The Boy Scouts merit badge series are great step-by-step processes for how to engage kids in a particular topic. Even if your child is not actually in the Scouts program. Earning a badge for a topic requires completing a series of tasks that scaffold a kid’s engagement and learning.
Earning an astronomy merit badge requires 8 steps, some of which have multiple components.
Step 1: Safety Awareness
Part A: Potential Safety Hazards during Astronomy Activities
Any activity can involve some layer of risk, but generally it can be mitigated by being aware of your surrounds and preparing ahead of time.
Astronomy activities that involve observing celestial bodies will usually occur outside (backyard, park) or at a planetarium. Planetariums are most likely unfamiliar places, so being aware of your surroundings (trip hazards, emergency exits, etc.) is important.
Backyards and parks are familiar places, but you may not always spend time in them at night. And you may be looking to keep the outdoor lights to a minimum, so having a flashlight handy can keep you safe from tripping over a stray root or misplaced toy.
Part B: First Aid
If you or your child are participating in an indoor astronomy activity, the need for first aid will most likely be limited to cuts, scrapes, and bruises.
Outdoor activities, though, may require a bit more first aid treatment. For example, animal bites and stings can be troublesome, but alleviated with proper first aid equipment. Also, if you are hiking to your observation area, remember to follow proper hiking procedures (e.g., make sure to bring a full canteen / water bottle to ensure you stay hydrated).
Part C: Proper Clothing and Precautions
To be honest, proper clothing for outdoor astronomy viewing is no different than proper clothing for other activities. That said, here are a few tips courtesy of Wikihow:
- Layer clothing: This can mean different things depending on the season. In winter, you may want to wear (or at least have available) several different types of cold protection: hat, gloves/mittens, scarf, sweater, etc. In summer, you should consider having 2-3 lighter layers; this will allow you to shed excess clothing if you get warm.
- Bring other items to ensure comfort: Yoga mats, pillows, tarp, sleeping bags, folding chairs, and other camping items can be beneficial to have with you on an astronomy excursion. Not only can these add comfort to your outing, they can provide additional warmth. Especially if you’re not constantly active (e.g., several people sharing a single telescope).
Part D: Observing the Sun and Moon Safely
Observing the Moon with a telescope neutral-density Moon filter on your telescope to diminish the brightness, particularly during the gibbous and full phases.
Unlike the moon, you cannot look directly at the sun. One way to prevent any risk is to use filters specifically designed for solar viewings. Over at astronomy.com, they advise using one made from “aluminized Mylar film or glass coated with a nickel-chromium alloy”.
Want to make your own Mylar solar filter at home? Here is a DIY video:
Step 2: Light Pollution
The second step requires a scout to understand light pollution, as well as its effect on astronomy.
Simply put, light pollution is human-generated (artificial) light in night-time environments. You can see the effect of light pollution on observing celestial objects here:
It may be clear from the image, but to put it directly how this affects astronomy: light pollution prevents sky watchers from being able to fully see the objects in the night-time sky. Skyglow reduces the contrast between stars/galaxies and the sky itself, thereby making it harder to see some objects.
Step 3: Understanding Telescopes
Part A: How to Use Binoculars and Telescopes
Binoculars and telescopes are both important tools for observing faraway objects. They both allow you to magnify distant objects, making it easier to see and study them.
For your badge, you should also know how to properly store both instruments at home and in the field. At home, the biggest challenge is to store in non-extreme temperatures. Garages make an ideal place to store these (especially telescopes) due to their sometimes infrequent use; however, it is best to keep it inside in a temperature-controlled environment.
Part B: Types of Telescopes
There are two basic types of optical telescopes: reflectors and refractors. Reflector telescopes use a glass lens as the objective of the telescopes; whereas, refractor telescopes use a mirror.
There are also long-wavelength and short-wavelength telescopes. Long-wavelength telescopes include radio and microwave. Short-wavelength telescopes include ultraviolet and x-ray. One quick fact about each one:
- radio: radio telescopes are used to study the radio frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, and they have three components: antenna (collect signal), amplifier (boost signal), and recorder (store signal)
- microwave: space-based telescopes are used due to difficulty of seeing microwave signals in space from the ground; observations have been used to determine age of the galaxy
- ultraviolet: Earth’s ozone layer blocks all wavelengths shorter than 300 nanometers (which includes ultraviolet), so ultraviolet telescopes must be used on rockets or from space
- x-ray: like ultraviolet telescopes, x-ray telescopes cannot be used from the ground; they must be mounted to balloons, rockets, or artificial satellites
Part D: Instruments on a Telescope
- Objective Lens: focuses the image
- Eyepiece: magnifies the image
- Finderscope: aides in finding the object to be viewed
- Mounting: structure, often mechanical, that supports the telescope
Step 4: Constellations and Stars
Part A: Identify 10 Constellations in the sky
15 constellations to look out for (click to see full image):
This page lists 88 different constellations, ordered by month for best viewing.
