This is a plan for a star party for Cub Scouts. To introduce anybody to the night sky, you have to get out and look at the night sky. It’s more fun than listening to facts about the night sky. It gives people the actual experience of what astronomy is about. A Cub Scout can complete the Astronomy Belt Loop without looking at the sky at all. In my opinion, this is an error in the design of the award. This observing plan will help you get them outside and looking at the stars.

Because these are children, this observing plan concentrates on easy, appealing objects that will help complete requirements of the astronomy-related Cub Scout awards. I have assumed:

  • Bright lighting, if we use this at a Scout meeting. Their events are often held at schools and churches with outdoor lighting. If the Scouts come to a dark sky site, you may wish to include dimmer targets.
  • Young observers will not have the patience to recognize subtle details in targets.
  • Young observers appreciate fun, large, colorful objects more than small faint fuzzies. However, I suggest you mention the joy that many people feel in finding the faint fuzzies.
  • You may be observing during any phase of the moon. The moon may add to a bright sky.
  • Cub Scout events are held in early evening, probably as soon as it is dark enough to observe. The boys will not stay out to see objects that rise late at night.
  • Bright objects are easy to find in difficult lighting.
  • The most important targets are the ones the requirements of the Cub Scout awards ask the boys to observe.

This plan is too ambitious to get through all of it in one event. It takes time to show a large group of people each object. You will probably want to talk through some of this material while the boys are taking turns looking at the first couple of targets. If you have the Orion Nebula, Saturn or Venus, and the Moon visible, I would start with those three. You may not get beyond three targets with a large group.

This plan is roughly organized as a story about the evolution of cosmic objects.

The Sky Messier Catalog

2Mass Messier Catalog

Setup

One of the requirements is to show how to set up and focus a telescope or binoculars. This requires teaching how to use the equipment first, then giving each boy a chance to do the task. This will take a long time. Binoculars are easier and faster for this activity, but many boys will prefer to get their hands on a telescope.

Star-forming nebulas

Young star clusters

  • Pleiades (closest cluster to Earth, still has traces of its formative nebula), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • M16 (may be less than 6 million years old, found next to its formative nebula), best view in northern hemisphere in summer.

Older groups of stars

  • Double Cluster (both red and blue stars visible in it), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • M79, best view in northern hemisphere in winter. A globular cluster is a group of old stars, but they all look like small faint fuzzies to children. M79 may be the easiest to see. I also use it below as a place to see white dwarfs.
  • Beehive (M44), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • M35, best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Hyades, best view in northern hemisphere in winter.

Galaxies – larger groupings of stars

  • The Milky Way – our own galaxy. Show how the disk of the Milky Way appears in the sky. If M24 is visible, it is a wonderful close-up of a star-crowded segment of our galaxy. The Greeks and the Cherokee have stories of the origin of the Milky Way. (It was milk for the Greeks and corn meal for the Cherokees.) Best view in northern hemisphere in summer.
  • Andromeda Galaxy, best view in northern hemisphere in fall.

Colored Stars

  • Betelgeuse (red giant), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Rigel (blue giant star), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Regulus (blue giant star), best view in northern hemisphere in spring.
  • La Superba, Y Canum Venaticorum (red carbon star), best view in northern hemisphere in spring.
  • Capella (yellow giant), best view in northern hemisphere in fall.
  • Alphard, alpha Hydrae (orange giant), best view in northern hemisphere in spring. South of Regulus.
  • Head of Hydra contains orange, white, and blue stars. Best view in northern hemisphere in spring. Five-sided diamond south of Cancer.

Double Stars

  • Albireo (spectacular contrasting colors), best view in northern hemisphere in summer.
  • Trapezium (6 stars), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Castor (6 stars), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Mizar and Alcor (not gravitationally bound, but each one is a double), best view in northern hemisphere in spring.
  • Rigel (beta Orionis), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • iota Cassiopeiae, best view in northern hemisphere in fall.
  • Meissa (lambda Orionis), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • sigma Orionis (5 bodies, A and B are red and blue), best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • alpha Leporis, best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • gamma Andromedae (triple), best view in northern hemisphere in fall.
  • Polaris, same position all year.
  • Cor Coreli, best view in northern hemisphere in spring.

