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Episode 4: How Do We Explain the Mysteries of the Night Sky?

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.
Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 4: How Do We Explain the Mysteries of the Night Sky?

Kelly School

This season’s podcast follows Mrs. Lowenfel’s 4th and 5th Grade Class at Kelly School in Teton County Wyoming. The kids had many questions for our experts and lots to share about the American West. This episode features Joy, Audrey, Wren, and Miles.

Leo Bird

Leo Bird is a science educator for 23 years at Browning High School, Browning, Montana. His work in Bilingual education and Indian education for all (IEFA) , has earned him the Montana Indian Education Association (MIEA’s )Teacher of the Year award. He has also been awarded The Milken Family Foundation National Educator of the Year for his work on a first ever high school inquiry chemistry text and cowrote two books on Astronomy, “Blackfeet Skies” and “Montana Skies, Blackfeet Astronomy”. His belief is culturally responsive inquiry teaching helps to build relationships with the students.

Leo is a father, grandfather, society leader, educator, veteran of US Army, consultant, as well as a lifelong learner. Leo has a BA in Biology and Broadfield Science education degree from the University of Montana.

Dr. Samuel Singer

Dr. Samuel Singer is the founder and Executive Director at Wyoming Stargazing, which is a non-profit that educates people about astronomy and tries to make the complex concepts accessible to everyone. He grew up in Nevada where he first fell in love with the night sky. Samuel went on to study Physics and Astronomy at Hampshire College in Massachusetts before coming to Wyoming for his graduate work. He has been recognized by NASA as a volunteer Solar System Ambassador, as well as by the IGES and NASA in their Top Stars program for an astronomy lesson plan he wrote. Samuel currently splits his time between Jackson, Wyoming and Boulder Creek, California.

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Why? Why? Why?

What is your story about the night sky? 

Why? Why? Why? 

What is a black hole? 

Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast where the kids ask the questions! Kids Ask Why is a production of Wyoming Public Media and Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

This season the podcast is following my fourth and fifth grade classroom from Kelly School in Teton County, Wyoming. We have lots of questions and lots to share about the American West.

Joy: Hi, Audrey, why are you interested in the night sky? And what grade are you in? Where are you from?

Audrey: I’m in fourth grade. I’m from Jackson. And I’m interested in the night sky because I want to learn if there’s lots of other things out there. And if there’s other people just like us. Wren, tell us about yourself and why you are interested.

Wren: I’m Wren. I live in Kelly, Wyoming. I’m in fourth grade. And I think I am interested in the night sky and space is because I want to be an astronaut when I grow up. And I’ve just always been interested in how the universe got here and how it, just all of it, I guess. Sydney, tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Sydney: I am Sydney and I like space because it’s so cool that every night I just look at the stars. Miles, tell a little about yourself, and where you are from.

Miles: I am in fifth grade at Kelly Elementary in Wyoming. I was gonna put a bad pun here, but I didn’t have time to “plan-et”. Joy, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Joy:  Hi, I’m Joy and I live in Jackson, Wyoming. And I am in fifth grade at Kelly Elementary School. Well, first of all, I have a galaxy full of questions. And I am really interested in space and astronomy. Because I really want to be a NASA engineer when I’m older, and because I would just be able to be involved with space without actually having to get in a spaceship, because I’m claustrophobic. And I’m kind of scared to go in a spaceship. But yeah, and it’s just so interesting how there’s so much around us. And we, a lot of us haven’t taken the time to notice nature and the night sky’s true beauty.

Sydney: Today we will be talking to Mr. Leo Bird, who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe and very knowledgeable about astronomy, chemistry, and the stories of his people. 

So I have a question. What is your story, I guess, about the night sky?

Mr. Bird: That’s an outstanding question and introductions are very important, and we learned that from the night sky. We learned how important it is for all of our people- everybody- when they see one another that they introduce themselves. And for us, I’m from Browning, Montana from the Blackfeet reservation. And we, in our language we say, [blackfeet language being spoken]. When I got interested in the stories and started looking at the star stories, I was about your guys’ age and our star stories were all a lot of questions. So in Montana, Wyoming, we can see the stars all the time. A lot of people can’t see them like we can see them. They have overcast skies or different things, but 90% of our life is spent under the stars, looking at everything around us. I’ve been teaching high school for 23 years here in Browning. I teach mainly chemistry, the Blackfeet language, and I teach an astronomy course called Blackfeet Skies. So I teach my students how to travel using the stars. 

