Scopeless star party

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why do people attend star parties? Reasons include taking advantage of a dark sky, hearing high-quality astronomy programs, trying new equipment, and interacting with like-minded individuals. The top reason, however, is to see stuff.

In March, the Messier objects rank highly for observers. Later in the spring, galaxies dominate pre-midnight search lists. In summer, the Milky Way offers countless targets. Northern Hemisphere observers — especially those above 40° latitude — make use of those nights to scan the southern-horizon constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. And winter nights bring everyone's (it seems) favorite constellation and nebula into view — Orion the Hunter with the Orion Nebula (M42).

Next time you attend a large star party, especially if you're just starting out in astronomy, try one of my favorite tips: Leave your telescope at home. I have a reason for offering such seemingly counter-intuitive advice: You'll see more.

Even after 40+ years of observing, I do this a lot, and you should, too. First, you'll save all that setup and alignment time. Second, many amateur astronomers will have brought bigger scopes than yours to the star party. Third, you'll make new friends. Most observers love to share views of their favorite objects through their telescopes, and they love to answer questions. Ask about their equipment, the site, the quality of the night — don't forget the object you're observing — and you'll get a better explanation than you'll find in most observing guides. Fourth, you'll be rewarded by views more like what you expected to see in the first place. Small scopes sometimes disappoint beginners.

When you find someone looking through a large scope, introduce yourself and ask what he/she is observing. You'll probably be invited to observe the object, but, if not, ask if you can take a look. Be honest about your skill level. An observer who owns an 18-inch telescope will get chills of anticipation if you say you've never seen the Orion Nebula. Take your time. A quick glance does you no good and, frankly, leaves a bad impression. Ask how to focus, and then focus — for every object. Not focusing may be a beginner's biggest mistake.

If the conversation is flowing, your host probably will  treat you to fine sights of many objects. If not, or if you're ready to move on, thank the person and head to the next big scope. I'll be right behind you.

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