Star parties are a great way to view celestial objects like stars, planets and the moon — and accomplish one of the requirements for the Astronomy merit badge. Here are some tips for hosting a stellar star party.
Pick the Best Spot
Regardless of where you live, you’ll want to find a spot for your party that offers as wide of a view of the sky as possible. That means a location that’s both free from tall buildings and light pollution (like bright lights from neighborhoods or downtown areas).
If you’re expecting a big crowd, be sure to have some additional activities planned for when people are waiting for their turn at the telescope(s). Try making a scale model of the Solar System with beach balls, ping pong balls, basketballs and baseballs acting as the planets and sun.
Star parties take place, well, under the stars. That means you need to be ready for the weather like rain, snow, cold temperatures or even cloudy conditions that could make your views less than ideal. So, be sure to check the forecast beforehand. And, plan a few indoor presentations will stimulate your interest and curiosity in case surprise weather ruins your plans.
Create a Theme
Give your party an extra bit of fun with an exciting theme. For example, a Winter Wonderland party could include building constellations out of snowballs. A Star Wars party could feature music from that galaxy far, far away, some Star Wars collectibles, or glow sticks and laser pointers to act out lightsaber battles. Make your party food-centric with astronomical treats like star-shaped pizza, chocolate meteorite cookies, moon-shaped cookies and more. The point is: get creative!
Limit the Light
Because it’ll be dark out there, your group will probably have flashlights on hand. But that white light makes seeing the stars even tougher than it already is. White light will shrink the pupils of your eyes, making it nearly impossible to see the stars. We recommend having some red plastic wrap or red plastic to hand out to your visitors. Why? Covering flashlights with a red filter will keep everyone’s eyes dark-adapted. Just use a rubber band or tape to fasten the red filters over the flashlight.
For most beginning stargazers, naked-eye astronomy is the best way to start our star party. That means simply looking up at the stars above with your own two eyes, and getting used to what you’re looking at. As it just starts getting dark, spend some time getting to know the brighter stars and constellations. Have some picked out beforehand, and have everyone in the group try to spot the stars by sight.
If you want to have a successful party, you need to be sure to have all the right equipment. For constellations, we recommend using the naked eye or binoculars and a planisphere (a special star charting instrument). The National Geographic 10×40 Porro binoculars feature a wide field of view and a comfortable feel.
For Deep Sky Viewing: try the 114 EQ Reflector National Geographic Telescope. An EQ mount allows you to track celestial objects with slow motion controls that follow the parabolic curve of the horizon.
When viewing the planets, the moon and things a little closer: try the National Geographic 700AZ. It comes with an Alt/Az mount, it tracks object in a up/down or left/right motions with slow motion controls to zero in on a specific object you are looking at. Plus, it’s great for looking at the moon because the provided eyepieces allow you to get a little closer because of the increased focal length.
Another great tool is a smartphone or tablet. You can download cool apps like Night Sky, Star Chart, Stellarium or the official NASA App. All three show your relative position on Earth and what constellations/objects are up for viewing at the time.