Big Dipper over Dunes and Cleveland Peak/NPS Photo Patrick Myers

One of the stories that I really like is called “A Woman Who Marries a Star”. I’m so in love with the stars and the knowledge of the stars that I found 88 peoples from around the world that have the same story- a woman who marries the star. And we look at in this story, The Big Dipper is a way to find the North Star. So the story teaches us how to find that North Star. It also teaches us about the planet Venus. So the planet Venus in the story is both a male and a female. So the male is a “morning star” and the female is the “evening star”. And in the language, we call her Soatsaki, and she’s a female. And she ends up looking out at a star one night, and she looks at that star, and she says, “If that star that is so beautiful in the sky, if he were a man, I would marry him.” And when that statement was said, she didn’t really know that that started the whole story of what she was going to do with her life. The star came down and his name was Morningstar. He came down the following day and turned himself into a man. And he told the young lady, “I’m here for you. I’m here for you.” So she ended up going to the sky. And she told the man that when he first came to see her, she said, “I don’t. I don’t remember saying something like that.” And he said, “No, it was yesterday. You said if that star was a man, I would marry him.” And so he came in, he reminded her and she said, “Okay, okay.” In our way, in our Blackfeet way, those things when we make a statement like that, we follow the statement, and we go with that. 

So, Soatsaki, feather woman, she went with the man and they went into the sky. As they lived in the sky, they met the sun and the moon. And she found out a lot of information about the happenings of the sky people, and how they act in the sky and different things. She eventually came back, had to come back to Earth. And she came through that little hole in the sky that is called the North Star. So she came back to her people, and she brought a ceremony back with her back to us, that helped us to survive, to be stronger, a stronger people and all that. This is why it’s so important to me is that it teaches us as people, how a man and a woman treat one another, you know, the respect that we have. And every single year, we reenact this story. So down here on Earth, we reenact the story, and we go through the whole process and we call it the [blackfeet word] or the Sun’s Lodge, and we recreate that.

Wren: Well, I have always been interested in space. And I’ve kind of always been interested in the Big Bang always since I’ve ever, well since have heard of it. And I was wondering if you knew any stories about like, like how the Big Bang started or what it was.

Mr. Bird: The Blackfeet have a couple of origin stories that really help us and they don’t really define it as a “big bang”, but they talk about a time period when the Sky People, the Earth People, and the Underwater People all live together. So that was right directly after the Big Bang– that’s when they started doing that. So, we have stories that relate back to when the Star People and the Land People and Underwater People all live together, and they were all in harmony together. And this is why when we’re telling our stories, the relationship to the stars, the relationship to the underwater, the relationship to the plants and animals around us, all comes from the origin, or the Big Bang. So the big bang energy was actually, you know, people call it the higher power, the spirit, the creator, different things are out there. So it was really a time when energy was out there, and the creator was starting to think about, what would life be like, if we started all these different things in motion. So a lot of our stories talk about Him grabbing things. So he takes his hand, takes his hand, and he reaches in, and he pulls all this land or the soil, the different things that are out there. And he uses his mouth, and he blows air into there, so he starts that motion of life, as he goes through there, the creation of the worlds and everything around us. Also, when the moon was created, he reached into the Earth, and he pulled the soil from the Earth. He blew into his hand, and the moon was made as it went through there. 

So the moon is so important in everything that we do, though. It controls the water, the oceans, the tides, everything that is out there. And when the Creator started forming things and bringing things together, this is about the time that the Big Dipper story came into our life, and told us about how the mountains were formed, how the rivers were formed, all the canyons, and there was a story about seven boys. In our language, we say  “Ihkitsikammiksi,  Ihkitsikammiksi”, seven boys. So we can go all the way back to that story. That story takes seven days from the time the sun goes down. The next day, when the sun comes back up, we start the story again. It takes seven days to tell the story of how things were made. How the oceans, the air, the thunder, the lightning, all these different things were made as it goes through there.

Wren: I guess, me and my sister were thinking about questions to ask and came up with this one, where I kind of wanted to know, like, what is the oldest constellation and like the one that was the first one that started all the constellation stories. And just, I guess, all our constellation discoveries, I guess.

