Higher learning: look up in August for sparkling lessons in the sky

With summer winding down, this month offers excellent opportunities for kids and grown-ups alike to look up, learn, and marvel. August offers two exciting celestial events, the first an annual one, the other, potentially once in a lifetime.  

Each year near the middle of August, the Perseids meteor shower streaks across the late-night, pre-dawn sky. Witnessing the magic, it’s hard to believe that dust—comet dust—is the source! The Bronberg Weather Station in Pretoria, South Africa, provides a super explanation of these shooting stars, which aren’t visible in that corner of the world, because they appear below the horizon: “Perseids meteor streams are groups of meteoroids originating from dust grains ejected from Comet 109P Swift-Tuttle. These small dust grains (meteoroids) are distributed along the parent comet’s orbit concentrated close to the comet nucleus with fewer grains farther away from the nucleus. Every time the Earth passes through this stream of dust particles (i.e., meteor stream), we experience what is known as a Perseids meteor shower.”

This year, though, according to space.com, the show might be a little tougher to see “due to the presence of the moon, which will be three-quarters full and will rise shortly before the shower hits its peak around midnight local time.” The bright moonlight will obscure fainter shooting stars, but it still will likely be worth a look. Perseids is expected to peak overnight August 12 and 13.

However, August 21 brings the show of shows to town: a total solar eclipse visible in North America, and according to the Washington Post, the first to stretch coast to coast in nearly a century. A total eclipse, in which the moon and sun are in a perfect line, in any given part of the world, is quite rare. Google “path of totality,” meaning areas where the moon completely appears to cover the sun and the sun’s corona is visible, and a number of maps and images show the path across parts of 17 states. In those places day will become night, and stars will pop out in the afternoon. With gusto, greatamericaneclipse.com, a website dedicated to the event, says, “Your jaw will drop when you first see the corona and witness totality.” Here’s their link to the 10 Best Places to view it. Outside the path, observers will witness varying degrees of partial eclipse. For example, Detroit, MI, will observe 80%.

The next chance to see a total solar eclipse in North America is 2024. But no one can predict cloud cover! For those willing to travel, the Washington Post notes that anyone born in 1980 who lives to 100, there will be 43 more total eclipses worldwide in their lifetime.

Consider making this year’s event especially memorable for kids. To help with that The Frog Mom blog “inspiring outdoors families” has compiled Solar Eclipse Kids Activities. The link includes a video clip explaining both lunar and solar eclipses as well as directions from Life’s Little Mysteries for constructing a shoebox pinhole camera for safely viewing a solar eclipse and directions from The Exploratorium for building a pinhole projector out of a UPS shipping tube. (The longer the tube, the bigger the image of the sun.) Be sure never to look directly at the sun, even during an eclipse. Nationwide, lots of planetariums, parks, and local astronomy clubs will be hosting safe viewing events, so take a look online for your area.

Charming side note: the Time and Date website reports that the discovery  and naming of helium—the gas that makes anyone who inhales it sound like a chipmunk—owes much to a solar eclipse. The site says, “The first piece of evidence for the existence of the second lightest and the second most abundant elements known to human was discovered by the French astronomer Jules Janssen during a total solar eclipse on August 16,1868. Because of this, it’s named after the Greek word for the sun: Helios.

Fostering kids’ interest in all that’s “up there” and “out there” builds skills in several areas. The Love to Know section of Science.com, in an article by Amy Finley, offers great suggestions and resources for cultivating kids’ interest in astronomy and space. Online, NASA for Kids is just one. Finley concludes that “Astronomy for kids can be both fun and educational. By encouraging a child's interest in stars, planets, and other topics in astronomy, parents and educators can help prepare that child for a future that's out of this world.”

If clouds interfere with the eclipse or the meteor shower, or you’d just rather not keep little ones up so late for the latter, consider using Bedtime Alphabet Night-time Learning Interactive Flash Cards for festive, playful fun for preschoolers and kindergartners. At night, use the handy, mini flashlight included in the package to shine light through the cutouts, and watch uppercase letters and shapes dance on floors, walls, and ceilings. It’s a new twist on traditional and much-loved shadow play. By day, use the cutouts as stencils to encourage drawing and writing activities. Or flip the cards over to reveal pieces to six different puzzles. These cards offer hours of “illuminating” creative play, while building reading readiness and problem-solving skills.

One way or another, looking up in August definitely offers memorable ways to wind down summer and map a trail of stardust and moonlight into a new school year.