Stellar performance

For the past two nights my dear husband has been teaching little children about the night sky. Since he’s quite the budding astronomer and since his specialisation was navigation and since he’s one of the best Officers to navigate you through the seas just by using the stars, he was asked give a short lecture to some interested officer’s kids. The  response was overwhelming with around 150 children signing up. As I stood there looking up at all the stories written in the stars, fixed in the sky by the gods so that millions of years later we’d remember them, I was extremely proud of him.

We have a Konus 130mm telescope which means that you can see the moon with awesome clarity – every crater, mountain and dried up sea. You can even see the object that created the crater that was so big that it still remains there. We can see three rings of Jupiter and two of it’s many hundreds of moons. But the best thing about star gazing is that it is free. There’s tons of information on the internet but there’s nothing like someone pointing out the stars and the shapes they form or constellations. And pointing it out is just what my husband did. He has a VERY POWERFUL laser pointer, the beam can “touch” the star. ALternating between the laptop and the real stars in the sky, he “drew” imaginary lines to connect the stars and form the constellations. THe laser pointer was a big hit and after all the wonderful stories, the most popular question was, “Uncle, can I touch the laser”.

The night was supposed to be split over 3 sessions so that we’d have a manageable lot of 30 kids at a time. But as things never go to plan, the bus ferrying the children got lost and deposited them in different locations and they all had to be retrieved and brought to where we were – the basketball court behind our house – all 92 of them at the same time. So my husband had to lecture or rather shout above 92 very excited children. There’s something about a Friday, being out at night and in a crowd of children that got them buzzing more than a litre of Cola and a packet of  boiled sweets. There were children of all shapes and sizes but the funniest was a fat boy of around 7 or 8 yrs who was desperate to be “the helper”. He was more the source of chaos than the provider of any help at all. He got his place right at the front and refused to give it up for his “helping” duties. He would struggle to hoist himself up from the floor and then run around creating chaos after which he plonked himself on top of two or three smaller children, squishing them away from under him, complaining, “There’s no space!!”. As I was desperately trying to keep the children quiet and prevent them from talking amongst each other, I was wondering where all the parents were and why they weren’t discipling their absolutely unruly children. Then I realised that for the parents, this was time off. Someone else was willing to entertain their kid for an hour meant freedom for them. And that’s just what they did – abandon their children. And the children were having a fantastic time.

The reason why they had such a great time is because they had a great teacher. It was an interactive session packed full of stories and stars they could actually join the dots and see and the pock  marked surface of the moon that they could actually see through the telescope rigged to a webcam. After one of the stories, the children actually burst in to spontaneous clapping because they’d seen an entire legend enacted in the stars and were so over come by amazement. There’s nothing like seeing it with ones own eyes, experiencing something right in front of you. As he pointed out each of the stars, he would ask in a sing-song teacher sort of way, “Can you see this?” and they would all in unison shout “Yeeeessss” although I’m not sure how many of them could really see. It didn’t matter, they were out having fun and if even one child learned one new thing, then the purpose of the night was achieved. And let me tell you, there were plenty of very happy children at the end of the night.

So here’s some of the constellations shown to the children, that even you can identify in the night sky. Choose an area with little light pollution, no cloud cover or trees and buildings blocking your view. Star gazing is best done when there is no moon otherwise the brightness of the moon blinds the stars. There’s a fantastic app you can download to your phone called Google Sky map. Point your phone up to the sky and by locating your GPS position the app will tell you what stars you are looking at.

Start with ORION. He’s the greek hunter that is easily identified by his belt made up of 3 stars in a row. Once you find the belt, then above and below him are pairs of stars for his shoulders and a pair for his legs. The famous star Betelegeuse makes up one of his shoulders (Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy anyone?).

Constellation Orion

And what does a hunter do? He hunts. Orion is hunting the bull Taurus represented by the bull’s horns – 3 stars in a V shape (with a really bright one closest to Orion called Hyades). The constellation Taurus is to the right of Orion.

Orion, hunting the bull Taurus, V shaped horns

And who always accompanies a hunter? His faithful dog, the constellation called Canis Major or the Dog Star.  To find the constellation, draw an imaginary line down left from Orion’s belt and you’ll find the brightest star in the night sky called Sirius. This forms the constellation, Canis Major.

