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Friday, September 28, 2018

Astronomy Projects for Children this Fall

The main spectacle in the night sky this summer and on into winter has been the presence of (at times) all 5 of the naked eye planets in the sky simultaneously. Right now there are “only” 4 as Mercury has moved into the dawn sky, but I can’t remember ever seeing so many naked eye planets simultaneously in all my years of observing. Starting at sunset, around 8:00pm, from West to East, you can see brilliant Venus setting, bright Jupiter high in the sky, Saturn culminating at the Meridian, and brilliant red Mars rising high in the east. The contrasting colors of creamy white Venus setting and red Mars rising are especially striking. See here for photos are more information: 

Since these are all bright naked eye planets all you need is your own eyes to observe them. They will be in the sky through September (all 4) with their slow change with the seasons and their motion around the sun. 

Many projects for children are possible. The night sky is very colorful. See if you can detect the color differences in the planets. It’s one way to identify them. 

The planets also move through the sky as they orbit the sun. The word “planet” in Greek means wanderer. See if you can detect the motion of the planets as they “wander” against the background of “fixed stars” of the constellations of the Zodiac. Using a star map try to identify these constellations and their pictures in the night sky. If you go out regularly you can draw your own star map and trace the path of the planets. See if any stop and move backwards in the sky (from east to west) called retrograde motion. This used to blow the minds of ancient astronomers because it was hard to explain. 

If you have a pair that of binoculars or small telescope you should be able to see some of the 4 (bright) moons of Jupiter. You can watch them change position from night to night as they orbit the planet. A miniature solar system! Try drawing their positions the way Galileo did 408 years ago! He discovered them as the first person to observe the sky with a telescope and record his observations. You can be a 21st century Galileo!

These planets will be in the sky for most of the fall and are the main spectacle of fall nights. 

Finally, in December the Geminids meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13. Quoting from my calendar: “Planning on staying up late (or waking up early) for this one. The Geminids is the "king" of the meteor showers. It is considered by many to be the best shower in the heavens, producing up to 120 multicolored meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by debris left behind by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, which was discovered in 1982. The shower runs annually from December 7-17. It peaks this year on the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight leaving dark skies for what should be an excellent early morning show. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Gemini, but can appear anywhere in the sky. “

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