The Universe is there to explore for everyone, of every age. They may be telling you to stay at home these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t step outside and explore the Universe around you. And we mean the whole Universe — just look up and take it all in on a clear night. Nothing says adventure in place more than traveling deep into the cosmos from your home with a telescope or binoculars.
As the Earth circles the Sun, the sky we see each night changes. Our view shifts toward the west a little bit each day, so each time you go outside there is something new coming up in the east. At the same time, you can watch the Moon drifting through the sky as it goes around the Earth. If you carefully note where it is in relation to the stars and then check back a little later, you can start to feel the 3-dimensional, dynamic nature of the Universe in that simple observation.
One of the fun ways to enjoy the sky is to use one of the phone-apps that tells you what heavenly bodies are where. The best (in my opinion) is SkySafari. It’s available for iOS and Android (as well as OS-X). What makes it so wonderful is all the information and imagery it contains. You can keep yourself entertained on many cloudy nights just exploring the Universe through it — and then take it out under the stars to explore the wonders you can then see. There’s even a free version, and a couple of enhanced versions you can pay for.
A little bit of glass can take you to new heights.
Try taking those binoculars out with you. You’ll be amazed at what you can see. Clusters of stars, clouds of glowing gas, and even other galaxies. There's plenty to be seen with the naked eye as well. Try to locate the planet Venus which is often the first celestial object visible in the northern hemisphere — or Arcturus, the brightest star in our northern hemisphere sky. Even though the Universe is out of reach, there are plenty of ways to engage with the stars while your feet are stuck on solid ground.
Here are a few activities you can do from Earth, all you need are some household items and a little bit of creativity.
1. Build a Scale Model of the Solar System
This one might take a little brainpower, but you can always Google the sizes and distances of the planets ... or use SkySafari to look them up! Start with a small ball for the Sun, and treat yourself by creating the planets out of M&M's or other candy. As your line stretches on across your yard or down your street you’ll be amazed how far away the planets are! Obviously we need to stay within our space, but if you want to take this further and keep your system true to scale, Mark Rober's video is a great inspiration.
2. Make a Mini Planetarium
All you need for this activity is a small, square-ish box, a pair of scissors, a toothpick, and a flashlight. Punch holes in the bottom in the shape of your favorite star pattern, and put a flashlight into the top. Turn off the room lights, and project your favorite constellation on the walls or ceiling! For a fun creative twist, you and your little ones can come up with your own constellations and star stories to go with them. If you are looking for inspiration each NEMO tent has a glow-in-the-dark constellation guide sewn into the tent and the stuff sack! You can download and print our constellation guide using this link.
3. Learn and Act Out Different Star Stories
Different cultures around the world have created their own tales about the stars, and have created their own constellations to go with them. Take this time to learn some new stories and act them out with your family! While the themes may be similar, each story is unique and interesting — and might give you a new perspective on the sky that you see every night.
4. Participate in International Dark Sky Week
International Dark-Sky Week is an international celebration of the night sky. It's a time for us all to consider the role the star-filled sky plays in each of our lives and to learn how we can reduce light pollution. Starting April 19th and running through the 26th, the International Dark-Sky Association is encouraging people to engage with authors, creators, scientists, and educators on their website. With activities like lectures, amateur astronomy courses, and professional storytelling, there's bound to be something for any budding astronomer, no matter their age!
5. Engage in Some Citizen-Science
Want to help protect our dark skies? Globe at Night is a citizen-science campaign designed to help people measure the night sky brightness and submit their observation either on a computer or smartphone. All you need to do is identify the constellation Leo, and report which other stars you could see that evening. Measurements can be made nightly and the more measurements Globe at Night receives, the better understanding we can have of our night sky and light pollution.
The most important thing to remember while you explore the cosmos is that you, and everything around you, is part of one Universe. We’re all connected — the people, the plants, the animals, the minerals, air, and water. As outdoor enthusiasts, it's great to keep that in mind as we enjoy all of Nature around us. If you’d like to learn more about where it all came from, check out How to Build a Habitable Planet, a terrific book that connects everything in the history of the Universe to what you see out in the world today.
Doug Arion is Prof. of Physics and Astronomy at Carthage College, and head of the Mountains of Stars public science program. He's a lifetime member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and The International Dark-Sky Association, and is a member of the American Astronomical Society and International Astronomical Union. He loves hiking, biking, and nordic skiing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.