If you know me even casually, you probably know that I am an astronomy geek. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the stars, and that fascination drew me to books about black holes, distant planets, and supernovas.
Now that I’m older and a little more of a fuddy-dud, I use astronomy as an excuse just to lay outside on a nice summer night.
Stargazing can be a very enjoyable family activity if you do it right. Below is a simple guide for viewing the night sky this summer.
(The following advice is good for those who live in the northern hemisphere.)
Read the Sky Like a Map
With just a little bit of training, it is easy to find your way from one constellation to another in the sky.
In this video, I select several bright, easy-to-find constellations visible on summer evenings, teaching you how to find them in less than 6 minutes. (I go fast, so pause the video if necessary.)
Take some time on nice evenings to get outside with your family this summer. Make an event of it. Camp out in the yard. Have a bonfire. Sing songs. Go for a nighttime walk. Play flashlight tag or hide-and-seek in the dark.
And when its time for stargazing, turn off all lights and extinguish the fire—get your eyes adjusted to the dark—and enjoy the sky.
Storytelling Under the Sky
If you’re looking for an enjoyable nighttime activity with your kids, it is fun to use the sky the way ancient people did: by telling stories. Every ancient culture we know about saw pictures in the sky (what we now call constellations), and these pictures served as convenient marks in the sky for each culture’s legends.
Below are some of the brightest and easiest-to-find constellations we can see in summertime and some of the legends associated with them. Tell these stories to your kids as you search for the constellations…
- Cygnus – Read the story of the son of Helios, the sun god, who drove his father’s sun chariot and fell from the sky, dying in a river. His friend, Cygnus, pleaded to be transformed into a swan so he could dive down into the river to retrieve the body.
- Lyra – Read the story of the legendary musician Orpheus, who traveled to the underworld to retrieve soul of his lost love.
- Scorpius – Read the story of the hunter Orion, who boasted that he could kill all the animals on the earth. Gaia, goddess of the Earth, sent a great Scorpion to kill the mighty hunter.
- Virgo – Read the story of Dike, the goddess of justice, who left earth after human beings abandoned the Golden Age of justice.
- Sagittarius – Read the story of Chiron, the centaur who offered to be a substitute for Prometheus.
- The Summer Triangle – The stars Vega and Altair are featured in the Chinese legend of the cowherd and the weaving maid.
Staring into the Heart of the Galaxy
The month of August is the perfect time to look into the heart of our own galaxy.
Seeing this will take a little bit of planning…
- First, you’ll have to go to a very dark area, away from manmade light. The further you can get away from big cities, the better.
- Second, ideally you need to find a place with an unobstructed view of the southern horizon. The fewer trees and buildings in the south, the better.
- Third, you’ll want to pick an evening when the moon isn’t up—either because it has already set or because it hasn’t risen yet. Use the Moonrise and Moonset Calculator for the area where you will be. (For instance, if you plan to view at 10:30pm, make sure the moonset time is before 10:30 or the moonrise time is after 11:00pm).
- Fourth, know when twilight is over. Use the Sunrise and Sunset Calculator for the area where you will be. Ideally, you want to start viewing when “night” officially begins, if not at least when astronomical twilight starts in the evening.
When you get to your location, find the constellation Sagittarius (use the video above for help). The brightest stars of Sagittarius make a teapot shape. The white, cloud-like band of the Milky Way that circles through the whole sky runs right by the “spout” of the teapot. (It looks almost like steam is coming from the teapot).
Looking to the right of the spout of the teapot, you are looking in the direction of the heart of the Milky Way, the galactic center. (Make sure to bring some binoculars or a telescope if you want to look closer.)
Somewhere in the center of our galaxy, scientists believe there is a supermassive black hole (an extremely dense kind of star) that they’ve named Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star”). Thankfully, it’s about 26,000 light years away from us, so we won’t get eaten by its intense gravity.
Summer is a great time to show the differing lengths of time the sun is up.
First, find the number of daylight minutes on the summer solstice. The summer solstice—the day when the northern hemisphere is most tilted toward the sun—is between June 20th and 22nd every year (it usually falls on the 21st).
- On the day of the solstice (or within a few days of it) have your child get up before sunrise and note the time when they see it rise.
- Have them note the time when the sun sets.
- Then have them count the hours and minute between sunrise and sunset.
At the end of the summer, do the same activity. Have you child note how there’s less daylight later in the summer.
The Perseids Meteor Showers
There are a few good meteor showers to see during the summertime, but the Perseids meteor shower is one of the best to see all year.
Every 133 years or so, the comet called Swift-Tuttle orbits the sun, leaving behind a trail of debris of ices and rock. As Earth flies around the sun every year, we collide with Swift-Tuttle’s old debris path and those rocky bits slam into the Earth’s atmosphere and incinerate. When a bit of debris burns up in the atmosphere, it creates what we call a meteor (or “shooting star”)—a quick streak of light across the sky.
Because Swift-Tuttle leaves behind a big debris path, around the same time every year, the Earth gets a “shower” of meteors as we cross this path. We call this meteor shower the Perseids because all the meteors radiate from the direction of the constellation Perseus.
(In case you’re wondering, the comet Swift-Tuttle does come pretty close to Earth at times, but the chances of a collision are about one in a million. That’s a relief.)
The Perseids are visible from July 17 to August 24, but the peak of the shower is on August 13.
The best time to see a meteor shower is in the morning before sunrise (learn why), but anytime close to the peak of the shower, go outside with your kids when its dark and see how many meteors you can count in 30 minutes.
Learn More Astronomy This Coming School Year!
Interested in your child going deep into the subject of astronomy?
Check out our online astronomy courses for homeschoolers. We have both an elementary-level course and upper level courses for Jr. and Sr. High students (including one that earns kids high school credit).
See previews of the courses at Experience Astronomy.