In this 30-minute activity children ages 7 and up and their families go outside on a clear evening and view the sky to see the planets for themselves. Using sky charts and other resources, and possibly in partnership with a local astronomical society, children navigate the night sky and view planets with the naked eye and binoculars or telescopes.
This outdoor night viewing can be combined with the indoor Jupiter's Family Secrets activities to create a family event!
What's the Point?
- Many planets in our solar system are easy to see in the night sky.
- Looking at a planet through a telescope will magnify the appearance, so we can see features.
- Telescopes are scientific tools; they offered our first glimpses of other worlds when Galileo first used his telescope to study Venus, the Moon, Saturn, and Jupiter and its moons 400 years ago. Telescope optics have improved over time, allowing scientists to make more detailed observations of objects in the night sky.
- Earth-based observations are important to learning more about the surfaces of moons and planets. Scientists also use instruments onboard spacecraft that flyby or orbit bodies in our solar system. Spacecraft instruments allow scientists to infer details about the interiors of planets and moons.
- Planets have unique characteristics that can be observed through a telescope. For instance, Jupiter has faint bands of different colors, and sometimes a centuries-old storm, called the Great Red Spot, or some of its moons can be seen.
- Flashlights for staff, preferably with red plastic wrap or red paper taped over the light
- Optional: Access to electricity and a well-marked extension cord, secured so that it won't be a hazard in the dark
- Glow sticks to mark cords
- Access to drinking water
- Access to bathrooms
For each group of approximately 20 visitors:
- 1 telescope operated by an amateur astronomer
- 1 small step-stool for children to stand on to reach tall telescope eyepieces
- Tables set up indoors or outside, in a well-lit area and out of the path of traffic
- Pencils or crayons
For each child:
- 1 My Trip to Jupiter Journal or just the relevant "Planet Party" pages
- Sky map for the current night (monthly sky charts or simple sky wheels are available free from a variety of websites, including the links offered here; note that the sky wheels require assembly but work year-round)
For the facilitator:
- Background information:
- Shopping list
- Throw a Star Party
- Review the complete background information.
- Plan your event using the Throw a Star Party!tips. Choose a date when one or more bright planets will be high in the evening sky.
- Set out the step-stool(s) where needed.
- Set up the tables and pencils or crayons in a well-lit area nearby.
1. Invite the children and their families to line up in front of the different telescopes.
- Ask each child to put his hands behind his back when it's his turn to look through the telescope (which will reduce the chances of moving the telescope).
- As the families line up, point out where the planets are in the sky, and which one they will see through the telescope. Ask the children to share what they know about the object before they view it.
- How do scientists use telescopes? Do the children think that telescopes have been improved as tools since Galileo first observed some of Jupiter's moons with a telescope 400 years ago? Scientists study the surfaces of planets and their moons through telescopes. Telescope optics have improved over time, allowing scientists to make more detailed observations of objects in the night sky.
- How can scientists learn more about planets? By sending spacecraft to fly by or orbit other planets.
Provide some information about current explorations: The MESSENGER spacecraft, launched in 2004, arrived at Mercury in 2011; MESSENGER had several flybys of other planets to help it slow down so that it was able to go into orbit around Mercury. New Horizons, launched in 2006, is expected to reach the dwarf planet Pluto at the "other end" of our solar system in 2015! Due to a gravitational assist from Jupiter, New Horizon's trip has been shortened by three years. In 2016, the Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter. Juno launched in 2011, and like MESSENGER, it will have a flyby that slings it past Earth (in 2013) on its way to the giant planet.
2. Ask the children to describe what they see:
- What color was it? What shape? How many objects were there?How were they arranged?
- Do they recall from previous activities which planets are our nearest neighbors? Which is closest to/furthest from the Sun? How far away are the planets?
- Which is the biggest/smallest planet? Do they appear that way in the sky? Why? Jupiter is the biggest planet and Mercury is the smallest. Venus is the brightest planet because it is close to us, and so seems larger than Jupiter.
- Why do the planets appear bright? They are reflecting sunlight. How can they do this if Sun is not up?
- Why is the Sun not up? The Earth has spun (rotated), carrying our part of its surface away from the Sun.
- Over the length of the event, how have the planets moved through the night sky? They have moved toward the west.
- How many of the stars they see are in our solar system? The Sun is the only star in our solar system; the others we see at night are much more distant than even the dwarf planet Pluto or Eris.
3. Invite the children to use the pencils or crayons to record their evening's discoveries in their journals.
If possible, build on the children's knowledge by offering them another Jupiter's Family Secrets activity indoors in conjunction with the viewing or as a separate, future event. Invite everyone to return for the next activity, Jiggly Jupiter to create a model of what Jupiter looks like on the inside.
At the beginning of the next children's activity, invite the children to report on what they saw.Did the appearance of the planets surprise them? Which object was their favorite, and why?