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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Research & Inquiry December 18, 2020

Exploring the Wonders of the Night Sky

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Orion is surrounded by five bright constellations in the winter sky. Illustration by Hannah Bailey, from “Sky Gazing” by Meg Thacher.

Smith College astronomer Meg Thacher wants to introduce you—and your children—to the wonders of the night sky.

And now is a great time to go outside and look up!

In the coming nights, Thacher explains, two of the brightest objects in the sky—Saturn and Jupiter—“are getting closer and closer and closer together.”

On Monday, Dec. 21, the night of the winter solstice, the two planets will be closer together than they have been in 800 years, forming a single, bright object that some are referring to as a “Christmas star.”

“It should be an amazing sight!” Thacher exclaims. 

The Smith College senior laboratory instructor, who has written dozens of articles introducing young people to scientific concepts, is the author of a new book, “Sky Gazing,” published this fall by Storey Publishing.

Building on her book, Thacher offers these tips for viewing the once-in-a-lifetime December 21 Saturn/Jupiter conjunction:

  • Go outside around sunset (or stay inside and look out a window).
  • Look to the west, where the sun is setting.
  • The brightest star you see is Jupiter, with Saturn very close by.
  • Observe them with your naked eye or through binoculars or a telescope.
  • A telescope will show Saturn’s rings, as well as Jupiter’s four brightest moons all in a line.

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Illustration by NASA/JPL-Caltech

“But don’t stop watching after Monday!” Thacher adds.

In the nights after December 21, these two planets will still appear very bright, and we’ll be able to watch them moving apart from each other before they disappear behind the Sun in mid-January. (“Stars are constant—they stay in one position relative to each other, even as they rise and set,” Thacher notes. “But it’s cool to be able to see planets—like Saturn and Jupiter—move around among the stars.”)

And in January, star gazers will be able to see the Orion constellation—“which is easily recognizable, and very bright”—and use it to find five nearby constellations: Canis Major, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus. 

Thacher—who fell in love with astronomy because of two great teachers—hopes that Monday’s celestial spectacle might help introduce young people—and adults, too—to the joys available in the stars and planets, and the other wonders of the night sky. And that’s the goal of her book, too.

“I want to make astronomy as accessible as possible to as many people as possible,” she explains. “Star gazing is easy,” she says. “All you need is your eyes.”

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Thacher’s book aims to make astronomy super accessible. Written for children in fourth through ninth grades—but accessible to younger and older readers, too—the book has six chapters, and each chapter is about a different type of object: the Moon, the Sun, planets, stars, constellations..

The book also offers information on how to observe special celestial events—comets, eclipses and meteor showers.

In addition to laying out when and what to look for, “Sky Gazing” also offers information about how to see things—which really isn’t hard. “Astronomy is easy; you don’t even need a telescope,” Thacher explains. “All you have to do is go outside and look up. And you’ll see astronomy all around you.”

Astronomy is easy to fall in love with, Thacher explains, because it’s a science of extremes. “We deal with things that are really big,” she laughs, “and really old. Really far. There are billions of stars in the galaxy, billions of galaxies in the universe….Astronomy is really big and exciting—that’s why kids get interested in it.”

And astronomy is a “gateway science,” Thacher adds: Once someone becomes interested in the stars, they become interested in the sciences that make up astronomy—physics, chemistry, math and more.

Really, all that has to happen, Thacher says, is that “kids learn about astronomy, and they’ll look up at the sky more often. And then they discover that they love the stars, and they love science!

“The world needs more scientists,” she adds. “So looking up at the stars is a really good thing.”