Astronomy captures the imagination of young and old with its mysteriousness and beauty. There is nothing quite like watching a child look through a telescope for the first time, marveling at the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter. As with many children, astronomy can be a phase that can last as short as a handful of minutes, so it is understandable that many parents aren’t too willing to spend a lot of money on high quality beginners telescopes. The great news is there are many ways to enjoy the night sky with your kids without breaking the bank.
Utilizing Technology You Already Have
Since many people, including kids, these days have smart phones, lets begin by utilizing the tools we already have in hand. There are many apps that are available for iPhone, Android, and Windows smart phones. Some of these apps are available free of charge and many others are available for less than $5.
These apps can be a great introduction into stargazing and many contain features that show you exactly what you are looking at when you point your phone up at the sky, detailed information about stars, planets, galaxies, and nebulae, and even night vision that turn the screens of your phone red to avoid you losing your night vision (when your eyes are acclimated to the dark).
Star maps and Atlases
Not everyone has a smart phone and some who do may not want to use one to stargaze. There are many paper-based media that are excellent to help you get your bearings with the night sky.
There are atlases, star maps, star wheels, and more that are available and one might work better for your family than another.
For simply the ease of recognizing what is in the sky above you, a star wheel, or planisphere, might be the right choice, such as The Night Sky. Planispheres, are available for various latitudes and have a rotating inner paper disk that you can set to the current date and time to see exactly what is up tonight at your latitude or even next week for your family camping trip. Planispheres are also great for understanding the constellations that are above your head in June, will be different than the ones above your head in December, even at the same time of night.
Many seasonal star charts are available online and are free to download and print out. What you want to look out for when finding star charts is the correct latitude or latitude range as well as the correct month or season. Some great examples include Orion, Sky and Telescope, Skymaps, and many more (simply do a quick internet search).
(Sky map for July 2016 provided by Orion)
Atlases are also great for learning more details about the night sky including not only seasonal star maps, but detailed images and information as well. Do a little research before buying one as some are better as reference guides and others in the field. Popular atlases include the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky and Peterson Field Guide’s Stars and Planets. With many people going digital, it is common to find these books used for great deals both online and in used bookstores.
Binoculars and Telescopes
Don’t let the word “telescope” scare you into thinking that if you buy one then you won’t be able to feed your family for a year. Yes, telescopes, binoculars, and all the accessories can add up to a small (or large) fortune but there are also some good compromises that can be made to get the best possible star gazing session for your money.
Binoculars are a fantastic way to observe the sky and they are great for kids as some are the perfect size with a light enough weight for smaller hands. Not to mention they are one hundred percent portable and can travel with you anywhere. And with them you can see a great deal more stars than just with your eyes as well as star clusters, galaxies, nebulae, the planets in our solar system, and fantastic details on the Moon.
Do some research before you go buy a pair of binoculars, as not all binoculars are ideal for astronomy (although any pair of binoculars is still a wonderful way to enhance your stargazing sessions). There are some great and helpful articles that already exist on the worldwide web that can help you select the best binoculars for your budget.
Telescopes are also fantastic stargazing tools and can show you greater details on planets, galaxies, and nebulae. But keep in mind that they quickly get very expensive, can be complicated to set up, and not always very portable. First figure out what you want to observe with it and then how much you want to spend. A word of caution: even though the low price and the description of telescopes found in department stores can be enticing, these telescopes are almost never worth it with poor quality optics and design.
Stargazing should be a fun and low-stress family event, so do your research to make sure you get the best equipment at the best price for your family’s needs and wants. Many kids (adults too) don’t want to spend an hour to set up a telescope, and will quickly lose interest defeating the purpose of introducing them to astronomy. There are many great articles online that can help direct you to selecting a telescope.
(Image left: An example of a refracting telescope from Orion. Image right: An example of a reflecting telescope from Celestron.)
If you want to look through telescopes but not necessarily buy one (or yet), see if your community has a local astronomy club. Many of these groups hold public star gazing events that are free for anyone to attend and they usually have several telescopes set up looking at a variety of objects and they are typically very knowledgeable. Amateur astronomers are also fantastic resources if you have telescope questions and are looking to buy one of your own.
Another great resource that may be in your community is a planetarium. Star shows can be a great way to get to know and understand the night sky. Some shows will show you what is currently up in the night sky and others are specific to certain topics such as black holes. All you would have to buy is admission.
Or maybe even a friend has a telescope. If it is a portable one, invite the entire family over for a barbeque and stargazing event. If it isn’t, see if you can manage to get an invitation to their home.
Most importantly, have fun!
The most important thing about stargazing as a family is to have fun. Let kids use their imaginations to make up their own constellations and the stories that go with them. Or have them imagine what it may be like to live on another planet. Lie down in the grass and look up at the sky and try to find the Milky Way or watch for meteors and make a wish on the shooting star-like objects. Imagination and family time costs no money and can spark an interest in astronomy that can last a lifetime.
(Image credit: Wikicommons)
This guest post contribution was written by Luigi Papagno…
I have been fascinated by astronomy and a passionate observer of celestial objects for most of my adult life. If you want to learn more about astronomy and how to get the best out of your stargazing equipment, then check out my blogs or follow me on twitter (https://twitter.com/f1telescopes) as I share insights and views on how to get incredible results viewing the night sky.