Planetary telescopes for preschoolers: how to

March 29, 2011

Construction paper, tape, hole punch, pin, stickers or crayonsThis is a fun craft/activity to help little kids learn about planets and the stars.  There are many ways to make a planetary telescope; this is one simple way that’s easy for busy parents to help their kids make their very own telescope and learn about the solar system.

What you’ll make: (nonworking) telescopes that your kids can use to view the planets, stars, and, well, just about anything else.

What you’ll need: Construction paper or cardstock, tape, hole punch, straight or safety pin, and pictures of the solar system or constellations. 

Prep time: 5 minutes, for downloading pictures of the solar system from this NASA web site, or for finding your own pictures in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  Set aside a piece of dark construction paper (blue and green work best) and cut a 4″ square of black construction paper for each child. pinholes in black paper make stars Take the pin and poke holes in the black square.  Punch a single hole in the paper if you have a hole punch handy.  If you’re feeling really brave, punch the pinholes in the design of one of the constellations… but this totally isn’t necessary (I didn’t think of it — thanks to Kim in NY for the idea!).

The words you use and the way you implement the activity is up to you, of course.  The idea is to use the rolled up construction paper to look at the planets, and then tape the black paper with pinholes to the end and look out the window or near a bright light to see the “stars.”  In the rest of this post,  I’ll share with you a bit of how it went when Widget (age 6) and I did this project with Little Bear (age 4)’s preschool class, just because it was such fun and I want to remember.  I’ll spare you the pauses, interruptions, and little kid stories, but just know that there were dozens and it was awesome.

Me: Have you ever been outside late at night and seen the stars? (Most of them had, and they wanted to tell me all about it!  After a bit, I continued.)  They’re beautiful, aren’t they?  Did you know that for a very long time, that’s the best that anyone could see the stars?  But people have always wondered about the night sky, and they wanted to be able to see the stars and planets better.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a man named Galileo made a new tool so he could see the stars better.  He called it a telescope. (At this, I rolled a piece of paper into a cylinder, lengthwise, and sealed it with a piece of tape.  A staple at each end works better but may be sharp.) 

This is a tool that scientists use to see the stars and planets better.  Would you like one to use today? (Widget handed a cylinder to each child as I talked.)  A real telescope has mirrors and lenses (touch eyeglasses to show what a lens is), but this one will work fine for today.  Is everybody ready to use their telescopes to see the stars? (chorus of yes)

Does anyone know what our closest star is?

The sun!  That’s right, the sun that you see in the sky every day is actually a star, and while it looks warm and friendly to us, when the mommies and daddies who work at NASA made a big enough telescope, they found out that it really looks like this: (show them the real picture of the sun; for very young kids, fold the picture back so that only the largest image shows).  What does that look like to you?  Do you think it’s cold there, or hot?  That’s right, it’s very hot!  It’s so hot that it warms the planets in our solar system.  Would you like to see some planets now?

Mercury is the planet closest to the sun (show them the picture of Mercury).  It is very, very hot on the side closest to the sun, but it has a secret — it turns around (rotates) very, very slowly, so one side is almost always hot — and the other is very, very cold!  On Mercury, it takes almost a year for the planet to turn enough so that it goes from day to night and night to day again, so one side is really hot, and the other side is really cold.  Does that sound like a fun place to live?  (Kids say no.)  Let’s get a better look, through our telescopes!  (Widget shows the picture to the kids, moving it slowly so that each can get a really good look in turn.)

Venus is the next planet.  (Show picture, kids look at it through telescopes while we talk.)  It’s still pretty close to the sun.  Do you think Venus is hot or cold?  (hot)  Venus is hot, and it is not a great place to live. 

Let’s see.  What colors are on this next planet?  (Show the picture of Earth; it is blue, green, and white).  That’s right.  Does anyone know what this planet is?  That’s right, Earth!  What do you think the blue is? (water) What do you think the green is? (grass, trees, or land) And what do you think these white swirly things are that are way up above the water and the land?  That’s right, clouds!  Isn’t this planet beautiful?  Let’s pretend we’re out in space and we can see it with our telescopes.  Ready, set, go! (Show picture as kids look at it through the telescopes.)

