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We currently possess a Celestron NexStar 130 SLT computerized reflector telescope and have an opportunity to do backyard astronomy with my 6-year old daughter from time to time.

She is quite interested in space and astronomy, knows a lot of objects in the Solar System, which have atmosphere and what don't, knows major planet satellites and thinks there is life on Titan.

But, I find it quite challenging to actually do telescope observations with her:

  • it takes time to set things up, assemble the equipment and align the telescope. She is not patient enough and that sometimes "kills" all the fun and excitement
  • it is not easy for her to get used to looking through an eyepiece
  • it is easy to touch the telescope which leads to a shaking image

What are the general guidelines to observe the night sky with the 6-year old? What can I do to make the process less tedious, more fun and engaging?

(we also have the 15x70 Binoculars)

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps, to keep her occupied while you set up the telescope, have her try to identify targets she may want to look at. There are plenty of programs and printable sky maps you could use that she could look at while you're setting up. It'll let her explore what's out there to observe and give her something to look at when the telescope is ready. $\endgroup$ – zephyr Jul 10 '17 at 13:40
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Your issues seem to be rather in line with what one would expect from a 6-year old getting in touch with observational astronomy. Actually, adults can sometimes experience these difficulties too when they first get in touch with it. I'm speaking out of experience of having shown objects of the night sky through a telescope to visitors. Some people just don't understand that when they touch the telescope, it moves. I would recommend the following guidelines to "fix" your proposed problems (expanding on hartacus' answer, which appeared while I was writing this):

  • Someone else could keep her busy while you set up the telescope. Since it is computerized, you won't waste time looking for objects and the only downtime will be due to the moving of the telescope. You can minimise this by planning your observation ahead of time to minimise the distance between two following objects.
  • As for the eyepiece, just tell her how to use it. She'll learn it in time. Even adults who have never used a telescope before generally need to be told how to look through it.
  • Most telescopes have some mechanism to lock the primary axes of the telescope mount. You can use this to make sure the telescope always points to the same spot. If you find that it is the tripod that is moving, you could try to find a way to lock that as well. Maybe surround its legs with loose bricks?
  • To minimise the last two difficulties at the same time, the best position to look through a telescope is to have both hands behind your back, move one eye as close to the eyepiece as possible without touching it, and close your other eye.

As a final remark on looking through the telescope, she might not be seeing the same thing as you when she looks through the telescope, because her eyes are different from you. I don't know whether this is applicable, but most telescopes have a way to adjust their focus to make the image as sharp as possible. People with near - or farsightedness generally require the focus of a telescope to be different.

These, however, are difficulties you will definitely overcome in time. When these are fixed, the most important part of the experience will be in the objects you show her. As hartacus mentioned, show her things she can relate to (planets are great), and tell her about the things she is looking at.
Apart from planets, star clusters can be impressive too. She'll surely be astonised if you tell her how many stars there are in one cluster. Some open clusters can even be thought of as 'micro-constellations' (more specifically, this one).
There are some nebulae / galaxies that are nice to watch, but I would restrain from them in the beginning because most will appear as blurry grey spots through an average telescope, which is not that impressive.

One last thing: you mentioned a binoculars. You can already see a lot with binoculars, although most impressive objects would be too faint. The main issue with the binoculars is that you can't aim them for her (unless you have a mount for them, which exists for some). If you can teach her to aim them herself however, there are some spots in the night sky which have 'mini-constellations': sets of stars in which you can recognize images, but they are too small to see with the naked eye, and too big to see with a telescope.

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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely precious and very practical ideas, thank you so much! Despite the challenges we had, I will always remember her first "wow" when she saw Jupiter's stripes, the rings of Saturn and craters on the Moon.. $\endgroup$ – alecxe Jun 28 '17 at 1:20
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Regarding your first dot point: I would suggest trying to have the equipment set up before she joins you, if possible. If you have a family member who can look after her/keep her distracted while you do this, she won't have to wait while you set up the equipment. (I understand this may be hard, depending on your situation.)

Regarding your second and third dot points: keep working on it. Learning things like how to look through an eyepiece, and that touching the telescope leads to a shaky image, is a valuable part of the experience. She may learn it slower at her stage in life, but it's stuff that everyone has to learn when they start using a telescope, and it can be really good to start early. You may need to be a bit patient with her while she's learning, but she may also learn patience through the process.

It sounds like she's very enthusiastic about space, which is great. Talk through what you're seeing, and be excited about it; look at some things she knows about, and some things she doesn't yet, in a spirit of investigation.

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My experience is that children struggle with telescopes. I think it's partly monocular vision (it's difficult for children to close just one eye), partly concentration and keeping still. You could try to get her accustomed to using binoculars in the day time, but 15 x 70 will be much too big and heavy - 8x25 would be better, and cheap.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, with 15x70 we had to use a tripod and got the same issue of touching the binoculars. Smaller binoculars is a good idea, thanks! $\endgroup$ – alecxe Jun 28 '17 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ Might sound a little off-beat but I use a fancy dress pirate's eye patch when I'm observing. It's much more comfortable than squinting! $\endgroup$ – MartinV Aug 6 '17 at 7:52

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