Constellations

The Cub Scout awards require knowing only three constellations. Here are a few of the easiest to recognize and learn:

  • Orion, best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Big Dipper best view in northern hemisphere in spring.
  • Cassiopeia, best view in northern hemisphere in fall.
  • Taurus, best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Pegasus, best view in northern hemisphere in fall.
  • Gemini, best view in northern hemisphere in winter.

Spring constellations

     Leo, Cancer, Auriga, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor

Summer constellations

    Scorpius, Sagittarius,Hercules, Cygnus, Aquila, Lyra, Delphinus, Ursa Major,Ursa Minor

Fall constellations

Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Perseus, Andromeda, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor

Winter constellations

Orion, Taurus, Lepus, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor

Point out that although one of the Cub Scout requirements says the boys may use a telescope to find a constellation, a telescope is useless to look at something as big as a constellation. However, it can be used to find pretty asterisms. Examples:

There are many stories about the pictures in the skies you could tell to the group.

A requirement for the Boy Scout Astronomy Merit Badge is to know the zodiacal constellations. Cub Scouts have heard the names of many of these constellations, and will enjoy finding them and hearing their stories.

Zodiacal constellations

  • Aries (best view in fall)
  • Taurus (best view in winter)
  • Gemini (best view in winter)
  • Cancer (best view in spring)
  • Leo (best view in spring)
  • Virgo (best view in summer)
  • Libra (best view in summer)
  • Scorpius (best view in summer)
  • Sagittarius (best view in summer)
  • Capricornus (best view in fall)
  • Aquarius (best view in fall)
  • Pisces (best view in fall)

Solar System

Describe a solar system as a star and everything orbiting it. We can look at the Sun and the major planets. Examples of the other objects (the asteriod belt, the Kuiper belt, and the Oort cloud) are more difficult to show.

Planets

  • Earth. One of the things we learn from astronomy is more about our own planet.
  • Venus. Explain its phases. In December 2006 has just changed from Morning Star to Evening Star.
  • Saturn. In winter 2006 the best view is probably too late in the evening for a Cub Scout event.
  • In winter 2006 Mars and Jupiter are best viewed before dawn.
  • In spring 2008 Mars and Saturn are visible at night.

I suggest a brief discussion of the current controversy about the definition of a planet.

Moons

  • Earth’s Moon – show mountains along the terminator, craters, maria
  • Jupiter’s four largest moons

Artificial Satellites

Some pass over every night. Heavens Above has nightly predictions. If the International Space Station is visible on the night you are out, it is the brightest and easiest to see.

Meteors

Some fall every night, but they boys will have to be patient to see one.

Asteroids

It is possible to show the larger asteroid, but they are difficult targets and will appear to children the same as dim stars.

Planetary nebulas – Stars that have lost something

  • Little Dumbbell Nebula (M76). This is the brightest candidate, but may be too dim to see under high light conditions. Best view in northern hemisphere in winter.
  • Ring Nebula (M57), best view in northern hemisphere in summer.

Supernovas – stars that have died

The easiest supernova remnant to show is the Crab Nebula. However, it requires fairly dark skies, and is not an obvious target for children. Best view in northern hemisphere in winter.

In March 2008 a gamma ray burst was detected south of gamma Bootes. A visual glow was observable there. Though it is unknown for how long this event will be visible, at the time of the explosion it was briefly visible to the naked eye, and the most distant object (approximately 7 billion light years) that was visible to the naked eye.

Black Hole

You can’t actually show a black hole. However, if Sagittarius is up, you can point out the location of the one closest to us, at the center of our own galaxy. Best view in northern hemisphere in summer.

Universe

This is an opportunity to communicate the grandeur and awe of observing. The easy explanation of “universe” is “everything.” Whether “everything” should mean “everything physical” is a theological question. This age group will probably not follow a discussion of the alternate theories that astrophysicists enjoy.

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