Dozens of Cousins, Trillions of Stars

The meadow on Aunt Margaret's mountain was filled with cousins.

“Dozens of cousins, hundreds of cousins, millions of cousins,” Katelyn sang happily as she spread out her sleeping bag. The Sun was already setting behind the mountaintop. Soon Katelyn and all the cousins would settle into cozy sleeping bags and count stars. It was the Hill family annual stargazing party, and Katelyn was finally, finally old enough to stay in the meadow all night long.

“Thirteen cousins doesn't count as dozens,” said Andy. “It's not millions!”

“Billions of cousins!” Hana said. She plopped her sleeping bag next to Katelyn. “Trillions of cousins! Too many to count!” She and Katelyn rolled into each other, laughing and laughing.

Andy snorted and went to help Uncle David set up the telescope. Aunt Mary and Aunt Margaret came out of the house, carrying cocoa and coffee.

“Turn off the lights!” Uncle Tom bellowed. “How can we see anything with all those lights?”

“Look!” Mike and Joey called out together. “The first star!” They started arguing over who saw it first.

Katelyn and Hana looked. There it was, twinkling in the dusky sky, just begging them to chant, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight,” but Katelyn changed her ending. “I wish I may, I wish I might, not ever fall asleep tonight!”

More and more stars popped out of the velvety night sky. Katelyn sipped her cocoa and counted. “One, two, three, four…”

“…five, six, seven, eight,” Hana picked up. “Katelyn! There are too many! We'll be counting all night!” “You'll be counting longer than that!” Cousin Anna came over to sit by them. Anna was in college, almost a grownup. “Just looking, we can probably see four or five thousand stars. If we use Uncle David's telescope, we might see a couple of million stars. If we could see all the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, we'd see a couple hundred billion stars. You'd have to count for thousands of years to get them all!”

It was too much to think about. Anna laughed. “Here's something easier,” she said. “Stand up, you two! Turn like this, so you're facing south.”

Taylor and Bailey and Audrey wanted to face south, too. “OK, guys,” Anna said. “Look up and a little bit to the right. See those three stars right in a row? They're part of the constellation called Orion. They're Orion's belt.”

“I know about constellations,” Taylor said. “They're star pictures.” She paused. “But I can never really see them, except the Big Dipper.”

“They're hard,” Anna agreed. “You really have to use your imagination. Orion is called the hunter because the whole picture looks like a man holding a club and a shield. But mostly, I just look for the the three stars that make his belt.”

“What's that star?” Hana asked, pointing past Orion. “It's the brightest one in the sky!”

“It is,” agreed Anna. “But it's not a star—that's the planet Jupiter! See how it shines instead of sparkles? That's one way of telling it's a planet.”

“Hey, everybody!” Now Brian and Joel and Uncle Dick were all pointing. “A satellite!”

The satellite looked like a little bright star, moving slowly and steadily across the sky. “What's it doing up there?” Katelyn asked.

“It could be doing lots of things,” Uncle Dick said. “Maybe it's a weather satellite, taking pictures of clouds and storms. Maybe it's taking pictures of stars and planets. Maybe it's helping send television programs all over the world. Satellites do all kinds of jobs.”

Katelyn was still watching the satellite when suddenly—“A shooting star! I saw a shooting star!” she cried. Katelyn loved shooting stars! This one whooshed across the night sky in a fast streak of bright light—and then it was gone.

“It's not really a star, you know,” said Cousin Ariel. “It's just a tiny speck of space dust, burning up on its way to Earth.”

Aunt Cindy called from Uncle David's telescope. “Who wants to see Saturn?”

Katelyn and Hana hurried over. Uncle David had already pointed the telescope, and when Katelyn looked into the little eyepiece, she saw a yellowish tan planet with a ring stretching all around it. “Is that really Saturn?” she asked. “It looks just like a picture!'”

“It's really Saturn,” Uncle David assured her. “Besides the ring, Saturn has thirty moons. Can you imagine? They go around Saturn just like our Moon goes around Earth.”

“Where is our Moon, anyhow?” Katelyn asked. “I want to see the craters!”

Aunt Cindy laughed. “Don't wish for the Moon around Uncle David!” she warned. “Stargazers don't like it when the Moon is out. It makes the sky too bright, so you can't see the stars as well. We always pick a night when the Moon isn't shining for our party.”

Cousin Andrea lowered the binoculars she was looking through. “Here's something weird,” she said. “You'd think a full Moon would be twice as bright as a half Moon, right? Well, it's not! A full Moon is more than ten times as bright as a half Moon. And the full Moon is more than 100,000 times brighter than the brightest nighttime star!” All these numbers were making Katelyn tired. “Come on,” she told Hana. “Let's get in our sleeping bags and look for more shooting stars.”

They curled up close to each other and stared into the night.

“Do you believe Earth is really spinning around in space, like all the other planets?” Hana whispered.

Katelyn wasn't sure. “I hope we don't fall off,” she giggled sleepily.

Hana scooted even closer. Billions and trillions of stars twinkled down on them.

“Star light, star bright,” Katelyn murmured. “So many stars I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might…”
And then she fell asleep that night.

Activity

  1. Why would it be difficult to see stars if the Moon were full?
    [anno: It would be difficult to see stars because the light from the Moon would make the sky too bright to see as many stars.]
  2. How much brighter is a full Moon than a half Moon?
    [anno: A full Moon is ten times brighter than a half Moon.]
  3. What is it called when there is no Moon shining?
    [anno: It is called a new Moon.]
  4. How often would you have the perfect conditions for stargazing?
    Why?
    [anno: You would have the perfect conditions for stargazing every four weeks because there is a new Moon every four weeks.]