Earlier this year, I read a bunch of books about astronauts. For this month’s theme, I read about astronomical things. (Things related to astronomy, not enormous things – although many astronomical things are astronomical. But I digress…)
Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet
by Buzz Aldrin and Marianne J. Dyson (2019)
This book imagines what life will be like for the first astronauts and colonists to reach Mars. It looks at how people and things will get there, what their living quarters will look like, and what they might eat for meals. It has activities sprinkled throughout to help understand and think more deeply about different concepts.
A Black Hole is NOT a Hole
by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, Illustrated by Michael Carroll (2012/2017)
I had only a very general idea of what a black hole was before I read this book. It did a great job of explaining what a black hole is and how astronomers have learned about them – especially since they’re kind of hard to visit.
Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets, and More
by Mary Kay Carson (2013)
If you are curious about how human beings have come to understand what’s out in space, this is the book for you. It chronicles important astronomical discoveries and how they have shaped our understanding of Earth and its place in the universe throughout time. It’s packed with activities that help to understand and further explore different concepts.
The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity (2012/2017) by Elizabeth Rusch
This book tells the story of the Mars rovers named Spirit and Opportunity. This book does a lot more than follow the journey of these robots on Mars. It also gives a glimpse into the world of engineering, geology, and so much more.
As always, a great way to explore these books is to do some of the activities in those that have them and explore the back matter (the stuff at the end of the book). Each book recommends additional books and web sites to check out.
Here are a few additional ideas.
Do Some Star, Planet, & Satellite Gazing
Several of the books suggest this activity. It’s a great way to start getting curious about what’s out in space. All you really need is time and a place to sit and watch the night sky. If you want to see things in more detail, a pair of binoculars or a telescope can help.
Want to know what you’re looking at? Check out Sky and Telescope’s “This Week’s Sky At A Glance” (https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/sky-at-a-glance) or Astronomy’s “The Sky This Week” (https://astronomy.com/observing/sky-this-week) for guidance. You could also download an app like Google Sky or Stellarium. There’s a good list of sky watching apps here: https://astrobackyard.com/astronomy-apps-for-stargazing.
If you want to be more scientific and/or creative, keep a sky watching journal. Any notebook or collection of papers can do. Jot down the date, time, and location for each session. Note the weather and sky conditions – while the weather may be fair, there may be a lot of light pollution from nearby buildings and/or towns that make it difficult to see the planets and stars. Then write down what you see.
Where in the sky was it? (A diagram might help – especially if you can note its relation to known things like the Big Dipper.)
What color was it?
Did its light shimmer or hold steady?
Did it move quickly? (If so, it’s probably a satellite – or perhaps just an airplane.)
You can journal about whatever your thoughts inspire you to. What do you imagine you’re looking at? What if you were able to travel there? Does it inspire you to write a song or a poem? Go for it.
Get a Daily Dose of Astronomy
Even if you can’t get out to gaze at the night sky often, you can get a daily dose of astronomy. NASA posts an “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” often referred to as APoD: https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html.
Every day, this site posts a picture related to astronomy, along with some kind of explanation. You can browse the archives or use the index or search features to see images of whatever celestial entity, person, or space tech you’re interested in.
Following the index to a topic gives a short list created by the editors as the most educational. Here is their list for Mars: https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/mars.html. For a more thorough listing of photographs, go through the search feature.
Take It With You (?)
Imagine you were one of the first colonists traveling to Mars. In Welcome to Mars, Buzz Aldrin points out that NASA is figuring out what you need to survive and how to get it there. As for personal items, you will be allowed to take items that total up to 5 pounds (2.3 kg).
What would you take with you? Why?
Look at how much each thing weighs. This would be a good time to learn how to calibrate and use a scale. If you don’t have a scale, do a little research online to see if you can find a weight for your item. Or you could build your own balance scale, like the one here: https://www.thoughtco.com/kid-science-make-a-balance-scale-2086574. Then you just need to have items with known weights to compare with your objects.
Add up the weights of the things you want to bring. If you go over 5 pounds, you’ll have to let something go.
You thought getting into space was challenging? I think deciding what to take might be more so.
And if you want to watch a show that imagines the journey to Mars, there is a TV series called Mars – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/tv/shows/mars – that does so. It is currently available on Disney+ and Netflix; it may be available on other streaming services, too.
Make Some Celestial Art
It was pretty clear from reading these books that art plays a big role in astronomy – even if it’s only to convey ideas to the general public. Many of the images we see are “false colored.” There is a great explanation of this on NASA’s Earth Observatory web site: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/FalseColor/page1.php, and another one on the Hubble site: http://hubble.stsci.edu/gallery/behind_the_pictures/meaning_of_color/index.php. Computers translate sensor data into an image we can see. There is a more advanced explanation, with links to other resources, here: https://asd.gsfc.nasa.gov/blueshift/index.php/2016/09/13/hubble-false-color.
Now it’s time to get creative with an astronomical spin.
Add Your Own Color
Print out a black-and-white image of something celestial. Here are a few, or you can search around for more:
Add your own color, using colored pencils, markers, or paint. Try out different color schemes and/or different media.
Create Your Own Starry Night
This blog post – https://artfulparent.com/sticker-resist-starry-night-cards – has instructions for making “starry night” cards. It uses stickers and a salt-watercolor technique. Instead of stickers, you could color in the “stars” with white crayon. The watercolor paint will not adhere wherever the crayon is.
You could use this technique to make cards of different constellations. (There is a set of free printable constellation cards here: https://littlebinsforlittlehands.com/constellation-activities.)
To learn more about the salt painting technique, there’s a detailed tutorial here: https://www.scratchmadejournal.com/blog/painting-with-salt-watercolor-tutorial or look around for others.
And if you want to explore Vincent VanGogh’s Starry Night, there are lots of things out there, including this printable: https://littlebinsforlittlehands.com/starry-night-for-kids.
Listen to Space-Inspired Music
Lots of artists have been inspired by space and the planets. One of my favorite musical compositions is The Planets by Gustav Holst. Look it up on your favorite streaming service or check a copy out of your local library. There’s a neat listening guide for this piece on ClassicFM: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/holst/pictures/holsts-planets-guide
Composer Eric Whitacre was inspired by the Hubble Telescope’s Deep Field Image. You can listen to the music while watching the images that inspired it here: https://youtu.be/yDiD8F9ItX0.
What do you think of Holst and Whitacre’s interpretations of outer space?
To learn more about how Eric Whitacre’s piece came about, listen to SolveItForKids podcast Episode 5: How Do You Compose Music That’s As Big As the Universe? https://solveitforkids.com/podcast/episode-4-how-do-you-compose-music-that-is-as-big-as-the-universe. (And while you’re there, check out the other space-themed podcast episodes.)
Explore Your Universe!
I could go on, but then we’d all never get on with our days. Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas that will inspire you to explore the universe in different ways. Have fun with your explorations!
Janet Slingerland has written more than 20 books for children, including many about science-y topics. While she doesn’t do a lot of stargazing, her husband is an astronomy buff. In 2017, Janet and her family traveled to Nashville, TN to see the solar eclipse. This picture shows their viewing spot (along with Janet’s husband and her older son). Although clouds got in the way of a good view of the totality (the full blocking of the sun), the experience was still pretty amazing.
To find out more about Janet and her books, check out her website: janetsbooks.com.