And so on and so forth.  After Mars (red, hot, dusty, with occasional dust devils; feel free to compare the red color to the look of a rusty nail if your kids have ever seen one – it’s actually very much the same kind of thing), stop at the asteroid belt and ask them what an asteroid looks like.  They might be disappointed – and that’s ok – it does really just look like a rock.  That’s because it IS a rock. 

Then the gas giants – Jupiter, with its swirly storms; Saturn, with its beautiful rings; Uranus and Neptune, which I admit I did together because we don’t know a lot about them yet and the kids were getting fidgety; and icy Pluto, which used to be a planet but now has its own special name: dwarf planet, and it hangs out at the edge of the solar system with lots of other dwarf planets that mommies and daddies have found with great big telescopes … and some that haven’t even yet been discovered. 

Encouraging the kids to look at each picture through their very own telescope helped keep even the 3 year olds engaged for this 30 minute activity, and I was very happy with the way this activity came out.  It was a fun way to introduce these little ones to the solar system where we live, and I left the black squares with pinholes with the teacher for a craft later in the morning — just tape the squares to the end of the planetary telescope and hold it up to a window or in a well-lit room so that they can see the stars, even if they’re not allowed to stay up late very often to see the real ones.  I loved doing this activity with my kids and the kids at preschool, and I hope this helps you do this activity or another one with your kids too!

More kids solar system activities can be found at NASA Kids.


Planetary telescopes

March 28, 2011

Construction paper, pins, tape, hole punch, stickersToday we’re going to teach Little Bear’s classroom about space!  The kids are 3 and 4, so we’re going to keep it hands-on and light. . . literally!

We’re going to help each kid make a “telescope” out of construction paper and point it at pictures of the planets, to see how they’re different.  After we talk about the planets a while, we’ll tape a piece of black paper with pinholes to the end of the telescope and look through it at a light — to see “the stars.”  It’s an easy craft to make, and I hope it will be a fun way to introduce these little ones to the planets and put the stars within their reach.  (Even if they’re not allowed to stay up late enough to see the real ones!)

I can post instructions and a debrief afterwards — but now, I’ve got to run — Widget and I have a date to teach Bear’s class about the planets and the stars, and I am SO HAPPY.

The idea for this craft came from Marissa, at Our Daylight Adventures, who did the toilet paper telescope craft with her son for Team WhyMommy’s Virtual Science Fair last April.  The Virtual Science Fair was such an amazing gift — I read through all the projects again last week, and I still can’t believe it.  I wanted to go through and leave comments everywhere, since I was too sick to do it April 7 after my surgery (though I read and loved them all!), but who checks comments on year-old posts?


On my soapbox: Women’s History Month at NASA

March 25, 2011

Several people have sent me a photo of NASA’s Women’s History Month Celebration recently, expressing dismay at the images NASA and the White House chose to represent women inspiring the next generation…

… please continue reading today’s post at Women in Planetary Science


A big day for a little spacecraft: MESSENGER

March 18, 2011

MESSENGER MOIIt was St. Patrick’s Day, and the crowd of nearly 400 waited expectantly in the Kossiakoff auditorium at APL. Irish dancing music was piped into the auditorium as recorded interviews of Daniel O’Shaughnessy, Eric Finnegan, and Eric Calloway played on the giant screen, reviewing the six planetary gravity assists, the five deep space maneuvers, and the big idea to add solar sailing that arose as the spacecraft approached the first Mercury flyby. “It really is akin to a ship on the ocean,” said Calloway, “sails tacking back and forth.”

