Party with the Stars
When I was a novice skywatcher in the 1960s, my teenage buddies and I didn’t know what a “star party” was. But we had them anyway. A group of us would get together in a vacant lot or somebody’s backyard, set up a few telescopes, and have a ball observing the night sky while swapping tall tales about girls and cars. That’s still what any star party is about — enthusiastic amateur astronomers enjoying the heavens and each other’s company.
Over the last 40 years, star parties have become an important part of the amateur astronomer’s life, and for good reason: if you want to get a good look at “deep-sky” objects the star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies that lie beyond our solar system you need a dark sky. Unfortunately, backyards and vacant lots are not an option for many of us anymore. Due to the growth of light pollution, many urban and suburban astronomers can’t see much more with their unaided eyes than the Moon, planets, and a few dozen bright stars. Some of the sky’s true showpieces often present nothing more than a dim, fuzzy smudges.
Consequently, organized get-togethers at locations away from city lights provide many stargazers with their only opportunities to see the night sky as it should be seen. Even if you don’t own a telescope, you’ll find that country skies let you see more than you thought possible. Away from streetlights, the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is easily visible to the unaided eye despite being 2½ million light-years away.
Another reason to attend is the chance to check out all the telescopes maybe 20 at a local affair, maybe 300 or 400 at a big event. Sure, it’s fun to drool over manufacturers’ full-color advertisements in magazines, and equipment reviews can be helpful when you’re trying to choose a first telescope. But it’s far better to see a field full of telescopes and accessories in person. Nothing substitutes for the hands-on experience of a star party. You’ll get to “test drive” a wide variety of scopes, and you’ll learn a lot by asking your fellow attendees about the equipment they use.
Hitting the Party Circuit
So where do you begin? Most local astronomy clubs sponsor monthly public-observing sessions on weekends near new Moon. These can provide newcomers with an easy introduction to the star-party scene. In fact, local get-togethers may be the best place to get your feet wet. Many clubs devote their monthly star parties at least partially to educating and assisting new members. To locate an astronomy club in your area, check SkyandTelescope.com's online listings.
Regional star parties are a step up from local gatherings. Some of these are nearly as well attended as the largest national events, but most draw relatively small groups of 100 to 150 observers. These star parties offer many of the pluses of large gatherings, including speakers and daytime activities, but in a relaxed atmosphere similar to that found at the local level. Since regional events may not be publicized in astronomy magazines or online, the easiest way to find the ones in your part of the country is to ask around at your astronomy club.
If you’ve got the time and inclination, then consider going to one of the national events. Owing to their huge size, large gatherings aren’t quite as novice-friendly as local or regional meets — they might even be a little intimidating for the beginner. But where else are you going to find so many like-minded stargazers in one place? It can be a thrilling, fulfilling experience.
Each has its own character, so first check the list of Annual Events online for likely candidates, then visit the websites of the ones that appeal to you and check them out. Many star parties offer cabins and catered meals, but at others camping out and cooking your own food are the only options. Whatever your preferences, be sure to choose early enough to secure a spot — many of the premier events sell out quickly.
You can also search the Calendar for additional events near you.