Polaris–North Star. Ursa minor–Little Dipper, Little Bear. Ursa Major–Big Dipper, Big Bear

Mr. Bird: A lot of the knowledge that we have with the sky, age, that we have out there, relationship, really the North Star, and it’s not so much a constellation as it’s part of a few constellations, the North Star. But we have the North Star is so significant within our people, that we actually have a meaning of the North Star. We call it our belly button, and that’s the beginning of life. And so that’s, that’s the only relationship I could have. Because measuring, today we can measure a star’s life by light by the lights that are out there. But I would really say the oldest is the North Star. Today we call it Polaris. We call it the belly button– Oo-yees— the belly button. So it connects us to all life, like our mother. When we’re connected to her mother, that’s the belly button. So in the stories we call, call the Northstar Oo-yees. It links us to the Big Dipper, which is not really a constellation, but there’s a big bear and a little bear constellations that are connected to that. So the Big Dipper, the pointer stars are the two oldest stars of the Big Dipper which point you to the North Star, and the North Star is connected to the Little Dipper or the little bear. So age-wise, I would have to say that that is the oldest. A few scientists have contradicted as they went through there because if you look at our galaxy, the age of our galaxy compared to the other 1000s of galaxies that are out there, we’re, we’re fairly new still, our galaxy is fairly new compared to the other things. So I think maybe one day we’ll find out what’s going on. 

When we’re done talking, we say, oki-niks-icoo-ax. Now we’re all related. We’re all related. We’ve shared something together. So, oki-niks-icoo-ax

Wren: O-key-nix-sic-coax.

Sydney: O-key-nix-sic-coax.

Mr. Bird: Sounds beautiful. So now we’re all related. So we can all, if we have questions, and we want to talk to one another, we have email, we have zooms, we have different things that we can help one another with as we go. 

Wren: What I guess I really liked about his answers was that he answered them in really full answers. And when we asked him what his favorite story was about the night sky, he just really tells a lot of detail about it. And I learned a lot. Like, I didn’t even know that many stories I didn’t even know there were. I thought it was really cool how he incorporated his culture and his language into his answers, and just how he said it was really cool.

Sydney: Just like Wren, kind of like, what Mr. Bird said, when he answered all my questions, like, I did not know that. Well, I was thinking, like, oh, this is so cool. I didn’t even know any of it. So that just came up to me.

Audrey: Today, we are talking to Dr. Sam Singer, who is the Founder and Executive Director of Wyoming Stargazing located in Jackson Hole Wyoming. 

Audrey: Well, my first question is, how many galaxies are there?

Dr. Singer: So that number keeps changing, as astronomers learn more and more about the universe. The current estimate is that there are probably around 1 trillion galaxies that exist in our universe.

Audrey: Wow. Yeah. How many constellations are there?

Dr. Singer: Well, yeah. So there are officially 88 constellations recognized by this organization called the International Astronomical Union. So they’re the biggest group of astronomers on Earth that recognize 88 constellations. Well, there might be other astronomers on some other planet that we haven’t discovered yet that have their own set of constellations. But astronomers on Earth recognize 88 constellations, both in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere combined. So we don’t get to see all 88 of them in Wyoming, we only get to see the ones in the Northern Hemisphere.

Audrey: Next question is, are there any stars that we know of that could be in other galaxies?

Hubble Captures View of Mystic Mountain (NASA ID: PIA15985) NASA Hubble Space Telescope captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars in a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula.

Dr. Singer: Yeah, the technology that we have, with the combination of telescopes, and cameras, are actually able to take pictures of stars in other galaxies. And that actually isn’t a new thing. We’ve been able to actually take pictures of stars in other galaxies for about 100 years. So there’s a really famous telescope in space right now called the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s named after an American astronomer by the name of Edwin Hubble. And he was one of the first astronomers to take pictures of stars in other galaxies using the technology that existed 100 years ago. And he was able to learn a lot about those stars. And he was the one who figured out that the universe is expanding, that all the galaxies in the universe are actually moving away from all the other galaxies. And he did that by looking at the individual stars in about the 20 or so closest galaxies to the Milky Way.

Joy: Okay. Let’s see. My first question is, in a brief explanation, can you tell me what a what the Big Bang was?

