Geeky Parent Guide: Stars and Space

“Space, the final frontier.” Can you imagine Patrick Stewart saying this opening line? What do you think about when you look up at a dark evening sky? Perhaps you wonder how many stars are actually visible at that very moment, whether or not alien creatures will look like those from The Fifth Element, or maybe you think about the moon landing and when we’ll make another “giant leap for mankind.” Today on the Geeky Parent Guide, we’ll explore some of the recent happenings regarding space travel, and tell you where you can enjoy a perfect night for stargazing.

“NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity recorded a panoramic view before entering the upper end of a fluid-carved valley that descends the inner slope of a large crater's rim.” NASA reported on July 20, 2017, that Opportunity took images above “Perseverance Valley,” and who would’ve known how literal this named location would turn out to be for the NASA rover. The two-week pause in activity, which allowed these photos to be captured, was due to a “Sprained Ankle.” Engineers had to identify and correct a “temporary stall” in one of the front wheels. It is now functional to move forward; however, the other front wheel experienced a similar issue in 2006, and only moves straight ahead, as well. The two back wheels are now Opportunity’s source for making turns. In case you were wondering, this particular rover has been on Mars since January 2004, after its initial launch in July 2003.

Furthermore, on things Mars-related, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken some recent photos of Phobos, “one of the smallest moons in the solar system.” Since originally being discovered in 1877, many things have been learned about this moon. It completes an orbit around Mars in under eight hours, making it “the only natural satellite in the solar system that circles its planet in a time shorter than the parent planet’s day.” Another first ranking for this Martian moon relates to its distance to Mars – “Phobos is closer to its parent planet than any other moon in the solar system.” This proximity also influences the belief that Phobos is “being torn apart” in the planet’s gravitational forces, eventually leading to its ultimate destruction in many millions of years. It faces the same life cycle as it “draws nearer to Mars by 6.5 feet every hundred years,” meaning if it isn’t ripped apart, it will slam into the planet.

For Mars missions, and all other space travel, communication is a key component to making sure tasks stay on target. With 20 years of continuous Mars exploration under NASA’s belt, with “at least one active robot on Mars or in orbit around Mars” during that time, they have become adept at predicting and preparing for potential problems with signals reaching their rovers and spacecrafts – “Mars periodically passes near the sun about every 26 months, an arrangement called ‘Mars solar conjunction.’” During these time frames, and in the case of this year between July 22 and August 1, emitting particles from the Sun can prevent transmissions to and from NASA’s equipment. They purposefully stop all traffic going out, so a signal doesn’t get broken apart and potentially end up meaning something different. If a message is sent to a rover, “Start Laser, Stop Drive” could turn into “Start Drive,” which could lead to a harmful result for the rover, while any broken messages sent from the rover can be resent to identify any potential gaps in a message.


Sometimes, an easy way to understand what’s going on in space is to simply walk out your front door at night and look up. Depending on where you live, your view of things might be quite different. Perhaps you’ve never seen many stars, constellations, or other planets. Even if you have seen many stars, you might have never realized how wondrous the night sky can be.

If you are looking to find the perfect spot to stargaze, you might want to consider a trip to Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania. Cherry Springs is a designated International Dark Sky Park – “The International Dark-Skies Association [IDA] and its partners certify locations with exceptional nightscapes as International Dark Sky Parks (IDSP).” There are actually five different programs, including the Parks, and you can find one closest to you. Cherry Springs has the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field, which sits on top of a mountain with a 360-degree view that includes “the nucleus of the Milky Way Galaxy.”

The website for Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources lists all of your stargazing needs, including rules, how to get started, and the types of opportunities to look at a star-filled sky. Along with the overnight field, the park has separate viewing areas for shorter visits and “star parties,” which are events requiring registration and include “telescopes, guest lectures, camaraderie, astronomy equipment vendors, and an evening of public stargazing.”

To further understand the IDA programs, here are the different types of International Dark Sky conservation designations:

Communities
Parks
Reserves
Sanctuaries
Developments of Distinction

Here is a list of a few other locations listed in the states and the rest of the world:

Death Valley National Park – Park (California)
Borrego Springs – Community (California)
Oracle State Park – Park (Arizona)
Cosmic Campground – Sanctuary (New Mexico)
Sierra la Rana – Development of Distinction (Texas)
Headlands – Park (Michigan)
Big Cypress National Preserve – Park (Florida)

Bon Accord – Community (Alberta)
Mont-Mégantic – Reserve (Québec)
NamibRand Nature Reserve – Reserve (Namibia)
Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve – Reserve (Ireland)
Møn and Nyord – Community and Park (Denmark)
Zselic National Landscape Protection Area – Park (Hungary)
Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – Reserve (New Zealand)


Do you and your family geek out over Star Trek, Star Wars, or other space-traveling adventures, making you curious about what’s truly out there? Do you think we will land someone on Mars in our lifetime? When is the last time you stopped what you were doing to walk outside and look up at the night sky? Don’t forget to share your comments below, and also like and rate this page, as well as sharing with all of your space-traveling friends.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.

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