Onstage, Ralph McNutt reviewed the mission design, interspersing one-liners with technical details to keep the crowd relaxed. “MESSENGER is a flying gas can. Over half the mass is propellant,” he explained, and as quickly as the audience laughed, his words were instantly tweeted by several eager space enthusiasts watching there and over ustream online. Social media was a presence at MOI, with @MESSENGER2011 tweeting her progress throughout the night in words that her followers could understand, with her impact multiplied with each tweet and retweet from space fans throughout the world.

The mood was quiet, expectant, jubilant, and a little tense at Kossiakoff, as the team waited with their families and invited guests to see confirmation that MESSENGER had indeed gone into orbit. Tom Krimigis was there in the second row, a few seats down from Bob Farquhar and others who had worked so hard from proposal to mission operations to make this dream come true. Co-Investigators and engineers were scattered through the audience, their inevitable worry tempered with the confidence that comes from years of solid design and development, followed nearly endless drills for the mission operations team, now prepared to handle any anomaly. The screen showed live shots of the engineers at their workstations, waiting the long eight minutes for confirmation of each maneuver from their faraway spacecraft, the one that they had only a few years ago built in the lab out of parts. Associate Administrator Ed Weiler had spoken to the team earlier, reminding them that this was a major accomplishment: “You only go into orbit around Mercury first once in human history, and that’s what is accomplished tonight.”

As speakers and videos entertained the audience, informing them about new technologies, materials, and designs used on MESSENGER, those in the know waited anxiously to hear the announcement from the Mission Operations Control Center (MOCC) that the burn had been completed successfully and the spacecraft nudged into its oval orbit around Mercury, 155 million kilometers (over 96 million miles) from Earth. Then, through the onstage talk, his words could be heard loud and clear, and the crowd burst into spontaneous applause.

The burn “was right on the money,” confirmed Finnegan, Messenger’s chief engineer, later in the evening. “This is as close you can possibly get to being perfect.” Principal Investigator Sean Solomon reminded the gathering that the science team was thrilled at a successful MOI because it would enable the science that was to come, saying, “This is when the real mission begins.”

In that moment, humankind completed its goal of orbiting Mercury, the sixth planet in the solar system to be orbited by a spacecraft built by humans out of parts.  There was relief and smiles on every face, and we began to relax at a reception in the next room, mingling with scientists, engineers, and managers who had made the mission possible, as @MESSENGER2011 tweeted: “We’ve done it! I’m in orbit around Mercury—the first spaceship to ever do (or tweet) that! #MOI2011.

This is just the beginning of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.  Find out more about MESSENGER Deputy Project Scientist Louise Prockter and Participating Scientist Catherine Johnson on the Women in Planetary Science website — and find great resources for kids at the MESSENGER Education Site .  Let’s celebrate!


Flying towards Saturn

March 16, 2011

Cassini image of SaturnEver wondered what it would be like to fly into space?  I mean WAY into space? 

Although humans aren’t ready to go back to the Moon or to Mars, we have sent out dozens of spacecraft to the planets and beyond.  Most of the instruments send back data that scientists analyze and tell us what it means.  But on almost every mission, there is also a camera — so that everyone can be part of the experience.  Check out this new video from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it heads toward Saturn, just missing cloudy Titan and dry Mimas, two of Saturn’s moons.

Incredible!


Mama, let’s go see the stars

March 13, 2011

“Mama, let’s go outside to see the stars!”  My hopeful four-year-old smiled eagerly at me as he padded over in his footie pajamas, hopeful for a last-minute reprieve from bedtime. 

“Not tonight, sweetie,” I said, “we’ve already read your books and tucked you in.  I’ll be back to snuggle you in a moment.”  I smiled as I tucked in my six-year-old, tousled his blond hair, and gave him an extra hug.  I knew that they just wanted to stay up a little later, but with daylight savings time starting tonight, I had to be the parent and say no. 

