Finding Orion in the night sky

The small boy and I went for a quick walk after dinner one night to burn off some of his energy after he laid himself down and took an unexpected nap in the middle of the day.  As we stepped out of the front door on an exceptionally clear night, I could see the Orion constellation right in front of us.

He noticed the moon first, and excitedly told me about its crescent shape, insisting I fetch my camera to take a zoomed photograph so he could see the moon's craters.  He still enjoys finding and looking at the moon after we attempted to follow a lunar cycle.

Orion constellation - pretty hard to photograph without using a tripod!

We then spotted the bright dot of Venus (which he was very excited to discover in the sky a few weeks ago), and after that I pointed out some stars. One of the brightest stars we could see was Rigel, which is on the bottom right of the Orion constellation. Rigel is much bigger than our Sun (its radius is about 75 times the size). I helped him to spot the other stars in Orion, including Betelgeuse (top left) which is a red supergiant (which will eventually explode as a supernova, and there's been some speculation this may happen soon as it's been unusually dim, although I've also read it may be in the next hundred thousand years...).  I wasn't totally sure that he'd seen all of the stars I pointed out, so I attempted to take a photo that we could talk about the next day.  I've included it here, but it's pretty wobbly - I'd have used a tripod for a better image but I wanted to get something quickly so we could proceed with our evening walk!

We talked a bit more about the stars as we walked, and I explained that the light from the stars took lots of years to reach us.  I didn't have any facts and figures to hand, but they'd have been lost on him anyway, I just wanted to get across the idea that they are a long, long, way away and we can only see them because they are much brighter than our Sun.

Making his constellation

The next day, I had an idea for turning his interest in the stars into a craft activity.  He's not usually a fan of crafting but I sometimes get him to persist for more than a few seconds if he wants to make something in particular.  I suggested making the Orion constellation for his bedroom wall, to go with his collection of planets which we made together a few months ago, and he liked the idea.  I got out some star shapes which I bought cheaply a while ago thinking they might be good for making something, some black cardboard and some white chalk.

His finished 'Orion'

We looked at my photo from the night before and I marked the shape of the constellation on the cardboard with the chalk, and wrote the word 'Orion' as he's keen on seeing words written down.  He then stuck the stars very carefully on the dots I'd drawn, and happily kept going until they were all done.  He chose a big red star for Betelgeuse as it's a red supergiant (and he likes saying the name), and a big yellow one for Rigel as he thought that was best for the brightest star.

This was a nice way to start to introduce the idea of seeing distant stars, and being able to identify them in the sky from the way we see their position relative to other stars.  It also made him think a little about the idea that they are much further away than the planets in our solar system and the Sun, and that stars can be different to each other.  The sticking and making the constellation worked to get him to do the sort of activity he usually shies away from, and it's created a nice talking point for his wall which reminds him about the stars when he sees it.  I might try and do something similar for another constellation in the future, although I might need to read up a little on the stars we can see myself first...!