University Lowbrow Astronomers

So, you want to go to a “Big Star Party.”

by Mark S Deprest
Printed in Reflections: June, 2007.

Well, I’m no expert, but I have been to my fair share of them and I’ve always had a great time at every one! That’s right no matter what the weather conditions, including riding out hurricanes in a tent, I’ve always had great times, and the reasons are pretty simple. This article is not just for those of you thinking about going to one of these events, but also for those of you who go to them every year and those of you who have been to only a few but haven’t seem to master how to have a good time at them yet. This article is filled with tips and my methods to successful “Star Partying.”

First, and before you even choose a Star Party make sure you even go, most of these events are held some distance from where you live and many of them mean either camping in a tent or renting a “RV” at least one or two nights. Make sure you can actually handle that aspect of it. Most of the “bigger” Star Parties are held in either rural or remote areas, and hotels and cabins may be available off site but at some distance from the actual observing site. Make sure you can get the time off from work and if you are not taking your family with you, clear it with your spouse. If you are taking your family with you make sure you think about their entertainment too. In other words, put some real thought into this ahead of time.

Remember the 5 P’s of any major undertaking: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance! That is the essence of this article and probably the most important thing to remember.

Okay, you’ve actually decided that you can do this. Now you need to decide which one or ones you want to go to. There are many to choose from and each one has its own “personality” if you will. Riverside on the West Coast and Stellafane out East are big ATM (amateur telescope making) events, Astrofest is a “New Products and Vendor oriented event, Almost Heaven in WV, Black Forest in PA, Nebraska and Okie-Tex are all Dark Sky observing events, Green Bank in WV and The Texas Star Parties are a combination of Speaker, ATM, and Dark Sky oriented events. There are many other “big” star parties and lots little ones too and each of them have special things to offer, all of them have a few things in common. They are social events, they are astronomy related and they are all supposed to be FUN! Choose the one or ones that suit your interest and then do a little research on them, any Star Party that has been around for a while is doing something right, and there should be some info on the net or in the astronomy related publications about them. Find out the events’ history and what other people have to say about them.

Sky Online has a nice list at: this is by no means the only ones to choose from but it’s a good start.

As soon as possible you will want to register; all of the bigger star parties require advance registration. There are many reasons for this but mostly it’s due to limited space at the venue’s site. Some star parties have become so popular that they fill up months before the actual event, The Texas and Black Forest Star Parties are two that fill up fast. Most every star party requires a refundable registration fee and some allow registration at the “gate” but usually at a higher rate. Some of the week long events offer meal plans and unless you are on a special diet these are a great idea to register for. They are always cheaper than restaurants and generally better quality. They also mean you don’t have to worry about packing and storing food in coolers or bringing a lot of cooking stuff like pots and pans, camp stoves, propane, etc. The food is prepared the menu is selected by people just like you and there is always enough for everyone who signs up for them.

I suppose I should talk a about the “bottom line” a little bit. I mean with gas prices headed to places unknown, the cost of getting to one of these events can be considerable, depending on how far away it is. Make sure you can afford to get there! It might be a good idea think in terms of a budget, whoops! That means doing some planning and we come back to the 5 P’s. Plan out how you are going to get there (an actual route), you might want to see if any of your friends are planning on going and maybe carpool to offset some of the expenses. If you decide to carpool, make sure you consider your traveling partner when planning and discuss ahead of time all of the traveling plans. Remember some people like to take their time and site-see all the way and others like to hit and get it. There is no sense in traveling all that way together, just to get there and be pissed off at each other, especially since you’ll probably be sharing the ride home!

Another thing that is worth mentioning right now is, keep in mind that part of the fun of any event is enjoying the trip there. I always plan at least one special stop or thing to see along the way to help break up the monotony of the road. Make sure that you remember to have fun along the way.

Okay, you’ve decided where & when, you’ve figured out how to afford it, you’ve planned out your trip and your accommodations while you’re there. Now its time to think of all the gear you’ll want to bring with you and the all the gear you actually have room for. I suggest that you take some time a week or two before you actually leave and lay everything out so that you can see it, make a list, add and subtract items from that list as you see fit. Remember to consider weather into your plans and pack for the most obvious possibilities. I’m not going to put an actual list of things in this article, but your list should be very comprehensive and should contain event the most obvious items, like if you are planning on tenting, the tent should be on the list. If you are bringing a telescope, the telescope should be on the list. I know this seems like over-kill but I know of some people who forgot to bring really obvious things, like eyepieces, telescope shrouds, flashlights, etc. Don’t take anything for granted nothing is too obvious to include on your list. Now, with everything all laid out and your list made... try fitting it all in your car, truck, SUV, camper or trailer. If it doesn’t all fit you are taking too much! If it all fits you’re probably still taking too much but it all fits so who cares. Okay unload everything and put it somewhere you’ll be able to find it when it comes time to actually pack.

If you are driving, make sure that your vehicle is in good working order, check and change the oil, check your brakes and tires make sure they are properly inflated, and check your lights, if it’s an older vehicle have the transmission checked. There is nothing that can spoil a trip like a breakdown on the side of the road.

Now, the week before you leave, go through the list again, check the weather and road conditions, long range forecasts are generally not much better than an educated guess but if they are predicting very cold or very hot weather and your list doesn’t take this into consideration... revise your list! If your trip’s route has a major construction project starting up on it you might want to consider revising it also or at the very least have an alternative route planned.

The day before you leave try and pack as much as you can, use your list. Check the weather again, but don’t let the threat of inclement weather stop you from going. One of the best times I ever had at a star party was one of the worst for weather. Remember Star Parties are social events too, and every body there has something in common with you, a love of astronomy, and I don’t know of any weatherman that is always right. Besides you did all that planning and prep-work, go and have fun!

The day has come finish packing and check your list, remember your planned route and follow it; there is no sense in getting lost. Take breaks when necessary, and enjoy the trip. Leaving means more than pulling out of the driveway, leave your troubles at home and at work there is no room in the car for them... they take up way to much space and time and they have no purpose at a star party. If you can’t leave them then stay at home!

Once you get on the road and your head is clear of all the day-to-day stuff, you’ll begin to understand how to have a great time. Treat yourself to something special you deserve it!

When you get to your chosen star party, the first thing you should unpack is a smile, put it on and don’t take it off, and if you forgot yours look around everyone there has one for you! These are as much social events as they are observing venues, and remember everyone that is there shares the same interest as you! So, participate in the other activities that the event organizers have set up just for you. During the day walk around and talk to those around you, check out their equipment. I love showing off my scopes and telling people about them, guess what... lots of other people do too. This is a great way to meet new friends and make astronomy associations that can last a lifetime.

If the star party you choose has guest speakers lined up for talks, go to them you never know what you might learn. I have even gone so far as to be one of these guest speakers and I always have fun and I always learn something new when preparing for my talk, and this is about a subject I should know a lot about already. Imagine what you could learn as an audience member.

I said at the beginning of this article that no matter what the weather conditions or other problems that are going on during the star party, I have always had a great time at every one and I think its because I have learned how to enjoy myself and experience the moment for what it is. Remember if you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong!

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Picture by Chris Sarnecki at the 2006 Black Forest Star Party.


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