice to gases.
Halley’s Comet is probably the most famous comet but it’s not due to return until 2061. However, new comets are identified each year so keep an eye out in the news for future spotting opportunities. In the meantime check out the photographs from the historic landing of the Philae lander on comet P67.
Venus is a little smaller than the Earth and the closest planet to us. Although it’s a rocky planet it’s very hot and its atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide. It also has more volcanoes than any other planet in the solar system.
Venus is the second brightest object in the night sky which makes it relatively easy to find. As it orbits close to the sun it will either appear in the west in the evening or rise before the sun in the east. It can sometimes even be seen in the daylight.
The well known constellation of Orion is best seen during the winter months. The simplest way to find it is to look for its belt of three stars in a row, and then spot the hourglass shape of four stars around it. Underneath the belt (on the ‘sword’ of three further stars) you may also be able to spot the Orion Nebula, home to many young stars. You can find a map here which should help with finding Orion and the Orion Nebula.
One of the stars in Orion, Betelgeuse, is a red supergiant nearing the end of its life. When this happens, at some point in the next million years, the star will explode in a huge supernova.
7. Meteor showers
These are usually caused when a comet orbits close to the sun and the Earth passes through some of the ice and dust. This can mean you see lots of ‘shooting stars’ in a short period of time, but my recent experience is that meteor showers tend to co-ordinate well with cloudy nights!
There are several meteor showers each year, although I tend to look out for the Perseids in mid-August and the Leonids in mid-November. They’re not always at kid friendly times though, quite often the best viewing will be after midnight.
8. The Plough
Probably the easiest group of stars to recognise, the seven stars that make up the Plough look rather like a saucepan with a long handle. Something that many people don’t realise is that the Plough isn’t a constellation in its own right, instead it’s part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.
The Plough is a useful starting point for finding other constellations and stars. For example, Polaris (the North Star) can be found by tracing a line up from the two stars on the saucepan end.
9. Sirius (the Dog Star)
The brightest star in the night sky, and one of the nearest to us after the sun. It’s relatively easy to locate, by drawing an imaginary line down from Orion’s belt. It can be found pretty low, just above the horizon.
Although you’ll only be able to see one star (Sirius A) in your binoculars it’s actually a binary star and has a second much dimmer star (Sirius B) orbiting it.
10. Pleiades (the Seven Sisters)
The Pleiades can be found in the Taurus constellation, which is directly above Orion, you can find a map here. The Pleiades is a star cluster, containing around one thousand stars. At least six of these are bright enough to see without a telescope.
Most of the constellations have a Greek myth associated with them. Pleiades is also known as the Seven Sisters, and the story goes that Orion, the hunter, chased after them for seven years. Zeus changed the sisters into stars, but Orion became a constellation and still chases the sisters across the sky. I’ve seen several variants of this story but I enjoy it all the same.
There is a plethora of books, websites, courses and kit related to astronomy, some of varying quality so check reviews before you purchase! Ensure that whatever you buy is going to be the right level for your experience.
- For younger children I think the Usborne books on space are hard to beat.
- For adults and older children, I’d suggest looking up your local astronomy club here. Many will offer sessions for beginners, and all will have observing evenings.
- The other piece of kit I’ve found really useful is my iPhone app, which helps with identifying the constellations. There are several apps available so check out the reviews to decide which one is best for you.