Date: September 15, 2010

Title: Star Parties


Podcaster: RapidEye


Description: The end of summer heat means the beginning of Star Party season – what Star Parties are and what to expect.

Bio: I’ve been captivated by astronomy ever since I was a kid, living in NW Colorado where the Milky Way was bright enough to read by. I can be found most clear nights in my pasture with either my 4.5″ SkyQuest, 10″ Deep Sky Hunter, 18″ Obsession, or my binoculars.
RapidEye Observatory – a private observatory in rural Lee County, NC.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the world’s leader in variable star data and information, bringing professional and amateur astronomers together to observe and analyze variable stars, and promoting research and education using variable star data. Visit the AAVSO on the web at


Star Parties

Here in the Southeastern United States summer time is hot, humid, and swarming with bugs – conditions not very conducive to spending time at the telescope.  But around this time of year, cool crisp fall nights will occasionally slip in, astronomical twilight ends at a more sensible time, and summer’s blood sucking insects start to yield to autumn.  Not only is this prime time to observe in your back yard, driveway, or local park, this is prime time for star parties across the southeastern US!  Every new moon weekend in September, October, and November you can attend a different star party.

So lets start off with, what is a star party?  While Star Parties are as different as the organizations and clubs that put them on, what they have in common is simple: a place where you can set up your telescopes and observe the skies all night long with other astronomy enthusiasts.  Most are held at dark sky locations, far away from city lights, but not necessarily all.  For example, President Obama has now allowed 2 different Star Parties to be held on the lawn of the White House, easily one of the most light polluted locations on the planet!  Given the location and the hosts, I wouldn’t consider the White House Star Party “typical”, so what else do most star parties have in common and why would anyone want to attend???  Star Parties give amateur astronomers access to dark skies, allow them to see and use new equipment, and give them a chance to socialize with other people with a common interest – the night sky!

So why is dark sky access such a big deal.  According to Wikipedia, 81% of Americans live in cities and suburbs where light pollution will best case, hamper, and worst case obliterate any chance to observe anything besides the moon, planets, or double stars.  While planetary and lunar observing is very captivating and enjoyable, it is only a tiny fraction of what is visible in the night sky.  Getting away from the bright lights of parking lots, shopping malls, and business parks is the only way you’ll see our own Milky Way Galaxy stretching across the night sky.  From most dark sites you even be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy visible without a telescope!  While narrow band filters like “Ultra Block” or “OIII” filters help pull emission and planetary nebula out from light polluted skies, they hamper observing most other deep sky objects.  If you want to explore galaxies, resolve the full extent of star clusters, or observe reflection nebula you have to have clear and dark skies and for most Americans, that means driving out into the country, and most star parties fit this bill nicely!

Additionally, astronomy equipment is evolving at a near breakneck speed.  Cameras that were state of the art 5 years ago are now relegated to guidescope duty, dobsonian reflectors once lauded for their simplicity now have motors and computers on them, and accessories once too expensive for anyone except professional observatories have now become commonplace on the star party observing field.  Star parties are a great place to see, touch, and use that awesome gear we see in glossy pictures each month in our magazines.  Most star parties have vendors selling everything from telescopes and mounts to miscellaneous nuts and bolts needed to keep your equipment running.  They also bring along their latest crop of astro-toys for star party goers to play with.

But handling and looking through a piece of equipment during the daytime won’t necessarily tell you how well it preforms under the stars.  Fortunately there are other equipment junkies out there and they also attend star parties.  On any decent sized observing field, chances are really good that someone out there has that new “must have” eyepiece, filter, or mount.  Just wander around right before dark and see what equipment people are setting up and what they have in their eyepiece or accessory case.  Frequently manufacturers themselves will show up at star parties with their latest wares, wandering around the observing field letting people use their new gear.  Al Nagler of Televue is famous for showing up at various star parties with his latest eyepiece design, dropping them into the focusers of telescopes of all types and sizes.  Just last year Howie Glatter, manufacturer of premium collimation tools used my 10″ Newtonian for a collimation demonstration, using his newest tools, of course.

