Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Unaided eye

In Comments the other day, Kara requested recommendations for a telescope and astronomy book for her 5-year-old daughter. It's a question I'm often asked. Perhaps my response is of general interest.

As for the telescope -- don't.

I've heard of an occasional kid who got a telescope for Christmas and was turned on to a lifetime of stargazing. But for the vast majority of children (or adults), the effect is just the opposite.

Even in the best of circumstances -- you have dark skies and know where to look -- the typical kid's $100 telescope will offer up not much more than the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn. That can be exciting, to be sure, but quickly pales. A more expensive scope -- say, $500-1000 -- can give a lifetime of service, but unless you know what to look for and how to find it the scope is useless. Most holiday telescopes end up at the back of a closet a few weeks after the New Year.

Kara strikes me as someone who is willing to invest her own time in helping her daughter develop her interest in astronomy. So I would say this: Put off the scope and spend a few years learning the naked-eye sky together. Follow the Sun and Moon, and understand the Moon's phases. Learn the major constellations and stars, and know how they change position with the hour of the night and the season of the year. Follow the motions of the five naked-eye planets, and make the connection with their orbital motions.

With this as an orientation, a world of excitement opens up, even without a telescope. Morning and evening stars. Young and old Moons. Eclipses. Conjunctions and occultations. Meteor showers. The occasional comet.

And best of all, when a good quality telescope comes your way you will know what to look for and where to find it. Moon. Planets. Binary stars. Star clusters. Nebulas. Galaxies.

How to get the info? There are lots of excellent sources. For those things that change from year to year, I would get Guy Ottewell's annual Astronomical Calendar. For the rest, I will of course recommend 365 Starry Nights and An Intimate Look At the Night Sky. These are all books for a parent and child to use together.

Your goal: To know your way around the night sky as intimately as your own backyard.