Star Parties - A Gathering of Amateur Astronomers

by MaggiePowell

Star Parties are a great way for Amateur Astronomers to come together and enjoy the night sky, exchange tips and information, and to share their appreciation of the stars.

Enjoying the Night Sky at a Star Party is so much FUN!

Now, when I say "Star Party", do you think Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the Red Carpet? or do you immediately flash to Orion, Cassiopeia and the Milky Way? As much as I enjoy a great Hollywood blockbuster (no idea what the parties must be like) this is information about the Astronomy gatherings... which are a whole lot of people, astronomers and star enthusiasts, amateurs, hobbyists, enthusiests and even professionals coming together with telescopes and binoculars to star gaze.

Stars.... those glowing balls of gas in the sky... have mesmerized humans since we first looked up. Today, at Star Parties, people gather in areas either far away from light, or on a sidewalk in the middle of the city. Some of these parties are simple one night affairs that last a few hours, others go on for days with programs and speakers. Either way, you get to enjoy the shared experience of star gazing.

Attending a Star Party can be loads of fun... for Astronomy Buffs, and even Astronomy Widows..... but it's good to know what to expect. What is it like to attend a Star Party? What do you bring? Is there Star Party Etiquette? I'd like to share some of my experiences with you, so that you are prepared for your next star party... I've also included a list of Star Parties, large and small, so you can give it a try.

Photo from Wikipedia

My First Star Party Experience

Days and Nights in a Field of Telescopes

GSSL Star Party
I've been dragged... I mean taken... to a few different Star Parties and Astronomy Events, so let me share with you what I experienced.

My first Star Party Camping Experience was the Golden State Star Party in Aldin, California. This is WAY off the beaten path, on some ranch land. Spaces for camping were... first come...first served.... but they tried to keep the RVs around the outside, and the tents and small trailers to the inside. Rows were set up with enough space to walk or drive between them. On one side was a communal tent for lectures and the swap meet. At the back were Porta Potties, running water, and (heaven sent) a HOT SHOWER trailer (really... it was a bunch of shower cubicles that were cleaned between use...bliss). In retrospect, we were lucky to be on an outside edge... it gave the kids room to run free.

Every size of telescope imaginable was there. We saw little cars next to tiny tents beside ENORMOUS scopes. Our set up was simple, and as rookies, we had some bugs to shake out (note- be very comfortable with the set up of your telescope BEFORE you do it in a field). We sent up the scope on a tarp, since the ground was grassy and dirty (this way we could find anything we dropped.) And as the sun went down, the kids played with our Glow in the Dark Frisbee.

 When the sun went down, you really notice the difference... in a good way. Dark, so dark, just the light from the stars. And people talking, but not laughing and joking... they were speaking in Astronomy-Speak (it was a bit like spying on the Big Bang Theory set). People were taking pictures of the stars! They had computers tracking the stars, and capturing images from space. I had the chance to look through some really amazing Telescopes. People were so nice, so generous. They shared information and an experience that I won't forget.

And by day? The mornings were quiet time. I kept the kids busy with their games and video games. We brought bikes, and took rides in the countryside. In the afternoons, the Star Party hosted activities for the kids. They also hosted speakers, a bar-b que and an Astronomy Swap Meet (I got my very own METEORITE... yes, it's a tiny one). There was minimal bandwidth available for the computer. I wanted to go online by day, and failed multiple times. In the communal tent, a load of geeks tried to help me get on (one of them was stymied by my windows operating system... ). But, it wasn't that big a deal, I had lots of other things to do, and see. People brought their hobbies with them, I met a woman who Quilted while traveling from Star Party to Star Party with her Astronomer husband... and she hung her beautiful work all around their space. There was a Solar Scope for viewing the Sun. And I napped.

And at night? The Stars would put on a show.

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Big Telescope, Little Tent
Big Telescope, Little Tent
Maggie Powell

What to Bring to a Star Party

A List of Important Items for An Astronomy Gathering

I am NOT an astronomer (although I really enjoy stargazing) ... I'm a mom who gets taken to Star Parties. Through this experience, I've learned a bit about what to bring, and what to leave behind.

This is not a list of which scope or lens to take along... I'm assuming that people know what they want to look through. This is a list of the OTHER stuff.

Telescope- Don't forget the Scope, the Tripod, and a few lenses. If you have a computer on your telescope...make sure you have batteries. (Yes, I know, seems obvious, but... you'd be surprised).

Binoculars- Sometimes it's easier to just look through binoculars... especially for kids (and moms).

