Summer Science Fun: Shooting Star Party

Photo Courtesy © Grand Canyon National Park, licensed by CC BY 2.0

Summer nights are more than ideal for heading outside to stargaze. Every summer, the night sky lights up with the Perseids meteor shower, a perfect opportunity to watch the stars. This year promises one of the best shows yet, with the peak night predicted for August 13 paired with a new moon.

If you’ve ever wanted to teach your kids about the night sky, there’s no better time! Grab the kids and head out into the cool night to learn about constellations and shooting stars for some of the best science fun the summer has to offer.

The Perseids

Just what are the Perseids? Your kids probably already know that they’re not actually shooting stars, but did you know the debris comes from a comet in orbit around the sun? Here’s the scoop from the American Meteor Society:

Every year, the dust particles from the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet pass the Earth orbit and burn in our atmosphere (about 70 miles / 110km above us) from mid-July to the end of August. The meteors are in fact glowing columns of air resulting from the burn of these particles.

The meteor shower is called the Perseids because they seem to be coming from the constellation Perseus, but you’ll probably spot them flying all over the night sky.

If you want to dazzle the kids by showing them just where Perseus is located overhead, or you want to learn about the constellations together, start with learning about constellations in the daytime to get ready for the star party.

Constellations

Thanks to the wonderfully informational web site SkyMaps.com, you can find this month’s map for the sky in the Northern Hemisphere quickly and easily.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Your kids might be daunted by the amount of constellations included in the map, so select a few to learn to start. You can’t go wrong with the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, and if you can spot the distinctive W-shape of Cassiopeia, you’re pretty close to the Perseids radiant point. Hand your kids this Constellation Map Dot-to-Dot worksheet to get them familiar with those constellations beforehand.

Star Party!

When it’s finally dark, grab some supplies and get ready to head out. You’ll need:

  • Blankets and lawn chairs
  • Warm clothes if it’s cool out
  • Flashlights with red lenses (we like to use a pink glow stick)
  • Star map (and Constellation Map Dot-to-Dot)
  • Notebook and pencil (optional)

You can also use a fantastic app like Star Walk Kids in place of a map, but remember to turn the screen brightness way down!

We like to draw the constellations we can identify to help us remember what we saw (and keep the kids occupied if needed).

Photo: Kelly Knox
My Constellation Book! Photo: Kelly Knox

Look to the northeast to find Perseus and perhaps catch a shooting star. You probably won’t be out long with the kids in tow, since everyone will tire quickly, but you should be able to spot more than a few meteors on the night and early morning of August 13. Have fun!

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Kelly Knox is a freelance writer in Seattle, WA, where she contributes to local parenting magazines. She also writes for StarWars.com, Geek & Sundry, Forever Young Adult, and more. You can find crafts and art projects for geeky families at her blog The St{art} Button.