Waiting for twilight’s end at the Table Mountain Star Party.
The summer star-party season is in full swing once again and it’s time to hit the road! As an editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, I’ve traveled to most major (and quite a few minor) star parties in North America. They’re fun events and tend to have a number of things in common. Here’s a rundown of my top ten star party perks.
10. Door prizes.
I rarely seem to win door-prize raffles, so this is at the bottom of my list. Actually, the only time my number was drawn, I won a subscription to Astronomy magazine. Since S&T policy prohibited its editors from accepting door prizes, I had to decline.
9. Dark skies.
Although there are exceptions, most star parties are timed to coincide with a new-Moon weekend and are set in dark sky locations. For some observers, a star party might be the only opportunity to enjoy truly dark skies all year.
8. Talks aplenty.
One of the most challenging parts of organizing a star party is finding things for participants to do before it gets dark. Hence, the talks. I’ve seen some truly inspiring presentations from enthusiastic speakers. It’s always worth checking the program and see if any appeal to you.
7. Fun contests.
Most star parties have telescope-making and astrophotography contests. Entering them can provide a way to hone your skills and measure your abilities. But even if you don’t participate, it’s great to see the hard work of others rewarded.
6. Travel opportunities.
Although you may not need an excuse to pack up the car and drive someplace you’ve never been before, a star party is a great reason to do so. You know that when you arrive you’ll have some place to stay, something to do, and people to hang out with. What other vacation destination offers all that?
Used goodies are one of the main attractions at star parties like RTMC in California.
5. Swap meets.
Here’s your chance to scoop up some good, used gear cheap. Some star parties allow commercial vendors, so you can also pick up new goodies — often at a generous discount.
4. Discover new deep-sky wonders.
There’s nothing like grabbing a late-night cup of coffee and checking out what others are up to. You never know — some awe-inspiring sight might greet you at the eyepiece of your neighbor’s telescope. Be sure to take a break now and then to “make the rounds.”
3. Try new equipment.
Hey buddy, can you spare a Nagler? Have you always wondered what some fabulous new eyepiece might do in your telescope? Star parties offer a great opportunity to kick the tires on equipment you’re considering buying. Most people are happy to give you the straight goods on the pluses and minuses of stuff they own.
2. Observing/imaging help.
One thing you find at every gathering is a wide range of experience and expertise amongst the attendees. Want to know how to subtract dark frames? Ever wondered what kind of filter works best for the Veil Nebula? Now’s your chance to find out. Meet, greet, and see what you can learn.
1. Night friends.
There’s a special kind of bond that develops when you meet people under the stars. The atmosphere of a star party seems to encourage a contemplative frame of mind and a spirit of generosity — all fertile ground for lasting friendships. It’s this above everything else that has the greatest value and the potential to make you a star-party regular.
A moonless, summer sky filled with stars is the prime attraction at many star parties, including the Mt. Kobau Star Party where this picture was taken.