Posted by Kelly on August 14th, 2013
Last night I hosted 21 kids and 14 adults for a star party. Even though the sky was filled with puffy cumulus clouds all day, by sunset they began to dissipate, and we had two good hours of viewing before the fog creeped in across the meadow and brought dew to the telescopes. I was able to show them the moon, Saturn with its rings and its moon Titan, the gibbous phase of Venus, the globular cluster M13, two passes of the International Space Station (ISS), and as a bonus we caught a few Perseid meteors. The kids and adults all had a great time and went home with a new experience and more knowledge about space.
If you want to host your own star party, here are a few tips:
• Pick the right night. Summer is better for temperature reasons and because kids don’t have school in the morning, although other seasons work well because it gets dark earlier. I prefer a night a few days after new moon so that the moon is still up after sunset for an hour or two, giving you get lots of observing. Full moon is not a good time to look at the moon because you won’t see any graphic relief, and the nights after full phase the moon rises later and later so you’ll have to stay up late just to see it. It’s also great if there’s either Jupiter or Saturn in the sky (crowd favorites) and a bonus event like a meteor shower or even a comet (maybe ISON this November?).
• Let the kids do what they want. They’ll be excited just to be outside when it’s dark and with all their friends or neighbors, so let them run around and play hide and seek or jump on the trampoline or play on the hammock in the backyard while you’re in the front driveway. When you have the object you want in the telescope’s eyepiece, then call them back to take a peek before letting them run again. Forcing them to cluster around you and wait will drive them, and therefore you, crazy.
• Limit the light. If the kids want to play flashlight tag, make sure it’s on the opposite side of the house from where you’re observing. Turn off your outdoor lights and see if your neighbors will turn theirs off too. We began at 8 pm when the sun set and chatted until it got dark enough to see our first objects (Venus and the Moon) and by the end we were able to look overhead and easily see the dusty strip of the Milky Way.
• Know that the kids will bump the telescope. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask them not to touch it. It’s going to happen. Not a big deal. For the youngest ones you may even want to hold the telescope in position as much as you can so that when it does get bumped, it doesn’t veer wildly off course and take you a long time to find the object again. You’ll have to constantly readjust the scope as your target drifts out of the eyepiece anyway, so think of kids jostling the telescope as just a part of the realigning process.
• Take some time to look without optical aid. Most people don’t have a telescope at home, so while they leave with memories of Saturn looking “like it’s not even real,” they can also leave with knowledge of how to find constellations themselves. Easy ones to point out are the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and how it leads to the Little Dipper in the front and arcs to Arcturus in Bootes and down to Spica in Virgo. For summer, have them look up and find Vega and then the other two points in the summer triangle. In the northeastern sky show them the distinctive W shape of Cassiopeia. If it’s really dark, show them the constellation that snakes in between the Big and Little Dipppers known as Draco, a name they may be familiar with from the Harry Potter series.
• Check for times of local passes of the ISS and satellites. Go to heavens-above.com and put in your location and then see what will be in the sky during your observing window. We had two passes of the ISS, which none of my guests had ever seen before. Then fill them in with some background info about how many people are up there (6 currently) and where they are from (3 Russians, 2 Americans, 1 Italian), how long they stay onboard at a stretch (usually 6 months but sometimes a year), how high up they fly (200 miles vs. 6 miles up in a plane), and why we can see the ISS for a couple hours after dark and before sunrise but not in the middle of the night even though it’s still there (because it’s high enough to still reflect the sun’s rays around sunset/sunrise). Other fun objects to look for: Iridium flares, the Hubble Space Telescope, and servicing missions to the ISS.
Good luck with your star party, and clear skies!