When amateur astronomers and their families plan a vacation, they are increasingly likely to plan it around a star party. The big amateur gatherings have been growing in recent years, and new ones devoted especially to dark-sky observing are sprouting all over.
True deep-sky star parties — as opposed to the more traditional, general-interest conventions — have become a permanent part of the amateur scene worldwide. Unlike the solitary observers of a generation ago, more of today's amateurs tend to seek out and socialize with fellow enthusiasts. And like pilgrims on an annual trek to some hallowed site, many travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to attend their favorite star parties. Many clubs initially intended to have their own local or regional stargazing sessions, but now some of these have reached such popularity that they attract crowds of more than 1,000 from across the country and abroad.
Star parties are the places where you can observe to your heart's content (weather permitting), exchange stories and share feats, showcase your telescope creation, learn the latest trends and techniques, haggle for the best buys at the swap meet and, most importantly, make friends and have fun. Kids especially can get great exposure to the hobby while having an exciting time camping out. If you've never attended one, it's time to catch the party fever!
Whether you're a star-party veteran or neophyte, Winter Star Party regular Tom Clark offers the following tips:
- Bring your own instrument, if you can.
- Come prepared for downpours, wind, dust, high humidity, bugs, heat, or cold.
- Follow all star-party rules and regulations.
- No driving or white lights after dusk.
- No flash photography at night.
- Before using any telescope, ask the owner first.
- Smokers should be considerate of nonsmokers.
- If you listen to music, use headphones.
- Avoid loud talking or making noises, especially in the morning, so you don't disturb sleeping astronomers.
- Pick up your trash.
- Most important, relax and have fun!
You don't have to wait for a major star party to view the night sky through a variety of instruments. Contact your local astronomy club — its members may be able to point you to a dark, safe observing site near your home, and they probably have regular monthly (or even weekly) observing sessions at such a site. See our directory of clubs and organizations.