Astronomy Basics for Children

- 12 Nov 2009

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Astronomers study our universe and the objects found within it such as stars, planets, and galaxies like the one we live in, the Milky Way. Almost one quarter of all astronomers are women and almost all professional astronomers work in the field of government or education.

Despite popular belief, astronomers spend more time in the classroom and on the computer than staring through a big telescope pondering the stars. Amateur astronomers, also called “backyard” astronomers, spend more time stargazing. It’s important to remember that without the constant watch from amateur astronomers, many stars and comets would not have been found. Amateur astronomers are very important to the field of astronomy.

Astronomy comes from the Greek word astronomos which comes from two other Greek words: “astron,” or stars, and “nomos,” meaning law. Together, astronomy means “law of the stars.” Astronomers know that the universe works together with certain laws and principles of science and math that keep it working together as a whole. But how did astronomy come about? Did our universe begin from the banging together of two celestial objects? Did God create our universe? Is the Milky Way a mere speck and our solar system an even smaller speck in the universe? What laws keep the universe from flying apart and us with our feet firmly on the ground?

What Do Astronomers Do?

First, take a brief look at what astronomers do. Some astronomers “observe” or are in the field of observational astronomy. These scientists gather data from observing the universe either through their eyes, their telescopes or computers. Those astronomers that use this data are called theoretical astrophysicists. They take that data and try to explain the observations made by the observational astronomers to learn more about the universe, our galaxy, planets and solar system. Mankind has always studied the heavens, searching for some understanding of their place in it.

How Did the Universe Begin?

There has always been debate about how the universe began. Some believe that God created the universe. This is called creationism. Others believe that the universe evolved from the Big Bang Theory. Most think of a huge collision resulting in an explosion that formed the universe. Big Bang perhaps isn’t as accurate as Big Expansion might be. Think of when you blow a bubble slowly and then it gets bigger and bigger. Or how water turns into ice and expands or even a balloon being expanded as it is blown.

Home Sweet Home

The Milky Way is much more than a candy bar. It’s where we humans live! It is a beautiful, spiral galaxy and our solar system rests around 26,000 light years from its center. A light year can be explained as the distance that light travels in one year. So, at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, light travels about six TRILLION miles a year! Times that by 26,000 light years and that gives you an idea of how big the Milky Way must be and how enormous the universe must be.

The Light We Live By

Humans would not be alive if the sun wasn’t the center of our solar system. It lies in the perfect position to Earth so that our days are not too hot and our nights are not too cold. This allows life on our planet. Did you know that the sun is actually a large star? One of over 100 billion in the Milky Way.

  • All About the Sun NASA’s World Book article on the sun and its role in our solar system.
  • Sun Facts Basic information about the sun and its importance to the Earth and our solar system.
  • The Most Important Star Photos about the sun and information on sunspots and eclipses with definitions for kids.

Eight or Nine Planets—How about 11?

Planets orbit our sun. The planet closet to the sun is called Mercury. The white planet is called Venus. The third planet from the sun is called Earth. That’s our home. Earth’s “twin” is the red planet, Mars. The largest planet is Jupiter and Saturn has rings. Uranus spins on its side. Neptune has a lot of wind and Pluto is no longer a major planet but a dwarf planet along with Ceres and Eris. How do you remember the order of the planets in our solar system? Use a silly sentence where the first letter of each word stands for a major planet in order from the sun! This is called mnemonics.

Mom’s Very Excellent Mangoes Jumped Silly Under Nowhere!

How Far Does the Apple Fall From the Tree?

Sir Isaac Newton is said to have discovered the theory of gravity when an apple fell off the limb of a tree that he was sitting under knocking him on the head. “Hmmm,” he said. “Why did that apple fall to the ground and not up to the sky?” Gravity is the reason humans don’t float around in space.

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