Stargazing with Children

How much do your kids know about the stars and the planets? Reading about the wondrous solar system at school ignites the imagination but not as much as looking directly at the night sky itself. Interest in stargazing in the UK is rocketing with some local councils even turning off street lighting in some areas to minimise light pollution and promote darker skies.

With the BBC focusing on stargazing this week, here’s a quick guide to what to look out for in the skies at this time of year.

stars Star Gazing

Tips for Parents

Stargazing is a brilliant way to get your children excited about the universe we live in. An evening stargazing is both educational and fun – and even better, it’s free!

It’s easy to see the stars from your back garden but for the best stargazing location, head to a park or site that’s as far away from town lights as possible. With the dark winter evenings drawing in early, it’s manageable to get in a trip to the park before bedtime.

Stargazing enthusiasts can spend loads of time and energy on their equipment, but a standard pair of binoculars really does an effective job and many constellations and stars can even be seen with the naked eye. If you do have a telescope or large binoculars, don’t forget the tripod to hold them steady.

Equipment checklist:

• Wrap up warm, take gloves, hat and scarf.

• A red-light torch

• Notepad and pen

• Binoculars (or telescope if you can get your hands on one)

• Starchart guide

• Warm drink

• Blanket and/or fold away chair

Why now?

There are some fascinating skies in January, with both the Sirius star and The Milky Way shining brightly and the Orion constellation clear to see. Going into February The Winter Triangle is visible, with the three points at the Sirius star, the orange-red Betelguese star and the Procyon star.

What can you see now?

stars Forest Stargazing

In January look out for these five constellations:

1. Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) has been used by sailors since ancient times to locate the fixed-point Pole Star and navigate home.

2. Leo (the lion) is it a lion, as the Greeks decided? Or is it K9 from Doctor Who?

3. Cassiopeia (the queen of Aethiopia) is one of the easiest constellations to locate and looks like a huge W, almost directly overhead.

4. Cepheus (the king of Aethiopia) is one of 48 constellations identified by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy. Imagine a simple drawing of a house, complete with roof.

5. Orion (the hunter), with belt and sword, is perhaps the most famous constellation – and one of the few that actually bears some slight resemblance to its namesake.

Forest Holidays has free downloadable stargazing charts, with different constellations to spot each month. Each guide details the equipment you’ll need to get started, your first five constellations to spot and some fascinating facts for young astronomers. Simply click on the relevant monthly link and print out the PDF for your chosen star guide.

stars Stargazing January

Best places to stargaze?

To fully experience the delights of our universe in all its glory, you need to find a truly dark location away from the glow of cities and towns. Find out more about the top three places in the UK for stargazing:

1. Sussex Downs, England

As well as dark skies, the Sussex South Downs has its own Planetarium for astronomy lovers to see the stars. One of the best locations in the area to stargaze is Black Down, the highest point on the South Downs. There is exciting nocturnal wildlife to keep children entertained too, with Pippestrelle bats roosting in the area.

2. Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland

With low light pollution, Scotland is one of the best places to get a crystal clear look at the stars. Galloway Forest Park has been awarded Dark Sky Park status – meaning the park has been recognised for protecting the night sky with low light pollution and thriving nocturnal wildlife. There are only seven Gold standard Dark Sky Parks in the world and the one at Galloway is the first in the UK. With a Sky Quality Meter score of 21-23.6 out of 25 it’s as near to total darkness as you can get – the perfect conditions for looking at stars.

3. Exmoor National Park, Somerset, England

Classified as a Dark Sky Reserve, Exmoor has some of the darkest skies in England and gentle weather too, making it a top choice for stargazers. The favourite spots for star seekers are Holdstone Hill, Webbers Post and Wimbleball Lake. The skies are so clear in Exmoor that you can see a great number of dazzling astronomical sights without any special equipment, although you can see a great deal more beautiful stars with binoculars, or if you’re very keen a telescope.

Tune into BBC2’s Stargazing LIVE on Thursday 9th January – the first episode of the forth series. For younger children, check out the CBeebies Stargazing mini-series running 6th-10th January at 5.30pm.
Happy stargazing!

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