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Kids: Whatsup?

What to do if you are looking through your scope this summer and some young people comes along and says "Hay mister, whacha doing?" Besides the fact I would never be looking for a 12 magnitude galaxy from my backyard with my scope, and my first reaction would be "what are you doing in my backyard?"-- I do have a few suggestion.

The objectives are to show them some of the wonders of the night sky, point out a few things that they can see with the unaided eye or with binoculars, help them to look/think, give them some interesting facts (if appropriate), and give them some ideas of what else they could do-where to go from here.

Tell them you are looking through a telescope (it may not look like any they have ever seen before at (...whatever) and ask if they would like to look. Then by all means show them something with "wow" value as suggested below. Faint fuzzies are down the list on wow value for newbies.

All objects and explanation must be adjusted to their age, interest, and time available. Here are some suggestions/ideas with some information. You don't want to overwhelm them now.


If the moon is up by all means start with the moon. Explain that it is about 240,000 miles away, or if you were traveling at the speed of light about 1.3 seconds (but it took Apollo 2 days to get there). Point out the Sea of Tranquility and tell them that is where Neal Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin were the first people to step foot on the moon in 1969 (32 years ago), ask them to ask their parents, or grandparents, about the first moon landing. Only 12 men have ever been to the moon, the last in 1972. Show Copernicus (57 mile diameter) or some other crater and give the diameter from a moon atlas.

Ask each a question as they look through the scope such as "Do you see any shadows from the Mtns on the moon?-So, where do you think the sun is?" or, "do you see any small craters inside of the large crater, which do you think is younger?"

Explain (depending on age/time constraints) that our moon is fairly large, it is larger than the planet Pluto, yet a person would weigh only 1/6 on the moon of what they weigh on the earth.

Before leaving the moon, show them the view through the finder scope and tell them that is similar to what they might see through their dad's binoculars. If you have your binos handy let one look through that while another looks through the scope.

Depending on the level of interest, or on a follow up night, you might contrast the field of view through the finder with that through the Scope, and point out the trade offs with high magnification (small FOV, dimmer, harder to focus, moves out of the FOV if no clock drive due to the earth's rotation, small eyepiece). And tell them that most of your observations are conducted at <150 X (or what ever you do) since "how powerful is your telescope?" is a common question. Let them know that high magnification is not often desirable, size of mirror or lens is most important.

Our sun

Ask if they know what the closest star is. Our sun! Our sun is brighter than most stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. What we see of the sun is in the past. The light we see left the sun about 8.3 minutes ago, so we are seeing 8.3 min. into the past. The next closest star is Proxima Centauri at ~4.7 light years away.


Point out Mars and Antares in the sky, which will be close together this summer, and ask them what the difference is. Tell them that one is a sun/star and the other a planet. Then show them the constellation Scorpio and Sagittarius (Teapot) in your star charts. Through the scope let them look at Mars and ask if they see any shading, light or dark areas.

While they are taking turns have one look through your binos moving slowly from near the tail of Scorpio (M7 a nice open cluster ~800 light years away), and on up through the steam at the spout of the teapot (Lagoon Nebula M8, ~ 4,500 light years away) and up past the top of the pot. Ask for a description of what is seen. What shape, any color, any individual stars or just a fuzz... Look at M7, M8, and some of the other nearby clusters (M-21, -22, 23) with the scope if there is time/interest.

Other Constellations & Views

Ask them to point out any constellations they might know. Point out the Big dipper, Mizar & Alcor and companion star with binos & scope, the pointers pointing to Polaris, the North Star and tail of the handle of the Little Dipper. From the Big Dipper follow the arc (handle) to the bright star Arcturus in Bootes (the herdsman), and speed onto Spica in Virgo (the virgin, if visible low on the horizon).

Other constellations and objects of note include those forming the summer triangle, Vega in Lyra the harp (in my opinion the double double and M57 (Ring Nebula) are not as impressive to a newbie, but you can show sometime), Deneb in Cygnus the swan (or the Northern Cross), and Altair in Aquila the eagle. While in this vicinity try the Dumbbell Nebula M27 (brighter/larger than M57) and Brocchi's Cluster or the Coathanger. Look at the Coathanger through the finder scope &/or binos.

Also, you can show the constellations Hercules (and M13 also visible in binos), and Pegasus the winged horse. Another favorite globular cluster is M5 ~2,700 light years away.

As occasion permits explain that everything they have looked at is in our own Milky Way Galaxy. There are millions of galaxies out there, but that they are a long ways away and faint. If interested you could show them the galaxies M-81/82 in the same field of view (~11 million light years away. You are seeing into the past 11 million years!).

Other items

Tell them when & where the next star party is, or invite them to return next Sat (or whenever) with their dad to look agin. Here in the San Francisco Bay area there is the Planetarium at the SF Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park and the new Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills (highly recommended).

If you see a satellite point it out, especially the International Space Station. Explain that there are 3 astronauts on the station now (unless a shuttle is there).

Recommend a book such as Night Watch or Turn Left At Orion.

I have a sturdy wooden box that I often take to star parties, to carry stuff. It works great to stand on, on the top, or side, to help the shorter people.

You might explain that stars come up 4 min earlier each night, or about 2 hours/month (and thus 24 hours/year so that we see all the northern stars sometime).

If you/they get ambitious you might even look for Uranus.

Have fun with them!


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