This year promises to be an exciting year for astronomers, both amateur and professionals alike. Local astronomy clubs, science museums, and national parks are teaming up to provide the public with an array of informal astronomy activities. These opportunities provide children of all ages to learn about our night skies and further explore our natural world.
We have taken advantage of these opportunities whenever we could. The kids always walk away more interested, proving once again that learning is a natural process and that children learn best when we allow that natural process to unfold, unfettered by the meddling of others.
In May, we joined other letterboxers for the Annular Solar Eclipse. This month, we spent the morning at Turtle Bay Exploration Park for Science Saturday. We expected to find numerous hands-on activities and engaging speakers on the topic of astronomy but were disappointed. They kids actually said, “Mom, you could have done better than that.” Indeed I probably could have.
As it were, there was one activity we did enjoy – a set of four mystery boxes in which common household items were concealed (a bowl of ice, a rock, a bowl of sand and gravel, and a fourth item I don’t recall). Visitors were asked to insert our hand into each box to identify what part of a comet the item represented. We enjoyed this activity and the kids were really engaged. They continued to ask many questions throughout the day as they reflected on the experience.
Perseid Meteor Shower
In the evening, we drove out to Whiskeytown for a star party and the Perseid Meteor Shower. “Shooting stars” and “falling stars” are both names that describe meteors. Essentially streaks of light across the night sky caused by small bits of interplanetary rock and debris called meteoroids vaporizing high in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Traveling at tens of thousands of miles an hour, meteoroids quickly ignite from the friction with the atmosphere, 30 to 80 miles above the ground. Most are destroyed in this process, the rare few that survive and hit the ground are known as meteorites.
A meteor shower is a higher than average number of “shooting stars” that streak through the night sky. Most meteor showers are spawned by comets. As a comet orbits the Sun, an icy, dusty debris stream appears along its orbit. If Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. Although meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, if you trace their paths, the meteors in each appear to “rain” in the sky from the same region. They are named for the constellation that coincides with this region in the sky, a spot known as the radiant. A meteor shower that radiates from the constellation Leo is called the Leonid meteor shower. The Perseid meteor shower is so named because meteors appear to fall or originate from a point in the constellation Perseus.
We had a great time at the star party! We first met with a park ranger who led the kids through a couple of activities. This was quite the challenge in the dark, I might add. Thereafter, we walked about to look through the telescopes that the astronomers had set up for the occasion, allowing us glimpses of M13 (a globular cluster in the …. ), Saturn, and Venus. We were also able to hold numerous meteorites of varying sizes in our hand. Finally, we laid down on the beach and spent an hour or so gazing at the milky way with our heads directed towards Perseus. Sure enough, in no time we started seeing numerous small “shooting stars” dart across the sky – wondering if these were indeed meteors. We heard exclamations of aww and surprise on numerous occasions. Though we may have missed some, we did see at least two significant ones that elicited exclamations from us as well.
We headed home when the kids said they were getting sleepy. We journaled about the experience the following day, but their notes and faint pencil sketches didn’t come through well in the photograph – sadly, I don’t yet have a scanner. A week later, we returned to Whiskeytown with the activity booklet the ranger had distributed completed and the kids were given a “Junior Ranger Night Explorer” badge.