Part B: Identify 8 Conspicuous Stars in Sky
Sirius – brightest star in the sky; part of the Canis Major constellation
Polaris – also called the North Star, it is the brightest star in Ursa Minor
Rigel – brightest star of the constellation Orion
Betelgeuse – also part of the Orion constellation
Antares – brightest star in the Scorpius constellation
Vega – brightest star in the Lyra constellation, and also the 5th brightest visible star
Pleiades – star cluster located in the constellation Taurus
Castor and Pollux – both are stars visible from Earth, and are part of the Gemini constellation
Altair and Daneb – along with Vega, they form the Summer Triangle; Altair is part of the Aquila constellation, and Daneb is part of the Cygnus constellation
Part C: Sketching the Big Dipper
This part requires a scout to sketch the Big Dipper. The first sketch should depict the Big Dipper in the early evening. Then, the second sketch should occur several hours later. By doing this, the scout can see how the orientation changes as the evening progresses.
On each sketch, the North Star should be noted.
Part D: Explain the Milky Way
Part D require scouts to understand what they see when looking at the Milky Way galaxy.
The Milky Way is the galaxy in which our planet sits. All visible stars (including the Sun) and planets are part of the Milky Way Galaxy, which gets its name from its appearance in the sky as seen in a remote, dark area.
Step 5: Understanding Planets
Part A: Identify 5 Planets
So, which five planets are the most visible?
The five most visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
All five of them can be seen in the night sky for much of the year, except for when they get too close to the Sun.
The inferior planets (Mercury and Venus) exhibit phases, since they orbit the sun in similar paths as Earth. The superior planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) do not exhibit such phases.
Part B: Understanding When Planets Are Visible
This table shows when each of the five most visible planets will be observable in 2019.
|Planet||Month(s) Observable in Evening Sky|
|Mercury||February 18 – March 5
June 3 – July 11
September 23 – November 3
|Venus||October 10 – December 31|
|Mars||January 1 – July 18|
|Jupiter||May 8 – November 7|
|Saturn||July 9 – December 28|
Part C: Planetary Motion Across Sky
Planets orbit the sun, and due to Earth’s rotation, they rise in the east and set in the west. Planets will either move east across the sky (direct motion) or move west across the sky (retrograde motion).
Part D: Observing a Planet
For this part, scouts must observe a planet and document what they observe.
Step 6: Understanding Earth’s Moon
Part A: Sketching the Moon’s Face
For this part, a scout must sketch the face of the moon; as well as identify at least five seas and five craters.
Part B: Sketching the Moon’s Phase and Position
Another sketch: this time scouts will sketch the moon’s position and phase for 4 days out of the week. They should also note landmarks (hills, trees, etc.), while noting any observations they make.
Part C: Why Does the Moon Orbit the Earth?
What factors keep the Moon orbiting the Earth?
- Inertia: a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged
- Gravity: the force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth, or toward any other physical body having mass
Part D: Relative Positioning of Sun, Earth, and Moon
Using a diagram, a scout should be able to explain the relative positioning of these three objects at several different times:
- solar eclipse
- lunar eclipse
- first-quarter phase
- full moon phase
- last-quarter phase
- new moon phase
Step 7: Sun
Part A: Basic Information about the Sun
What is the Sun’s composition? The Sun is composed almost entirely of hydrogen (75%) and helium (25%). There are other trace metals that make up less than 1% of the Sun.
How is the Sun related to other stars? Compared to other stars, you could say the Sun is nothing special. There are plenty of stars that are bigger, and plenty that are smaller. It is a yellow dwarf.
How does the Sun’s radiation affect the Earth’s weather? The Sun’s energy directly affects weather by warming air masses.
How does the Sun affect communications? Solar flares can disrupt radio broadcasts by making them noisy and/or weak.
Part B: Sunspots
Wikipedia defines sunspots as: “They are regions of reduced surface temperature caused by concentrations of magnetic field flux that inhibit convection that appear as spots darker than the surrounding areas”
Increased sunspot activity is correlated with increased solar radiation.
Part C: Identify Types of Stars
This table provides a succinct guide to different types of stars:
|Type of Star||Example(s)||Definition|
|Red||Betelguese||Red stars have the coolest temperatures among red, blue, and yellow stars; a red star has a surface temperature of about 3,500 Kelvin.|
|Yellow||Capella||Yellow stars’ temperature is between that of red stars and blue stars; a yellow star has a surface temperature of about 5,000 – 6,000 Kelvin.|
|Blue||Rigel||Blue stars have the coolest temperatures among red, blue, and yellow stars; a red star has a surface temperature between 10,000 – 40,000 Kelvin.|
Step 8: Observations
This step consists of multiple observations with varying requirements.
Part A: Planetarium or Astronomical Observatory
In this part, the scout visits either a planetarium or astronomical observatory. Afterwards, they must submit a report (scrapbook, presentation, etc.) that discusses any activities, exhibits, telescopes, and observed celestial objects.
Part B: 3-Hour Observation Session
For this session, scouts should determine what celestial objects they wish to view prior to the session beginning. These can be noted in a notebook, and then the scout can make comments as they observe the objects.
Part C: Star Party
For this, scouts will plan and host a star party, at which he or she can show other scouts (or classmates / other group) celestial objects.