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Astronomy Merit Badge a Big Success

Tom Scheffelin | Published on 7/31/2023

Astronomy Merit Badge Success!

I spent last week with our Boy Scout troop at summer camp (Camp Winton). The elevation was 5,876 feet and extremely far away from light sources. The nights were cloudless, there was no Moon, and we had 360-degree visibility.

The scouts that took the Astronomy merit badge were invited to look at the night sky on Wednesday night, from 9:45 pm to 10:15 pm. Other scouts and interested adults (like me) were also invited.

The sky was so dark and clear I could see the Milky Way (it actually looked ‘milky”) and I could see the reflections of stars on the lake -- something I have only seen once, and that was 45 years ago in central Colorado. My iPhone 11 camera captured the stars in the sky and one reflected star.

Earlier I had given the Astronomy merit badge counselor customized Star Charts and screenshots of stars and constellations (using the Sky Guide app). Scouts that used the charts knew exactly where to look for each star and constellation. I made them for each week of camp, at the same time (9:30 pm), on the Wednesday of each week. Each week the stars “moved” a little.

Two types of charts were made.

The first chart was a table which contained a list of the stars and constellations visible in the sky, with their respective compass headings and angles above the horizon, with data for all four weeks of summer camp. One can determine trends in the locations of stars as the summer progresses (for instance, the star Regulus in the constellation Leo goes closer to the horizon each week and will be below the horizon in mid-August). Scouts that used a compass knew where to look. I provided the counselor with 10 “red-light mode” headlights and 5 compasses.

The second set of charts were “radial” charts (think polar coordinates), which were specific for each week of camp. Orient the top of the chart (which was north) at the North Pole star, and the chart shows where to look to find the other stars. No compass needed.

Most of the Sky Guide screenshots were of the stars, the “connect-the-dots” constellations, and paintings of the constellations, but some screenshots were of only the stars, or just the stars and the “connect-the-dots.” In this way, one can make the transition from looking up at the stars in the night sky, then in one’s mind connecting the dots, then imagining the painting.

The merit badge requires the scouts to locate and identify 8 conspicuous stars (5 which must be magnitude 1 or brighter) and 10 constellations (4 of which must be zodiac). The Astronomy merit badge booklet is professionally written and contains all the information a scout needs to complete the badge, with the exception of how to find the stars and constellations.

The Sky Guide constellation paintings are fabulous; they allow one to make sense of the constellations. After all, some of the constellation authors were perhaps given more than their share of artistic license.

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