Space Out and Explore the Universe Without Leaving Home

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After almost nine years of astronauts hitching rides off the planet, Americans are finally traveling on their own rockets again with this week’s NASA-SpaceX launch of crew to the International Space Station. And with Perseverance, another NASA rover vehicle, headed to Mars this summer, 2020 is shaping up to be a busy year on the final frontier.

If you find yourself with a new (or renewed) interest in America’s space program or general astronomy, you’re in luck — the web is full of free and inexpensive learning resources to feed your mind. You can even find a few science projects to keep the family busy. Here’s a guide.

Tour NASA.gov

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration main website is a great place to discover the past, present and future of the country’s role in cosmic exploration. Along with history articles and multimedia, the live NASA TV video stream is on the site, as are links to the agency’s expansive presence across social-media channels (including Giphy, SoundCloud and Twitch).

ImageNASA’s main website holds a vast collection of videos, photos, audio and more from the agency’s six decades of space exploration.
NASA’s main website holds a vast collection of videos, photos, audio and more from the agency’s six decades of space exploration.

Visit the downloads section of the site for links to NASA’s mobile apps or free e-books including the “NASA Systems Engineering Handbook.” There’s also an audio library with clips you can use as ringtones or computer alerts, like the foreboding “Houston, we’ve had a problem” warning from the nationally nerve-racking Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

NASA maintains many other websites, as does its Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, which hosts sites for the Mars projects, for solar-system exploration and even the old 1970s Voyager interstellar probes.

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NASA produces several additional websites related to its work, including this information hub for Mars-exploration missions like this summer’s Perseverance rover launch.

Mark Your Calendar

Want to know when to look up for a meteor shower or the next photo-worthy supermoon? Bookmark or subscribe to an astronomy calendar. For example, TimesandDate.com hosts a Calendar of Cosmic Events that notes eclipses, equinoxes, solstices and more.

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Subscribing to one of the many astronomy calendars available online puts events like moon phases and meteor showers on your schedule.

To get major astronomical events to appear automatically on your online calendar, search for a subscription option, like the Moon Phase & Astronomy Calendar. And the Science desk of The New York Times maintains its own astronomy and space calendar that works with Google Calendar and the iOS Calendar app.

See the Stars

When you’re ready to explore the cosmos on your own, use your smartphone; just search for “astronomy” in your app store. Many popular apps combine augmented reality, 3-D models and your location information to provide a customized guided tour of the sky.

The $3 Star Walk 2 for Android and iOS is beautifully designed, and the app’s news section alerts you to upcoming astronomical events. The $2 Star Rover for Android and iOS also provides a pocket planetarium experience, as does the free SkyView Lite for Android and iOS.

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Like many space-exploration apps, SkySafari for Android and iOS uses your device’s location information to show you the skies above, along with other astronomical information.

SkySafari has apps for Android and iOS on several enthusiast levels (paid versions range from about $3 to $40), and the more expensive editions include mobile control for compatible home telescopes. And if you don’t have your own telescope, peek at the images by the Hubble Space Telescope on its official website.

Virtually Visit a Museum

Although many institutions have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, their online exhibits are up. For example, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum website has several displays to browse — as well as other content in the free Google Arts & Culture app for Android and iOS.

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The Google Arts and Culture app provides a virtual peek into the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, as well as scores of other historical and cultural institutions around the world.

Google’s app also lets you take a tour of Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, and the complex’s own site hosts virtual learning events. And if your apartment is feeling cramped, the site for the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History has a free educational version of its Digital Universe 3-D atlas as a hefty download for desktop systems.

Find Family Learning Activities

Colorful planets and rolling rovers have a certain appeal for children and can help foster an early interest in science, technology engineering and mathematics. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry offers a Science at Home collection of hands-on projects for children, like designing a parachute or building a “stomp rocket.”

The California Science Center has several projects as part of its Stuck at Home Science activity series that teaches material using household supplies.

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NASA’s educational content for students includes games, science projects and free downloads, like print-ready bookmarks of the agency’s famous mathematicians.

NASA’s website has a huge area devoted to STEM education projects and resources for students of all ages to use or download — like free bookmarks with biographies of Katherine Johnson and the math wizards of “Hidden Figures” fame. Lessons start at the kindergarten level to teach fundamental concepts in physics and engineering, like a pasta project that has students “use uncooked spaghetti to build the tallest free-standing structure that will support a marshmallow for at least 15 seconds.” And if that project leads to culinary questions, search the NASA site for its “Eating in Space” videos.

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