Star Parties – What, Where, and What To Expect
Posted On April 1, 2018
By Barbara Toy, OCA President
For many members, the central club activities are the monthly star parties at our Anza site and at our Orange County site, which is now near Irvine Lake. Other club members have never made it to a star party. This article started as a response to comments and questions from members who hadn't gone to any star parties simply because they were too uncertain of what they'd find there. As one who has become a confirmed "star party junkie" after overcoming my own initial reluctance to go to these unknown events, I'm hoping this information will help those of you who haven't tried one yet to come and join in the fun.
In general, if you have a question about the club, its facilities, its activities, etc., please email me, or send by snail mail to P.O. Box 1762, Costa Mesa, CA. If I don't know the answer, I can probably find someone who does. Comments about or additions to anything I've written are also welcome.
What are "star parties"?
These are events where people bring their telescopes (or whatever else they observe with) to a specific location at a set time. These are social events as well as observing events, but they aren't "parties" in the sense that someone brings refreshments or provides entertainment. Besides giving you a chance to meet fellow star-gazers and see old friends, these events are often a good way to get advice and help if you have equipment problems or are maybe thinking of a new purchase - a real benefit of a well-attended star party (such as summer parties at Anza) is that you have a chance to look through a lot of different telescopes, which lets you see differences between different telescopes and different eyepieces for yourself. Perhaps most important, star parties give you a chance to do your observing in darker, safer and more convenient conditions than you would probably find if you went out looking for a dark site up a back road on your own.
OCA has two regular parties set each lunar cycle, which usually (but not always) means we have two parties each month. The party at the Anza site is the Saturday closest to the dark of the moon, and the Orange County Star party is usually the Saturday before, in the last quarter moon. If the dark of the moon is on Wednesday, there will be two Anza parties set, one before and one after the dark of the moon. Don Lynn determines the dates of the Anza parties, and Steve Mizera the dates of the Orange County Star parties.
What should I bring to a star party?
If you are going to be doing any viewing with your own equipment, of course you'll need to bring all of the equipment you need for what you plan to do. If you come out to Anza, we have AC outlets available in the Football Field (the big viewing area below Anza House). The member pad areas also have AC outlets. Undeveloped areas, such as the RV parking area and the Last Members viewing area, don't have power. If you want to use AC power, it's a good idea to bring a heavy duty extension cord as well as whatever connectors your equipment needs. And, even if you intend to use the AC power, it never hurts to have battery backup.
Warm clothing is a "must"! Temperatures drop a lot overnight, even in summer. In winter, temperatures at Anza can get down into the 20's, or even lower, which is far too cold for most people to enjoy the viewing much. Even the 40's or 50's can feel really cold if you're just standing around or sitting a lot. Besides multiple layers of coats, jackets and pants, be sure to bring a warm hat and gloves, and warm socks and shoes or boots (fleece-lined boots can really help keep your feet warm). Some people also bring chemical handwarmers used by skiers or winter backpackers to help fight the cold.
Food and drink - be sure to bring food for whatever meals you will be at the site for, as well as snacks. We don't have any facilities at the Orange County Star party, so food there should be ready-to-eat. At Anza, there are stoves and microwaves at Anza House, and a microwave in the observatory, so food can be heated. You should also bring drinking water; Anza has water from a well, but most people prefer not to drink it, and the Orange County Star party is at a "dry" site. Hot drinks in a thermos are nice to have as the temperatures drop at both sites, and you can also make hot drinks at Anza.
Other things that help make life more comfortable while viewing are a tarp, if you have to set up on dirt instead of a pad, chair(s), table (for charts, computer, etc.), hair dryer (to fight the dew), and sleeping bag (for warmth, or if you get a sleeping spot at Anza House). Anza has showers, both at Anza House and in the observatory, so, if you want to use them, remember to bring your own towel as none are provided, as well as clothes and toiletries.
And, of course, you'll need a red-light.
What are the rules for star parties?
Star parties usually are the ultimate in informal events, but even informal events benefit by having some set ground rules. Those that apply at star parties are aimed at improving the overall experience for everyone there.
