Getting Started

Astronomy is a fantastic area of science for teachers and students alike because it combines many different fields of science and still leaves a lot of room for wonder and exploration. This section contains many different kinds of astronomy experiments which are easy and fun activities designed to get your feet wet in the field of astrophysics.

Early astronomers tracked the movement of the stars so accurately that in most cases, we’ve only made minor adjustments to their data. Although Galileo wasn’t the first person to look through a telescope, he was the first to point it at the stars. Originally, astronomy was used for celestial navigation and was involved with the making of calendars, but nowadays it’s mostly classified in the field called astrophysics.

There are different types of astronomers, some of whom have never looked through a telescope. For example, radio astronomers use satellite dishes to “view” the sky while backyard astronomers use optical telescopes armed with cameras. Professional observational astronomers use computers and specialized camera equipment to look through their X-ray scopes and determine what’s out there. And the kid down the street uses a new set of binoculars he got for his birthday. They are all doing astronomy, just in different ways.

Amateur astronomers usually have smaller telescopes, typically 4” to 20” in diameter. They generally don’t get paid to do astronomy. They just do it for the love of it, and they are the ones you’ll find on sidewalks and sharing views of the sky with the general public during local stargazing events. Many amateur astronomers have discovered new objects based on their raw knowledge of the sky.

Here are the scientific concepts:

  • The Earth is one of several planets that orbit the Sun, and the Moon orbits the Earth.
  • The solar system consists of planets and other bodies that orbit the Sun in predictable paths.
  • The appearance, general composition, relative position and size, and motion of objects in the solar system, including planets, planetary satellites, comets, and asteroids.
  • How to use astronomical units and light years as measures of distance between the Sun, stars, and Earth.
  • The path of a planet around the Sun is due to the gravitational attraction between the Sun and the planet.
  • The gravitational force of Earth acting on an object near Earth’s surface pulls that object toward the planet’s center.
  • The sun is a star that appears larger and brighter than other stars because it is closer. Stars range greatly in their distance from Earth.
  • The orbits of Earth around the sun and of the moon around Earth, together with the rotation of Earth about an axis between its North and South poles, cause observable patterns. These include day and night; daily changes in the length and direction of shadows; and different positions of the sun, moon, and stars at different times of the day, month, and year.

By the end of the labs in this unit, students will be able to:

  • Know how to demonstrate the different kinds of atmospheres on various planets.
  • Know the celestial objects in the solar system and how they relate and interact with each other.
  • Understand how to determine the structure and composition of celestial objects.
  • Differentiate observation from inference (interpretation) and know scientists’ explanations come partly from what they observe and partly from how they interpret their observations.
  • Measure and estimate the length and volume of objects.
  • Formulate and justify predictions based on cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Conduct multiple trials to test a prediction and draw conclusions about the relationships between predictions and results.
  • Construct and interpret graphs from measurements.
  • Follow a set of written instructions for a scientific investigation.

Select a Lesson

Special Science Teleclass: Black Holes
This is a recording of a recent live teleclass I did with thousands of kids from all over the world. I’ve included it here so you can participate and learn, too! We’re ready to deal with the topic you’ve all been waiting for! Join me as we find out what happens to stars that wander …Continue reading”Special Science Teleclass: Black Holes”
Special Science Teleclass: Astronomy
This is a recording of a recent live teleclass I did with thousands of kids from all over the world. I’ve included it here so you can participate and learn, too Our solar system includes rocky terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn), ice giants (Uranus and Neptune), and assorted …Continue reading”Special Science Teleclass: Astronomy”
Planetarium and Star Show
Greetings and welcome to the study of astronomy! This first lesson is simply to get you excited and interested in astronomy so you can decide what it is that you want to learn about astronomy later on. We’re going to cover a lot in this presentation, including: the Sun, an average star, is the central …Continue reading”Planetarium and Star Show”
Scientists do experiments here on Earth to better understand the physics of distant worlds. We’re going to simulate the different atmospheres and take data based on the model we use. Each planet has its own unique atmospheric conditions. Mars and Mercury have very thin atmospheres, while Earth has a decent atmosphere (as least, we like to …Continue reading”Atmospheres”
Eclipses and Transits
It just so happens that the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than the Moon, but the Moon is 400 times closer than the Sun. This makes the Sun and Moon appear to be about the same size in the sky as viewed from Earth. This is also why the eclipse thing is such …Continue reading”Eclipses and Transits”
Rusty Balloon
Mars is coated with iron oxide, which not only covers the surface but is also present in the rocks made by the volcanoes on Mars. Today you get to perform a chemistry experiment that investigates the different kinds of rust and shows that given the right conditions, anything containing iron will eventually break down and …Continue reading”Rusty Balloon”
A meteoroid is a small rock that zooms around outer space. When the meteoroid zips into the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s now called a meteor or “shooting star”. If the rock doesn’t vaporize en route, it’s called a meteorite as soon as it whacks into the ground. The word meteor comes from the Greek word for …Continue reading”Meteorites”
Neptune’s Furnace
We’re going to do a chemistry experiment to simulate the heat generated by the internal core of Neptune by using a substance used for melting snow mixed with baking soda. Calcium chloride splits into calcium ions and chloride ions when it is mixed with water, and energy is released in the form of heat. The …Continue reading”Neptune’s Furnace”
Binary Planetary Systems
A binary system exists when objects approach each other in size (and gravitational fields), the common point they rotate around (called the center of mass) lies outside both objects and they orbit around each other. Astronomers have found binary planets, binary stars, and even binary black holes. The path of a planet around the Sun …Continue reading”Binary Planetary Systems”
Watch Your Weight
If you could stand on the Sun without being roasted, how much would you weigh? The gravitational pull is different for different objects. Let’s find out which celestial object you’d crack the pavement on, and which your lightweight toes would have to be careful about jumping on in case you leapt off the planet. Weight …Continue reading”Watch Your Weight”
Using the position of the Sun, you can tell what time it us by making one of these sundials. The Sun will cast a shadow onto a surface marked with the hours, and the time-telling gnomon edge will align with the proper time. In general, sundials are susceptible to different kinds of errors. If the …Continue reading”Sundial”
Spectrometers are used in chemistry and astronomy to measure light. In astronomy, we can find out about distant stars without ever traveling to them, because we can split the incoming light from the stars into their colors (or energies) and “read” what they are made up of (what gases they are burning) and thus determine …Continue reading”Spectrometer”
How to “See” Infra-Red Light
Crazy Remote Want to have some quick science fun with your TV remote? Then try this experiment next time you flip on the tube: Materials: metal frying pan or cookie sheet TV remote control plastic sheet
Fun with UV
UV (ultra-violet) light is invisible, which means you need more than your naked eyeball to do experiments with it. Our sun gives off light in the UV. Too much exposure to the sun and you’ll get a sunburn from the UV rays. There are many different experiments you can do with UV detecting materials, such …Continue reading”Fun with UV”
Star Wobble
How do astronomers find planets around distant stars? If you look at a star through binoculars or a telescope, you’ll quickly notice how bright the star is, and how difficult it is to see anything other than the star, especially a small planet that doesn’t generate any light of its own! Astronomers look for a …Continue reading