This image, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows the colorful ‘last hurrah’ of a star like our Sun. The star is ending its life by casting off its outer layers of gas, which formed a cocoon around the star’s remaining core.

Dr. Singer: So, about 100 years ago, astronomers weren’t sure whether the Milky Way was the entire universe or all these other little spiral nebulae that they were seeing were inside the Milky Way or separate galaxies. But Edwin Hubble proved that all those spiral nebulae were actually spiral galaxies much farther away than anybody realized. Once he showed that they were separate galaxies, he was also able to prove that they were all moving away from our galaxy from the Milky Way, with a few notable exceptions. But he realized that, as he looked at these other galaxies, calculated how fast they were moving away from us, and calculated how far they were away from us. But there was a relationship that emerged from all of the numbers, all the data that he was collecting. And he realized, when a galaxy was twice as far away, as another galaxy, that galaxy was moving twice as fast away from us. So this is called a linear relationship, a straight line relationship between how far a galaxy is away and how fast it’s moving away. So, Edwin Hubble did some thinking about this. And he realized, okay, if every galaxy, almost what we see is moving away from us, and they’re moving away at a certain speed, there must have been a time in the past, that they were closer to us, to our galaxy. And really, really far back in the past, everything would have been much closer to everything else. And in fact, really, really, really far back in the past, everything would have been right on top of each other. So, Edwin Hubble realized that there must have been a time a long, long time ago, where everything we see in the universe must have been in the same spot right on top of everything else. And that’s kind of hard to think about, because it’s not just the stuff that would be on top of everything else. But actually space itself would be on top of itself. So there wouldn’t be any space before that moment. That’s the moment of the Big Bang, when space popped out of nothing, and started racing away in every direction.

Joy: All right, that was the best explanations I’ve heard.

Dr. Singer: Sweet!

Joy: And then where do you think like around which place in space would people most likely start a space colony?

Dr. Singer: Hmm I mean, I think it’s absolutely going to be Mars first. 

Joy: Yeah, me too.

Dr. Singer: Elon Musk is pretty certain that he’s going to have people on Mars by 2030. Right. So we’re talking like eight years from now. Maybe it ends up being like 2035, you know, but my guess is he will have people living on Mars definitely before 2040. Definitely 18 years from now, he’ll have people living on Mars. NASA says that they’re going to have people living on the moon before that. So it may be that we have people living on the moon in a colony before we have people living on Mars in a colony. But it just depends who is able to start their colony first, either NASA on the moon, or Elon Musk and SpaceX on Mars. But it’ll be one of those two places for sure. 

Joy: That sounds really cool. 

Dr. Singer: Yeah cause I’d go like vacation on the moon for the weekend. 

Joy: Yeah. That’d be really fun. Um, and then around which planet or star do you think there is most likely life?

Pictured is the chosen artist’s rendering of NASA’s next generation space telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, was named the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in honor of NASA’s second administrator, James E. Webb.

Dr. Singer: Well, other than our star, other than the sun, there’s this star called TRAPPIST and the Trappist star- I can’t remember in which constellation it is appears in in the sky- but around that star called TRAPPIST, we know of at least six planets. And or maybe it’s eight planets. And a few of them are earth-like, some of the most earth-like planets we’ve ever discovered so far. And so the James Webb Space Telescope is actually going to be studying those planets in the TRAPPIST system, once it starts collecting data in about six months in June or July. So we’ll be able to know a lot more about whether life is possible on those planets in the TRAPPIST system, and around about 20 other stars in the Milky Way galaxy that we’ve already identified as having earth-like planets. But our technology isn’t good enough to actually know whether or not there’s an atmosphere on those planets, or liquid water. But the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to detect water and an atmosphere if it exists on any of those planets. So probably in the next year or so, we’ll know which of those 20 or 30 planets is most likely to have life on it. 

Joy: Wow. That’s really soon. 

Dr. Singer: Yeah, it is really, really soon. It’s pretty exciting as early as this summer as soon as the summer.

Joy: Yeah. My last question is, what happens to pizza grease that’s on a pizza in space?

