Star parties are a gathering of amateur astronomers for the purpose of observing the sky. There are star parties organized right across the country by different local clubs (see here for a 2014 list). If there is a star party near your unit, you should consider contacting the organizer and seeing if you unit can participate in some way. However, even if you can’t attend a big star party, you can organize a mini-star party for yourself.
In picking a site for your star party you want to seek out someplace that will have a little light pollution as possible. Astronomers call this dark skies. There are two sources are light pollution to consider. Local pollution comes from sources near where you are observing, such as security lights, building lights, garden lights etc. See if you can get the property owners to agree to turn those off for the duration of your star party. The other source of light pollution are major towns and cities. There are maps such as the dark sky finder that can help you find an darker sight for your star party. Remember, anything darker then what the girls are use to seeing will reveal more then looking up in their own backyard but the darker the site is, the more they will be able to see. It is also useful to have a building on the site of your star party where girls can use the bathroom, warm up and have a snack.
Most star parties are organized near a new moon. This is to prevent the moons light from washing out other objects in the sky. So unless you want to make the moon the focus of your star party, you probably want to avoid holding it right near a full moon. However, unless you are going to be looking for deep sky objects (such as nebula or galaxies) you probably don’t need to hold it right when the moon is new.
You may want to pick a date when you know there will be something interesting to see. There are many interesting things to look at in the night sky that can be predicted such as:
You may also want to pick a day when planets such as Jupiter, Saturn or Venus are visible as they are all spectacular in their own way.
Other events like comets make make for a great star party but are harder to predict far in advance.
What to Wear
To look at the stars takes time and isn’t very active. To stay comfortable it seems best to pack for one season cooler then you are currently in. So for a summer star party, wear long pants and bring along a heavy sweater. You may even wants a warm hat and light gloves. For a fall or spring star party, you may want to wear long johns or even snow pants to keep warm at night. In the winter bring many layers and have a place to go to warm up.
Unlike cats, it takes a long time for our eyes to adjust to the dark. It can take up to 1/2 hour for our eyes to fully adjust. After all that time, it is a shame to loose our night vision because we needed to go inside to the bathroom or look up the position of Venus on a iPhone. Using dim red lights will allow you to see safely without destroying your night vision but it does take a little planning.
- By some cheep red plastic table cloths. These can be cut up and used to cover the girls flashlights (just put them on with an elastic band) or cool light fixtures inside.
- If your building uses incandescent lights it may be necessary to buy some red light bulbs or temporarily replace them by plugging in some red Christmas lights.
- Red acetate can be used to create temporary filters for smartphones or laptops if you want to use some astronomy software.
Watch the weather
Unfortunately, no matter how much planning you do, you won’t get to watch too many stars if it is cloudy outside. You should have a backup plan in case there are no stars.
You can use websites like the Clear Sky Chart or the Aviation Weather Center to see if you are in for clear skies.
While you are checking the terrestrial weather, you may also want to check the solar weather to see if there is a chance of Aurora for your star party. This can be checked at the NOAA/Space Weather Prediction Center.
Gather some Equipment
Small telescopes and even decent binoculars (especially if they are on tripods) can see the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter. And are great for exploring the surface of the moon. See if you can borrow some for your star party.
Laser pointers can be useful for showing girls the sky but can bother other astronomers (especially astrophotographers) so they should only be used if you are on your own.
You may also want to get sky charts or planispheres for your girls. You can even make your own planispheres there are lots of patterns available online but be sure to get one designed for your latitude.
Many astronomy clubs have members that enjoy outreach to the community. Why not contact a nearby club and see if any of their members would like to join you at your star party. They may bring a larger telescope with them that would allow your girls to see deep sky objects such as nebula, star clusters and galaxies. Or they may have photos and stories to share if clouds get between you and the stars.
My thanks to Malcom Park of the NYAA for his talk at Starfest 2014 on Astronomy for the whole family. Many of the links in this post are from the notes he provided to his lecture.