Kids love to look at the stars and dream about exploring distant galaxies. Stargazing with your children in the backyard is a great way to spend a summer evening, but that doesn't have to be the end of it. Don't worry that you don't have a telescope. You can learn a lot about astronomy without ever looking through a lens or a mirror. These simple experiments use easy to find materials you might already have around the house.
Make a constellation light box
Use an astronomy book or the Internet to find star maps of constellations or look in the night sky. Take the lid from an oatmeal box and use a nail to punch the pattern of the constellation onto the lid. Make larger holes for brighter stars and smaller holes for dimmer stars.
Take a flashlight and press the handle against the center of the other end of the box and draw a circle around it. Then cut a hole in it and fit the flashlight into the box by pushing it through the hole from the inside. Put the lid back on the box. Take the light box into a dark room, turn on the flashlight and point it at the ceiling or wall and enjoy the star show. You can even turn the lid on the box to make the constellation move.
Meteors are small rock like chunks, probably pieces broken off of a comet or asteroid that move through outer space. As they enter the earth's atmosphere, they burn up.
Spend some time on a clear night looking at the moon with your child. The round holes that make it look like Swiss cheese are craters caused by meteorites striking the surface of the moon. There are pictures on the Internet of a place in Arizona called Meteor crater, where a meteorite crashed into earth about 50,000 years ago leaving a crater of a mile across. Most craters are only fist-sized because the meteorite breaks into small pieces as it travels to earth. This experiment will show how that happens.
Fill a large soda bottle with water. Drop in a seltzer tablet. The water represents the earth's atmosphere and the seltzer tablet is the meteor. Watch what happens to the tablet as it floats slowly to the bottom. Like a meteor, the tablet breaks up into tiny pieces as it makes its way to the bottom of the bottle, the earth's surface. Most meteors are no bigger than small stones, but every so often a few larger chunks make their way to the surface of the earth as meteorites.
Mapping the Sun's Path
Standing under the sky on a clear day feels like standing under a large blue dome. At night, the stars twinkle like tiny lights set into the now-dark dome. Astronomers call this dome the celestial hemisphere. Stars and planets appear to follow paths along the celestial hemisphere.
One star's path through the sky is easy to map, our nearest star, the sun. To see the path of the sun across the sky, you'll need a clear plastic dome and marker. Put the dome on a piece of white paper with a piece of cardboard underneath. Have your child help to draw a circle around the dome, remove the dome and mark an "X" on the exact center of the circle. Replace the dome and secure it with tape.
The "X" represents you. Start as early in the morning as you can. Take a marker and hold it over the dome until you find the place where the shadow from the tip of the marker rests on the "X." Mark that point on the dome with your pen. Continue to make marks like this every hour or half-hour throughout the day. By evening, you will have a pattern of the sun's path across the sky.
If you mark North on the dome, you can map the sun at different times of the year. Try mapping the sun on the first day of each season. Does the sun always rise due east and set in the west?
Whether you are looking for classroom ideas, science fair projects, or ways to learn at home, you will have fun doing these easy astronomy projects with your children.