Nov. 29, 2010

Science Dad on When a Star Is Not a Star

by Vince Harriman

Click to enlarge images
International Space Station over Annapolis

Well, Science Dad learned as much about parenting as he did science on this last project, and I have only one thing to say: manage expectations. Night after night, at Beckett's suggestion, we read science books together. Lately we've been reading books about space -- deep space, space flight, and space exploration. We talk about the Space Shuttle launches and the astronauts that fly them. So when I proposed the 'when a star is not a star project,' he was excited. My idea was to look at all the sky objects that looked like stars but were not actually stars -- galaxies, nebulae, planets, meteors, even satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).

I asked him throughout the week to come up with theories for when a star is not a star -- theories about what we might be seeing in the night sky. The front of our house faces east, so most evenings lately we see Orion and Jupiter. We have often talked about M42 -- the Nebula that is the middle 'star' of Orion's sword. And we have often talked about the planets we see -- usually one of the first 'stars' to appear in the night sky. We also occasionally see Mars, Saturn and Venus.

Messier 42-The Orion Nebula

I found an incredibly cool twitter feed called @twisst -- if you follow their feed and have your location activated on Twitter, you will receive timely updates on when the International Space Station will be visible from your location. It gives you a time down to the second, the direction from which the ISS will approach your location, and the inclination at which it will be flying. You can also find the ISS locations here.

Not 24 hours after following the feed, my phone chirped to say the ISS would be very bright over Maryland the very next night! Beckett and I planned an outing, inviting a friend from the neighborhood, Storrie, a budding scientist herself. We drove to Beckett's school, set up the camera and tripod and waited. But since we had the time given to us down to the second, we didn't have to wait long! The ISS appeared right on schedule and we waved to the astronauts as they flew past us. It was a truly amazing convergence of wonder and technology, both on the ground and in the sky.

I think, however, I was far more interested than Beckett and Storrie. They are great friends and were running around having a great time. As soon as the ISS passed they asked, "Can we go back to being crazy?" and ran off playing. It still wasn't dark enough for stars to come out, so we all played before heading home. The Leonid meteor shower would not be out until much past their bedtime, and Andromeda -- a galaxy in the Andromeda Constellation that is far bigger than the Milky Way Galaxy and usually the farthest visible object (at 2.5 million light years away) -- hadn't quite made an appearance.

The Andromeda Galaxy

Beckett was disappointed not to see the Leonids -- so much so that despite almost nightly talks about life in the ISS and Space Shuttle, he was disappointed that the ISS was not a meteor. Plus the large number of airplanes that fly overhead took some of the drama away from the ISS. So be aware that even the most dramatic things visible in the night sky don't look like much more than 'stars' to young eyes.

The ISS will pass by us again next week, about an hour later so it should be much more dramatic. Sign up for the feed, get out and find some space objects that aren't stars and tell me about it! Give @twisst or one of the other locator apps a try and let me know if you can see the ISS.

Even the most general online search will yield lots of great resources for astronomy and space on the web. Check out the websites for NASA, Hubble, Cassini, the Mars Rovers. There are lots of great sites that will help you find planets, constellations, galaxies and other space bodies . Finding space objects has never been easier. If you manage to see the ISS, don't forget to wave as they go by!

Science Dad, AKA Vince Harriman, is a freelance writer living in Annapolis. His two sons, Beckett-5 1/2 and Rowan-2 1/2 ask him 'why' approximately 6,382 times a day.

About Vince Harriman

Science Dad, AKA Vince Harriman, is a freelance writer living in Annapolis. His two sons, Beckett-6 and Rowan-2 1/2 ask him 'why' approximately 6,542 times a day.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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