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Getting Kids Started In Astonomy? 26

ajlaw asks: "My five-year-old daughter has expressed an interest in the solar system and the stars...she even enjoys watching that NASA channel quite a bit. If I wanted to purchase a decent telescope for us to start looking at some of the planets or the new space station, can you recommend a decent way to get started? Are there any good books or Web sites out there that would help us to learn when to view different objects out there from my location (northern NJ, USA)?"
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Getting Kids Started In Astonomy?

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  • It should be. I have been on several newsgroup sites like this one which automatically spell check documents for you with little or no difficulty. I wish Slashdot would implement this feature as so many people seem to get so upset about it.
  • by Chacham ( 981 )

    I don't remember what it was, but years ago they had cards with various constellations, and when to look for what, with explanations and all that. It was really nice for me. I wish I could remember where it was from. They sent a free sample but wanted you to buy more.

  • This site [] has some stuff to show you a map of the stars based on observing point and day.

    Also, regarding telescope, you might find using binoculars from the moon and space station a good start. I found the jump in orders of magnification a bit abstract when I was a kid.

  • by Tumbleweed ( 3706 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @08:41AM (#577339)
    They've got some nice beginner scopes now that have a computerized motor attached that has an astronomical database attached - you can just tell it what object to point it. Can't get any simpler than that. Also, the optical quality of the scopes are quite nice from what I've read. They're also small enough to carry around, so you can go out into the country, away from urban light pollution and air pollution, and get a real clear view.

    The models are in the ETX-60, 70, 90, and 125 lines, with the 'Autostar Computer Controller'.

    Pretty sweet. Check them out at [].
  • Also, regarding telescope, you might find using binoculars from the moon and space station a good start.

    Wow, that's dedication, for a new starter.

    Serious point: binoculars are easier to hold steady than telescopes, (especially refracting 'scopes) and kids don't want the inconvenience of having to use tripods all the time.

    Also, binoculars stop you from the old problem of closing the eye not peering down the telescope and all the associated ills that brings.

  • take her to the stellafane convention put on by the springfield telescope makers. i go every year and every year i learn more and more. check them out ( [])
  • If you decide to get a telescope, don't get one of those no-name brands at Sears, JCPenney etc! The optics aren't good but the mainly the tripods are horrible. Get a good brand like Meade or Celestron. (See The ETX series by Meade is good. (I actually saw these on sale at That's like finding a Trek bicycle instead of an overweight, gaudy Huffy.) Also, don't forget about a good pair of binoculars. For the moon, they're great.
  • by Mr T ( 21709 ) on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @10:35AM (#577343) Homepage
    Most good sized cities have them. They often do laser shows for the adults to enjoy after a few night caps... ;)

    I've generally enjoyed planetarium shows, good astronomers giving them can often tie a lot of things together, anthropology and all sort of cool stuff have a lot to do with stars.

  • Get a decent pair of binos, 7x35, 10x50 or so and head out of town!

    Any mountain tops nearby that are out of sight of the local metropolitan skyglow? Go there and just look up. The beauty of the night sky is completely lost in the pollution of the cities.

    Easy targets:

    Jupiter: blue color, cloud bands, moons
    Saturn: yellow! plus the rings
    Mars: a red dot
    Venus: bright, easy, changes shape as weeks go by.

    Orion: easy to identify, good myth, good stuff to see as you get more/better gear.

    Finally, get a usnet reader and subsribe to sci.astro.amateur


    Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.
  • H. A. Rey, the author of the _Curious George_ books, wrote two books on astronomy entitled _The Stars: A New Way to See Them_ and _Find the Constellations_. They're a great way for a beginning stargazer of any age to become acquainted with the layout of the stars. By redrawing the lines connecting the stars, Rey actually makes the constellations look like what they're named after. You'll have to pick up the books to really understand, but trust me, they're great.
  • First off, I just wanted to say congrats on encouraging your child to explore! That's always nice to see. :)

    Some of the following points have been alluded to or stated in previous posts, but as the former 3 time prez of my university's astronomy club I can't help but add my $0.02. ;)

    Because your daughter is only five years old, you shouldn't go "whole hog" right from day one. In terms of equipment, you've got 3 choices (listed in ascending order of size, complexity, and expense):
    1. Naked-eye observing (more rewarding than many people realize - especially those who haven't experienced country skies - if you can get to a nice, open area that's as far away from light pollution as possible). Check out the Internation Dark Sky Association [] for more information about "light pollution".

