The Art of the Star Party

Posted By Pamela on Jun 23, 2007 | 12 comments

starparty.jpgLast night I attempted to give a star party for a group of about 50 girl scouts. It was a noble effort, but I have to admit that it devolved into learned old(ish) person speaking before a group of seated in rows youngish people. I’m generally opposed to this type of teaching, but I had run out of plans.

Plan A: Lots of telescopes all pointed at different objects allowing people to go from scope to scope, and binoculars with volunteers so that people can get a hands-on-guided tour of the sky. However, since I had only 1 scope and 1 helper, this was not an option.

Plan B: Bring a bunch of star wheels and red-flash lights and teach everyone how to find their way around the sky, and then have one person man a scope while whoever else is available circulates answering questions and giving pointers. Unfortunately, since it was cloudy and we could see exactly 1 Moon, 2 planets and 9 stars, this too was not an option.

Plan C: Pamela (that would be me) hands out star wheels and red flash lights, teaches everyone how to use them, and then apologizes profusely for the weather. Pamela’s wonder assistant shows kids the Moon through the telescope. Pamela does tap dance involving “If you look here and pretend real hard, you might be able to see the big dipper and you can arc off the big dipper to Arctaurus, which is here, and if it was clear you could spike to Spica (which is hidden in this cloud).” This particular dance number was followed by a soft-shoe involving Saturn, a merengue on how to measure the distance to the Moon with lasers, and then a quick retreat.

Clearly, I need more plans.

When I was at the University of Texas we used to do star parties pretty much every clear Friday (which was about once a month in reality). We had a telescope that lived at the facility, about 5 pairs of binoculars, a bunch of little astroscans, and 2 or 3 medium sized scopes that kind-of-mostly worked. We’d all go out to a dark piece of land the campus owned on the edge of campus, and try to find things in the sky. We’d have laptops with planetarium software and every type of star chart. People who had old telescopes in their closets would bring them and we’d figure out how to get them going. We’d struggle with all the scopes to find new objects, and we’d try such crazy stunts as looking through telrads with binoculars to find faint fuzzies. It was a blast. When it clouded over we’d tell ghost stories in the dome, or just head over to IHOP to watch the Friday night, bars-just-closed wild life.

But that was in a school far far away where we had a bunch of mostly functional, mostly old, but always fun to use telescopes. I miss the old orange C8. I miss the astroscans that looked like cherry tomatoes (even though I totally hated them then). I miss having enough optics to play with – bought 1 scope every few years over decades – that we could just play with the stars.

When this war is over, can astronomy get one day’s worth of the militaries budget to buy 1 telescope for every person in the USA? Or at least 1 telescope and 5 binoculars for every 10 students enrolled in a state university astronomy class?



  1. What no Plan D:
    Point out where something should be if there where no clouds and then show em cool pictures of the object 😉

  2. Doesn’t it always seem like when you schedule a outing to show off the wonders of the night sky to the public, something goes wrong? 🙂

    Last year we tried to set up a “city star party” here, but we had bad weather.

    This year our club instituted “Star Party Saturdays” for the members to come out to our observatory, bring their equipment (if they had any), and hang out, ask questions/get informed. So what happens? Each scheduled night is cloudy.

    It’s too bad it was clearer for you, the ISS made a really nice pass in the southern sky, and – from my area – just skimmed over the north pole of the moon. Who knows, perhaps there was an ISS/lunar transit from your location?

  3. Why is it the government’s duty to buy you a telescope? If your university department needs more scopes, then raise your tuition and/or fees and buy some. Or ask the university foundation for some money. There is certainly enough money available to put up ugly sculptures and built football stadiums, if the university donors believed that telescopes were important, the money would be there, without spending my taxes on them.

    Go convince the foundation or the alumni association, not the American taxpayer.

  4. Hey jeremy.. You’re a it pal?
    We need more taxpayer sponsored science classes for our kids..not less..
    you, me and everyone else needs to pay more for education to maintain our place ( math & Sciences )in the world..
    And personally, in your case, I hope the taxes hurts. Now go to some political blog and whine there.

  5. Pamela, is there a local astronomical society that could loan some scopes and perhaps even some people?

    Given Jeremy’s view about Pamela’s suggestion for 1% of the US military’s budget to be used to educate the US population, I am quite surprised that he is apparently happy for so much money to be managed so very badly in a far off country.

