October is here, and that means the weather should start to be a little cooler (maybe), night time comes a little earlier, and more importantly, fall star party season is upon us! As I write this message, the UBarU star party was held just a few weeks ago, the Okie-Tex Star Party is happening this upcoming week, and in a month, the Eldorado Star Party will be in full swing. For many of us, it’s a great time to get away under dark skies with many other kindred spirits to observe, take astrophotographs, enjoy great speakers, and otherwise enjoy the time away from the hustle-and-bustle of the big city.
For many people, the lead-up to their first “real” star party can be a bit of a nervous time. “What if my gear malfunctions?” “What if I forgot a critical piece of equipment and now, I’m hundreds of miles from home?” Or, perhaps the most intimidating thought of all, “what if I’m the one person who happens to ruin everything by committing the dreaded light violation?”
Star parties can be a bit overwhelming the first time you visit one. The first time I visited the Texas Star Party, there were hundreds of other astronomers there, all seemingly more knowledgeable about astronomy than I was, and all with much better telescopes than what I lugged out to Fort Davis (this is certainly an exaggeration, but that’s how I felt the first time). The terrain is dusty, the air is dry, and if the animals around there don’t kill you, the plants certainly seem like they will.
But there’s nothing quite like that first time under Bortle-1 or Bortle-2 skies, where everything is so dark, you can’t even make out the Big Dipper because it’s lost in a sea of stars. Where the Messier objects you struggle to find with a small telescope or binoculars in Houston seem to “pop” with the naked eye just by looking in that direction. Or where the fine details of a galaxy arm just look that much more well-defined without the extraneous light pollution that we deal with here every night. More than this, though, there’s nothing like having that perfectly clear night under the stars that compels you to observe until the sun comes up with friends who are just as excited as you to be observing shortly before the crack of dawn.
For me, it’s that last item that makes these star parties special. The camaraderie with other fellow astronomers on those dark nights, the sharing of views through an eyepiece, and the knowledge that is gained from others just can’t be beat. It’s what draws me to these star parties over and over, and what makes our own dark site in Columbus a special place. For those of us who love to learn by “doing,” these events are our opportunity to become better astronomers. If you have an opportunity to visit one of these star parties, I highly encourage you to do so. And if you can’t, you’re getting much of the same experience at our dark site. Get your dark site certification done and visit at the next opportunity.
To all of you headed to Okie-Tex, the Eldorado Star Party, or to our dark site - happy photon hunting!