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How To Start A Child In An Astronomy Hobby, 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 didnít 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 wouldnít even talk about it! Itís very easy to get a child interested in astronomy but itís even easier for them to get frustrated and quit. Iíve 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 donít need a telescope for an astronomy hobby. You heard that right! The very best way to start out is by learning about what youíre looking at. And you donít 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 letís talk about what you can and cannot see. The moon is amazing to look at through either binoculars or a telescope, but itís bright so make sure you have a moon filter so you donít hurt your eyes! A moon filter is like wearing sunglasses, it reduces the amount of light entering your eye(s). And donít observe the moon when itís full, itís 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 youíll 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 thatís 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. Iím 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.

Letís 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 Halleyís 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 ďpropellerĒ. 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 canít grasp all the concepts, do you see how the constellation and the objects now have life?

Third, (as Iíve previously mentioned) you need to manage a childís 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 thatís 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 itís 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, donít buy a cheap piece of junk! Now let me tell you how I really feel. ? You donít need to spend a lot of money, but buying an inferior scope is a recipe for disaster. Walking through department stores youíll 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 weíve discussed, you wonít be seeing those objects on the box the way they are shown, but itís a nice marketing tool. Cheap telescopes donít 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 ďstorageĒ, 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 letís 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 donít 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 wonít 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 childís 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

Submitted by:

Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan owns Science Store for the Stars, an eStore selling science kits, educational toys, games, science experiment books, telescopes, microscopes and more for future scientists ages 3-16. His hobbies are astronomy, physics, and all things science. Come visit us online and see how you can improve your childís knowledge of science, in a fun way!



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