What better way to spend a beautiful summer night bonding with your family than stargazing. There is something eternal about staring up at the night sky as people have done for ages. I can still remember lying in the grass and picking out constellations with my parents as a kid and it is a beloved tradition that I have carried on with my own children.
While stargazing is fun and exciting, there are some measures you can take to make your nighttime adventure a lot more entertaining and comfortable.
Plan for Comfort
Comfort is essential for little people who are up past their bedtime. Prepare for your night out in the country with comfortable pants and a hooded sweatshirt, if chilly. Don’t forget the mosquito repellent. Nothing ruins a fun night more than spending it swatting away the insects.
You will want to make sure to bring either blankets or lawn chairs to stretch out on. Also, a few fun snacks to calm any hungry bellies are recommended (Try Moon Pies or rice crispy treats shaped like stars for a fun themed snack).
What to Look For
You don’t have to be an astronomer to show your children amazing celestial sights in the night sky.
The easiest constellations for kids to pick out are the big and little dipper. However, there are other constellations that they will have a great time looking for, such as Cassiopeia, the queen, Draco, the dragon, and Hercules. These can be found by using a star chart or constellation guide which can be printed out. These charts are available for each month and for both the northern and southern hemispheres. There are some great myths that go along with these constellations. If you do a little research ahead of time, you can regale them with some great stories.
If you aren’t above traditional seek and find, you can use a constellation app on your smartphone and easily point them out to your children. Apps like SkyView, Sky Guide and Star Walk 2, allow you to point your phone toward the night sky and the constellations will appear, mapped out on the screen as you pass over them.
The best meteor shower to view in the summer is the Persoid meteor shower, which occurs in mid-August in the northern hemisphere. This meteor shower has one the highest number of shooting stars with approximately 90 per hour during its peak. Word of warning, you will be disappointed if you are looking for continuous star streaking across the sky. It’s more like 1 or 2 every few minutes, but it’s very cool to watch nevertheless. Children love seeing shooting stars and making a wish and this is a great chance to see some if the sky is clear.
Satellites and Planets
Believe it or not, stars aren’t the only objects to grace the summer night sky, planets and satellites are occasionally visible as well! While planets might not appear as anything more than overly bright stars, it is amazing to think that you can show your children something as impressive as Venus or Saturn!
There is a great deal of man-made objects circling the earth as well such as satellites. These are fairly easy to pick out if you know what to look for. These objects, including the International Space Station, traverse the horizon slowly and can be as bright as a planet.
Best Places for Stargazing
If getting away to the country isn’t possible, I like to look for an observatory or planetarium near me. Many planetariums offer star shows and have special evening events where budding astronomers can look through the giant telescopes or watch planetarium shows. There are also a large number of great observatories where kids can see real astronomical instruments in use and possibly have an opportunity to participate. Here are some of our favorite Planetariums and Observatories across the country:
Hayden Planetarium– New York, New York
If you have a future astronomer on your hands, then this is the place to visit. This state of the art facility has the distinction of having famed astrophysicists Neil DeGrasse Tyson as its director. Incidentally, he also happens to narrate many of their planetarium shows, such as their newest feature, Dark Universe. In addition to the star shows, there are a number of interactive exhibits. This planetarium is widely considered one of the best in the world.
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Griffith Observatory and Planetarium – Los Angeles, California
This is a great planetarium to visit, especially during any interesting celestial events. The observatory has a giant telescope and offers free nightly viewing to the public on clear nights. The planetarium also has a large number of very interesting space-related exhibits as well as a large number of entertaining and educational star shows.
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Kitt Peak National Observatory – Tucson, Arizona
Kitt Peak is where the action is happening. Open to the public, this observatory offers visitors a chance to look through many different telescopes and get an appreciation for the size of the galaxy around them. Kitt Peak also has the bragging rights of possessing the largest solar telescope in the world.
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Albert Einstein Planetarium -Washington D.C.
This planetarium is part of the Smithsonian and has some of the most spectacular star shows in the country. The planetarium has daily free star shows as well as solar viewings. They also have a Sesame Street themed star show just for smaller children. This is a great place to bring younger children who are just learning about the stars, space and the universe.
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Morehead Planetarium – Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The Morehead Planetarium is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Morehead Planetarium has a huge number of star shows and it’s the best place for teaching your children about the night sky. There are lots of programs and exhibits that focus on the stars and planets in our solar system.
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Cosmosphere– Hutchinson, Kansas
This is more than just a planetarium, the Cosmosphere is a science center that focuses on space and space exploration. In addition to world-class star shows, this is the perfect place to visit with your junior astronaut. The Hall of Space has a complete history of space exploration from the beginning of man’s desire to enter the stratosphere to modern day astronauts.
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Stargazing takes us back to a simpler time, away from our fast-paced life and allows us to spend some time connecting with our family while gazing up into the infinite cosmos above. There is a certain kind of magic that comes with creating these kinds of memories with your children – so get out among the stars with your kids and enjoy the view!