March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Getting Started in Skywatching (for School Year 2014-2015)

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Robert C. Victor

Telescope

The 2014-2015 school year has begun, and it will be a great one for astronomy! There will be exciting opportunities to have students observe the sky, keep journals, recognize patterns of change, ask questions, interpret what they see, and develop writing and mathematical skills. Students will learn to observe, describe, model, and predict some patterns of the movement of objects in the sky. For connections to Common Core, examine the NGSS performance expectations ESS1.A and ESS1.B Disciplinary Core Ideas. 

There will be two eclipses, a total lunar and a partial solar, in October 2014 and a total lunar eclipse in April 2015. At dusk in late January 2015, the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will gleam at us from opposite sides of the sky. In the five months to follow, these two luminaries will gradually move closer together and attract everyone’s attention as they approach their spectacular conjunction in June, near the end of the school year. On one evening, the two planets will fit together within a single telescope field, and will appear very different from each other.

But don’t wait! Some phenomena can best be seen early in the school year. Effects of the changing season can be observed by marking the tip of the shadow of your schoolyard’s flagpole or other tall object at midday (midway between sunrise and sunset, when the Sun is highest) and checking every few days. Students at home can find their own vantage points with good views of the western or eastern horizon, return to the same sites every few days, and keep records of the locations of sunrise and sunset relative to their local landscape features. September and October are months of rapid changes.

Another manifestation of the revolution of the Earth around the Sun is the seasonal shift of the stars. In September, use our evening mid-twilight chart to locate Arcturus, brightest star in the evening sky, well up in west, Vega, nearly overhead, and Antares, low in SSW to SW. In September 2014, the planets Saturn and Mars are extra points of light in the southwestern sky. Don’t confuse them with Antares! Mars has a close encounter with that similarly colored star before the end of September. All five of these objects are easily observed near the start of the school year. In October, students will notice definite changes.

From November into January, the eastern sky at dusk will host the annual return of a large number of bright seasonal stars, and in mid-April through June they’ll all disappear over the western horizon, providing a rich opportunity to witness seasonal change.

Our monthly articles in California Classroom Science call attention to sky events such as Moon passing by planets and stars, and planets passing each other and stars. In early autumn 2014, follow the Moon during evening twilight Aug. 27-Sept. 9, Sept. 25-Oct. 8, and Oct. 24-Nov. 6, and during morning twilight Sept. 8-22 and Oct. 8-22.

But the Moon can also be followed in the daytime, during school hours. The best time, for the broadest range of dates, is right at the start of the school day. For example, at 8:00 a.m., the Moon can be seen during Sept. 10-20, Oct. 9-20, and Nov. 9-19. On the first morning of each window of dates, the Moon will be nearly full, and close to the western horizon. On the final date of each window, the Moon will be a crescent, still over 30° from the Sun, our arbitrary limit for easy spotting of the crescent Moon in daylight.

If you need to wait until 9:00 a.m. for your lunar observation, the lunar windows will start about a day later, but will still end on the same dates as above. Modeling the Moon’s phases. On different days during these windows, each student can stand in sunlight, and, using his right thumb and forefinger, hold a light-colored ball up to the sky right next to the Moon (taking care that his hand does not cast a shadow on the ball). The lighting on the ball and on the Moon should match! I’ve used even tennis balls with fuzzy surfaces, and have students hold them with the brand labels turned away from them.

Worthwhile telescopic viewing of the Moon can also occur in the daytime. Select mornings when the Moon is close to half full, or Last Quarter phase. Best dates this autumn are Sept. 15 and 16, Oct. 14-16, and Nov. 13-15. Use a single polarizing filter*, thread it onto your low-power eyepiece, rotate the eyepiece in its tube until the blue sky surrounding the Moon appears darkest, and your students will enjoy high-contrast daytime views of the Moon and its craters, especially near the lunar terminator, or day-night boundary. *Available for $40 a pair (use one per telescope), from Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, www.telescope.com

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Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these activities with the aid of these four items:  two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn, a table of data for plotting planets on orbit diagrams, and an activity sheet with a set of 15 questions on star and planet visibility in 2014-2016 and beyond.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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