Thursday, September 6, 2007

Help a child start a hobby in astronomy, and avoid the pitfalls!

I caught the astronomy bug at an early age. It was right after
my dinosaur-obsession and right before my car-obsession.
Unfortunately, my interest in
astronomy ended as abruptly as it
began and on a very sour note. It took almost 30 years for me to
decide to take it up again, and when I did it was hard to
imagine waiting so long. Upon reflection, I realized I didn't
just stop; I stopped out of anger and frustration. My mother
confirmed this recalling that when I was about 8 years old, my
father and I went out with my little
telescope for the first time. A half
hour later when we came back in I wanted nothing more to do with
it and wouldn't even talk about it! It's very easy to get a
child interested in astronomy but it's even easier for them to
get frustrated and quit. I've come up with four suggestions that
I feel may help you avoid the pitfalls I experienced and inspire
your future scientist to take up the amazing hobby of astronomy
and enjoy it for a lifetime! First, you don't need a telescope
for an astronomy hobby. You heard that right! The very best way
to start out is by learning about what you're looking at. And
you don't need any equipment to do it. Get a book on
constellations, sit down with your future astronomer (during the
day), and start with the constellations that are visible for
that time of year. Learn to identify the patterns, associate
them with their names, and read the stories behind the
historical characters they are named after. Kids have amazing
memories and are fantastic at learning patterns and associating
the names with them. Perfect for constellations!

Check out science kits,
science toys, and Janice VanCleave science experiment books
they are a great way to get started. After your child has become
familiar with and can identify some of the constellations in the
book, wait for a dark clear night, lie out on a blanket, and
identify as many as you can. It will be so much fun you will
count the days until the next time you go stargazing!

Now let's talk about what you can and cannot see.

