Summer Stargazing for Kids (South)

The Small Magellanic Cloud, right, and 47 Tucanae.  Image credit Stephane Guisard/APOD (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap071001.html)

The sky darkens late in the southern hemisphere summer, but the warm nights invite a little family stargazing before bedtime.  But what to see?  Here are 7 objects in the southern night sky 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 sunset and look towards the northern horizon.  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.  If the sky is very clear, 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 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, and the constellation Orion as seen when looking north in the early evening hours of January and February in the southern hemisphere (click to enlarge).

Jupiter, the Hyades and Pleiades, and the constellation Orion as seen when looking north in the early evening hours of January and February in the southern hemisphere (click to enlarge).

4. Orion’s Belt

As you are looking at Jupiter, turn your eyes a little higher above the northern horizon 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.  In the southern hemisphere, Orion appears “upside down” as if he is doing a cartwheel.  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 more upward and further east (to your right).  You will see a very bright blue-white twinkling star.   This is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.  It’s also one of the closest stars because it is about 8 light years away.  When it is close to the horizon, 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. Canopus

Now look further upward (almost overhead) for another very bright white star above Sirius and a little to the right.  This is the star Canopus in the constellation Carina (“cah-REE-na”), the Keel.  It is the 2nd-brightest star in the night sky.  Canopus takes its name from the pilot of the sea ship that carried the legendary Menelaus from Greece to steal back his beautiful wife, Helen of Troy, from the Trojan prince Paris.  To us, it looks like Canopus is not as bright as Sirius.  But Canopus is really much brighter than Sirius.   Canopus only looks fainter to us because it is 310 light years away, while Sirius is only 8 light years away.

7. The Magellanic Clouds

Face Jupiter again, just over the northern horizon, then turn all the way around so you are facing in the other direction (south).  Look up, but not too high.  If there are no trees or buildings in the way, you will see two faint fuzzy patches that look like clouds, one larger and brighter than the other.  These are the Magellanic Clouds, named in the 16th century after the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan.  While you can’t tell with your eyes, these clouds are each made up of millions of stars.  The Magellanic Clouds are actually small galaxies outside our own Milky Way.  The brighter cloud (the Large Magellanic Cloud) is about 160,000 light years away.  The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years away.  People in the northern hemisphere cannot see these clouds because they never rise above the horizon at any time of year.

The Magellanic Clouds (middle, right) as seen looking south in the early evening hours in January and February as seen from the southern hemisphere.  Click to enlarge.

The Magellanic Clouds (middle, right) as seen looking south in the early evening hours in January and February as seen from the southern hemisphere. Click to enlarge.