  6. i was always of the thinking that if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say it.

    ahem…jeremy, if you have any other comments to pamela’s dream, would you mind keeping them to yourself? i know i have far fetched ideas that i would love to see come to fruition… that doesn’t mean i need/want anyone to slap me back to reality. especially on my own blog. it’s okay to dream. even if it means asking for one day’s…just one…military budget. and as an american taxpayer, i would love to see more funding go to a program of this caliber than say, a study on emissions caused by cattle. lighten up, okay?

  7. hi pamela..last post here for a couple days..
    I want to thank you for all the great things you do, your teaching, patience with us mere mortals
    to teach us the secrets of the universe…
    I hope all your dreams come true..we will all be a better people with your dream pam.
    I’m sorry about the trolls in the world like Jeremy,
    I’m sorry about his crap about taxes and your dreams..
    But as a ‘baller thug’ from just say the word..haha just kidding.
    I just started a million dollar charity called: after it is going strong I would be very happy to donate towards your dreams…Cause your dreams are all our dreams..
    My dream is to feed the world,,mostly children here and in africa…That is what I care about.
    Ok..there is hundreds of people here and my wife
    is telling me to get off the computer…mmm. i’ll do a shot for the knowledge of the universe..
    Thanks so much pamela

  8. To those who wrote so thoughtfully and suppportively – You are the reason I write.

    Thank you.

  9. Ugh, been there, done that.

    Two years ago at Fremont Peak we had set up about 20 scopes for an expected crowd of 100-150 guests; everything from my ittybitty 114mm all the way up to a beautiful 24″ polished hardwood Obsession Dob (which, when I asked the owner how much it cost, I was told “my boat”) and of course the 30″ Challenger.

    Just at dusk, as people were wending their way up the hill from the campgrounds, the marine layer (which is usually our friend) moved up as well. In the space of 20 minutes we went from sunny (well, sun-setty) and warm to foggy, cold and damp. Amateurs were scrambling around like an angry ant’s nest to cover their equipment. I sat there for two hours waiting for it to clear, which it never did.

    The best we could do is draw pretty pictures in the fog with the laser pointers.

  10. Hi Pamela!
    Next time you have a star party, let me know…I have a small refractor and a good knowledge of the night sky [(if I do say so myself :-)]. I’d love to help out!

  11. If I lived closer, I’d help out. Unfortunately, it’s a really long drive down to your area for a star party. 🙂

  12. My club recently held a combined “space music” and star party event. It didn’t rain, but clouds limited us to the Moon, Venus, Saturn and a couple stars. It was well attended, and the music was good. The first time we held it, it actually rained, and it was still good.

    We do the scouts thing often. We’ve got events this Friday and Saturday. Hope for good weather. Try to get as many club members involved as possible (sometimes a dozen members will show – but nearly always at least a few). The club has over 100 members, and nearly 50 are what i’d term “very active”. There are a couple retired guys who come out for nearly every event.

    I’ve done the talk where i point to a cloud and say what would have been there.

    I’ve done the talk where i describe how the telescope i have works.

    I point at some local object, like an insulator on a telephone pole, crank up the magnification, and let them guess what they’re looking at. Then show it at lower magnification, perhaps with the finder (which is misaligned, due to paralax).

    I’ve done the SETI talk – discussion really. Nearly everyone has some opinion on the subject of UFOs. The discussions are better, if you can get the audience to participate. This worked with 5th graders, and with adults.

    I’ve done the “astronomy news this week” talk. I mention the headlines, and encourage questions. There’s always someone who wants to know more about one topic or another, and that lets me explain the context of the discovery. And i’ve yet to find a day where there weren’t a dozen interesting announcements in the previous week or two.

    I’m too cheap to hand out star wheels. I hand out double sided sheets from It has the evening sky for the month for my latitude – about 42 degrees North. It has objects to find on the back, and events for the month on the side.

    I’d like to be better prepared to show the details of the moon. Moon charts, and things to look for. Many nights, the moon is all you get.

    I’ve also done the binocular thing, and have them search for some object on the ground. This is good practice for finding stuff in the sky. Bird watching has made binocular astronomy much more fun for me.

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