Backyard Astronomy

What You Need:

  • Empty paper towel roll
  • Stickers of stars and planets
  • Paint
  • Internet or local newspaper
  • Blanket

What You Do:

Make a Telescope

While you won’t be able to see any far out planets with an empty paper towel roll, it will help your child focus on what they are looking at. To make this homemade “telescope,” have your child paint the paper towel roll and decorate it with stickers of the stars and planets. Getting your child involved in the process will build anticipation for the evening.

Research the Night Sky

Some constellations are easier to see than others. Ursa Major, "The Great Bear," is the most popular constellation because it is visible in the Northern Hemisphere year round. The Big Dipper is actually not a constellation at all, but part of the Great Bear. And the North Star, Polaris, is not the brightest star in the sky, but a very important one. Because of where it sits in the sky it appears not to move, making it the marker to find north from many places on Earth! Orion, "The Great Hunter," is another favorite of junior astronomers and easily visible from January through April. Teaching your child the legends behind the constellations may also help them remember what to look for and get excited about it along the way. For example, Orion is the great hunter of the night sky traveling with his two loyal dogs—the constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor. The three stars which make up Orion’s belt that hold his sword are easy to spot. And from there you can locate an array of other constellations.

Let the Gazing Begin

You will probably have to let your child stay up a little later than usual, but lying in the backyard, standing on the porch, or even looking out the window at the night sky will be an experience well worth it! It will take your eyes 30–40 minutes to adjust to the darkness, so be patient. As your child looks up at the stars with their handmade telescope, ask your child, “What do you see in the sky?” Explain that the stars make pictures called constellations, and that constellations are used to help people remember which stars are which. Check out the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, part of the Big Dog constellation.

On a clear, dark night, you can see between 1,000 and 1,500 stars with the bare eye. Point out a few constellations but also encourage your child to find their own pictures in the sky. If they were an astronomer, what would they name them?

This is a fun way to introduce the beginning concepts of astronomy and get your child excited about something science-related. It’s also a great way to spend a spring or summer night with the whole family involved.

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