Dear Dr. Debbie,
As the pandemic wears on, time has lost its meaning. Bedtimes at our house have gotten later and later.
One positive result is that our children, ages 7, 9, and 12, are getting very interested in astronomy. Normally (a hazy reference to time before COVID-19) summer activities would have kept us on a tight schedule with children and parents exhausted by appropriate bedtimes. What is the value of steady sleep patterns during a pandemic?
Screen time . . . bedtime . . . incubation time . . . family time . . . unprecedented time . . . Yes, time is being defined in new ways at the hands of this novel coronavirus. (My favorite is the new description of commuting time, which makes “travelling” to get to a meeting or to teach a class as quick as going from one room in my house to another!)
Regular bedtimes help our bodies keep to the earth’s rhythms of daylight and darkness. Eons of evolution have worked with the daily and seasonal patterns of our home planet to assure optimal health. Not only is an adequate amount of sleep important for energy, mental sharpness, and a good mood, but for the typical human, habitually timed sleep helps the immune system, cardiovascular health, cancer prevention, and emotional control.
That being said, these are most unusual times. Late night sky watching is a fantastic family hobby. Binoculars or a telescope would be a good investment, but aren’t really needed for beginning astronomers.
This summer is a great time to spot Jupiter and Saturn; these two planets are much further away from the sun than the earth. They shine brightly from the east after dark this month. Mars, our nearest neighboring planet, follows, rising close to midnight with its defining redness. We have a “new” moon this week, (more about that later) which means less moonlight and a better view of these faraway objects. Any early risers in your family can look for Mercury just before dawn.
The internet is full of information about what to watch for and when. You can add details about each planet from internet searches or from books requested from the library. Curbside library pickup is still in effect.
Comet NEOWISE and other Space Bits
This week promises to give the best views of a comet called NEOWISE which was only discovered late last March from a satellite space observatory. The acronym is the name of the satellite and stands for Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The comet also goes by C/2020 F3. Look for it just below the Big Dipper.
A comet casts a steady glow of reflected sunlight from a mass of rock, dust, and ice, usually several miles wide. Meteors, on the other hand, happen when a small chunk breaks off of a comet and burns up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. Meteors appear as a streak of light across the dark sky. A double meteor shower is due to entertain us July 28-29, but a full moon might make it less spectacular this year. In August, especially from the 11th to the 14th, expect the Perseid meteor shower to be easy to see near the constellation of Perseus.
Check for future showers on the American Meteor Society’s calendar.
Constellations – Stories in the Sky
Greek Mythology is a good starting point for learning about the constellations. You can check ahead to see which heroes, villains, gods, animals, and other objects are expected to appear in the night’s sky https://in-the-sky.org/skymap2.php. The library has great resources for families to both read about the mythological figures and to learn what they look like and where to find them. Some books have glow-in-the-dark pictures of the constellations – a handy take-along reference for your late night adventures.
The Big Dipper is a constellation related to more recent history. During the time of slavery in the United States, runaways used the North Star to find their way to freedom. Use the outside two stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl, known as the “pointer stars”, to spot the last star on the handle of the Little Dipper which is situated facing the Big Dipper. That’s Polaris, always located in the northern part of the sky at night all across the northern hemisphere. It’s been an aid to navigation since ancient mariners first set sail.
The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) hosts a website which highlights each month’s constellations and other celestial events.
The Waxing and Waning Moon
Use a calendar to plot the phases, and timing, of the moon! “New moon” is when the shadow side is fully facing Earth. It’s hard to see. Then, day by day, it begins to “wax” into a crescent then into a quarter moon (looks like a half-circle), then “gibbous moon” (which means hump-backed) before being a full moon lighting up the sky. Unless of course it is up during the day time. The moon’s phases are complete and back to “new moon” in about 28-29 days. It rises and sets, however, on an almost 25-hour cycle. This means if you notice where the moon is at 9 pm one evening, it’ll be in the same spot at around 10 pm the next evening.
Because of the moon’s elliptical orbit, astronomers can predict when we can see a bigger than normal full moon because its position on the ellipse takes it closer to Earth. This is known as a Super Moon. There’s one expected on April 26, 2021.
Add that to your list of things to look forward to. For now, staying up late due to a looser family schedule is a pleasant perk of the pandemic.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.
Dr. Wood is conducting an online workshop “Little Kids at Hope” for parents and caregivers of children from birth to age five on Saturday, August 1. Register with Chesapeake Children’s Museum: 410-990-1993 or www.theccm.org.