For our regular visitors, everyone knows we offer some pretty unparalleled views of the night sky from the inside of our space shuttle. While a few toddlers are still afraid of the dark, most members of the audience emit some serious “oohs” and “aahs” when the “sun” goes down and the stars go up. The great thing about the stars is that you don’t need a planetarium to observe them – just a comfy place to sit and a clear night! Mainers are lucky because even in Portland there is very little light pollution to keep us from seeing those constellations. And since the temperatures are getting warmer, why not instate monthly stargazing night with your family?
Collect some blankets or sleeping bags and a pillow or two. You’ll all be happier if you’re comfy and cozy – particularly on chilly nights. If you can, plan on a night with a new moon (the next one is coming up on May 14th). When the moon is full and bright, it can make it harder to see the stars around it. You can bring a thermos of hot chocolate if you like – binoculars also can be fun to get a closer look at different star clusters.
Some cool things to look for:
The Big Dipper: also known as Ursa Major or “Big Bear,” this is a well-known constellation that’s easy to spot. Once you find the Big Dipper, connect the two stars in the front of the scoop with a straight line: the first star you hit is Polaris, or the North Star. That’s the only star in the night sky that never changes its position!
Orion: another one that’s easier to find because of the trademark three-star “belt.” Orion is easiest to see from October through March, but we can still spot him right now. Once you find the belt, locate the two stars in his shoulders and two stars in his feet. His right shoulder (your left, his right!) is a red star, called “Beteljeuse.” The one in his left foot is called “Rigel” and is blue. Ask your child which one is hotter. The answer is Rigel – even though we think of red as being a “hot” color, the blue star is younger and therefore has more gas to burn. A four-year-old visitor once asked me if “that was like a little kid being younger and having a lot more energy to burn than a grownup?” Yeah, it is kinda like that!
Sirius: to the left of Orion’s feet you’ll see a really bright star. This is part of Canis Major, or the Dog constellation. It’s the brightest star that we can see in the whole night sky!
There are hundreds upon hundreds of constellations you can find with your little one. Recommended reading? Stars of the First People, by Dorcas S. Miller, for some riveting Native American myths and constellations. Happy star searching!