    2. Buy a good pair of binoculars. Head to your library and quickly glance at the covers of the last two or three years of two magazines: "Astronomy" [] and "Sky and Telescope" []. It's guaranteed you'll see a review mentioned on the cover for binoculars that are especially well-suited for astronomy. Both magazines have typically done reviews of binoculars every few years.

    3. If you've got the money to take a bit more of a risk (in case your daughter's interest fades in a year or two), then yes, consider buying a telescope. But as others have mentioned, stay away from "department store" telescopes (e.g. "Tasco" brand, etc.). A frequent indicator of an inferior telescope is one that tries to dazzle you with how much it magnifies things. It's often hard for beginners to understand, but this point is crucial for first time telescope buyers: magnification is not what you should be concerned about when buying a telescope! Any scope can be made to magnify any amount, just by changing the eyepiece. The critical things include the scope's ability to gather light (generally, the bigger the aperture the better), the tripod (don't consider this to be minor!), optical quality, overall construction, and so on.
    The other suggestions about getting some good beginner's books on the subject and visiting planetariums are all excellent! Do those things regardless of which option you choose above.

    I could go on and on. It's hard to analyze a request like this and come up with the perfect recommendation. That's why I'd also really recommend you try and find a good amateur astronomy club in your region. Try searching the web for starters. Or try phoning local universities and colleges to see if you can find someone in a physics department who knows of a contact name. Don't get discouraged if you don't find anyone helpful the first day. Astronomy clubs can be hard to find - but trust me, they're out there. :)

    If you can make it to one evening with a good local club, you'll find yourself amongst a horde of people all willing to offer lots of advice (like me :) ). The great thing about that situation is they'll be able to ask you questions real-time about your situation and will be able to give you much better "custom-tailored" advice based on the answers you give.

    If you can't manage that, I'd recommend finding some of those beginner's books. I'd also strongly suggest (regardless of how things go) that you spend the next few months reading through "Astronomy" [] and/or "Sky and Telescope" [] magazines. Get a subscription if you can, or look for them at your local library. Both are excellent magazines, and they cycle every year or so through reviews of binoculars (as mentioned), astronomy software, books, telescopes, and - perhaps most useful in your case - will often write really excellent articles about what people should consider when they or a child is expressing some interest in astronomy. There's a brief such article on the "Astronomy" magazine website right here []. Even if you don't happen to luck out and find one of those articles over the next few months, it's guaranteed that useful pointers will be mentioned in other general articles, letters to the editor, etc. Many people are amazed to find an entire hidden world devoted to amateur astronomy when they look through those magazines for the first time. I know I was - that's how I got started in all of this. And it led to some of the most priceless experiences in my life. :)

    Most of all, have fun. Helping your child learn about something like this is awesome, and many people who've done the same will tell you it quickly becomes a wonderful learning experience for all parties involved. :)
  • There's not a chance that binoculars are better than telescopes. You have to hold binoculars with your own hands, Telescopes come on tripods, or some sort of stand. you don't even have to touch the telescope to look through it. As a kid my arms were weak enough, that I couldn't keep binoculars steady, they were almost useless.
  • If you're *really* serious about this, move as far away from a big city as possible. You want the sky to be *dark* at night. Nothing makes the sky look cooler at night than it being dark. You don't even need a telescope or binoculars for it to look cool!

    Then buy the kid a telescope, prefereably a good one. Provide some instruction. Point the telescope at Saturn -- that's always a cool demonstration.

    If you've got a computer and the kid knows how to use it, get a program like xephem (free!) that draws the night sky and helps them find neat stuff like the planets. Or buy one of the new telescopes with a built in computer that does this for them. I guess you could always look this stuff up in books, but kids may not go for that, at least not at first.

