Get Your Family Into the Cosmos: Great Places to Stargaze
Published in the October 2009 issue of Boston Parents Paper
We’re all shining stars. Really.
That bright star your family contemplated on your summer camping trip? You’re made from bits of one just like it says renowned astronomer Phil Plait. In a video for the British website www.whyscience.co.uk, a collection of thoughts on why science is so important, Plait uses astronomy to show that "science is everything, and it's everywhere, and it's you."
"The iron in your blood and calcium in your bones were created in a star that blew up five billion years ago, seeded a gas cloud with elements, and these elements formed – you," Plait says in the video. "That’s science.”
And that's bound to captivate the imaginations of your kids.
Children are tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. The more skilled they are in the process of wondering why -- the basic tenet of science exploration -- the brighter that future will be.
Astronomy is the perfect science for piquing curiosity and sparking critical thinking. It’s beautiful and mysterious. It’s one of the easiest sciences to investigate, requiring only eyes and, as interest grows, simple optical equipment. And it’s satisfying. Said Joe Doyle, curator of the Bridgewater State College Observatory, “Astronomy is a personal journey, since you’re alone at the eyepiece. You experience the universe through your own eyes and feel a sense of accomplishment when you find an object. The chance of discovery, which is very real, is thrilling.”
Exploring astronomy can make for some unique family outings. Massachusetts is home to many local public stargazing sites -- places where you can view our galaxy and beyond with precision equipment and expert guidance. Both Doyle and Tony Houser, director of the Wheaton College Observatory in Norton, said visitors are awed by magnified views of Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its moons, and our Moon and its craters. Houser said the Andromeda Galaxy, Ring Nebula, Pleiades star cluster and naked eye objects like satellites, meteors and shooting stars also pack “a big wow factor.”
Check out one or more of the observatories described here and let skilled enthusiasts guide your kids through the universe -- perhaps unleashing their inner scientist. Just remember that stellar viewing requires clear weather, and viewing schedules change, so check an observatory’s website or information line before blasting off for your trip to the cosmos.
Wheaton, Bridgewater, Salem State, Merrimack and Boston University are among the area colleges that share their telescopes with the public on scheduled open viewing nights or by special arrangement. The observatories, some boasting platoons of equipment and others one or two powerful reflectors, are usually manned by physics instructors or passionate students.
Depending on the venue, you may be scanning the heavens from the roof of a science building or from inside a structure whose dome retracts to reveal the night sky. When groups of very young visitors are scheduled, Wheaton even sets up a portable, inflatable planetarium. “The kids – and their parents – enjoy crawling through the dark tunnel to get into the dome, and we have a star projector to tell stories and show star motion in the sky,” said director Houser. Find schedules and visitor information at the observatories’ websites: wheatoncollege.edu/Acad/Astronomy; bridgew.edu/Observatory; nsaac.org/collins.shtml; merrimack.edu/community/Observatory; bu.edu/astronomy/facilities/observatory.html.
Clay Center for Science and Technology
A five-story, state-of-the-art learning center in Brookline operated by the Dexter and Southfield schools, the Clay Center (claycenter.org; 617-522-5544) includes an observatory housing seven professional-grade telescopes. During fall and spring Clay holds weekly public telescope nights for facilitated exploration of planets, stars, the Moon and other celestial surprises. Pre-registration is appreciated. When you’re not gazing upward, enjoy panoramic views of Boston from the observation decks, wander through fiber optic versions of the constellations in the Stars Courtyard and use the Planetary Scales to see what you’d weigh on Mars.
Most families are familiar with the spectacular Charles Hayden Planetarium at Boston’s Museum of Science. Less well known but just as exciting (on a clear night) is the Gilliland Observatory (mos.org; 617-589-0267), nestled on the roof of the museum’s parking garage. At 8:30 on Friday nights, museum staff invite the public to step up to Gilliland’s powerful Celestron telescope and observe the night sky’s current offerings. Before heading to the observatory, watch the 7 PM planetarium screening of The Sky Tonight, a film that helps you and your kids better appreciate what you’ll see up on the roof.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)
The CfA (cfa.harvard.edu; 617-495-7461) sponsors observatory nights the third Thursday of each month, except in summer. Starry-eyed future scientists can learn a lot from this Harvard University center. Observatory nights begin with a non-technical lecture (intended for high schoolers and older, but children are welcome) and end with telescopic viewing from the observatory roof. The CfA also runs special events like a Kids Academy and Sci-Fi movie nights. For details check the center’s website, which has a kid-friendly, content-rich “Fun Things To Do and See” section.
Astronomy Groups and Clubs
In addition to regular meetings, at which potential new members are welcome, groups like the South Shore Astronomical Society (SSASTROS.org), North Shore Amateur Astronomy Club (NSAAC.org) and Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (ATMOB.org) share their astronomical knowledge in various ways.
If your child’s school or scout troop would like to hold a star party to investigate and celebrate the abundant wonder of deep space, both ATMOB and NSAAC can provide support and expertise. SSASTROS invites the public to join its frequent Saturday night observing sessions in Norwell’s Centennial Field. Bring the telescope that’s been sitting in your garage and they’ll teach you how to use it, or get equipment advice if you’re considering a purchase. NSAAC helps run the public viewing nights at Salem State and Merrimack College, and its just-launched Young Astronomers Program features an essay contest for 4th- through 8th-graders, with cool equipment as prizes. To view the heavens with NSAAC members, join their Friday and Saturday viewing nights at Veasey Memorial Park in Groveland.
Tips for Parents of Would-Be Stargazers
Local astronomy experts offer these suggestions for sparking a child's interest in the heavens:
Use a laser pointer to guide young eyes through the night sky
Start with a familiar object like the Moon, and look for things kids can relate to, like large craters or the Apollo landing site
Use binoculars, easy and inexpensive, to effectively view many objects
For a good first telescope, consider the $200 Orion Starblast
Experience the excitement and camaraderie of gatherings scheduled around major events like meteor showers
Let kids click their way through the cosmos on websites like NASA.gov, HubbleSite.org and KidsAstronomy.com
Use star charts, like the downloadable tools at Stellarium.org, to identify what’s in your sky tonight