Which brings me to my final reason for why star parties are so great: the people.  Some of the most generous, friendly, and helpful people I’ve ever known were met at star parties.  Chances are really good that if you tell that person with the new equipment that you are interested in buying one yourself, they’ll tell you all the things they like and don’t like about it and will usually offer to let you look through it so you can see for yourself.  If you bought a used telescope and mount at a garage sale and aren’t sure how to work it, chances are really good that there is someone else on the observing field with that very piece of equipment that can show you how it works.  If you are having problems collimating your new telescope and just can’t visualize how everything is supposed to line up – there will be plenty of veteran astronomers that will happily take the time to collimate your scope for you and also take the time to explain every step so you can do it yourself, all you have to do is ask.

I was amazed at the first star party I went to when people that didn’t know me at all would offer me views through their $15,000 telescopes without even being asked.  What surprised me even more was finding that this isn’t abnormal at most star parties.  Amateur astronomers are very proud of their equipment, customizations they’ve made to it, and love nothing more than to show everyone else how well it works.

So if you’ve never been to a star party, try and get out and see for yourself.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a telescope, just show up with a pair of working eyeballs and don’t be afraid to ask people what they are looking at.

Finally, let me give you some pointers before heading out to your first star party.  While each star party has different rules and regulations (some to enhance the astronomy experience, while others are for safety or liability reasons) there are some simple guidelines that should serve you well at any star party.

1) Plan on using only red lights after dark.  There are some instances like outreach events or press events where white lights will be expected, but at almost every star party, any lights other than red are banned.  This is because red light has less of an impact on night vision.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a red flashlight you can easily make your own by attaching red brakelight tape over the front of your white flashlight or by using red nail polish to paint the bulb or lens of the flashlight.

2) Watch where you step.  Even with a red flashlight small things like electrical wires, small boxes, and tent ropes and pegs are hard to see.  Avoid walking between camp sites and telescope setups and stick to the main walking/driving pathway after dark.

3) Never shine your flashlight into the front of a telescope, even if no one appears to be using it.  There is a very good possibility that someone is imaging with that telescope and might be hunched over a laptop in the tent or trailer next to the telescope.  Shining a light into the scope in the middle of an imaging run can easily ruin hours worth of work.

4) Be polite and ask permission to look through someones equipment.

5) Even if you have permission to look through someones equipment, make sure you ask permission before making any adjustments like changing the focus or moving the scope.  Someone might have the drives or focuser locked and trying to move it very well may brake it.  Some astronomy equipment is deceptively expensive – what looks like a cheap piece of plastic might actually be a $500 filter. 

Lastly) Make sure you attend several different star parties if possible – each one really has its own flavor, style, and will o
ffer you something unique.  I’ve attached a list of the large star parties held in the SE US every fall (at least the ones I know about) to this episode’s show notes.  And if you don’t live in the SE US, visit the website of any of the large Astronomy Magazines – they maintain a listing of all the major star parties held around the world.

Thank You For Listening.

Northern Virginia Astronomy Club’s
 Almost Heaven Star Party
 September 3–7, 2010
 Spruce Knob, WV

Atlanta Astronomy Club’s 
Peach State Star Gaze 
October 3rd – October 10th
 Deerlick Astronomy Village, GA

John Dilday’s 
Mid-Atlantic Star Party
 Oct. 4 – Oct. 10, 2010
 Robbins, NC

Kent Blackwell’s
 East Coast Star Party
 October 29-31, 2010
 Coinjock, NC

 Chiefland Star Party Group’s
 CSPG Fall Star Party
 November 1-7, 2010
 Chiefland, FL

I’ve been captivated by astronomy ever since I was a kid, living in NW Colorado where the Milky Way was bright enough to read by.
I can be found most clear nights in my pasture with either my 4.5″ SkyQuest, 10″ Deep Sky Hunter, 18″ Obsession, or my binoculars.
 RapidEye Observatory – a private observatory in rural Lee County, NC

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.