More than a hundred adults and kids gather on a cold evening, chattering excitedly as they stand in the dark on a Virginia hillside. The odd thing is, no one has turned on a flashlight, and no streetlights or house lights wink on around them.
These people have traveled to the countryside more than an hour from Washington, D.C., to get away from the glow of city lights. That’s because they are attending a star party.
Star parties are gatherings where professional and amateur astronomers set up their telescopes and invite people to come learn about the night sky. Getting away from light pollution, or artificial skylight from buildings for example, helps stargazers see objects in the sky much better.
At this star party, Sean O’Brien of the National Air and Space Museum’s Einstein Planetarium starts off by asking the crowd to simply look up and take in all they can see. He points out plenty of things that can be seen without special equipment. Stars, satellites, and even the Andromeda galaxy can be found if you know where to look.
• Look for a spot where lights aren't shining in your eyes, like in the shadow of your house where your neighbor's porch light is blocked.
• Take your time. You will see a lot more after 30 minutes in the dark than you will after just a few minutes because your eyes need time to adjust to the dark.
• You don't need an expensive telescope, just a star chart. In fact, a telescope can be frustrating if you don't have a basic knowledge of the night sky. Try binoculars first, and use a tripod to hold them up so your arms don't get tired.
• Winter is a good time for stargazing because the haze caused by summer's humidity in many parts of the country is gone.
• Looking for a star party near you? Contact your local planetarium, science museum, or astronomy club.
After O’Brien’s guided tour, several dozen astronomers offer close-up views. Each has focused their telescope on a different part of the sky. As kids take a look, the owner gives a mini-lesson.
O’Brien says you can have your own star party at home and learn a lot just by paying attention to what’s happening up above. “Watch the sky as the seasons pass, and you will see that it changes,” he says.
“Or start with the moon. Lots of people know the full moon and the crescent moon, but don’t know the phases in between. Notice when and where you are seeing it—maybe even in the early morning while you wait for the school bus.”