The biggest difference between star parties and non-astronomical events is the concern about light. You never want to use white light in the vicinity of star-gazers, because it destroys night vision (it takes about 20 minutes for most people to regain full night vision after being exposed to white light).
So, to deal with light problems, the following rules are standard at all star parties:
- Never use a flashlight during a star party that isn't a red-light (or other night vision compatible light). A white-light flashlight can be converted to a red-light simply by covering the lens and anywhere else that light shines through with red cloth tape (red cellophane isn't dark enough unless you use a lot of layers). However, a red-light that's too bright can be as bad as a white light - you generally don't need anything brighter than a standard penlight. You'll find, as your eyes get fully dark-adapted on a clear night, that the stars themselves give a surprising amount of light, and you actually need a lot less artificial light than you might think.
- Keep your flashlight pointed down rather than outward, and never shine it in anyone's face or at or into someone's telescope (unless you are invited to by the owner for some reason), even in fun. Even a red-light will damage night vision if it shines in someone's eyes, and shining even a dim light into a telescope will damage night vision if someone is trying to view at the time, or destroy the image if the telescope is being used for photography or CCD work.
- Turn off the interior lights in your car before the party, and cover any that can't be turned off with something like red cloth tape, or pull the fuses that control them to turn them of
- If you use a computer while you view, you should get or make a red cover for the screen. Ruby lithe, a deep red flexible plastic sheeting available in many art supply stores, is good for this purpose
- If you know you'll have to leave early, or outside of set "escape" times, park your car so you won't have to back up to get out, and preferably as close to the exit as possible. "Escape" times at Anza are 11:30 p.m. to midnight during standard time, and 12:30 to 1:00 a.m. during Daylight Savings Time; these times are when people who are leaving before the end of the party are expected to leave so they cause the fewest problems to others at the party, especially anyone doing photography or CCD imaging (even if you leave during those times, please leave your headlights off). The Orange County Star parties generally end around midnight, so there is no set "escape" time.
- If you arrive after dark, or have to leave before the party's over, or have to drive anywhere on the site during a star party, leave your headlights off! Drive with your parking lights only; if necessary, have someone outside the car act as a guide for you. If you have headlights that come on automatically, try pulling the parking brake knob or lever a notch or two - often this will be enough to turn them off without actually setting the parking brake. If this doesn't work, cover the headlights with something that blocks the light until you get off-site.
Other "rules" are really more common courtesy and common sense. Some of the basics:
- If you like to listen to music as you observe, make sure it isn't disturbing your neighbors (or use headphones).
- NEVER shine any laser pointer into any telescope or other viewing equipment - you could cause physical damage to someone's eye. If you are using a green laser, keep its use to a minimum, as the beam could interfere with the view for other people on the site, and could cause problems for anyone doing imaging.
- If you bring children or pets, be sure to supervise them and, where appropriate, keep them properly restrained. There can be serious hazards to them at any dark site, including both Anza and Orange County Star parties. In addition, any damage they might do would be your responsibility.
- Remember that star parties are volunteer-run events - so, clean up after yourself and (especially at Anza and the Orange County Star party site, where we don't have trash service) take all of your trash out with you when you leave.
- No fires! Fire is a serious problem for almost all Southern California dark sites, as they tend to be in wilderness areas that are regularly subject to wildfires. In addition, smoke and flames create problems for viewing, so fires are generally forbidden at star parties, and are definitely forbidden at the OCA sites.
- No smoking at Anza or the Orange County Star parties, except in your car. This is for a combination of reasons, including general fire hazard concerns, the protection and convenience of non-smoking users of the site, litter, and protection of equipment that may be downwind from smoke residue. If you smoke, please remember that the smoke can affect people for a long way downwind of you. And, please - no cigars at either site, even in your car, if anyone else is around.
- Our Anza and Orange County Star party sites are both in wilderness areas and are themselves fairly wild. While at either site, remember that there are a lot of animals around, including poisonous creatures such as rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders, as well as rats, mice, coyotes, skunks, deer, rabbits, possums, raccoons, and other common Southern California wildlife, and take precautions accordingly. Some suggestions: stay out of brush areas at night; keep an eye out for snakes that might be warming themselves on roadways or rocks; be wary of putting your hands or feet in cracks or crevices that might harbor scorpions, black widows, or even snakes; check shoes, sleeping bags, etc., that have been exposed to the local environment for any length of time for local wildlife before using them; and keep your food in secure containers. And, if you happen to see a kangaroo rat, count yourself as fortunate and leave it alone - it's a protected species.
