20 Apr 2012

Go to a Star Party!

Guess what! You’re invited to the best kind of party. Expect to see lots of stars, at least a few planets, and maybe some deep sky objects like nebula, star clusters, or distant galaxies. It’s called a star party and it’s being held in a dark location near you.

Orion Nebula
Courtesy of ESA/Hubble
Around the world, astronomy clubs host star parties to share the experience of looking up at the night sky. Club members bring telescopes, binoculars, and sky charts. The public is often invited to attend. Search “star party” along with your location to find a nearby event.

Plan to arrive before nightfall to avoid the need to use vehicle headlights. Cover your interior and trunk light with black cardboard to ensure no light escapes. You will have to cover your headlights before you leave unless you choose to spend the night. In that case, plan to be quiet in the morning and into the early afternoon. Astronomers call themselves “day sleepers."

Make sure you only use red light if you need a flashlight to look at a sky chart or find your way. If you don’t have a flashlight with a red bulb, cover the white light with red cellophane or red plastic from a shopping bag. A rubber band will hold it on. Star party organizers and attendees are serious about astronomy. It’s important to make sure you don’t upset anyone’s night vision. That means you can’t use lighters, matches, or flash cameras either.

As day turns to night, look up. You will notice more stars after your eyes get used to the dark. It’s amazing what appears after only 15 minutes. Let 30-45 minutes pass and the sky becomes even more remarkable!

Some people retain their night vision by using one eye for observation and the other eye to look at sky charts. Don’t be surprised if you see a star gazer wearing an eye patch! 

Stars of the Big Dipper
Courtesy of ESA/Hubble
Use inverted vision to glimpse objects that appear dim in the night sky. You can practice by looking at the second star from the end of the Big Dipper’s handle. What appears as a single star at first glance is actually a double star system made up of Mizar and Alcor, the horse and rider. 

You won’t discern two stars if you stare straight at this spot. Instead you must learn to pay attention to the image that flashes by as you look ever-so-slightly away. Inverted vision uses the light-gathering rods on the outer part of your eyeball.

Telescope owners at star parties are usually happy to let you look through their lenses as long as you ask first. Visitors who line up for a peek often benefit from club members’ knowledge and experience. It’s a great chance to compare equipment and hear first-hand how people feel about the brands they’ve purchased. However, if someone is busy taking photographs, drawing images, or working on a project, it’s best to keep your distance.

You can find out more about Canadian events through the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). The organization, which has 29 clubs across the country, hosts star parties, astronomy workshops, and other events.
Enjoy the night sky!

List of Items to Bring
  • Reclining lawn chair
  • Warm clothes
  • Blankets
  • A warm drink in a thermos
  • Sky charts-such as found in Dot to Dot in the Sky, Stories in the Stars and Stories of the Zodiac.

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