Science Through Backyard Astronomy

With so many of us home or not venturing far from home in these COVID-19 times, it’s a great time to do some local backyard astronomy. And you can contribute to valuable citizen science efforts by submitting your observations to GLOBE at Night. This year’s campaign extends through the entire calendar year, so take advantage of any clear skies, do some observing, and be included in this study of light pollution worldwide!

As of July 2020, citizen scientists from around the world have contributed 20,442 night sky observations to help quantify light pollution around the world. Participating is simple: go outside about one hour after sunset and locate the constellation(s) identified for that month.

August: Cygnus, Hercules
September: Cygnus
October: Cygnus, Pegasus
November: Pegasus, Perseus
December: Perseus

(For star-hunting tips as well as Southern Hemisphere constellations, view the GLOBE at Night website.)

View of Cygnus the Swan in the northern sky, Creative Commons image from Till Credner.

Once you’ve found the constellation in the sky, compare your observation with a brightness magnitude chart, and report your finding along with your latitude and longitude on the website. You can look at the GLOBE at Night results to see how the light pollution of your skies compares with that in other locations around the world.

This year’s observing period continues through December, so visit the website to learn more, get out there and marvel at the stars, and submit your observation to be counted and contribute to learning more about light pollution, both locally and globally.

Flying by Mercury

New 2009 images of the planet Mercury
New 2009 images of the planet Mercury. Photo credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Left: This unnamed impact basin, with outer diameter approximately 260 km (160 mi), was seen for the first time on September 29, 2009, during MESSENGER’s third flyby of Mercury. Right: An unnamed crater viewed at close range for the first time on September 29, 2009, during MESSENGER’s third flyby of Mercury. The crater displays an arc-shaped depression known as a pit crater on its floor.

“Participated in collecting ground-breaking views of the last of the eight planets in the solar system to be fully seen.”

Not a bad line for a resume, especially if you are still a 6th grader.

Yesterday, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft flew by the planet Mercury on its way to establishing orbit around the nearest planet to the Sun in 2011.

The flyby’s ground support on Earth included a team of science educators working hand-in-hand with mission scientists. The science educators were onboard to communicate the findings to classrooms all across the U.S. and give students the opportunity to join in the adventure.

Students were invited to follow updates, ask questions, and participate in live conversations about the preliminary images in real-time as the data were streamed here to Earth. Such exciting opportunities for students to be on the cutting edge of learning about another part of our solar system don’t come along often. It’s also a chance for them to see how scientists approach the exploration process and go about interpreting data. The discussion will continue for a couple more days, so check it out. You can also get your own views of first-ever seen features of Mercury on the mission’s website.

A Magic Kayak Ride


Come along with me little girl, on a magic carpet, er, kayak ride…or really, in this case perhaps you should just say no.

This note recently came from a friend of mine:  “The other day, as we were driving, Amelia started asking about black holes.  She was incredibly scared of them.  She asked me if a person was in a kayak could they really fall into a black hole!” What?!

Rewind to about two years earlier, when her daughter was four years old. We had gone together to a show on black holes at a planetarium. The show was well done in many ways, but in a dramatic scene demonstrating the “place from which nothing escapes, not even light”, a kayaker paddling along through space becomes pulled into the black hole without any way out. Because kayakers paddle through space all the time, didn’t you know?

The planetarium show was probably not designed for someone of age four. But this particularly precocious four-year-old saw it, and two years later remembered the part about the kayak being pulled into the black hole vividly enough to ask questions about it. Inquiry—a fine thing! And in this case, the inquiry led to the ability to confront the misconceptions head on. My friend explained that black holes are very far away out in space and that kayaks here on Earth won’t get sucked in, that the scene was just trying to show how the black hole sucks stuff in. Her precocious now-six-year-old replied, “well, that was really silly of them to show people in boats getting sucked in!” Ah yes, silly indeed.

It’s a good reminder for those of us working in science or education or at the interface of the two that we need to be very careful about what we present. It’s much more difficult to correct a misconception that has already been “learned”, and often difficult to pinpoint what the misconception even is.  It’s obvious that we need to plan carefully and teach things correctly and accessibly from the start. It can be tough though, so we should also watch for those times when a smart student will call us out and say, “well, that was really silly.” Indeed.