Gearing up for Astronomy Night 2015

October 13, 2015

The White House has announced that Oct. 19 will be Astronomy Night, kicking off an astronomy-palooza across the nation, where national observatories, planetariums and amateur astronomy clubs and schools have been invited to host their own “star parties” and events. Aimed at building awareness for the expansive universe that we all call home, organizers hope to see astronomy lovers around the country share their passion for this ground-based exploration of our universe with many who have little or no experience with telescopes and stargazing.

But what about those astronomy fans who aren’t near any of those formal, planned stargazing events? We say host your own! The more eyes checking out our galaxy, the better! Perhaps, this list of tips to throw your own stellar fête might be just the thing to help you participate as well.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the lead government agency for funding foundational, ground-based astronomy research and is also responsible for funding renowned facilities like Gemini Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that includes the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, and much, much more. Not surprisingly, both within NSF and our facilities, we have experts who were quick to provide advice to anyone interested in throwing a bash to view and admire our night skies. In fact, they were so enthused by the idea, they also helped put together a few extra downloadable tools that are included with this article.

But now, to the tips!

1. Location, location, location. You likely already realize that light is the enemy of seeing as much as possible in the night sky. Rob Sparks, NOAO science education specialist, has some additional advice: “Safety is very important–you need a place relatively free of trip hazards since it will be dark. And since visibility of the night sky is important, you need an open space where trees or tall buildings will not obscure the view and where lights don’t shine directly onto the observing area. Ideally, the area should be flat and large enough to accommodate the expected number of attendees. If you are on a grassy field, check and make sure any automatic sprinkler systems are turned off…. This happens more often than you think!”

2. Think about clouds and fog. Optical telescopes can see far into the night sky, but they can’t cut through clouds. “Other than the ocean, where there is often a breeze, stay away from lakes and rivers unless you are significantly higher in elevation,” says Tim Spuck, STEM Education Development Officer at Associated Universities Inc., which manages several NSF telescopes including Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. “Lakes and river valleys also often fog in at night.”

3. Think about guests. A good rule of thumb for figuring out how many to invite to your gathering is to first know how many telescopes you will have on-hand. Try to limit the invite list to no more than 6-8 persons per telescope. “Any Astronomy Night is going to benefit from a diverse group of people, equipment and perspectives,” says Meredith Drosback, the assistant director for education and physical sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and organizer of this year’s White House Astronomy Night. “Invite students of all ages, experts and amateurs, astronomy enthusiasts and novices. Let people be inquisitive and learn from each other to create a memorable and inspiring experience that lasts beyond just the one evening!”

4. The perfect telescope? A good “star party” telescope has good optics, says Mangala Sharma, an NSF astronomy division program director. “That means a reflector with at least a 5-inch diameter mirror or a refractor with at least a 4-inch lens. The telescope tube should be compact and the eyepiece should be located 3-4 feet above ground-level when the telescope is mounted, so most people will be able to look through it without crouching or standing on a stool. A sturdy mount that doesn’t require much fiddling and is easy to lug around–those are good ideas too.” And she adds that many telescopes now have options that allow them to sync with computers and phone to zoom in on specific planets or stars upon request. Additionally, don’t forget to pack several eyepieces (with different magnifications) and extra batteries for digital controllers to make the most of the evening.

5. And how about some binoculars? “Binoculars are great for stargazing because they provide a wide field of view and require no set up–just point and go!” says Sara Dwyer, science assistant in the NSF Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate. “Don’t worry too much about magnification; any old pair of binoculars will drastically increase the number of objects you can see. But for nighttime observing, the bigger the front lenses, the better.” Gemini Observatory Public Information and Outreach Manager Peter Michaud adds that binoculars of relatively low power (10X maximum) do work best, and for an efficient event, it helps to identify specific appropriate targets. “Better yet set the binoculars on a tripod already aimed at a target like Andromeda Galaxy under urban skies,” he said.

6. Be prepared! There’s more to an event like this than just telescopes and star charts. Another NSF Astronomy Division program director, Glen Langston, has some suggestions: “Sometimes you need a hair dryer,” he said. “Seriously. Octobers may be cool, and water will condense on telescopes. A little heat on the telescope can greatly improve seeing.” Additionally, his supply list includes a jacket, raincoat, flashlight with red lens or cellophane cover, a camera or phone (especially if the telescope has a phone adapter for snapping photos), a tarp and tie-downs, extension cords, and finally, chairs, since you can be out stargazing for long periods.

7. Some basic etiquette rules to make things better. No one wants to be “that person” who doesn’t know how to act around a bunch of telescopes in the dark. Truth of the matter is, there really aren’t really many rules to these kind of events–it comes down more to common sense. As Michaud notes, “be sure to turn off your cell phones, so they aren’t flashing. And hands-off the eyepieces.”

8. Right before you start gazing… A little preparation can go a long way. “Before turning to your telescope for observing, take some time, maybe 5-10 minutes, to just look up,” Spuck says. “Look for the simple things. Do you see stars that are different colors? What’s the faintest star you can see? Forget about what you’re supposed to see. What objects can you make in the sky by connecting the dots? Watch for shooting stars; did you know that on most any night you can see a shooting star about once every 5 minutes?” Also, if you are lucky enough to know a good “guide” for your event who beyond being able to locate stars, can relay mythology, multicultural sky legends or information about new scientific findings, your experience will be even richer.

9. Pick the right date. While in the case of the White House Astronomy Night, the date is already set, there is a lot to consider when planning future “star parties.” Sue Ann Heatherly, NRAO senior education officer advises. “Check a Lunar Phase calendar like this one to avoid dates near a full moon,” she says. “The full moon is so bright it’s hard to see other objects in the night sky. Also, be prepared with some activities you can do if you have cloudy skies on star party night. People will show up to your event even if it’s raining!”

10. Most of all… Remember these events are supposed to be fun and can often be inspiring. “The joy of discovery is what we, as scientists and researchers, pursue every day of our lives,” said France Córdova, NSF’s director and an astrophysicist. “I felt it first when I was a young girl looking up at the night sky. And I still feel it every day. That sense of wonder is something that we never want to lose.”

Related Agencies
Office of Science and Technology Policy, the White House