Parenting: "On the way to the Moon...and Jupiter..."

September 30, 2010

First, the Moon. Luckily, it was in one of its gibbous phases, with some of its sphere still in darkness. Lucky, because shadows cast on the side of the Moon that we can see bring more definition and proportion to the terrain. The kids thought that was pretty neat. They were almost as fascinated by the fact that there is a curved mirror deep within my telescope - making them think they were somehow projecting their faces into the high-magnification scope by standing in front of the end. Please stop that.

By then, almost on cue, Jupiter began to rise in the eastern sky, right along its ecliptic path. We could tell because it was bright and not twinkling (planets, because of their proximity to Earth, don't twinkle like stars, which are much, much further away). If you have ever seen the largest planet in our solar system through a telescope, you know that it is a stunning site. I was hoping my wife and children would share that view.

Putting the larger Moon into the magnified view of a telescope is one thing. Putting a planet, even a huge, comet-sucking gas giant like Jupiter, into its view is another. Impatience began to creep in. When will you be done, daddy?

After a few more minutes, it was ready. And Jupiter was indeed stunning. You see a bright disc, with faint stripes going across, and...the moons. Oh, the moons!

There were four of them (that we could see), and they were positioned on either side of the planet, making Jupiter resemble a solar system of its own. Everybody had a chance to take a look, and each time, they were impressed.

I also tried to demonstrate why the planetary image kept moving out of view - it is the Earth's rotation that requires constant tweaking. While moving (at enormous speeds) along its orbital path, Jupiter itself is not moving across our night sky.

If you ever get a chance, even with a pair of binoculars, show your children one of the seven visible bodies of the sky (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn - and boy, Saturn is the most beautiful thing you will ever see in a backyard telescope, especially when its rings are facing us).

Sharing an interest in astronomy helps us understand our place in this universe - however significant, or insignificant that place may be.

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