Here’s a collection of resources I use for astronomy workshops with teachers. Let me know about your experience with this material or about anything else I should add.
This is my introduction to all the stuff and space of astronomy, called “You Are Here.” It probably (hopefully) makes more sense when it’s part of a larger discussion and has some narration. If you were part of that discussion, these will be familiar.
- My solar system scale activity (handout)
- A solar system scale calculator from the Exploratorium.
- (Interestingly, when I searched for this, I also found this one that I wrote myself years ago. Funny what you can dig up on the internet.)
- (Also interestingly, if you google “solar system calculator,” you’ll get primarily get results on how to install solar panels on your roof. Try “solar system scale calculator,” and you’ll have better luck!)
- This is a fun interactive exercise on the scale of all things. (Really, ALL the things.)
Solar System characteristics and formation:
- A comprehensive information sheet from Clark Planetarium‘s significant collection of helpful resources.
- A planetary weight calculator (i.e., to calculate your weight on other planets) from the Exploratorium.
- The Nine Planets page has an extraordinary collection of information that could be used for projects.
First, I think it’s important to point out that astronomy started simply with the act of looking up and paying attention to what’s moving around in the sky. We don’t do this too often, especially with light pollution (see below). We would all do well to simply stare at the stars, especially when we can take advantage of clear skies in remote locations. My most profound viewing experience was the solar eclipse of 21 August 2017. (I wrote about that, clumsily, here.)
There are lots of good pieces of software for both your computer and your tablet or phone. For my money and especially for straightforward classroom use, I really like SkyViewCafe. You can mess with the location, time, view, etc. very easily, and there is nothing that you have to install (unless you want to). There are other tools that look more polished, but this one is both accurate and allows you to imagine putting yourself on the equator and then on the North Pole and anywhere in between; or advancing the time by minutes or by hours or by days or by years. All of that is really informative and easy with this tool.
- SkyViewCafe. The only downside might be that it runs via Java, and that sometimes creates problems in browsers, and it always creates problems on phones and tablets.
- Stellarium and Celestia are each interesting and beautiful free software packages that you might also consider.
I think that astrophotography is easier than working a telescope and in many ways it’s more immediately rewarding. It also gives you something fun to play around with on even some modest cameras. As long as you can keep a shutter open for a few seconds, you can do astrophotography. The basic idea is that you should collect as much light as possible so that you can see even what your eye isn’t sensitive enough to detect.
- Here’s my short description of how to do this.
- There are some good tutorials like this one out there.
This is one of those photos that was taken from the hood of my car with a table-top tripod. With this photo, you can clearly make out the Big Dipper (centered, bottom third of the frame) and the double star in the handle. Above that you can make out the entirety of the Little Dipper, something that’s hard to do with the naked eye except with the darkest skies. And, at the bottom of the photo you can see a streak of fire-like light. This is actually the tail lights of a car going by, which gives you a sense of the exposure time for this photo.)
Once you start to do some astrophotography (or any other observation of the night sky), you’ll probably recognize that we’re getting in our own way. Light pollution, the excess light that we send into the sky that limits the contrast of the background, interferes with the experience. It doesn’t matter how long your shutter is open or how big your telescope is, because you’ll always collect unwanted light that washes out the image you are interested in.
- The International Dark Sky Association has a wealth of information and resources about this.
- Here’s Earth at night, superimposed on Google Maps.
- There are lots of ways you can calculate light pollution, including an app and citizen science project like this one.
No one benefits from light pollution in any way. It removes one of our most essential connections to the natural world and wastes energy. You can help in a variety of ways, probably starting with turning off a porch light.