    From then on, if the kid is interested, they'll take over. If they're not interested, I'm not sure if you can make them interested. (ask me in a few years -- my daughter will be born in April, and then I can try being a parent too!)

  • Heh. We need more young(er) people interested in astronomy. At my high school, the people enrolled in the astronomy class are typically jocks who need the passing grade to meet the science requirement, but the teacher(who also happens to be my US FIRST and BEST sponser and good friend) is truly 100% enthusastic about it. Oddly the people who are trully interested arent even in the class, but in the after-school astronomy club. Oh well.
  • I disagree with giving a beginner a computerized motor. Part of the fun is learning where things are and how to find stuff.

    Giver 'er binoculars and a star chart. After that, maybe a reflector on a Dob.

  • Thank you all for your great advice and comments!!!!!
  • for christmas one year, i guess when i was about 10 or so, my parent's (well, it was still santa back then), got me one of those dinky tasco scopes.
    now, it was next to impossible to point it where i wanted to, b/c it was the most poorly made piece of garbage, but one night my dad managed to get it aimed at jupiter.
    i still regard that as one of the greatest things i had experienced - we were able to see the swirls, and the red spot, and even a few of its moons (or their shadows).
    it really was magical, and awe-inspireing, and i still have such vivid memories of that day, 15 years later.
  • This point cannot be stressed enough. If you get a telescope with poor optics, or a wobbly tripod, the frustrating experience of continually getting poor or wobbly images can ruin a child's interest in astronomy (as it nearly did to me many years ago...but I stuck with it ;-) ). The "good" telescopes typically start at around the $400 range, and quickly get more expensive from there. Celestron (, Orion ( and Meade ( all make excellent 'scopes, and the former two have fairly well-written telescope guides on their web pages. Also, don't underestimate the value of a good pair of binoculars; they're not just for viewing the Moon. You can see the moons of Jupiter, Saturn's rings (barely!), and some deep sky objects such as the Orion nebula, the Great Galaxy of Andromeda, many double star and clusters, etc. in a decent pair of binoculars on a clear dark night. Last and simplest, check your local bookstore for a good children's book on Astronomy. I'm not sure if it's still available, but my first was Herbert S. Zim's Stars and Planets. Good Luck!
  • There are a number of amateur astronomy clubs in New Jersey. Where in northern NJ are you?

  • Kinda reminds me of my first astronomy class. I hadn't even made it to my freshman year of high school and I had 4 credits of Astronomy from the local community college.

    Many people have given good advice above. I'll mainly just second their comments. The order I'd proceed in is.

    First item, a good beginners star atlas.

    Second item, warm clothing.

    Third item, many nights in the country just learning the stars and constelations.

    After that go and get a good pair of binoculars or a good telescope.

    Last, but not least. As your doughter is so young, you will need to be there as a source of infromation. You'll need to learn alot to help guide her in the early years.

    Now for some Links. The first two have good beginners information. Some of the links below may be dead. I just quick cut and pasted them from the astronomy section of my Interesting Places [] page.

  • by maggard ( 5579 ) <> on Wednesday December 06, 2000 @03:03PM (#577356) Homepage Journal
    Best gift for a youngster getting started in astronomy: Your time (actually it's the best gift - period.)

    Best tools? Warm clothing, a pair of binoculars (ask if you can borrow some friend or relatives the first few times out) and enthusiasm. One of the spinny-sky-maps (square of cardboard holding a rotatable circular sky map, adjust it to show tonight's sky by date & time) is nice to have too at the beginning.

    Show you daughter the constellations then learn where their names come from, the stories behind those characters. These make great bedtime stories even if you're paraphrasing from a 'grown-up book' and it wows kids to connect them to the outside. Don't forget there are other traditions: Native American sky stories are wonderful.

    Consider taking your daughter on a trip to a Planetarium (ok - I'm biased here - volunteered for one for 8 years.) Any decent science education center will have some astronomy exhibits. Make 'catching the mistakes' on TV shows & movies a sport with your daughter.

