Your First Star Party
By Ian Hewitt
Have you recently acquired the observing habit? Or the even more addictive astro-imaging bug? If so, then you may be considering going to a Star Party. Star Parties are a great way to enjoy amateur astronomy and they offer things like networking with other amateurs, see presentations from professionals and advanced amateurs, observing sessions in remote places in safety (if not comfort), and just to have fun. However, many people are intimidated about going to their first star party. In this article, I will provide an overview of what to expect and a few helpful hints to make your first trip easier.
First, there is no reason to be intimidated about going. It does not matter how much you know about astronomy, in fact this is a great place to learn from others and have a lot of fun. If you are a member of an astronomy club or other astronomy group, you can usually find someone who has been to the particular star party you are interested in attending and they can tell you any particular tips for that event. Each star party has its own unique situations, but the tips below apply to most star parties.
Generally, the setup is similar at most star parties. There are camping/observing areas and telescope only areas. A lot of people prefer to camp next to their telescope, but not everyone. Some venues have clearly defined setup areas (including individual boxes) and others are more free form (like MASP). If in doubt when you arrive, ask someone and they will be glad to help. Observing generally begins as soon as the sun goes down and can go on all night. In addition, during the daytime hours, there are astronomical vendors and presentations on various topics.
Each star party publishes rules for their particular event, and it’s a great idea to read them in advance, so that you can be aware of special rules for a particular party. Below are some tips that cover some common mistakes that people make:
- Be courteous – Most people will be glad to share their views with you, but please ask first. Use common sense as well. Someone doing a detailed sketch of an object may want you to wait until they are done, but maybe not.
- Keep the noise down – There are some who can get their fill of observing by 11pm and will retire, but there are a number of folks who will stay up all night long. In the morning, please try to keep any excess noise down until a reasonable hour. You may note that some star parties have rules restricting hours for generators and other noise makers.
- Point your light down – Many people have a tendency to point their light where they are looking. This often points it into people’s eyes. This is very annoying. Generally, point your light at the ground or some equipment. This is especially true for headlamps (lights worn on your head).
- Use your car key not the fob – A lot of people use their car to observe and/or store some of their gear (like laptops). If you use the fob on a newer car, the lights flash. These are incredibly bright at a dark sky site. Instead, use the key to lock/unlock the car.
- Lights inside a tent – Most modern tents are made of thin material that is not light proof. You often see people go into their tent and turn on a white light. It makes the tent a beacon and you will quickly hear the sounds of people screaming “lights!” Most people know this, but you often see someone go in and turn on a DVD player and that does the same thing!!
- Annoying Sounds – Speaking of DVD players, you can tell if you or your family left it running after you fell asleep if everyone glares at you in the morning. Nothing like hearing the intro music for hours while you are observing to really wear on that last nerve….I still can’t listen to the intro of “The Day The Earth Stood Still…..”
- Playing Music – On the subject of noise, it’s okay to play music, but keep it low and check with your neighbors. After all they may not appreciate the subtleties of QueensRyche played at full volume.
- Unpleasant Smells – Porta-Johns are a fact of life at many star parties. They really are not so bad, as long as they are used properly. Before you get the wrong idea, they are designed to vent out the odors through a pipe in the top, but it order to work, the seat needs to be closed when not in use. Please be kind to the next person and close the seat.
- Bring Warm Clothes – The number one issue most people have is with the right kind of warm clothes (unless you are going to Winter Star…). It is really easy to underestimate the amount of clothing required and when you are shivering and miserable, it’s not much fun. Some cold weather tips:
- Check the weather and remember, it’s not just the temperature but the dew as well. I have been observing on nights that are 60 degrees, but been so wet I thought I would never be warm again.
- You can acquire cold weather clothing at very low prices and it’s worth it. The main rule is to stay away from cotton, at least in the lower layers.
- You can check with other astronomers or any hunters that you know, both types are very familiar with how to stay warm
Here are some items that I have found useful to have at a star party.
- Earplugs – If you like snoring, you will like star parties. Nothing like having someone trying to swallow their tonsils all night right next to you. You can get disposable ones at the drug store and they really help unless you are a really sound sleeper.
- Toilet Paper – Another memorable experience is to be observing when it’s 40 degrees and going to the aforementioned Porta-John at 3 AM, only to find out (too late), there are no supplies.
- Astro-Turf – screws, washers, caps, are all much easier to find if you don’t have to root through the grass to find them at 4 AM in the morning. Getting a piece of astro turf or outdoor carpet is very helpful. No need to spend a fortune, keep an eye out at home improvement stores because they sell off excess and remnants periodically for discount prices. Better yet, you may know someone that is tearing some out…..
- Extension Cord – Very handy when you are at a star party with electricity (like MASP).
- Small Mirror – Also very handy. You can find them in the cosmetic section of department stores.
- Hand Sanitizer – Hand washing areas may not always be convenient. A bottle of alcohol based sanitizer can do quite well in a pinch.
- Heavy Plastic Tarp – Great for covering your equipment to keep the rain and dew off if you’re not going to disassemble and pack it away at 4 AM in the morning.