Public star parties – either formal organized gatherings or impromptu sidewalk affairs – are a great way to introduce the general public to the universe and astronomy. Over the years, I’ve successfully shown off the sky anywhere from dark desert sites to light-polluted, urban sidewalks where we could see little more than Jupiter and the Moon.
Here are some tips and tricks for telescope owners and attendees to complete a successful star party. Let’s start with the telescope owners who have come out to share and bring new people into the field.
Know how to successfully guide the public to the eyepiece. Most of the public has never looked through a telescope before. In just a few seconds, the new observer needs to decide which is their dominant eye and how far back from the eyepiece they need to be for comfortable observing. Another natural tendency is for first-time observers to want to grab the eyepiece. I keep a small step ladder handy (whether or not it’s needed) to give people something not affixed to the telescope to hang onto in the dark.
Set expectations. Some people may think they’ll see something similar to photos from the Hubble Space Telescope in the eyepiece. Naturally, the typical telescope an amateur possesses gathers less light, and a first-time observer may need a little coaching to learn the difference between the images made in computer software and what the human eye can perceive. I find it helps to coach people a bit as to what they should be seeing beforehand, whether it’s a close double star, a bright planet, or a faint fuzzy nebula or comet.
Keep a list of star party ‘secret targets’: The danger is having all the telescopes look at the same thing. For example, is everybody down the row aimed at Saturn? Instead, I like to aim at a few unexpected targets that folks probably haven’t seen yet, such as Hind’s Crimson Star or the triple/sextuplet star Castor. Multiple stars can also make for good offbeat targets under bright suburban skies, or on nights when you’re chasing clear holes in the clouds around the sky. Also, be sure to allow your telescope operators a range of objects to show the audience. It can get, well, boring showing folks M13 all night.
Do your research: Before I head out to the field, I like to check if there are any bright comets, novae, and transits of Jupiter’s moons or the Great Red Spot. Also, keep an eye out for high-interest satellite passes, even though they only require the naked eye. People are often more fascinated with seeing the International Space Station than anything I could show them at the eyepiece. If you are lucky enough to live near a rocket range, do a check to see if any space missions are planned. Once during a school star party in Florida, I pointed out a rocket launch from nearby Cape Canaveral that went off during the star party window. While that will probably never happen again, it was a fun moment for myself and also for the attendees.
Be open (and forgiving) to the public: Encourage folks that are new to astronomy and curious. They’ll may want to talk about aliens, astrology, or the latest asteroid in the news that isn’t really headed our way, but don’t turn these curious minds away. After all, they did make the effort to turn up in the dark, at your telescope. Instead, lead their curiosity towards real science. For example, when the topic of astrology turns up, mention that modern astronomy did indeed come from archaic astrology. If they talk about asteroids, point out how amateur astronomy contributes to the effort to identify Near Earth Objects.
Telescope operators should also bear some rules in mind for what not to do.
Do not spend too long fiddling with temperamental gear. The public is waiting and anxious to see the sky. A public star party isn’t the time to experiment with complex rigs and balky gear. Keep it simple, with a simple push-to-target mount like a Dobsonian.
Do not endlessly debate where to set up. True story: I once relocated my car and telescope three times while arriving club members debated one after another where to set up at a school star party. Instead, the organizers should go to the site ahead of time to find the best spots to place cars and telescopes. Consider these questions: Which lights will turn on when it gets dark? Does security know you’re out there with cannon-looking devices in the dark? Are there sprinklers on timers, poised to spray down precious gear? Coordinate with any relevant land authorities, have a plan, and make sure all organizers adhere to the plan.
Do not have people run multiple telescopes. You will busy enough with one. I only make one exception: sometimes a new telescope owner will ask me to “show me how to use this thing”. While I usually oblige, I set expectations quickly. First, I make sure they set up next to me in the dark so I can help them later, if needed. Second, I only give them a quick set of instructions so that they can get started while I get back to my job of helping others.
If you’re an attendee, there are also some rules of etiquette that the telescope operators will want you to know (and you telescope operators should make clear to attendees).
Ask if you can check out what operators are looking at. Most folks are bashful to approach telescope operators at first, but don’t be shy; that’s what we’re here for. I often start before sunset with Venus or the Moon, or even a filtered view of the Sun.
Speak up if you can’t see anything. Hands can nudge telescopes, objects drift out of the field of view, and the focus may look different for different sets of eyes. An experienced telescope operator can get things back in order in a jiffy.
Ask questions, but do some research beforehand. Sometimes we get questions from newbies such as “Can you see the flag they put there on the Moon?” or “Should I ‘buy a star’ for my spouse/relative/pet?” We’re always happy to educate, but if you’re a reader of AGT you can probably do a bit of research on the Internet before coming out to the field. One guaranteed way to engage your operator is to pivot the discussion to how we have learned about a particular topic in astronomy. Such a question cuts across a wonderful swath of modern science, to include discussions on parallax, Cepheid variables, proper motion, supernovae and more.
Observe basic etiquette: (1) Always ask before using bright lights, car high-beams, handheld lasers and other night vision-killing devices. (2) Keep bug spray far away from optics; these substances can settle on the glass and are corrosive to plastics. (3) Ask permission before touching anyone’s gear.
Star parties are a wonderful tool for education in astronomy, especially for young students and new telescope owners. And a great opportunity to share your passion for astronomy with others. I look forward to seeing you at the next one!