    Since she's young there won't be a lot of late night viewing but you can make it a special treat. A trip out into the countryside, a good warm meal, then an half-hour with Mom & Dad out in a field looking at the stars; *her* time. Bring a big blanket & thermos of hot cocoa so you all can huddle up while watching. If she has some other little friends of a similar bent invite them & their parents for a special "Kid's Star Party".

    Other gear: DON'T go buying an expensive telescope the first time out, particularly a refractor. Binoculars are preferable the first few times and can be used for other hobbies as she grows. If her interest remains consider getting her a telescope later on but even then a reflector is usually a better deal & much more portable. Books are *always* a good investment, check your local library & kids book store.

    Finally, connect astronomy into other things in her life. The light from stars can be connected to the light from cut crystal which can be connected to an inexpensive prism you get for her. Compare driving to a market to driving to the Moon, or to Mars. Discuss various weights in various places, discuss things like why the ISS stays up, etc. Check some kids science books for simple science projects to do on a rainy day.

    Last, with the ISS solar panels up it's now *much* more visible. Consider checking a web site for it's visible times from your area & see if you two can spot it.

  • The "good" telescopes typically start at around the $400 range, and quickly get more expensive from there.

    Just remember that the heavier the telescope the better the tripod you will need. It's better to have a poor telescope with a good tripod than a great telescope with a mediocre tripod.

    Just realize that you can focus on a steady fuzzy image better than you can focus on a bouncy clear one. :-)

  • Wow - Herbert S. Zim. I spent a summer at the Museum of Science in Boston when I was 16 cataloguing books and Zim's were easily some of the most popular ("Z65" under their unusual cataloguing system.) Zim's are always good but there are undoubtably newer ones out there geared for kids too. Check your local library's Children's Librarian or call a school for ideas.
  • Isn't it possible to spell check (at least) the titles of your articles?
  • Many people have suggested Meade telescopes and at least one person has suggested their auto-pointing scopes. As an amateur astronomer for over 25 years, I have owned (and built) both good and bad telescopes. The Meade telescopes that you find at Walmart are just imported, undersized, rickety junk. Meade is willing to put their name on junk if they make a profit doing it. For that reason, I will not buy their products -- even those that are good.

    Some basic info:

    1. The most important two qualities are the light gathering (pi-r-squared) and the sturdiness of the mount. A small (under 3") telescope is almost useless for astronomy (except seeing the moon). A telescope that vibrates and shakes in the calmest breeze is also worthless.

    2. Magnification is unimportant. I have an 8" Celestron and rarely exceed 100x. The maximum magnification (Dawes' Limit) is 50x per inch of aperture. Therefore, a 4" scope can use no more than 200x. More magnification will result in a blurry, dim image.

    3. If the scope uses .965" eyepieces, it is junk. Any "real" telescope uses 1.25" or 2" eyepieces. The .965" are a Japanese standard that is popular on poor-quality department store scopes.

    4. Computer pointed and guided scopes are absolutely the wrong thing to get for a beginner. Much of the joy of astronomy is learning the night sky and discovering, through your own skill, what can be seen. She may decide that she wants a computer pointed scope in the future, but spend your money on aperture, mount, and quality eyepieces.

    5. I strongly recommend the book Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer's Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories, 2nd Edition. This book is a must-read and will help assure that the telescope you buy is the best choice possible.

    6. Do not buy the telescope at a department store. Camera stores are not much better. I recommend buying from a telescope store. Orion is one of the largest and you can reach their website at

    If I can be of help, please do not hesitate to write me at fbm{at}techie{dot}com.

    -- Fred Maxwell --

  • I can certainly recommend a most excellent book about astronomy written for young people. It is called The Stars by H. A. Rey, the author of the Curious George books. The book explains the constellations better than any book I've seen. It has nice introductory chapters explaining the orbits of the moon and planets.

    I used this book as a child and really got alot out of it.

    Oh, you also might want to look for a local star party, before buying a scope. You may have a local Astronomy club or a planetarium nearby that hosts a monthly star party for the public. This would give you a chance to look through some scopes before purchasing.

"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." -- Will Rogers