If you’ve been wanting to get out to view the skies at night from your back yard – or maybe a darker location – but don’t know your way around the skies or have access to a telescope or binoculars, attending a star party may be just what you need to do. I recently attended the 8th annual Iowa Star Party under the dark skies of Coon Rapids, Iowa.
It was an extraordinary experience to meet other amateur astronomers, look at (and through) their telescopes, and in general to be surrounded by a bunch of other people keenly interested in astronomy. Here’s a brief synopsis of what my experience at the star party was like, followed by reasons to seek out a dark-sky gathering near you and a few links to large star parties around the world.
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The star party ran from Thursday, September 2nd through Sunday the 5th. In attendance over the weekend were 36 participants and their families, most from Iowa but a few from Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois. It’s no Astrofest, but it was a good showing for Iowa!
The Iowa Star Party is located at the Whiterock Conservancy, an non-profit land-trust that is gracious enough to host the party every year, and has named the field in which the ‘scopes are located the Star Field. The site was chosen by former Ames Area Amateur Astronomers member Dave Oesper because it is the least populated place with the lowest amount of light pollution in central Iowa. The Ames club, of which I am a member, did much of the organizing for the event. All three nights were perfectly clear with good seeing, and though it was really windy during the daytime, it tended to calm down towards the evening.
I was not personally able to attend the first evening, but it was reportedly cold and clear, and the few that did show up for the kickoff were treated to dark, clear skies and little wind. Friday was the public night, where anyone from anywhere was invited to come look through a scope and attend a talk about the history of astronomy and some general information about viewing by local amateur astronomer Drew Sorenson.
The talk ended in a “debate” about refractors vs. reflectors that turned out to be a surprise, unplanned marshmallow fight. Yeah, we threw marshmallows at each other – with gusto I might add. A 60mm homemade refractor was then raffled off as a door prize.
In all, 175 people showed up for what turned out to be a spectacular night under some of the darkest skies I’ve seen. Members of the public were treated to a spectacular view of the Milky Way, as well as views of Jupiter, M13, Mizar, Albirio, and countless other objects through the eyepieces of about 20 telescopes.
Saturday night, the last evening of the star party, there was a banquet followed by a talk by Dr. Charles Nelson, Drake University Assistant Professor of Astronomy. Dr. Nelson gave a talk about quasars, which included a brief history of their discovery and the techniques we use to study and analyze them today, with a heavy emphasis on spectroscopy. After the talk, everyone headed out to the Star Field to spend the rest of the dark night observing.
Objects that my club viewed included the Veil Nebula (which was stunningly large and wispy through my club’s 24″ telescope), Herschel’s Garnet, the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, M22 and Jupiter and Uranus. Other participants viewed the quasar Markarian 205, in keeping with the quasar-themed lecture.
We concluded Sunday with a breakfast, during which I made countless pancakes faster than I’ve ever made pancakes before. Staying up all night staring at the stars makes one hungry!
This is just a small taste of my own individual experience, but all of this fun and more could be had by you! Here are a few reasons to seek out your own star party:
– You might will learn something – No matter how much time you spend at a ‘scope, meeting with other amateur astronomers will give you ideas and techniques and knowledge that you couldn’t even dream of discovering on your own. Plus, it’s fun to share an interest in any subject with other human beings, face to face.
– You’ll see more than you would at home – Larger star parties are inherently located in areas with very dark skies, meaning that there will be so much more to see than you could at home. Even smaller star parties near towns tend to avoid locations that are polluted by city lights. Plus, there will likely be people there with huge telescopes that are more than willing to show you all that a large light bucket has to offer.
– You can share your knowledge of the skies – A star party is a great chance to show off your knowledge of the skies to other amateurs, as well as members of the public if there is a public viewing night.
– You will meet other astronomers – Sure, amateur astronomy can be a lonely hobby, spending hours outside in the dark when everyone else is asleep. But at a star party, you’ll get the chance to share your passion for the skies with other astronomers, look through their telescopes and show them your own. You’re not alone!
-You’ll have fun – Even if you have a passing interest in astronomy and/or don’t own a telescope or binoculars, looking through a telescope is just plain cool, and getting to know your way around the skies is always a treat. And if it clouds over, chances are that someone will bring old episodes of Star Trek to watch!
If you’re interested in finding your nearest star party, here are a few resources to take a look at.
In the United States, The Astronomical League compiles a list of upcoming star parties and astronomy-related events on their website and in their print newsletter, The Reflector.
For our Australian readers, The Astronomical Society of New South Wales Incorporated hosts their own annual star party, and has a link to other events in the region here.
Of course, this only covers our readership located in the predominantly English-speaking regions of the Earth, so if you have a favorite event near you, feel free to link to it in the comments. Also share your favorite memory of a star party in the comments section, if you feel moved to do so.
As amateur astronomers are wont to say, “Clear Skies!”