What makes a great star party is a broad question that varies from person to person. However, there are some features which most everyone would agree are essential for a great star party. These would include dark skies and good observing weather. Fortunately, the major star party sites are chosen specifically for their dark skies. Some, like the Okie-Tex, Texas and Nebraska star parties are noted for their extremely dark skies. Weather is another factor which weighs heavily in the minds of star party organizers. That is why you will find the majority of major star parties occur during the months of June-September when the weather is warm and snow is a forgotten memory. A key exception is the Winter Star Party held every February in the sunny and warm Florida keys. There are a lot of other things which distinguish one star party from another which I will divide into 6 areas:
1. Observing Conditions
2. Observing Field
3. Typical Weather
4. On Site Facilities
5. Local Area Amenities
6. On Site Activities
Observing conditions include sky darkness, seeing, light domes, 360 degree clear views, altitude, total hours of astronomical twilight, and number of days the star party is held. Star party sites are typically located away from major cities in in order to provide the darkest skies possible. Sometimes, light domes from nearby small towns can limit visibility in certain directions, but this is usually not a major problem. Clear views in all directions will depend upon the star party proximity to nearby mountains/hills and the presence or lack of shade trees onsite. Since most star parties take place in the summer months, there are significantly less hours of darkness compared to the winter months so it is helpful to have many nights over which to take advantage of the dark skies. Aside from weekend star parties, the major star parties are usually held for 5 days or as long as a week which gives plenty of time to enjoy the dark night skies and daytime activities.
Observing Field features include the size of the observing field and camping area, type of field surface (grass, dirt, hard/soft), availability of shade, and grade of the field. Large observing fields are necessary for plenty of room between individuals for tents, shelters, and cars/trucks/RVs. It is also important to have a fairly level surface for both the telescope and for sleeping. While I have never attended the Nebraska Star Party (I do hope some day to attend) the video on their web site shows that they offer a lot of fairly flat open space for observers to spread out and great unobstructed 360 degree views. The two star parties I regularly attend, Golden State Star Party (GSSP) and CalStar, are held on large, flat fields which provide plenty of space. But both are dirt fields which tend to generate lots of dust. When I get home I have to wipe down all my equipment before I bring it back into my house. I look forward some day to attending a star party on grass. GSSP has no trees to obstruct views, but that also means no shade other than what we bring with us. On the other hand, CalStar has trees scattered throughout which help a lot during the day but can limit sky views. It is a good idea to bring a pop up shelter like an EzUp to provide shade during the day. Many people also use a shade cloth like aluminet which they put over the EzUp, a tent, car, etc. to further cut down on the sun's heating. Aluminet can be found on line, for example www.shadeclothstore.com/depts/aluminetshadecloth.html. This allows you to sleep longer in the morning or stay more comfortable in the afternoon sun. Most star parties provide for sleeping and parking next to one's equipment which is a definite advantage, but some do not allow driving on-off the observing field during the day. This limits the ability to drive to surrounding points of interest and stores during the day, or forces one to park their car away from their setup.
It is no accident that most star parties take place over the warm spring and summer months. Still, weather can turn nasty at any time of the year and one needs to be prepared for rain, cold, and wind. The first night I brought my 11 year old son to a star party a thunderstorm rolled in shortly after sunset on our first night. Nevertheless, we had a great time watching a movie on our portable DVD player while staying dry and warm inside our tent. Sometimes a big rain storm will bring exceptional seeing the next night making the wait worthwhile. Wind can be another troublesome visitor especially in the afternoons at some star parties so be sure to tie down tents and shelters well and be careful with big Dob telescopes. Scopes and anything important should always be covered to keep them cool in the hot sun and to protect them from rain and dust. I use a Telegizmos 365 scope cover which works very well to keep the sun and elements off my scopes, but there are other brands which I assume work equally well and many people use a much cheaper option of a tarp with bungee cords. Dew can be a concern at some star parties as well so be prepared with some sort of dew control for your scope.
Star party site facilities may include bathrooms, showers, sleeping facilities, food, water, ice, power and RV hookups. Since many star parties are held at a secluded open field, standard bathroom facilities are not always available. Bathrooms vary from porta potties to camp style brick buildings with sinks and toilets. Showers may or may not be available on site. GSSP rents a shower truck which provides both showers and a place to shave and brush teeth. Some star parties are held at sites which are campgrounds or some other permanent site which may have cabins, bunkhouses, or Yurts for rent. Food can run the range from a dining hall, a food truck, barbecues or nothing at all. If you are preparing your own food at a star party, it is most likely that open campfires are not permitted so propane stoves will be needed for cooking. Water and ice are sometimes available at the star party site but many do not provide one or both of these. There are some very good, but expensive coolers like the Yeti cooler that will keep things cold for many days. The other option is to drive to a nearby town for additional water, ice and other supplies which can be as much as an hour away. Fortunately, a small town general store is only 10 min away from GSSP and they have water, ice, groceries, and a deli counter which is sufficient to resupply for the duration of the star party. When I retire, I hope to purchase an RV which will make camping at star parties much simpler allowing me to concentrate on observing and meeting with fellow astronomers.
Local area amenities include nearby grocery, hardware and electronics stores, restaurants, gas stations, small town libraries, national and state parks, astronomical observatories, historical sites, quaint towns and so on. Because of the need for dark skies, star parties are found in sparsely populated areas with very small towns nearby. Some are so small you would miss them if you blinked while passing through. But this can add to the enjoyment of getting to see things off the beaten path. I have made it a habit to venture out during the day to the nearby towns for the two star parties I regularly attend so that I am aware of what is available in case the need arrives. Some of these are 5-10min away and others are 1 hr away. Nearby grocery stores are great to provide additional water, ice and food as required. If there is a hardware store or Walmart close by they can be helpful for picking up an essential camping item that you forgot to pack or broke. If there are parks nearby, these can provide a nice opportunity to take a hike through forests, near waterfalls, swim in a lake, etc. while cooling off in less hot conditions. When my son was little, we would drive to the closest town, take in a matinee move and have a nice dinner at a local restaurant. It was a good way to get out of the heat, but I admit I almost fell asleep a couple of times during the movie. If a nearby town has a local library, it can be a place to go and cool off while checking in on the internet.
The overall experience of a star party is further shaped by the on site activities at the star party. These can include guest speakers, equipment vendors, swap meets, workshops, contests, raffles, barbecues, public nights, equipment walk abouts, organized tours, etc. Most star parties will have several of these activities available. The Stellafane Star Party in Vermont is famous for it's fantastic telescope making competition. And it may be the only one to host a lobster dinner. On the other side of the country, the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference (RTMC) held in southern California also provides a great opportunity for telescope makers to show off their handiwork and is noted for the many equipment vendors attending. Some star parties have organized day trips to nearby attractions, especially to a local observatory or historic site. The Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia hosts a tour of the Green Bank Radio Telescope Observatory. For many of us, the overall star party experience is also a social one. This is where we meet old friends who we met long ago and may only see once or twice a year the same star party. And this is where we can make new friends as well.
I invite you to make your preferences known by taking a Star Party Survey that I have put together on this web site. It will only take a few minutes and no personal information is required. When enough people fill out the survey, I will post another blog with a summary of the results. The survey can be found under the "More" tab on this web site, or a direct link to the survey is available here: www.californiaskys.com/star-party-survey.html