Every year, like-minded folks who enjoy some aspect of astronomy get together at dark sky sites and have star parties. They tote their telescopes and computers and other paraphernalia to the Great Outdoors, set up, and if the weather permits, they stargaze, or planet-gaze, or galaxy-gaze. They do this until the wee-est of the wee hours, then head to sleep before getting up a few hours later to do it all over again. At some parties, the daytime hours that aren’t taken up with sleeping are filled with lectures, equipment demonstrations, mirror grinding for do-it-yourselfers, and a healthy dose of sitting around and shooting the breeze with other stargazers.
Now you’d think that gazing through a telescope wouldn’t be much of a group thing — but truth is, these parties can be quite a bit of fun.
Over the years I’ve attended my fair share of these events, usually as a lecturer, but sometimes as “just plain folks.” The first one I lectured at was during my days as a comet researcher and I traveled down to the Winter Star Party, held each year by the Southern Skies Astronomical Society on West Summerland Key, Florida. Since then, I’ve gone to star parties across the U.S. and one in Canada. I’ve even conducted a few onboard a ship in South America.
One of the oldest star parties in the U.S. is called Stellafane, held by the Springfield (Vermont) Telescope Makers Association. I’ve visited that one three times, and it is sort of the elder statesmen of such get-togethers. You can find just about any time of telescope in use there, and as the name suggests, telescope-making is emphasized. One year I wandered through the mirror-grinding tent to find a 5-year-old girl happily polishing a mirror!
One of my favorites is the Mason-Dixon Star Party, held each summer in York, Pennsylvania. This year’s meeting is this weekend, so it’s probably a bit late to go, but if you live the area and want to go to a relaxed, family-oriented event, check it out.
Another favorite is the Enchanted Skies Star Party, which takes place outside of Socorro, New Mexico each autumn. This party has some of the clearest, darkest skies, along with the best chuckwagon food. We went last year and I hope we get to go this year, too!
There is probably a star party going on every weekend throughout the spring, summer, and fall in North America. Sky & Telescope keeps an updated list of events on their website, so if you get bitten by the star party bug, check it out and see if there’s a party going down in your neck of the woods!