Stargazing sounds like a simple activity on the surface, but like anything that involves kids, you’ll find that you have the most success when you plan and prepare. Both kids and adults will get more enjoyment from the activity if they’re comfortable and have a good idea of what they’re doing, so do as the Boy Scouts and be prepared!
Northern Hemisphere: Constellations to look for Year-Round
Because the earth tilts towards or away from the sun, some constellations are visible only during certain months; below, we’ll list a few popular constellations to look at during the summer and winter months. Still, some constellations are visible in the sky the whole year because they are called north circumpolar, which means they appear to be orbiting the North Star (Polaris).
Polaris itself is part of a constellation visible year-round. It’s part of Ursa Minor, sometimes known as the Little Dipper. Polaris is the star closest to the celestial North Pole, which explains its historical importance as a navigational aid to early sailors. The entire night sky rotates around it, making it a great starting point for stargazers.
One of the best-known constellations in the sky is Ursa Major, sometimes known as the Big Dipper or the Big Bear. It’s easy to identify in the night sky because it includes two of the brightest stars (Dubhe and Merak), but it doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see what the image is supposed to be! It does look like a type of dipper or ladle.
Ursa Minor is located near Ursa Major (fittingly, also sometimes known as the Little Bear or Little Dipper). An easy trick to show kids how to spot it is, once you’ve located the Big Dipper, imagine if liquid poured straight out of it. Trace a straight line from the ‘spoon’ end of the Big Dipper, and you’ll hit Polaris and the end of the ‘handle’ in the Little Dipper.
Two other constellations visible throughout the whole year are Cassiopeia and Draco. Cassiopeia is another one that is relatively easy for amateurs to locate in the sky, with its five bright stars forming a crooked W shape. Draco is a bigger constellation, and kids might need to consult a sky map to locate it, but the story is likely to appeal – it’s supposed to represent the dragon who guarded a magical tree. Hercules had to defeat him to steal the golden apples in one of his twelve labors.
Northern Hemisphere: Winter Constellations
Three popular constellations visible in the northern hemisphere during the winter months are Orion, Gemini, and Perseus. The easiest of these to spot is Orion, also known as the Hunter, and Orion’s Belt – the straight line of three stars in the middle – is one of the best-known constellations. From there, it is easy to pick out the stars representing the arms and legs of the Hunter, mainly as this constellation includes two of the top ten brightest stars in the northern sky, Rigel and Betelgeuse.
Adjacent to Orion is Gemini’s constellation, whose name might already be familiar if you know your astrology. One of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, Gemini, is the sign of the mythological twin’s Castor and Pollux (or Polydeuces), represented as stick figures in the night sky. The two brightest stars in this constellation are named Castor and Pollux, which represent the heads of the ‘twins’. Still, many of the stars that make up Gemini are bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, which makes this a great constellation to start with when stargazing with kids.
One constellation with a compelling story that kids will enjoy is that of Perseus, the mythical Greek hero who slew the Gorgon Medusa whose gaze turned men to stone. On his way home, he rescued the princess Andromeda who was chained to a rock. Today the constellations of Perseus and Andromeda are found next to each other.
Perseus and Andromeda are located close to Cassiopeia, described above as a crooked W. (In mythology, Cassiopeia was Andromeda’s mother.) Although these constellations are best viewed in the winter, the Perseid meteor shower associated with the constellation is one of the best chances to view meteors in August.
Northern Hemisphere: Summer Constellations
Three popular constellations to look for in the summer night sky are the Lyra, the swan Cygnus, and the mythical hero Hercules. Kids will likely already be familiar with the story of Hercules, the son of Zeus, whose twelve labors earned him the title of the strongest of all the Greek heroes. This is one of the oldest constellations in the night sky, dating back to ancient Sumeria.
You may need to use your star map to focus on the third quadrant of the northern hemisphere, but once you locate it, it’s relatively easy to imagine the shape of a man’s torso, arms, and legs in the stars. Hercules is located near Draco, mentioned above as a dragon he battled during one of his twelve labors.
Cygnus is a mythological swan located close to the constellation Draco and one of the more prominent constellations in the northern night sky. It’s a good one to look for with kids because, like a few others on our list, once you’ve located Cygnus, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture the rough cross shape as a bird with its wings outstretched. A portion of this constellation is also known as the Northern Cross, an asterism (familiar shape formed by stars). There’s a Southern Cross as well, which you may have seen pictured on the flag of Australia, but it’s only visible in the southern hemisphere.
Another notable feature of Cygnus is that the star at the tip of the cross, named Deneb, forms one point of another well-known asterism called the Summer Triangle. A second point of the Summer Triangle is the star Vega, found in the constellation Lyra. Vega is one of the brightest stars in the sky, and its blue-white color is usually visible even in light-polluted city skies.
The whole Summer Triangle – the third point is formed by a star called Altair in the constellation Aquila – is easily spotted due to the brightness of all three stars, and even young kids should be able to pick it out from the night sky. If you’re stargazing with slightly older kids, once you’ve identified Vega, see if you can pick out the constellation Lyra, a rough parallelogram representing a lyre with Vega forming the tail.
Don’t be afraid to use resources to help you trace the constellations in the sky! As mentioned earlier, several fantastic apps are available that can aid in identification. Check with your telescope, as some models might come with digital resources to help you figure out what you’re looking at. If not, apps such as Night Sky, SkyView Lite (no Internet required, so great to use if you’re going out to the middle of nowhere for stargazing), the official NASA app, or Star Chart. Several others are available, too, so try a few out and become comfortable before heading out there.
Many apps will allow you to point your phone at the sky, and the app will do the work of identifying the constellation. Still, if you have several kids on your stargazing mission, it might also be good to print out a few star charts, such as the one from Nasa’s website. Stargazing can be a wonderful activity to enjoy as a family, so grab your telescope, your map, and get started!
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