Star Chart- You Astronomers know what charts and graphs you need. For you non-astronomers, a star chart, especially one where the stars glow in the dark, is very helpful. We always tape a poster of the Milky Way to our camper..... because it's fun.

Star Guide- Kind of like the charts, but with more information about finding the particular stars. I also LOVE to take a book of constellations with their stories along. Makes the star patterns seem more real when you can say "those are the stars of Scorpio, and this is what Scorpio was".

Flashlights with a RED FILM or LENS- You can NOT use regular flashlights or lights after dark (they take this very seriously, and it's astonishing just how angry space geeks get... phasers are not set to stun). There are flashlights available with red lenses, or you can get some red plastic film, and cover the end of a regular flashlight.

Blanket or Tarp- Most star gazing is done on a field.... fields are covered in itchy grass or dirt and rocks .... cover your space with a tarp or blanket (will make it easier to find anything you drop.) I also found that my little kids liked laying on the ground with binoculars and looking straight up (I like that too). Looking up from a chair gives you a crick in your neck.

Stuff to Eat Food/Snacks- There is NO cooking over the campfire at a star party. You can forget about electricity if you are in an RV (ok, a generator can be used... but you can't plug in). You can cook over a camp stove, or just eat food that you prepped at home and carried along. Some bigger star parties have a food tent, make sure you find out in advance, since most of the parties are held miles from the nearest town.

WATER- Let me say that again. WATER. Often Star Parties are held way off the beaten path on a field. These are not regular campgrounds. Sometimes you get extra lucky and there is a water truck and a shower. Mostly it's a porta-potty in the middle of nowhere. Bring extra water.

Glow in the Dark Frisbee- Because it's dang fun. However.... be mindful that some people might get REALLY ANNOYED if you throw a glowing frisbee near their Telescopes. And, also, the "oh look! It's a UFO!" joke will probably only work once.

Something to Keep You and the Kids Entertained By Day- Daytime, especially before Noon, is SLEEP TIME for those Star Gazers that stayed up late. Bring something that will keep you quietly busy if you didn't stay up all night. I can read and read and read, so I brought books for myself. We also packed some games for the kids- hand held video games and board games both. Activity books about space could be fun. Check in advance to see if the Star Party has activities for the kids... if so... take advantage. 

Jackets/ and or Fleeces for All- Yes, it might be warm by day, but it can get really cold at night.

Bicycle- Ok, this is just for those of you who like to ride, or have kids who need exercise. Lots of folks had bikes at the star parties I attended, makes it easier to get around the big ones. (umm... do I have to remind you that your Italian Racing Bike might not be the best choice? Bring a bike that doesn't mind dirt)

Celestron 8x42 Granite Binocular

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The Orion StarBlast is a Great Starter Scope

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Celestron Astronomy Binoculars

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You Will Need To Take Along Red Lights and Red Film

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Maxxima MF-37R Ultra Bright 6 Red LED Flashlight

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Lighting EVER Super Bright LED Headlamp, 18 White LED and 2 Red LED, 4 Brigthtness Level Choice

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Red Solid (24"w X 100"l) Cellophane Roll

Add some color to your party favors with this solid red cellophane!

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General Rules at Star Parties

Star Party Etiquette

There are several rules and guidelines for Star Parties that you should know if advance. Remember, this is a group of people out in a field, we all have to get along, and these rules will help.

No Lights After Dark- This is the number ONE Rule. At star parties night vision is vital... turn on a flashlight, or flip on your lamp, and you might be asked to leave. If you need light, cover it with red film.

About Computers- Most star parties are in the back of beyond, computers come with certain restrictions. Bandwidth is often limited, so it is asked that you be sparing with your internet use. Also, it's dark skies at night, so so if you want to hook up your computer to your scope for imaging, the screen needs to be shielded. (Do be aware though, if you find yourself with a computer problem, there are about 937 people on site who are ready to help you fix it... was rather flattering for this mom to have so many nice men come to my rescue... I did have to learn not to take their disparaging comments about my operating system seriously). 

Pets Might NOT Be OK- Different Star Parties have different rules about pets, but check them in advance. Since some parties are on public land or national park land, dogs may be restricted. If the party is on private land, and dogs are allowed... be mindful that not everyone wants to have your dog running around their expensive equipment, they may be restricted to your tent or camper... and please pick up the poops.

