Your first star party: tips to start

If you like the night sky, it is very likely that you will want to share your excitement and passion with your family and friends. In fact, in many hobbies outreach holds an important spot, and for a good reason: the educational value of many hobbies are considerably underestimated!

It's not essential to have a big telescope or dark sky - engage your audience with an interesting story, and show them the sky that they never knew before!
You may not have the biggest telescope, the darkest sky or the largest crowd – but you have your passion and desire to share it with the others! (Photo from my visit to Stellafane in 2010).

Can you do it? And what can you do to bring the wonders of the night sky to the people around you? Well – the answer is yes, you can! You don’t need to be a professional astronomer or educator to talk about what you love to do in your free time. In my 25 years of being an amateur astronomer, I organized dozens of public observations with a cumulative attendance of over 10000 people. Here are some tips that will help you get started:

You don’t need a big telescope to hold your own star party! In fact, you don’t necessarily need a telescope at all. The sky is full of legends and interesting facts, and you can engage your company in a little tour of the stars above you and tell them a few stories. Don’t forget about the planets – wanderers of the sky! If there are bright planets visible with a naked eye – ask your party if they see them twinkling like the other stars in the sky šŸ™‚ Of course, having a telescope will add to the variety of objects that you can see, and will make the night even more fun.

You don’t need very dark skies for your star party. Of course, having no direct light pollution will help a lot, but it will be very hard to avoid scattered light from the city or town where you live. Naturally, more people live in areas with higher light pollution. But don’t let this ruin your plans! Show your party the brightest objects in the sky: Moon, bright planets such as Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, and the brightest stars visible at your location and in that particular time of the year.

From my experience, it is not necessary to try finding faint stars and distant galaxies to show to your public. Each person will spend a limited time at the eyepiece, usually about a minute. Hence, it is easier to “wow” your audience by showing them bright objects that are easy to find under any conditions: trust me, most of those people have never seen the Moon or Saturn through the telescope before! How many times have we heard something like “it looks so big and so real!”, or “do you have a slide projector inside the tube?”!

To further enrich your experience, consider joining a local amateur astronomers club, or look for the Sidewalk Astronomers affiliates in your area. Don’t have a club? Well, here’s another thing you can do – start one! To reward you for your outreach efforts in dissemination of the wonders of the night sky and promotion of our great hobby, the Astronomical League established a three-level Outreach Award program.

To maximize your experience in outreach, consider joining a local amateur astronomers club.
Telescopes are being set up as we are waiting for the first group of kids at the Eastern Nebraska 4-H Center this past Thursday. We had a great crowd of almost 100 curious kids!

My fellow colleagues at the Omaha Astronomical Society have a well-established and versatile outreach agenda throughout the year. And fall is usually the busiest season for us with school programs. We collaborate with the Papillion – La Vista Schools for many years, and every September-October they have a series of educational programs based in the Eastern Nebraska 4-H Center not far from Gretna, NE. This season we are bringing telescopes to show the night sky to more than 15 groups of sixth-graders (overall almost a thousand students!), their teachers and parents. Yes, it’s more than 15 events, all of them are on weeknights. And we have no shortage of volunteers – I am truly blessed to be part of a wonderful team of dedicated enthusiasts!

As you see – it is possible to bring the wonders of the night sky to your family and friends even with very little resources. Be creative, and don’t wait for “perfect conditions”. Go ahead and do what you love with the resources that are readily available! Every hour counts and there are so many people out there waiting to see. You will be surprised how well it will turn out, and how rewarding your experience will be!

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