Winter Stargazing for Kids (North)

Pleiades Star clusterThe sky darkens early in winter, so it’s a great time to get outside with the kids for a little stargazing before bedtime.  But what to see?  Here are 7 objects primed for viewing in January through March in 2013 that are easy for kids to see with binoculars or even with their own eyes.

1. The Planet Jupiter

Wander out after dinner and look up.  You will see a bright “star”… the brightest object in the night sky except for the Moon.  This is the planet Jupiter, the 5th planet from the Sun and the largest planet in our solar system.  More than 1,000 Earths could fit inside Jupiter!  The planet doesn’t have a hard rocky surface like the Earth.  Instead, its outer layers are made of colourful clouds arranged in horizontal belts that go around the planet.  You need a telescope to see the belts.  If you have binoculars, look at Jupiter and you will see up to four tiny moons all lined up in a row.  These are the four largest moons of Jupiter, and you can watch them move around from night to night.  Jupiter has more than 60 moons all together, but most are too faint to see without a large telescope.

2. The Hyades

Once you find Jupiter, look for another bright orange star very nearby.  This is the star Aldebaran.  It’s the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, the Bull.  Look carefully around Aldebaran.  You may see a little V-shaped group of stars about as large as two or three of your fingers held at arms length.  These are the stars of the Hyades star cluster, a group of stars that was born together about 650 million years ago.  The ancient Romans called the Hyades the “Raining Stars” because they appeared during the rainy season in Rome.  If you have binoculars, look at the Hyades and you will see many more stars with all sorts of colours and brightnesses.

3. The Pleiades

Now draw an imaginary line from Aldebaran to Jupiter and extend the line a little further.  You will see a faint, dipper-shaped group of stars.  This is the Pleiades star cluster.  It is a beautiful sight on a cold winter’s night and has been a favorite target of stargazers since ancient times.   The Pleiades was born about 100 million years ago, which is quite young for stars.  The cluster is about 445 light years away, so the light you see tonight has been traveling from these stars through space to your eye for 445 years .  The Pleiades is sometimes called the “Seven Sisters” after a Greek myth.  Most people can only see six of these stars with their eyes.  You will see many more with binoculars.

Jupiter, the Hyades and Pleiades, Capella and "The Kids", and the constellation Orion as seen when looking southwest in the early evening hours of January and February (click to enlarge).

Jupiter, the Hyades and Pleiades, Capella and “The Kids”, and the constellation Orion as seen when looking southwest in the early evening hours of January and February (click to enlarge).

4. Orion’s Belt

As you are looking at Jupiter, turn a little to the east (your left).  Look a bit lower to find three bright stars all lined up in a row.  These are the silver-blue stars of Orion’s Belt.  They are part of the larger constellation Orion, the Hunter.  From east to west, the stars of Orion’s Belt are called Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.  They are very young stars, about 6 million years old, and they are very much larger than the Sun.  One day in a few million more years, each of these stars will explode as a supernova and will grow so bright they will be visible in the daytime for a few weeks.  But don’t worry… these stars are too far from Earth to cause any trouble here when they explode.

5. Sirius

Now look a little further east (to your left) and closer to the ground.  You will see a very bright blue-white twinkling star.   This is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.  It’s also once of the closest stars because it is about 8 light years away.  Sometimes Sirius twinkles so much it seems to change colours to red and white and yellow and even green.  The twinkling is caused by the Earth’s atmosphere moving around.  Sirius is sometimes called the Dog Star because it is in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog.

6. The Goat Star and the Kids

Now look straight up for a very bright yellow-white star.  This is the star Capella in the constellation Auriga (“or-RYE-ga”), the Charioteer.  It is the 6th-brightest star in the night sky.  It’s name means “little female goat”, so Capella is sometimes called the Goat Star.  Look right next to Capella for three fainter stars in a small, flat triangle.  These little stars are sometimes called “The Kids” of the mother goat Capella.

7. Big Dipper Standing Straight Up

Face Orion’s Belt again, then turn all the way around so you are facing in the other direction (north).  Look up, but not too high.  If there are no trees or buildings in the way, you will see the famous Big Dipper, which is a little larger than your outstretched hand.  But the Dipper is standing straight up on the tip of its handle in the early evening at this time of year!

The Big Dipper standing on end in the evening hours in January and February, as seen looking northeast.

The Big Dipper standing on end in the evening hours in January and February, as seen looking northeast. Click to enlarge.