Kids- Many Star Parties are family friendly, and they encourage budding astronomers to come and learn about the night sky. HOWEVER! Telescopes are expensive pieces of equipment. Do not let your child run wild. Really. You may think little Johnny or Susie are the brightest bulb in the socket, but no one wants kids climbing all over their equipment.

Electricity is Minimal... Generators Should NOT be Used at Night- Many Star Parties have very specific rules about using Generators, limiting them to set times (mostly in the afternoon). You can't use them at night... Forget about your microwave... If you need to charge anything, do it in advance. Bring extra batteries.

Be Polite- Do I really need to remind you? People with scopes at Star Parties are friendly, and often enjoy sharing their equipment (and maybe showing off a bit) but, it's still their stuff. ASK before you touch it. DON'T make adjustments to the focus without clearing it with the owner first. Stay and chat. Say Thank You. (And for those of you who wear a lot of makeup... maybe hold back a bit... mascara can get on a lens and drive its owner crazy... not a pretty sight).

Share- Be generous about letting other people look through your scopes. You can look through theirs. This is not the time for top-secret experiments. Play nicely with the other astronomers (you might even learn something new about your toys).

No Driving at Night- If you will be leaving at night... leave your car on the edge of the field. Driving through the Party is dangerous and wrong. You can't see...

Smoke damages Eyepieces- Keep your cigarettes away from the Scopes. So many Parties are on open fields... you don't want to start a grass fire... find out if smoking is allowed at all.

BE QUIET in the mornings- Much like opossums, Star Gazers are nocturnal.

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Camping at the Golden State Star Party

Golden State Star Party
Golden State Star Party
Maggie Powell

Sky and Telescope Magazine

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Star Parties- Find One Near You

Want to Attend a Star Party? Take a Look at These

Golden State Star Party
This is the one I attend. Large open field in Northern California.... LOADS of amazing telescopes and friendly people. Daytime activities, even for kids. Best of all... hot showers (they bring in a fancy shower truck).

Griffith Observatory Star Parties
Monthly Star Parties are held at the iconic Griffith Park Observatory. This is a great place to go with the whole family to see the moon and stars.

Texas Star Party
For 35 years, this Star Party has met near Fort Davis, Texas. They claim the darkest skies in North America. Limited to 700 people, there is a lottery for space...

Nebraska Star Party
Hosted every July, 27 miles from Valentine, Nebraska, this star party is great one for the whole family. There is a special Beginners Field School for new Astronomers, children's activities by day, and special challenges for veteran astronomers.

Two Rivers Star Party
A small and fairly new Star Party in Two Rivers, Illinois (about 30 miles from Hannibal, MO, but it's growing. It's a 20 acre field, camping in tents or RVs. Porta Potties and running water available.

Nightfall Star Party
Held in October near the Anza Borrego Dessert in the Palm Canyon Resort, Borrego, California. This is a dessert event where dark skies are maintained for the duration of the gathering. It is a resort, so rooms are available, but there is also plenty of camping.

Cherry Springs Star Party
Hosted by the Harrisburg, PA Astronomical Society in the Cherry Springs State Park, this is a weekend Star Party where camping is encouraged. Hot food vendors will be there.

Grand Canyon Star Party
Held in June for 8 days on both the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon... admission is free after you pay the Park entrance fee. You can camp or get reservations at the lodges, if you are an astronomer willing to share your telescope, register with the astronomy society.

Green Bank Star Quest
Held in West Virginia, the Green Bank Star Quest claims to be the largest Optical and Radio Astronomy star party in the United States. Bunk house for rent, speakers every night and activities for kids... as well as time on a 40 ft. Radio Telescope.

Mason Dixon Star Party
Held in Wellsville, PA, there are dark skies and plenty of camping at this star party. Telescopes set up on a grass airport runway.

Table Mountain Star Party
Table Mountain Star Party happens in July or August in Eastern Washington... they offer speakers, seminars, kid programs and a swap meet. Camping is on Forestry Land.

Mt.Kobau Star Party
This is a star party for serious hard-core astronomers. Held in British Columbia, the temperatures are cold, and the rough roads are hard on the scopes.... those that love it, find it very worth while.

Black Forest Star Party
Held in September in Cherry Springs State Park, in Potter County, PA. Great featured speakers, and camping under dark skies.

Sun River Star Party
The Sun River Nature Center and Observatory hosts this star party... there is no on-site camping, however, Sun River does have lodging for rent.

Idaho Star Party
The Idaho Star Party is located in Bruneau Dunes State Park at the Public Observatory. You can bring your own scope, but you don't have to. Camping is encouraged. This is a family friendly event.