Dr. Singer: [laughs] Well, I guess it depends on how much grease we’re talking about. And you know, sometimes when you get a pizza with a lot of veggies on it, there’s just a little bit of grease compared to when you get a pizza with pepperoni. And there’s like tons of grease. And you can like see the little droplets of grease like on each slice of pizza. So, the amount of grease on a pepperoni pizza in space would definitely start globbing off and you’d have these little globs of grease start to float around where the pizza was. It wouldn’t stay on the pizza as it would with probably a vegetarian pizza. And on the pizza box. So yeah, a pepperoni pizza would probably result in way more little globs of grease like floating around your spaceship than a veggie pizza would. So maybe better to go veg pizza than pepperoni pizza in space.

Joy: That sounds gross. But yeah, fascinating. Well, that was all my questions. Thanks, and Miles, your turn. 

Miles: Okay, so I am going to start with a question that’s kind of building off everybody else’s? Well, not all of them. But do you think there is a multiverse?

Dr. Singer: I do. Yeah, all of the ideas that astronomers have right now about the way that the Big Bang occurred, and our observations of how the universe looks right now suggests that the multiverse probably exists. We don’t have any direct evidence of it. All we have is indirect evidence. But if it turns out the multiverse doesn’t exist, we have to reformulate our idea of the Big Bang. If the multiverse turns out not to exist, there are some really big problems in how we think the universe formed and what we see right now.

Miles: Okay, so what is a black hole?

Dr. Singer: A black hole is a very, very dense object out in space– in the Milky Way galaxy and in every galaxy in the universe, as far as we can tell– that has an escape velocity, (and I’ll explain what that means in a moment) that is greater than the speed of light. So, every object like a planet, or a moon, or a star, has what’s called an escape velocity. It’s how fast you have to travel in a rocket ship to get away from that object’s gravity. So, on Earth, it’s about 7000 miles an hour. It’s pretty fast. But that’s how fast every rocket ship goes when it gets launched into space. Every time we launch a satellite, every time we send astronauts up in like the dragon capsules with SpaceX, they all have to go about 7000 miles an hour to get out of Earth’s gravitational field. As the object you’re trying to get off of becomes more and more massive, it has more and more gravity, because that’s what gravity is, it’s just the amount of stuff crammed into one space. So more gravity, more mass, and thus you have to travel faster to get away from that object. So, for instance, to get off, well, let’s say that we found an Earth-like planet, that was like 10 times the mass of Earth, the gravity on that world would be 10 times as strong. So black holes are the densest thing that we know of, it’s a huge amount of stuff, of mass, crammed into a tiny, tiny, tiny little spot. Because of that, gravity is so strong, the velocity that you have to travel to get away from that object is faster than the speed of light, which is impossible, because nothing can travel fast as or faster than the speed of light, not even light. That’s the maximum speed in the universe. So if there’s an object that has an escape velocity greater than the speed of light, like a black hole, there’s no way that even light can escape the gravitation of that object, which is why they’re black, because any light that gets close to a black hole gets sucked into the black hole and can’t get out again.

Miles: Okay, so I have one theoretical question that I know is impossible, because you just proved it. But if I went in a black hole and didn’t die somehow, for five years, and then came out, what would the time still be just five years later? Or would it be messed up because time is messed up in black holes?

Dr. Singer: Yeah, so if you actually went into a black hole, and then came out, that means that you would have traveled faster than the speed of light. So, if you did that, you would experience extreme time dilation, you would find that probably 10s of 1000s, or hundreds of 1000s of years had passed since you went into the black hole. Now, if you just skim around the outer edge of a black hole, so there’s this technical boundary around a black hole called the event horizon. So that distance from the center of a black hole, the event horizon, that’s the boundary where the escape velocity becomes greater than the speed of light. So long as you stay just farther away from the center, as the event horizon, long as you’re just outside the event horizon, you could keep orbiting around the black hole over and over again. But like you said, because you’re in such a strong gravitational field, time gets all messed up. So let’s say that it takes you a year to travel around just beyond the outer edge of the black hole, I don’t know the exact number, but it would be I think, several thousand years would have passed when you came back to where you started from. It’s called time dilation.

Audrey: My favorite part, about like, how he answered my questions was how he was so descriptive. And sometimes the question I asked, he actually answered another one. So, I really liked that.

Miles: I think the thing that I liked best about talking to Dr. Sam is how he could tell you things that he knew, with 100% certainty. And he could also answer some pretty random questions like the pizza question.

Joy: My favorite answer was that the pizza was just so funny to know that you should go with vegetable pizza in space and not pepperoni. 

That’s why we ask why!