The moon is amazing to look at through either binoculars or a telescope, but it's
bright so make sure you have a moon filter so you don't hurt
your eyes! A moon filter is like wearing sunglasses, it reduces
the amount of light entering your eye(s). And don't observe the
moon when it's full, it's too washed out. Shadows bring out
details in craters and other landscape features. Meteor showers
are fun and there are schedules that will tell you when and
where to look for them. Constellations are easy to see with the
naked eye, but try to go out during a new moon (also called a
dark moon) or close to it. The brighter the moon the harder it
is to see celestial objects. With binoculars you will be able to
see many open clusters and globular clusters, quite beautiful!
With a low powered telescope you'll be able to see both types of
clusters, some double stars, and a few nebulae. You may also get
to see Jupiter and Saturn. The only galaxy you should expect to
see is Andromeda (M31), the closest large galaxy to the Milky
Way. Unless you live under extremely dark skies and have a big
telescope, galaxies are just too faint and too far away to see.
Even Andromeda will look like a faint fuzzy in most parts of the
country. This leads right into my second postulate. Objects seen
through a telescope rarely look like the clear, colorful, large
photos you see. The human eye is unable to see the color that
can be picked up by a camera. Therefore, a nebula that shows up
in photos with wonderful reds and purples, and sticks out in
sharp contrast to neighboring stars will look gray, faint, and
ghostly through your telescope. And that's if you can see it at
all. Jupiter will show some color, but the image will be very
small in your eyepiece and making out details will be difficult.
I'm not saying the objects you see will be disappointing, quite
the contrary. But if expectations are set too high for a child,
the let-down can be damaging. Learning about the objects first
will make them much more interesting to observe. Let's take the
following example: Imagine looking at a globular cluster
(personally, my favorite object in the sky). Looks pretty
amazing through your telescope, believe me. But look at it again
knowing its M-13 or Messier 13, the Hercules Cluster, the best
globular cluster north of the celestial equator. This is a naked
eye object under very dark skies with 500,000 stars extending
150 light years across and a distance of 26,000 light years from
Earth. Discovered by Edmond Halley (of Halley's Comet) in 1714.
While Messier never saw its individual stars, even a small
telescope brings out the details in this magnificent mass of
stars. This globular cluster is about 14 billion years old!
Three dark rifts radiate outward from near the center, like a
dark "propeller". M-13 is located in the constellation Hercules,
son of Zeus, the hero who was made to perform twelve great tasks
to cleanse himself after he went temporarily insane, killing his
wife and children. Even if your child can't grasp all the
concepts, do you see how the constellation and the objects now
have life? Third, (as I've previously mentioned) you need to
manage a child's expectations. If they expect to see a big,
bright, colorful object, and they end up having to struggle to
see a bland, blurry one that takes you a long time to find, they
will get frustrated and lose interest. Kids have big
imaginations as we can see by the cartoons they watch. Their
world is big, loud, and colorful and their attention span is
short. It also depends on what age your child is. The Janice
VanCleave science experiment books are for kids 8 years and
older, and that's probably a good age to start them with a
telescope. They may be interested in constellations at an
earlier age but when it comes time to look at things through the
telescope it's a little tougher. Astronomy can be a slow and
deliberate hobby, with beauty in the very subtle details of the
objects. As a parent you need to decide when to start your child
in this fantastic hobby. If they have become interested, teach
them as much as they can soak up! And fourth, when you are ready
to buy a telescope, don't buy a cheap piece of junk! Now let me
tell you how I really feel.  You don't need to spend a
lot of money, but buying an inferior scope is a recipe for
disaster. Walking through department stores you'll notice the
no-name brand telescopes being sold that advertise 400x power
(sounds good, right?) and show beautiful large color pictures of
heavenly objects on the box. As we've discussed, you won't be
seeing those objects on the box the way they are shown, but it's
a nice marketing tool. Cheap telescopes don't focus well and 400
power just blurs images. A low power scope with quality optics
is the best way to go, and they are inexpensive. A great source
on the web is Science Store for the Stars for telescopes and
Janice VanCleave science books. Years after I put my telescope
into "storage", I got it out again and took it apart to see what
was inside. The primary mirror was basically a piece of tin foil
that reflected the little bit of light it could muster onto a
small mirror that looked just like the hand mirror a dentist
puts into your mouth. It was a complete piece of junk! It never
focused or showed anything in detail. Even the moon was blurry.
No wonder I angrily quit the hobby! Of course there was no way
for my parents to know, and how would you? Very briefly let's
talk about telescopes. The purpose of a telescope is to first,
capture light with the primary mirror or refracting lens(s), and
second, to focus it (with an eyepiece) into a clear and sharp
image. The eyepieces are what give you different powers (also
called magnifications). One lesson I learned rather quickly was
that you don't need an expensive, large, and powerful scope to
see some of the best objects in the sky. But you do need a
quality telescope. There are many different designs of
telescopes, but there are really only 2 types; refractors and
reflectors. Refractor telescopes use lenses like binoculars to
refract or bend the light coming in. Reflectors, on the other
hand, use a primary mirror which reflects light to a smaller
secondary mirror, then through an eyepiece (a lens) before it
gets to your eye. There are many different kinds of reflectors
including the Dobsonian, SCT or Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope,
Maksutov-Cassegrain, Newtonian reflectors, Ritchey-Chretien, and
others. We won't get into the specifics of these, but the
different types of reflectors all basically work the same way;
by reflecting light. If you start by learning about the
constellations and other celestial objects and manage your
child's expectations, they will appreciate what they see. When
it comes time to buy a telescope, do your research! There are
plenty of inexpensive telescopes with quality optics out there.
Try Science Store for the Stars for great starter scopes by
Smithsonian and Educational Insights. Both are affordable with
high quality optics. They also have Janice VanCleave science
books on astronomy and constellations. If you follow these
guidelines, you and your young astronomer will enjoy the hobby
of astronomy for a lifetime!

Copyright © Thomas J Ryan - Science Store for the Stars 2007

About the author:
Tom Ryan owns Science Store for the Stars, an online retailer of
science kits, toys, games, experiment books, telescopes,
microscopes and more. Science educational products for future
scientists of all ages!


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