Sirius and the Dog Star

To the northwest of Sirius you will see a pair of stars that mark the dog’s ears while to the southeast of the bright star you will see one that marks a front foot. The rest of Canis Major is to the southwest of Sirius, with stars that form an upside down letter “Y” representing the back legs.

Constellation, Canis Major, the Dog Star

But Canis Major was distracted from his task and followed the hare, Lepus. To find the constellation Lepus, look directly below Orion. Lepus contains few bright stars, but if it is a moonless night and you are away from any streetlights, you should be able to see it. Lepus is at the feet of the hunter, as if he has been pinned there by Orion.Use your imagination to make out a rabbit from the stars of Lepus. Lepus looks more like a rectangular box with three separate arms spinning out of it.

Lepus, the Hare

Lepus directly below Orion

So this is the story of the hunter, his dog and his prey.

The next story in the sky is of the vain queen Cassiopia who boasted that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than any of the beautiful sea nymphs. This angered Poseidon, the god of the sea and to punish her vanity, Cassiopia’s daughter was to be killed by the sea snake Hydra. But on his way back from killing Medusa, the prince Persius (who came riding on his winged horse Pegasus) rescued Andromeda. Her mother, Cassiopia was fixed in the sky by the gods to remind us of the folly of vanity and to further punish her, placed her upside down. All of these characters can be found in the sky.

To find Andromeda, look towards the North Star (Polaris).  A little higher up and the right of it you will see a group of stars in a W shape. This is Cassiopea as she sits upside down. Look almost to the right of Cassiopea and you will see Andromeda, Her feet open out in two curved lines (like a girl’s skirt) extending under Cassiopeia, her head as single point star, and arms leading downwards. Near her “arms” is the Andromeda galaxy.

Cassiopeia, W shaped and Andromeda with legs spread out

To the right of Andromeda you will see the sea snake Hydra. It is a long chain of stars.

There are hundreds of constellations in the sky and this was just a taster. This time of year Venus and Jupiter can be see very clearly, Jupiter being very big and almost red and venus lower to the right of it and also very bright. If you face the moon, with the moon to your left, turn around 180 degrees to look at the opposite sky and you will see Jupiter to your left.

Tonight, Feb 8th will be a full moon and the star Regulus, the heart of the lion, which is the brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion will be shining even brighter tonight. The name Regulus is derived from the Latin Rex which means little king.To locate Regulus, look to the left of the moon. The constellation Leo will look like a backwards question mark (?) with a triangle of stars forming the lion’s hindquarters and tail. The head and mane form the curve of the question marked. Leo is loaded in legend and is thought to be the Nemean lion associated with Hercules.  You probably won’t see Leo tonight as the moon will be extremely bright and called a waning gibbous moon but you will see Regulus.

Leo and the Moon tonight 8th Feb 2012

Considering my husband’s keen interest in the stars, perhaps a new page on this blog called Star gazing to replace our rather dormant page on Kitchen garden. Thoughts?


About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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5 Responses to Stellar performance

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  3. gkorula says:

    Sadly did not record these lectures but given its popularity, I’m sure there’ll be another one organised soon. I think learning science through stories sticks in the mind much better, for kids and adults. I think the girls will love the greek mythology side of astronomy. BUt with your weather, there’s little star gazing you guys will be doing 😦

  4. gkorula says:

    When you look at a Jupiter through a telescope you can see brown lines running down it. These while faint are totally visible from Earth. It is the atmospheric dust/clouds on Jupiter that we see. I shall post the pictures we took as proof!
    You must get the telescope out and if nothing else at least look at the surface of the moon. The girls will love it. There are many maps of the craters – next post, i’ll post some pics/video of the moon we took a few days ago.
    Saturn rises very early in the morning, 3 am and we haven’t bothered to get a better look yet.

  5. StuPC says:

    I don’t suppose you recorded either of these lectures? We would love to see them!
    I bought Mel a telescope for her birthday years ago, and despite our best intentions it’s remained in the garage since we last moved house. 😦
    But now the girls are getting older and we’re trying to get them interested in science (with *some* success) it would be great if we could get the telescope out and pretend like we know what we’re doing with it…

    By the way, do you mean the rings of Saturn, rather than Jupiter? Jupiter does have a ring system but it’s so incredibly faint it wasn’t discovered until one of the Voyager probes spotted – I’m not sure it’s visible through *any* telescope! 😛

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