I said no, but part of me wanted to go out and show them the stars, to point out constellations to them as my father had to me when I was six years old, as I had to them so often as toddlers and young preschoolers, and to make that memory again, now that they were perhaps old enough to remember.  I wanted to see what they saw, to follow their chubby little pointing fingers as they found stars — and planets, and planes — in the sky, and to tell them tales of far-away worlds and wonders that generations older than theirs are only now beginning to discover, with telescopes in space, adaptive optics, planes, and space planes in which  people will soon be able to take flight, soaring high above the atmosphere, pointing their cameras at the stars and taking pictures and data to explore the space at once nearby and so very far away.  These new techniques are revealing worlds upon worlds of mystery, so much more than I even dreamed of as a child, standing in the driveway with my parents and our printed star chart.

I dreamed that I would be one of those scientists, discovering new worlds, searching new space, finding the planet that I knew — just knew — existed out there, around another sun, just around the astronomical corner from us. 

As it turns out, I’m not.  When I faced the choice to stay and run the amazing Discovery Program of new NASA missions to explore the planets or be home before my kids’ bedtime, I wavered.  I explored my options, and, after a time, there were none.  No one at NASA Headquarters allowed regular telecomuting at the time, and no one allowed part-time work.  I know.  I called in all my chits and went to talk to everyone I knew, in offices from Astrophysics to Heliophysics to Planetary, the Chief Scientist’s Office, and in staff positions, but there was nothing.  No options.  No way to stay at the job of my dreams and also work less than 40 hours a week – 50 including commute time – away from my infant.  No one could even understand why I would want to.

And so, I left my dreams behind, and I came home.  I don’t regret my decision — it was the right one for me — but some nights, when I look up at the sky, or return from fancy planetary science conferences, there is a twinge of curiousity.  Of what might have been.  Of what person I might have been, and in what paradigm shattering research I might have participated.

I sigh and tuck my children into bed.  They snuggle in, warm, safe, and loved, and that reassures me as I go next door to my office to work on my contract work late into the night.

At 5 a.m. my little one stumbled into our room, waking us with tears and news of a potty accident.  As I stripped his bed and changed his clothes, tucking him into our bed for the rest of the night, the stars outside my window caught my eye, and I couldn’t help myself.

“Little Bear, would you like to see the stars?” I asked, knowing that it would be harder to get him back to sleep, but willing to trade rest for the moment of shared experience.  “Right now, Mama?” he asked, surprised at my willingness to interrupt his sleep.  “Right now, Bear.”  I helped him climb on to the chair by my window, and together we gazed out into the dark night, captivated by the two stars that seemed caught in the treetops in the forest.  Another one hung nearby, and he asked me, “Why there only three stars out tonight?” I started to tell him about city lights and interference, and then gave up all hope of getting him back to sleep.  “Put your coat on, Bear.  Let’s go outside to see the stars.” 

He could barely contain his excitement as he wiggled into his brother’s shoes and coat, more easily found in the dark, and we giggled as we snuck onto the driveway, moving away from the house for a better view.  I showed him how to shield his eyes from the streetlight, and together we gazed at the dark sky and bright stars, silent with wonder.

I showed him the big dipper, and he found a planet and a plane, and we drank deeply of the night air and the constellations.  As he started to shiver in the cold, I pointed to the bright north star and said, “See that bright star?” 

And with four-year-old innocence, he said, “Uh-huh.  That’s the dipper,” and turned around to go inside, back to bed, where he would once again snuggle in, safe, warm, and loved, but this time with the memory of the thrill of sneaking outside in the middle of the night, awed by the majesty of the night sky, and alive with wonder at the stars that dot the edges of his experience.


A sweet night out with friends

May 22, 2010

My second course of radiation started this week.  Every morning, I start my day with a quick stop in the radiation center for treatment, take a deep breath, and go on about my day.  It’s not quite as easy as all that, of course, but that’s the way I’m going to look at it, for as long as I can.

