We wandered into this week with our eyes – albeit protected eyes – focused to the sky. Monday’s eclipse was a sight to behold. Equally intriguing, I believe, is the fact that scientists could pinpoint exactly when and where the eclipse would take place, as well as the percentage and length of totality. It’s beyond amazing that science has the tools, intellect and technology to uncover so many of the secrets of our solar system.
A few of my colleagues made pinhole projectors using a cereal box. It took me back to first grade, when we experienced a solar eclipse in North America. I envied the third graders who got to make pinhole projectors. Those of us who were too young had to keep our backs to the sun and wait for the darkened skies to come over us.
My fascination with the skies above probably dates back to July 20, 1969, when my siblings and I stood outside with our Dad staring up to the moon, hoping to see Apollo 11. My fascination for space has only grown with time. I gained the title of “nerd” this week when I bragged to my colleagues that the first note I wrote last fall when my 2017 planner arrived was “August 21 – Solar Eclipse.” I can’t find a constellation to save my life, but I love watching for shooting stars and satellites. Watching a sunrise or sunset is almost magical.
Monday’s eclipse gave many local school children the otherworldly experience of a solar eclipse. That is, the eeriness of darkened skies and cooler temperatures in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe they even heard some crickets chirping. Reading about a solar eclipse in a text book is important; making a Styrofoam solar system for a science project is fun. Seeing the moon cross in front of the sun with your own two eyes, though, brings a whole new level of fascination.
Now is a great opportunity for parents to take advantage of the newness of the eclipse to capture their children’s ongoing interest in our solar system!
Our next total solar eclipse is April 8, 2024. Scientists tell us that it will last twice as long as what we experienced on Monday, so it is sure to be an exciting event. Meanwhile, lunar eclipses are equally fascinating, and our next one is just around the corner on Jan. 31, 2018. A lunar eclipse happens when the moon passes behind the Earth into its shadow. Just before dawn, the moon will have a reddish hue. Many middle and high schoolers will just be arriving at school at the peak viewing time, and they’ll be able to witness the lunar eclipse without any eye protection.
Another way to enjoy space is to visit Lake Michigan at sunset. It’s easy to take for granted what is right in our back yard, but we are so blessed to have this natural marvel. My family often visits the New Buffalo harbor because we can feed the ducks and geese their favorite cracked corn and oatmeal (to the best of our knowledge, there isn’t an ordinance against feeding water fowl.) The harbor is typically lined with many families who come to enjoy the sunset. Just as the sun dips out of sight, everyone claps in celebration of another day. You have to be there to truly appreciate that special moment and sense of community. Take your family up there to experience it. We typically arrive at 7 p.m. when the beach lot is open without charge. If you don’t mind walking, you can usually find parking on a side street if you wish to arrive before 7 p.m.
If you want to do something really special with your children, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago makes astronomy education fun. Basic admission for one adult and one child (combined) is $20, and add-ons allow you to experience some of the special features of the museum.
Really, you don’t have to travel far or spend money to spark your child’s interest in space. Maybe you have a family member or friend who lives in the country where there aren’t any artificial lights. Take a blanket and some munchies and enjoy the night sky. Pick out the Big Dipper, Venus and the North Star and chart the constellations. Maybe you’ll get lucky and be able to see a passing satellite or make a wish on a shooting star. Every year, between mid-July and the end of August, the Perseids meteor shower takes place, and is typically best viewed right before dawn when the sky is darkest. Remember that patience is a virtue when you’re watching for shooting stars.
If you have a smart phone, you can download a sky watching app. (Read the reviews and watch pricing, as some apps are free while others have a nominal cost.) You can also find handheld children’s telescopes for less than $25.
NASA makes it easy for us to know what is going on in the world of space. Check out NASA’s eclipse website at https://ecliipsegsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html. NASA also has a Kids Club with a wealth of information and activities geared toward children under the Education tab on the nasa.gov website. Your child’s curiosity in the eclipse helps him or her see the connection between our community and the world above us.
— Pamela Henderson is the CFP at Dunebrook