Summer nights are warm enough to spend outside, which means it’s a perfect time to start conversations about the stars.
At first, the night sky can seem like a confusing mass of lights, but it doesn’t have to be that way, says Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics at NASA headquarters and an astronomer. “The most important thing to realize when we look up at the night sky,” he says, “is that we can actually understand what all those lights are that we’re seeing.”
Not only that, you don’t need a fancy telescope to get a great view of celestial bodies. With the naked eye, the average person can see several thousands of stars. But even the most basic pair of binoculars opens up a world far beyond—including clear views of comets, and the mountains on the moon.
Elementary age kids, Hertz says, can begin by figuring out the fundamentals of astronomy, and their place in it: “the basic layout of the universe, the fact that the earth goes around the sun, the fact that the rising and setting of stars and moon and sun are caused by the earth rotating, and not the sky rotating around the earth.”
Parents can start conversations with kids about the fact that people have been studying the sky for thousands of years, and that everything we know about it has a simple explanation that we can still observe today. For instance: quick, how do we know the earth is round? “The simplest thing,” Hertz says, “which takes no equipment, is to look at the eclipse of the moon. The edge of the earth’s shadow is curved. And anybody can see that if you look up during a lunar eclipse.”
Middle school kids, says Hertz, are at a good age to starting thinking about what the sky can tell us about the earth. Parents can start conversations with them about the fact that “the laws of science are the same everywhere,” and then help kids get curious about making comparisons between earth and space. “We can look at the mountains on the moon and the earth, and ask how are they the same, how are they different,” Hertz says.
The surface of the earth is “very new,” says Hertz. And because of our tectonics and weather, “it gets worked over all the time.” But the “moon preserves the history of the solar system, how the solar system was formed, and how the earth was formed.” Middle school is also a good time to start using the numerous smartphone apps that help “find your way around the sky,” says Hertz. And those apps can also provide a great opportunity to start conversations about what you’re seeing: “What do we think that is? Let’s see if we’re right.”
High school kids can start asking the bigger questions that are raised by gazing at the night sky. “The ultimate goal of science education is to have a society full of people who are smart enough to make informed choices,” Hertz says. One obvious policy choice to discuss when looking at the night sky: light pollution. Parents can talk with kids about how “much we miss about the beauty of the universe and the night sky because of light pollution,” Hertz says, but also about “the idea that you can think for yourself, and that policy decisions have implications.”
And the vastness of the universe also raises some truly vast questions: “I’m curious about whether life was a once, or an always,” says Hertz. In other words, is life so rare that it only occurred once? Or does it occur all over the universe? Scientists have been wondering this for generations, so families probably won’t arrive at an answer in a single evening. But it’s certainly an interesting conversation to have as you stare up at the night sky.