After a week, the left side of my chest and my armpit are tender to the touch.  I have sharpie marker stains outlining the treatment field in dashed lines, and I have a few new tattoos too (just dots, but I like to think of them as stars that are very far away).  The thick dashed lines bothered me at first (really, one day, I had red stains, black stains, blue tattoos, and yellow paint marking the treatment areas.  When they brought out the green marker, I  couldn’t decide whether I was an old-fashioned diagram for cutting up beef, or a piece of art.)

Cuts of Beef

If they bring out the barbecue sauce, I’m outta there!

I felt awkward. I felt more than awkward, really.  As the technicians pushed and pulled my body into position where the tattoos lined up exactly with the red beams (remember the security system in Ocean’s Twelve? Psych? Chuck? Dr. Who? White Collar? Ohgoodgrief, what tripe are you watching these days?  And when are they going to add a laser hallway protecting Sue Sylvester’s trophies on that other show we all watch, anyway?) — aw, heck, now I have other things to think about when they’re lining me up with the red “laser-like” beams.

Which is awesome.  It’s all about not getting bogged down in the cancer treatment these days.  Yes, cancer sucks, but I AM MORE THAN THAT.  My life is more than that.  And so, this week I was thrilled beyond belief to go out with my friends TWICE, to pitch new ideas back and forth across the table, to hug their necks and to ask about their kids, and to spend a day and a half working downtown with education and outreach professionals on NASA’s upcoming Year of the Solar System.  Really — does it get cooler than that?  (HEY! It’s cool, ok?)

Back to dinner.  The lovely Miss Jessica asked me to dinner at The Melting Pot in Gaithersburg on Tuesday, and we motored up to join our friends in the private dining room.  It was a good thing we had a room to ourselves, because if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that a room full of mombloggers can be ROWDY.  Oh, I kid.  We were perfectly well-behaved, if you don’t count a couple of extraneous squeals and overzealous hugs when a new friend or twelve walked in.

It was a wonderful night, gathering around the pots o’ cheese (I ate way too much fiesta cheese, but the Feng Shui melted cheese with white wine was awesomely delicious) with parenting expert and friend (lose the guilt!) Devra, Mother in Medicine KC, MamaLaw Justice Fergie (as seen in this month’s Southern Living!), and new friend (recently rediscovered?) Lindsay from RockandRollmama.  The brilliant TeachMama, techie TechSavvyMama, “it girl” Jessica, and I posed for a photo and hashed out a bit of our BlogHer ’10 session on resource blogging. We all tried the main course, cooking shrimp, beef, chicken, and veggie pasta, but we quickly agreed that if we were going to go out together?  We were much more interested in the cheese and chocolate.  Particularly since not a few of us had had to cook for our children before we left for our own dinner.  (Bygones.)

Between courses, I was thrilled to hug the neck of “Fried Apple Pies” Kristen; thoughtful Laurie Writes (who does, and who is available this summer if you need a writer); The Fabulous Miss S (who is, and I should visit her blog way more often!); Lara, who did not actually bring her Chicken Nuggets of Wisdom since dinner was being served, but who did tell me how she and Janine are starting to Bring it to Fruition; Jodifur, whose shoes I really should have noticed; neighbor and summerbuddy Stimey; and the sparkly Thien-Kim.

And then, the chocolate course.  I still have a gooey warm feeling about consuming strawberries and bananas dipped in cookies and cream dark chocolate while catching up with Janine/@Twincident and Urbanmama, although I could have easily been distracted by the brownies dipped in amaretto.  You know, since it was there and we mamas don’t like to waste  food and all.

Anyways.  This post is a shout-out to my blogging friends, who I had a lovely time with (if I didn’t mention you, please blame the chocolate), and something for me to remember:  If I lose a day (Hello, Wednesday) because I spent my spoons the night before, it’s totally worth it.

Disclosure: The Melting Pot D.C. hosted our band of mamas for dinner and dessert at no charge, with a take-home of white chocolate and spice; they’ve also set up a Girl’s Night Out package where you can enjoy exactly what we did, plus a salad I didn’t mention (because who mentions salad?), for $30/person.  Find them on Facebook.


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