- Many dark sites, including our Anza site, don't have paved roads. Please remember that dust doesn't help the viewing or viewing equipment, which is another reason for keeping your speed down while driving around these sites.
At Anza, there is a metal box at the entrance that has maps of the site with specific site rules on the back. It's a good idea to read these periodically, especially on your first trip out there. As you will see when you read them, their goal is to help everyone using the site have a good and safe experience, not to have rules just for the sake of having rules.
There are some guidelines specific to Anza, though, that you might find useful to know in advance:
- In general, if the licensee for a particular member pad has not arrived by sunset, any other member can use that pad on a "first come, first served" basis. One exception to this is when the licensee for a pad has notified one of the neighboring licensees that he/she is going to be late but is going to be there - so it's best to check with people on the neighboring pads before you start to set up. ["Member pads" are the individual pads located at several different levels at Anza, as indicated on the site map. The so-called "public pads" in the football field are open to any member on a "first come, first served" basis.]
- If you sleep anywhere at Anza House, the cost is $5.00 per night, and payments are left in the payment box opposite the front door. The bunk beds are available on a "first come, first served" basis, and, to be fair to everyone, reservations are not permitted. Several of the couches are hide-a-beds, and are also available for sleeping, as are the sitting areas of the non-hide-a-bed couches and the lounge chairs. Sometimes people sleep on the floor or on their own cots; if you do, please be sure to leave the walking areas clear.
- After dark, please keep the windows covered and the doors closed at Anza House. Light from inside the house can interfere with viewing as well as damage images people may be taking, especially for people in the levels closest to Anza House.
What if I don't have a telescope?
Come anyway. Most people at a star party will be happy to let you look through their telescopes, and to tell you about the pros and cons of their equipment. This is particularly helpful if you are thinking about getting a telescope of your own and are trying to decide what to get. Of course, it helps to go to a star party where there's likely to be a good turnout - winter star parties at Anza, for instance, are often sparsely attended. If you have any binoculars, you should bring them with you - people are often amazed at how much they can see with even basic binoculars, with or without a tripod. And naked-eye views of a dark sky can be worth the trip all by themselves - besides enjoying the sheer beauty of the night sky, you can spend time learning the constellations, and some events, such as meteor showers, are much better when viewed naked-eye.
At Anza, the club observatory is almost always open for star parties. Besides our beloved 22-inch Kuhn telescope, we have two Meade LX200's permanently mounted in the observatory, one a 10-inch and one a 12-inch. At least one of these three is in operation for general viewing during any star party, and anyone at the star party is welcome to spend as much time in the observatory as he or she wants. Russell Sipe, who has the member observatory, Star Cruiser, next to the club observatory, generally opens his observatory for star parties and welcomes visitors.
If you want some experience using a telescope yourself without buying one, you should sign up with Henry Fry for one of the club's loaner telescopes, and bring that to the star party. Besides giving you some "hands on" experience with a telescope under darker skies, a star party is a great place to get help as you learn to use the telescope.
How can I find out if anyone's going to a particular star party?
The easiest way to find out who may be going out to an Anza star party is to be on the email@example.com and/or the AstroImagers@yahoogroups.com email groups. To join either group, you have to sign up with Yahoo Groups - you can join from the home address (http://groups.yahoo.com/ and click on "Register") or you can register directly from either of the group pages (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ocastronomers/ or http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AstroImagers/). To join either group once you're a member of Yahoo Groups, click on "Join this group" on the upper right of the screen on that group's page and follow the instructions. Ocastronomers is the more general group, and AstroImagers, as the name says, is more for imaging concerns. If you don't see any discussion about who's going out to Anza for a star party in the two or three days before the party, you can always post an inquiry yourself about who's intending to be out there.
