Resources for Studying Astronomy

Some observations and advice on stargazing, planet-finding, sun-tracking, and other resources for studying astronomy.

Discovering distant galaxies and other objects in “deep space” is an advanced undertaking, requiring special tools of observation and analysis. But to learn about our own local neighborhood in outer space you only need to do one thing: go outdoors and look up. Look into outer space and watch what's there. To learn about outer space in a first-handed and personal way, there is one primary source of evidence that I think a teacher should rely upon above all else in an elementary classroom: your own sky! Just pay attention to what's going on up there, and see if you can discover the patterns. You don't even need a telescope. The Ancient Greeks worked out several more-or-less accurate rough models of our neighborhood in space, and they lived 1500 years before the telescope was invented.

Ok, that's oversimplifying the situation a little bit. To thoroughly gather all of the evidence that we would need in a modern classroom to prove the nature of the solar system would require too many years and too much traveling. The Ancient Greeks were able to combine their own observations and measurements with hundreds of years of recorded observations from the civilizations that came before them. They also had the reports of travelers to nearby parts of the world, who reported that the sky looked and behaved a little differently in different lands. But we can do something similar in a modern classroom. We can make our own observations as much as possible, and then we can supplement our own evidence with the photos, atlases, almanacs, records (and predictions) given to us by other people. Maybe we can't gather all of the evidence ourselves, but we can at least look it over before we jump to any conclusions.

Charts and Atlases

I recommend my own constellation worksheets for learning to recognize the constellations. I tried to make these worksheets resemble the actual sky as much as possible, and students can practice finding recognizable and memorable shapes in the stars by drawing on the paper. When I was teaching the constellations, I would use a digital projector to shine an image of the worksheet onto a whiteboard, and the students would follow along with me as I discussed the various stars and constellations and they would copy my marks as I drew them on the board. It was the next best thing to being able to draw on the night sky, and the students always seemed to enjoy it. (I currently offer a video course for sale in which I walk through several of these worksheets, although I intend to wrap that course into my broader “content library” when that library becomes available.) For aggregating the constellations into a complete “map of outer space,” I can offer paper celestial spheres, and double-sided paper planispheres.

For a more comprehensive, professional “atlas” of every constellation in the entire night sky, there are several options, both print and digital. You may be able to find a celestial atlas with large printed maps in the reference section of your local library. There are also a number of digital atlases and constellation guides available, but if you want an electronic atlas I think you probably won't need to look any farther than Stellarium. They offer an online version, a desktop version and a mobile version, and the mobile version can show you exactly which part of space your camera is pointing at in real time. The graphics are beautiful, and all versions are free.

Another interesting option for children would be the books of H.A. Rey, the author of the “Curious George” books. He also wrote a couple of books on constellations, and I generally recommend them. I think they are charming and well-written. However, his goal was a little different from mine. At some point in history, professional astronomers decided that they needed a systematic, mathematical map of the entire celestial sphere. So they divided the sphere into 88 patches or “official constellations,” without gaps or overlaps. Some of the traditional constellations were too large, so they cut them up. They also had to fill in some of the dark gaps by defining some new “modern” constellations, like Telescopium and Camelopardalis. These modern constellations are usually tiny, dim, and uninteresting to everyone except professional astronomers. H.A. Rey, like most modern authors, wanted to help children learn to recognize these “official” constellations in the night sky. My goal is more basic. I just want kids to learn to recognize the brightest “landmarks” in the night sky, and to find their way around on a map of outer space. I don't care as much about the “official” constellations. As one example, the original constellation of Scorpius was huge, so the stellar cartographers cut off Scorpius' claws and gave them to Libra. I prefer to let Scorpius keep his claws … but this means that my version of Scorpius is different from the “official” constellation.

I also recommend my own moon maps for casually learning to recognize the face of the moon in the sky. Once you have your bearings on the lunar surface, so to speak, then you can consult a professional lunar atlas if you like, online or in a library. You may be able to find a lunar atlas in your local library, with big, beautiful photographs of the lunar surface. It will probably be next to the celestial atlas. You can also easily find online lunar atlases. Google has one. So does the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Almanacs and Upcoming Events

With other sciences, you can often explore what you want, when you want. With astronomy, if you want to study it in a first-handed way, you need to take advantage of events as they happen. You need to observe planets over the sunset when they are there, the best constellations to study will be the ones currently in your evening sky, you will probably want to study the face of the moon at the time of a full moon, and so on. Astronomy is much more “opportunistic” than other sciences. But how is a teacher or a parent to know where the planets currently are, or what events are coming up in the sky? This is where an almanac comes in handy. I have my own rudimentary astronomy almanac on this website, and you can find further discussion of this issue there.