Few topics are more engaging for children than space. Britain is blessed with many excellent museums where you can explore the cosmos together. If stuck indoors, you can use your imagination (and craft box) to play at being astronauts. But nothing beats heading outside and simply turning your gaze to the night sky.
Stargazing is one of the most rewarding activities you can do with children. The heavens truly are filled with wonders, and looking out for them will start all kinds of interesting conversations. But what if you live in a big city like London, where light pollution drowns out many of the stars? Well, there’s still plenty to spot. Everything suggested below should be visible from even the brightest of cities… so long as you have a cloudless night.
Let’s start with the obvious. The Moon is, of course, the easiest object to spot in the night sky, but do the kids know that you can also see it in the daytime? Although associated with the dark, the Moon can be seen in the daytime sky as often as the nighttime sky -- it’s just that it’s harder to see. Look out for it in the morning in the two weeks after a full Moon, or in the afternoon in the two weeks before a full Moon.
At night, with even cheap binoculars, the surface of the Moon comes to life. You’ll be able to make out the larger craters and ‘seas’. October 2020 (when this article was published) is a special month for our neighbour, when you can see a rare ‘blue Moon’. This doesn’t mean the Moon will turn blue. Instead, it refers to the second full Moon in the same calendar month -- which happens to fall on Halloween this year. Spooky!
Over summer, you might have had a déjà vu moment, as the news kept reporting on probes launching to Mars. China, the USA and UAE all successfully launched spacecraft towards the red planet in July. The launches coincided for a reason. Every two years, Mars gets close enough to Earth to make space missions do-able. The planet also looks brighter in the sky. You can’t mistake Mars at this time, a noticeably pink dot, shining brighter than anything except the Moon and Venus. In early to mid-October, it’ll appear in the eastern sky from about 9pm and slowly make its way across the sky to the west.
Jupiter and Saturn
The two largest gas giants put on quite a show over summer, parading across the sky from east to west in the early evening. Although they’ve now dimmed, they’re still easy to spot. Look roughly south after sunset and the two planets should be bright and visible for four or five hours. They’re very close together right now, and will squeeze right up against one another (from Earth’s perspective) in late December. With good binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to see the rings of Saturn and the larger moons of Jupiter.
The International Space Station
The space station has been permanently occupied for almost 20 years now. The children and teens of the world have never known a single day without astronauts flying overhead. It’s very easy to watch the space station -- but you have to be quick. It typically takes just four minutes to cross from horizon to horizon. Nasa’s ‘Spot the Station’ website, and many others, will tell you where and when to look, wherever you live. It flies over southern England every few weeks, and is easiest to spot when it’s travelling directly overhead or at more than 40 degrees from the horizon. That won’t happen in October (though it may be visible early in the month, low to the horizon), but bright passes are expected in November. When it does pass overhead, the ISS is easy to recognise -- a fast moving dot of brightness to rival aeroplanes, though much, much higher.
Starlink is an ambitious plan to put tens of thousands of communications satellites in orbit, allowing fast internet access anywhere on the planet. Regular launches by Elon Musk’s SpaceX have already lofted hundreds of the spacecraft. The satellites are clearly visible to the naked eye -- they’re so easy to spot, in fact, that some astronomers have raised objections to the sky clutter. Like the ISS, several online sites will give you the exact times and parts of the sky to look in. They’ll generally fly over west to east, with multiple bright dots flying in formation. The satellites are at their brightest shortly after launch, so google SpaceX Starlink launches (which come at least once a month) for details.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.