There is generally less discussion on the groups of whether people are going to the Orange County Star party. If you want to know if anyone is planning to go, usually your best bet would be to post an inquiry to the ocastronomers group; people on the AstroImagers group are more likely to go to Anza if the weather looks good.
If the monthly general meeting is before the star parties, you could also ask there about expected attendance at the star parties.
How can I be sure I will enjoy a star party if I go? How do I get involved once I get there?
Star parties are basically informal and unstructured - people come out with their telescopes and other equipment, and often spend as much time wandering around to see what other people are doing and to check out their equipment as they spend working with their own. To help get into the "flow" of the event, it's best to arrive well before sundown, so you have a chance to get familiar with the site in daylight and also set up your own equipment, if you bring any, while it's still light. A lot of times you'll find the social ice gets broken during the set-up process - and, even if you're not one of the people setting up equipment, offering to lend a hand where needed can help you get acquainted with the people who are. And, if you have any doubts about where you should set up or questions about where things are located on the site, asking the other people who happen to be around can not only get you the information you need but can also give you an easy way to start getting to know the other people who are out there for the party.
At Anza, there are three areas in particular where there is naturally a lot of mixing and socializing: Anza House, the club observatory and the "public pad" area in the Football Field below Anza House. Usually it's not hard at all to strike up conversations with people in any of these areas, especially as it is usually much easier to find topics of mutual interest than at most social events, as just about everyone there is interested in some aspect of astronomy. Common topics include equipment, viewing plans, recent viewing experiences, comparing views through different eyepieces or telescopes, sharing experiences with different types of equipment or usage, exchanging information about techniques, talking about weather, complaining about encroaching lights, discussing recent astronomical discoveries, and, of course, talking about club-related matters. If you find the Football Field too intimidating, go up to the club observatory to do some observing and to meet the various people who come through there - most people on the site make it to the observatory at least once during a star party.
Observing in the Football Field, especially on a busy star party night, is usually more gregarious than in the member pad areas, partly because there are no clear boundaries between observing areas, and it's easy for people to wander up and down the strip of concrete that forms the pad area there. However, even though the observing areas aren't as concentrated in the member pad areas as in the Football Field, and there are often pads that aren't in use, if you wander through those areas of the Anza site you will almost always find people who offer to let you look through their telescopes, especially if you show any interest in their equipment, or talk to you about what they're doing or answer questions. And, one of the real benefits of observing at Anza is the fact that you can leave your equipment set up in one area of the site and wander around to see what's going on elsewhere with no real fear that it'll be gone when you get back.
Our new Orange County site near Irvine Lake is much smaller and more compact than Anza, and there is a designated "host" for each star party there. Steve Mizera is the coordinator for the Orange County site, and has the practice, when he is the host, of making the rounds and helping to get newcomers oriented, which helps break the ice at these star parties. This practice is generally followed by the other designated hosts for these star parties as well. If you're interested in the Orange County star parties, you should contact Steve Mizera and ask to be put on his emailing list. He usually sends out an email before each party with notice of when the gate will be opened and who will be hosting. When possible, this information goes on the OCA Calendar, as well. This would give you a contact person, which may make you feel more comfortable about going for the first time.
If you would feel more comfortable about going to Anza if you had a contact person to help you get oriented, an easy way to find one is to talk to any of the club regulars at the general meeting, including any of the club officers or trustees. If they aren't going out there themselves for a particular party, they should be able to direct you to someone who is. Or you can contact one of us by email or phone (emails are generally best) - see the back of the Sirius Astronomer or the club website for that information. Or you can check to see who is hosting at the club observatory or operating the Kuhn; if they are too busy to talk to you much, they usually will know at least some of the people who are on site who may be able to help you get oriented.
Will you enjoy yourself? If you like looking at the stars and being around other people who like looking at the stars, it's hard not to enjoy a star party. It helps if you are prepared for the conditions (it's hard to enjoy anything when you're too cold), and if you're willing to be spontaneous and go with the flow of events. It also helps to keep in mind that some of the people out at the sites are doing things that require a lot of concentration at times - if someone doesn't respond to a greeting, assume that's one of those times and move on to someone else who isn't so engrossed.
We look forward to seeing you out there!