Friday, January 11, 2013

An Astronomy Update

An Astronomy Update (Studying Classical Astronomy - Make Your Own Backyard Compass and Other Study Ideas)  on Homeschool Coffee Break @ - how to make your own backyard compass for observing the skies, and an overview of our classical astronomy course

Near the beginning of the school year, I wrote a post describing what we would be studying for science - classical astronomy.  As I was trying to decide what I could share for the Blog Cruise this time around ("How to _______ " Blog Cruise), and had no great ideas, it occurred to me that I really haven't written much about what we're doing in astronomy.  So... here's an update and little bit of 'how-to' that we've discovered along the way.

We are using the textbook, Signs and Seasons which describes classical astronomy as "the visual observation of the motions of the celestial bodies - the simple act of studying the cycles of the Sun, Moon and stars with our unaided eyes... a study of the celestial creation, not only for its usefulness, but also for its own natural beauty."  Since ancient times, people have been marking the passage of time and navigating by using the skies. The Bible tells us that God created the Sun, Moon, and stars to give light and also to be signs for marking the days, seasons, and years.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven, to divide the day from the night: and let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.          ~Genesis 1:14~ 
The first project we took on in the study was a backyard compass. (My original how-to post is at: C is for... Classical Astronomy)  Following are some basic instructions to make your own.

Start with a stake pounded into an the ground in an open area of the yard.  Mark the end of the shadow of this stake with tent pegs or smaller sticks during the middle of the day for several days and then measure to find the shortest distance.  This shortest distance gives the 'cardinal line' which should run north to south.

With a cardinal line established, measure out 10 feet north and south from the center, and then east and west from the center, and place paving stones at each end, and one in the center to replace the stake.  Check your work over the next few days to make sure everything is lined up as well as possible.

(These pictures were taken before the final adjustment - you can see that the east-west stones are not quite aligned with the center.)  If you wish, you can label the paving stones with the directions.  You may also want to dig under the stones a bit to make it easier to mow over them.  We just let ours settle over time, but we may decide we need to dig under them a bit in the spring.  Soon we will also be adding marker stones for NE, NW, SE, and SW.  The large paving stones we used cost around $3 each, and we will probably use smaller (and even cheaper) ones for the additional marker stones. 

So far we've used our backyard compass mostly to observe sunrises and the stars.  We live in the country, where our view of the night sky isn't compromised by streetlights and other artificial lighting.  But our backyard doesn't have a great view of horizons, because of treelines and the hills around us.  Still, the compass is a great reference point for stargazing as long as the constellations we want to see aren't too low in the sky.

We learned how to observe shadows for navigating and estimating direction.  We learned how the ancient Egyptians aligned the pyramids and the sphinx astronomically and that Washington, D.C. was laid out to align with the compass points.  So are many other cities and towns in  North America, because the new lands were surveyed from the sun, moon, and stars.

We've made several different kinds of volvelles to help us understand the movements of the sun, moon, and constellations.

We've done activities with a globe in order to better understand what's happening in the skies and how we see it on earth.

We used delicious Oreo cookies to demonstrate the phases of the moon.  Yum!!

And we've been observing the sunrise, sunset, phases of the moon, constellations, and even meteor showers.

Some websites we've found helpful and interesting include: Stellarium, a free open source planetarium for your computer; SunriseSunset has free printable calendars giving sunrise and sunset times for all of North America and many other locations; and the Astronomy page at provides times for moonrise and moonset as well.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.       ~Psalm 19:1-2~
Have you studied astronomy, or are you watching the skies? Leave a comment and let me know! Be sure to visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog to see what other Crew members are sharing for the "How-to" Blog Cruise.  I'm looking forward to learning some new things from other homeschool bloggers!  You can also visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog homepage to see the reviews we are working on, past reviews, and past blog cruise topics.  


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