Recently I received the following email from Joe Garcia who reads Stargazer in the Kingsville (TX) Record: "I am a Cub Scout leader and am taking my boys camping June 11-13. I want to do an astronomy section one of these nights, something that the boys will enjoy and learn from. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions you might have. I am new to this and want my boys to learn and have fun. Thank you for your time."
After re-reading my response to Joe, it occurred to me that my ideas might be of interest to others, especially those who, like Joe, work with kids. So here are some of my offerings.
As the Sun is setting in the west, have the kids watch the western sky and see who can be the first to spot the "evening star." After it gets darker and other stars begin to appear, it will be apparent that this "star" is much brighter than all the other stars because it's not really a star -- it's the planet Venus, the nearest planet to Earth.
Then as it gets darker, have the kids look all around the night sky and try to find the Moon. They won't be able to, so ask them why there's no Moon out. Answer: June 12 happens to be new Moon when the Moon is in the same direction as the Sun, thus it sets at sunset and won't rise until sunrise the next morning. Each night thereafter, the Moon rises and sets nearly an hour earlier than the previous night. This can lead to a discussion about the phases of the Moon.
Depending upon how near to a city you are camping, you will likely encounter light pollution. Point this out to the kids, especially if you can see more light pollution in one direction than another. Show how the more light pollution there is, the fewer stars one can see. If you happen to be far from city lights, show them the Milky Way which they can't see from town.
For a final activity, help the kids learn to use the stars to find north and the other directions. Have them search the sky for the Big Dipper. Then show them that the two stars at the outer end of the dipper's bowl are "pointer stars" pointing to Polaris, the North Star. As they find and identify Polaris, have them notice that it is NOT the brightest star in the sky as many think.
To dig a bit deeper, these and other topics are elaborated in previous "Stargazer" columns which are archived on my Web site, and in my book, Learning the Night Sky, about which you can also learn more on my Web site.
• Sky Calendar.
* June 16 Wed. evening: The crescent Moon is below Mars, and to its left the next night.
* 18 Fri. evening: The 1st quarter Moon is below Saturn.
* 19 and 20 Sat. & Sun. early evenings: Venus passes within two moonwidths of the Beehive star cluster low in the west; use binoculars to see the subtle cluster.
* 20 evening: The Moon is below Virgo's bright star Spica.
* 21 Mon.: Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere
* 26 Sat.: The full Moon, called the Flower Moon, Rose Moon, Strawberry Moon, and Honey Moon, shows a barely visible partial lunar eclipse low in the east just before dawn.
* July 2 Fri.: The midpoint of the year 2010.
* 3 Sat. morning: The Moon is above Jupiter.
• Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon, and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation on its axis.) Evening: Venus is prominent in the west northwest, Mars is mid way up in the west, and Saturn is high in the southwest. Morning: Jupiter, rising around 2 a.m., is brilliant in the southeast by dawn.
Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.