Got 30 Minutes? Learn about Space and Astronomy!

A star chart showing the Big Dipper
This star chart shows the Big Dipper, how you can use the two end stars to point to the North Star, and the arc-shaped handle as a pointer to the bright star Arcturus in Bootes. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Astronomy is a pastime that nearly anybody can learn to do. It only appears complex because people look at the sky and see thousands of stars. They might think that it's impossible to learn it all. However, with a little time and interest, people can pick up a lot of information about the stars and be stargazing in as little as 30 minutes a day (or night).

In particular, teachers are often looking for classroom exercises and rainy-day projects in the sciences. Astronomy and space exploration projects fit the bill perfectly. Some may require a trip outside, and a few require some supplies and adult supervision. All can be done with minimal hassle. For people who want to do longer activities, field trips to observatories and planetarium facilities can provide extended hours of enjoyable exploration. 

April Star chart
A star chart showing three easy-to-spot constellations in April. Check out the star charts in the link above to find a simulated chart of the sky for your time and location. Carolyn Collins Petersen

As ancient humans looked at the stars, they began to see patterns, too. We call them constellations. Not only do we see them when we learn more about the night sky, but we can also spot planets and other objects as well. An experienced stargazer knows how to find deep-sky objects such as galaxies and nebulae, as well as double stars and interesting patterns called asterisms. 

Learning the starry sky takes about 15 minutes each night (the other 15 minutes are used to get dark-adapted). Use the maps at the link to see what the sky looks like from many locations on Earth.  More »

02
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Chart the Phases of the Moon

Lunar phases
This image shows the phases of the Moon and why they happen. The center ring shows the Moon as it orbits around the Earth, as seen from above the north pole. Sunlight illuminates half the Earth and half the moon at all times. But as the Moon orbits around the Earth, at some points in its orbit the sunlit part of the Moon can be seen from the Earth. At other points, we can only see the parts of the Moon that are in shadow. The outer ring shows what we see on the Earth during each corresponding part of the moon's orbit. NASA

This one is really easy. All it takes is a very few minutes to spot the Moon in the night (or sometimes the daytime) sky. Most calendars have lunar phases on them, so it's a matter of noting those and then going out searching. 

The Moon goes through a monthly cycle of phases. The reasons it does this are: it orbits Earth as our planet orbits the Sun. As it goes around Earth, the Moon shows us the same face at all times. This means that at different times of the month, different parts of the lunar face we see is lit by the Sun. At full moon, the entire face is lit up. During the other phases, only a fraction of the Moon is illuminated. 

The best way to chart these phases is to go out each day or night and note the location of the Moon and what shape it is. Some observers sketch what they see. Others take pictures. The result is a nice record of the phases. 

03
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The 30-Minute Rocket

Air Powered Bottle Rocket - Supplies
Air Powered Bottle Rocket - These are the things you need. NASA

For folks looking to learn more about the rudiments of space exploration, building rockets is a great way to star. Anyone can make a 30-minute air- or water-powered rocket with a few simple items. Best for an outdoor project. Learn more about rocketry at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center's rocketry education page. Folks interested in a more historical background can read about the U.S. Redstone Rockets

Diagram of Space Shuttle -Edible Shuttle
Diagram of Space Shuttle - Edible Space Shuttle. NASA

While it's true that Space Shuttles are no longer flying, they still make a great learning experience for people who want to understand how they flew. One way to understand its parts is to build a model. Another, more fun way, is to make a shuttle snack. All that's needed are some Twinkies, marshmallows and other goodies. Assemble and eat these parts of the Space Shuttle:

  • The External Tank holds fuel.
  • The Solid Rocket Boosters push the Shuttle into the air.
  • The Orbiter is where the astronauts sit. It also holds everything that is going into space.
More »
05
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Make a Cassini Spacecraft That's Good Enough to Eat

Does your Cassini look like this one?
Does your Cassini look like this one?. NASA

Here's another tasty activity. The real Cassini spacecraft is orbiting Saturn, so celebrate its successes by building a replica that's mighty sweet. Some students have built one using cakes and Twizzlers using a recipe from NASA. (This link downloads a PDF from NASA.) 

Lunar Prospector Image - Complete!
Lunar Prospector Image - Complete!. NASA/JPL

Lunar exploration is an ongoing activity and many probes have landed there or orbited our closest neighbor in space. The real Lunar Prospector was designed for a low polar orbit investigation of the Moon, including mapping of surface composition and possible deposits of polar ice, measurements of magnetic and gravity fields, and study of lunar outgassing events.

The link above goes to a NASA page that describes how to build a model of the Lunar Prospector. It's a quick way to learn about one of the probes that landed on the Moon.  More »

07
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Go to the Planetarium or Science Center

This one WILL take more than 30 minutes, but most planetarium facilities have a short stargazing show that takes viewers on a trip across the night sky. Or, they may have a longer show that talks about specific aspects of astronomy, such as exploration of Mars or the discovery of black holes. A trip to the planetarium or to a local science center provides lots of short activities that can illustrate astronomy and space exploration.  

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.