Educator Features

Night Sky Network
07.21.05
The words Night Sky Network 'Astronomy clubs bringing the wonders of the universe to the public' next to a man and a child looking through a telescope at the night sky
Image above: Participation in the Night Sky Network aligns with the existing mission of improving public awareness of astronomy. Credit: NASA
With the help of several educational toolkits, members of NASA's Night Sky Network have shared the wonders of the universe with more than 150,000 people across the United States since the program was founded in March 2004.

The coalition consists of more than 200 amateur astronomy clubs that share a passion for engaging people in the hobby and science of astronomy in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Requirements for membership include conducting at least five public outreach events per year and reporting attendance figures to NASA.

For many clubs, participation in the Night Sky Network aligns with their existing mission of improving public awareness of astronomy. It also gives them new tools to reach new audiences, especially young people, and provides opportunities to stay updated on the latest space news via members-only teleconferences with NASA scientists.

Each club receives a series of activity kits put together by NASA and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. ASP manages the Night Sky Network in cooperation with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's PlanetQuest, an education and outreach program for several of NASA's planet-finding missions, as well as NASA's Structure and Evolution of the Universe, Origins and Solar System education programs.

The first kit developed, "PlanetQuest: The Search for Another Earth," is designed to aid club members in explaining fundamental astronomy concepts, including how extrasolar planets -- planets orbiting stars other than our Sun -- are found.

"The discovery of more than 140 extrasolar planets in recent years has elevated public interest in astronomy, so a planet-finding kit seemed like a natural choice for us to start with," said Marni Berendsen, ASP education project coordinator.

One of the most popular activities in the kit enables participants to locate stars that are circled by planets. They do this using a telescope, a pair of binoculars or, in some cases, the naked eye. The Mount Diablo Astronomical Society in Walnut Creek, Calif., conducted this activity at a recent star party attended by local high school students.

"The students were fascinated with the idea of planets around other stars and how we are currently finding them," said the club's president, Richard Ozer.

Additional kits include one on black holes and an upcoming one on telescope basics. In addition to star parties, the kits have been used in a variety of venues, including Girl Scout gatherings and onboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

"We see the toolkits as a way for NASA to support the amateur astronomy community in their ongoing commitment to educate and inspire students and the public," said Michael Greene, manager of PlanetQuest. "The activities are designed to be simple, fun and accessible, with plenty of 'wow' factor built in."

For more information about the Night Sky Network, visit http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov.

Related Resources
The Universe At Your Fingertips
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More Universe At Your Fingertips
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PlanetQuest
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Randal Jackson, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies