A family of amateur astronomers

``Twinkle, twinkle, little star . . . How I wonder what you are. . . .'' This rhyme carries a message for both parents and children. Studying the stars can be a fascinating family experience.

Our family experience with the stars started one evening during the children's spring vacation at their grandparents' farm. With few trees around, and no next-door houses or city lights, the nighttime sky rose above us in all its pristine glory.

``Wow!'' breathed our young would-be-scientist son. ``I wonder how many stars are up there.''

That set up a guessing game about the stars we were seeing, imagined as a million by our youngest, 10,000 by our scientist, 2,000 by our Girl Scout. After ferreting out a star guide from the farmhouse shelves, we discovered we were perhaps seeing 2,000 stars at that moment. But there are more: those out of sight in the Southern Hemisphere, those requiring a telescope to spot them, and others only visible during certain seasons of the year.

This discovery brought on a gathering of our family's new amateur astronomers each sundown on the farmhouse back steps where, with squinting eyes and frowning foreheads, they tried to recognize constellations I pointed out. Luckily there are five circumpolar ones I was sure about, those visible all seasons. The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) hung over Grandpa's barn. Using this as a guide, I showed them Polaris, the North Star, which starts the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). Between the dippers is the long and winding body and tail of Draco the Dragon, which then curves around not far from Cepheus the king and his queen, Cassiopeia.

During summer vacation, the stars came into focus for us again. Our young scientist found that a rowboat in the middle of the lake provides the most uncluttered view of all -- particularly if you lie on your back on the bottom of the boat, looking up. I didn't try it myself, but I had to admit it's a neat idea. The Northern Cross (the constellation also described as Cygnus the Swan) was high in the sky, which led me to comment on what is, to me, an almost incredible fact about Deneb, the Cross's topmost star.

``The light you see from Deneb left there some 1,600 years ago,'' I remarked. (I'd been doing some homework since spring!) ``Can you believe it took that long to get here?''

The would-be-scientist's reply surprised me. ``Sure,'' he said. (He'd been doing some homework, too.) ``And I can top that. I read that light from some of the farthest-away stars started toward us when there weren't any civilized people on the earth at all.'' He raised up his head, watching my expression. ``Can you believe that?''

``I guess I have to,'' I said meekly. Then we went on to more discussion about stars: how they shine by their own light, how the sun is our nearest star, and other information intriguing to both of us.

``Wow!'' our young scientist said over and over.

But our space-age youngest had a different response. Craning her small neck to see the stars through the trees surrounding our vacation cottage, she wanted to know ``Which ones up there are the ones we put up?''

So the heavens no longer belong solely to the sun, moon, planets, stars. Because of constant research, we've added quasars and other mysterious bodies to the list. Our satellites (and others) continue to poke and peek around the planets, and now our space shuttles engage in other explorations and experiments. Yet, I can honestly say to my children: The sun still rises and sets on its predetermined schedule; the moon moves around Earth in its orbit regularly each month; the planets follow their unchanging patterns.

That this part of the world above us is predictable and unchanging has become a point of comfort and refuge to me in this chaotic world below. I share the feelings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was wont to look at the stars and put his life into perspective by saying to himself, ``Why so hot, little man? Why so hot?''

My husband and I haven't stressed this concept with the children, however. We just hope it will reach them gradually. This hope was bolstered as our scientist started saving paper route money for a telescope; our Girl Scout bought an inexpensive star guide with her allowance; and our youngest began to ask as we went outdoors at night, ``What's that star's name, Mommy?''

Happily, the hobby of star watching need not cost anything. As time goes on there are meteor showers to look for and an occasional comet or eclipse to be seen. As a starter, though, learning the constellations and the why of their names may be enough. For me, I've learned most of the constellations while simply walking the dog each night. Now I'm figuring how to share dog walking intermittently with my three children. Among us, maybe we can move toward an answer to the twinkle, twinkle rhyme, ``What are you, little star?''

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