Almost Heaven Star Party
Held in August near Spruce Knob, West Virginia.. there is a site for tent campers, one for RV campers, and a site for those who drive in nightly. A meal plan is available for those who don't want to cook.

The Autumn Equinox Sky Camp 2013
Largest Star Party in the UK, held in Kelling Heath, Norfolk in September. Overnight camping, daily seminars and and trade stands.

Iowa Star Party
You can camp, or find room in a B&B. Dark Iowa skies at night, and fun outdoor activities like canoeing and hayrides by day. Labor Day Weekend, September.

Prairie Skies Star Party
Labor Day Weekend at Camp Shaw-Waw-Nas-See in Illinois. Dark skies and a family friendly environment. Imaging contest, a swap meet, and all night coffee, tea and cocoa.

Prairie Skies Star Party
Labor Day Weekend at Camp Shaw-Waw-Nas-See in Illinois. Dark skies and a family friendly environment. Imaging contest, a swap meet, and all night coffee, tea and cocoa.

Pacific Astronomy and Telescope Show
Sort of a Star Party dedicated to viewing just one Star... the sun. This is an expo in Pasadena, CA, of all the latest Telescopes and Imaging Equipment. If you can use it to see the sky, you will find it here. As it is daytime, and in a metropolitan area, they have Sun Scopes set up in the parking lot for you to view OUR Star.

Enchanted Skies Star Party
Held in the high desert near Socorro, New Mexico with camping and observing at the Etscorn Campus Observatory in September.

Heart of America Star Party
Star Party in October in Kansas... the heart of the US.

Okie-Tex Star Party
At Camp Billy Joe in September.... there are bunkhouses available, but you can camp in a tent or RV.

NOVAK Star Gaze
One day only, from 3 to 11 PM at C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County, Virginia. Solar Observing by day, loads of scopes set up at night. Activities for the kids, and speakers for all.

White Stands Star Party
Area 19 of the White Sands of New Mexico is the location of this two night star party. Open to RVs, Trailers and Tents. Open to the public on Saturday night.

El Dorado Star Party
Spent part of october under dark skies on the X Bar Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Camp sites are available, motel rooms nearby, and catering is also available.

Deep South Regional Star Gaze
Held in November, about 45 miles north of Louisiana. Nature walks by day, dark skies at night.

Star Charts and Wheels

To Help You Find Your Way Across the Night Sky
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Would You Go to a Star Party?

What Sort of Star Party?

Star Party Photos

Our Camper at the Star Party
Our Camper at the Star Party
A Smaller Set Up
A Smaller Set Up
Maggie Powell

Sidewalk Astronomy

You Can See the Stars... Even in the City

Urban Observing Program
Bringing Astronony back into the cities. The Urban Observing Program aims to help anyone living in urban areas that are affected by light polution to find objects in the night sky. Clubs are formed across America to encourage group star gazing.

San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers
The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers set up telescopes on the city sidewalks and encourage people to join them in enjoying the night sky.

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Camping Under the Stars

Camping at the Star Party
Camping at the Star Party

Myths and Legends of the Stars

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Star Party at an Observatory

Chabot Space and Science Center

Near our home on the East Bay of San Francisco is the Chabot Space and Science Center. Up in the Hills above Oakland they host weekly Star Parties, open to the public. In addition to people bringing their own personal scopes to share, the big scopes are open for viewing. Loads of people show up every week... and not just people with scopes... lots of families looking for an inexpensive and entertaining night out. The Chabot supplies docents to help monitor the site... and there is a guy in a Wizard outfit who entertains the crowds with Astronomy facts, while they wait in line.

Many Observatories have night time viewing open to the public. They also invite amateur astronomers to bring their scopes and set them up for the public.

Generally, these experiences end at a specific time... so be mindful of that.

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Updated: 06/25/2014, MaggiePowell
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MaggiePowell on 07/30/2015

They are fun to attend... a gathering of like minded people gazing at the stars...

blackspanielgallery on 07/24/2015

This is an interesting concept. I had not heard of a star party before, except at the planetarium for certain events, then there is a cloud consideration.

katiem2 on 05/21/2013

What a great idea, my daughters both love the outdoors and astronomy My oldest is having her birthday sleep over, she's a Memorial Day baby, this weekend, I'm adding this to the list of activities. She's really into astrophysics.

kimbesa on 05/16/2013

Wonderful! Get out away from city lights and enjoy the night sky. And 2013 is becoming a great year to see all kinds of celestial events!

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