Seeing stars is no longer as easy as it once was. Light pollution is a pervasive bummer. It’s tragic to consider that my generation is likely the first in all of human history to grow up without a constant nighttime backdrop of stars. I was in my teens before I saw the Milky Way. (See the site for the International Dark-Sky Association.) Just think of the last generation: their childhood memories all include late nights stargazing at an immense field of stars. So inspired, they put launched men into outer space and landed on the moon.
Introducing kids to the stars may be the only way they ever really see them. We live beyond the ‘burbs, but even I can only make out the main constellations at night. The Milky Way? No way. So depending on where you live, you may have to be purposeful about finding a place where they’re shining bright at night.
Identifying constellations is a great way to make stargazing interesting—you know, once the sublimity of it all has worn off. The easiest place to start is by looking north, and from there you can follow a simple “map” to locate and ID five major constellations.
Nearly everyone can spot the Big Dipper, with a little effort. The constellations rotate around Polaris throughout the year, so the big ol’ ladle might be upside down or right side up. But once you’ve found it, you are at the starting point. The Big Dipper is, in fact, part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major (the Big Bear).
1 – Lining up the bottom two stars in the Big Dipper will point you to Polaris. This is usually the brightest star. It’s the North Star that has guided so many navigators. It’s also the tail-end of Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper.
2 – Using the first star on the handle of the Big Dipper and lining it up with Polaris points you right at the center of Cassiopeia. Kids might have an easier time if you call it the W, since the queen’s crown looks more like a letter than an actual crown.
3 – The far right stars of the W will point you to the bottom of Cepheus. Named after the King of Aethiopia, I like to think of this one as a house. (Come on. No one sees an ancient king in this shape, do they?)
4 – The fourth short cut identifies our fifth constellation, Draco (i.e. The Dragon). This stellar creature is twisted around our other constellations. A line drawn through the two stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper—the ones closest to the handle—point to the head of the dragon, crossing its body in two places en route.
This is just a start, and if your kids take to it, there’s plenty of next steps, from books on astronomy for kids to investing in a decent telescope.