Kids gaze at the stars, planets and moons


Peering through a telescope, Trent Shook describes seeing "small circles that look like they have empty in them."

A more experienced astronomer would know that the white circles are the moons of Jupiter, but Trent is 6 and just beginning to learn about the solar system. He belongs to the Howard County Celestial Searchers, one of Maryland's few astronomy groups for kids. Astronomy is the scientific study of the universe.

A recent Monday evening found Trent and about 12 other club members eyeing Jupiter's many moons and Earth's single moon.

Joel Goodman, the grown-up who runs the Searchers, says that even someone Trent's age can be an astronomer. All you need is "one eye and the desire to look up into the sky," says Goodman, a dentist who is a lifelong amateur astronomer.

The Searchers got started 10 years ago when the comet Hale-Bopp was about to make a once-in-4,000-years appearance for us earthlings. After that event, parents persuaded Goodman to hold monthly stargazing meetings to see what else is in the sky.

Each Celestial Searchers meeting attracts at least a dozen members, ages 6 to 13. At last month's get-together, Goodman aimed his telescope at the moon and explained that, although the moon appears to rise in the sky, it's an illusion created by Earth's rotation.

"What's really cool about astronomy is, if you look at the sky over and over again every night, you'll see how things change and move, especially the moon," says club member Rebecca Chamblee, 9, of Columbia, Md.

Stargazing is easier the farther you get from cities, where bright lights make it difficult to see stars at night. Nine-year-old Jacob Hamsher became interested in astronomy recently when his family moved from Columbia to rural Cooksville. Now that he can see lots more stars from his yard, "I wanted to learn more about them," he said.

If a move to the country isn't in your family's future, don't worry. "There is still a lot you can see," even if you live in the city or its suburbs, Goodman said.

For instance, he said he never tires of looking at the moon, which can be seen in amazing detail with just a good pair of binoculars.

A fun way to study the sky is to create your own constellations. Pick out some stars that you think form a design and give them a name. Maybe you think they look like the outline of a skateboard. They don't have to look exactly like a skateboard. "There are very few things that look like they are supposed to," Goodman notes.

Making up your own designs is a good way to remember where stars are in the sky.

The important thing is to keep looking, Goodman says, because "you (could) be the boy or girl in your back yard that sees something special."

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