The thrill of a starry sky on a cloudless night can really get kids excited. We are lucky enough to live in a rural area, so the night sky can be quite spectacular at times. When our kids get a chance to be outside after dark, they really enjoy looking up at all those tiny twinkling points of light.
If your child wants to explore stars further, there are lots of fantastic images and information sources on the web to pique their interest, as well as apps they can play with to make stargazing — and learning about stars — even more fun. Let’s take a look at some of these great resources.
Exploring 100,000 stars
Here’s an excellent way to jump-start your kid’s interest in stars.
100,000 Stars is essentially a demo designed to show off the capabilities of web browsers today, but it’s also a spectacular intro to stars in its own right. (You’ll need to use a browser that supports WebGL — Chrome and Firefox should both do the job.)
When you open it, you’re shown a spinning 3-D view of over 100,000 nearby stars. You can click and drag with the mouse to spin the view around, and use your scroll wheel or trackpad — or the slider on the right — to zoom in and out:
As you zoom in, you discover 87 named stars that are in our immediate neighbourhood. Click on a star’s name to centre on the star and find out more about it, along with a 3D model that you can spin around:
To centre back onto our Sun, click the third little icon in the top left corner.
You can zoom right into the Sun and solar system:
Or you can zoom all the way out to see the entire Milky Way:
To take a quick tour of the main features in the Milky Way, click the Play icon in the top left corner.
This interactive website is a fantastic, beautiful way for kids (and grown-ups) to get a sense of the vast scale of space, and learn about some of our nearby stars.
Amazing star pictures
There are thousands of beautiful images of stars, nebulae and galaxies available on the web, which your kid will likely find fascinating. A great place to start is this list of top 100 images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Most of these images are super hi-res and absolutely stunning, and each image is accompanied by a detailed description of the object.
Here are some other great sources of fantastic star and space images:
- The HubbleSite Gallery has a huge collection of images, wallpapers and image tours, including this beautiful picture album with hi-res images and descriptions. For best results, press the little “two arrows” icon below the image to view the gallery in fullscreen mode. There’s also a video showing how Hubble pictures are made.
- Our Sun provides some of the best star photos, as you’d imagine. Space.com has this collection of 30 stunning solar images, while TIME’s website has some amazing close-up photos of solar flares, sunspots and eclipses.
- Black holes are often fascinating to kids. Here’s a collection of black hole images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory site, and a tour of black hole images courtesy of Space.com.
Here’s a nice bonus — a beautiful time-lapse video shot in Yosemite National Park in California. Most of it is in the daytime, but the first minute or so has some amazing shots of the stars at night:
Fascinating star facts
Kids love fascinating facts, and there are tons of facts about stars! To whet your appetite, here are 25 fascinating facts about stars (did you know that every single star has almost the exact same chemical composition?).
If you’re after more detail on stars, Space.com has a detailed article on stars and constellations that explains how stars form, evolve and die, and describes lots of different star types. There are a couple of quizzes for kids to try too. Solar System Quick has another in-depth article on the life cycles of stars, types of stars, and star facts.
Finally, if your kid asks lots of questions about stars (and space in general), then a great place to send them is Caltech’s Ask an Astronomer mini-site, which is packed with answers to all the questions kids tend to ask about stars, galaxies, black holes and spaceships. There are also links to some fun, informative videos that answer common questions.
Stargazing with SkySafari
The SkySafari iPhone/iPad app is a great way to explore the night sky with your kids. You can search for an object in the sky — for example, the Andromeda galaxy, Venus, or even satellites like the International Space Station — then point your device at the sky. The app uses the device’s motion tracking to guide you to the object in the sky with a little arrow. Here’s a quick intro:
It’s a universal app so it runs fine on iPhones and iPads, but I’d recommend using it on an iPad to get the most from it.
The app is packed with tons of info on each object, including scientific facts, historical notes, astrological info, and NASA images. Some other standout features include:
- Time Flow, that lets you see how the stars, planets and moons move in the sky (see the video above).
- Tonight’s Best, a list of the best stars to look at on any given night.
- SkyWeek, a list of notable sky events from Sky & Telescope Magazine, which is like having a virtual guide to the stars in the sky.
You could explore this app with your kids for hours. A great way to get your kids interested in astronomy!
(By the way, if your kids are interested in satellites then the companion app Satellite Safari is worth a look. Not only does it let you track all the man-made satellites around the Earth, but soon you’ll be able to use the app to take pictures of the Earth from a satellite, as well as send “tweets from space”!)
I hope this article has given you some ideas for how to nurture your child’s interest in the stars and astronomy. Do you know of any other great websites, videos or apps connected with stars and stargazing? If so, please let me know in the comments below!