You lay with your back against a heavy quilt on the cold ground, and twinkling stars fill your eyes. On these cold, clear nights, family campsites should provide a spectacular view of the cosmos. Your 10-year-old stretches an arm up and uses a finger to trace what seems like a faint mist across the sky-the Milky Way-before asking what it is.
"It's the wonder of it all," says James Smith, a retired educator for whom the Smith Planetarium in Walker County is named. The planetarium features several telescopes as well as a 40-foot domed screen that can mimic the night sky. Its focus: teaching young students about astronomy. "It gets them turned on to science and gets them motivated to self-learn," he explains.
And Smith should know. Over the years, multiple students of his have gone on to accomplish marvelous feats in the field of science. Some even work for NASA, another for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "It can be a lifetime hobby; if they learn to look at the night sky, regardless of what career they go into, they can always enjoy looking," Smith says. "All you have to do is go outside and look up."
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Chattanooga is near various planetariums and observatories that can help kids take their star knowledge to the great outdoors:
409 Pond Springs Road, Chickamauga, Georgia
706-375-8001 • www.walkerschools.org/james-a-smith-planetarium
The planetarium hosts free programs for the general public the first Sunday and the last Tuesday of each month. During the month of February, it features "The Cowboy Astronomer," a program of star tales and Native American legends as well as constellation identification.
Clarence T. Jones Observatory
10 Tuxedo Ave., Chattanooga • utc.edu/~jonesobs
Courtesy of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Clarence T. Jones Observatory offers free public programs each Sunday night, featuring lessons on individual constellations and other topics like super novas.
Tellus Museum Planetarium and Observatory
100 Tellus Drive, Cartersville, Georgia • tellusmuseum.org
Just an hour away from Chattanooga, the Tellus Museum is open seven days a week, and its planetarium features weekday and weekend programs. The observatory also features a 20-inch telescope so that visitors can view the moon and other planets in the solar system.