Please arrive before it gets dark and allow some time to setup. Turn car interior lights off if you can, or cover domes with red translucent film available at most craft stores.
A shortened version of this article appeared in Sky and Telescope a few years ago, and in Amateur Astronomy Magazine (#18 pg. 34.) Feel free to make copies for distributing to newcomers in your club, or run a copy in your club newsletter. At the bottom of the page is a link to a pdf version of the article. Please mention that it came from Amateur Astronomy Magazine.
Most amateur astronomers live in increasingly light-polluted environments and don't have the opportunity to observe from pristine dark sky locations nearly as much as they would like. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why attending dark-sky events has become so popular in recent years. Where else can you disregard your normal routine, stay up all night, poke your eyes into the far reaches of the Universe, and then sleep till noon, day after day?
This is just a small part the magic star parties hold.
New star parties are popping up all over the country. See our listings of events.
Some of the long established events have grown to gigantic proportions.
This is good!
Having a few days or a week to enjoy our favorite hobby, while sharing the daytime hours with kindred souls is an experience that is hard to match.
At any star party you will meet all types of people. Many have been mainly armchair observers who are taking their first trip into dark skies. In order to fit in.... and to keep from appearing completely unenlightened to the more experienced astronomers, there are a few simple things that you need to know. Etiquette is not something that we are born knowing - it is something that has to be learned. Here are a few tips that will help you make many new friends at your next Star Party, and to keep everyone from pointing at you and saying, "My God! Who is that clueless soul?"
No matter what temperature you hear it will be, prepare for weather that is at least 20 degrees colder. Make and use a checklist to see that you don't leave home without something you need, such as your eyepiece case, or red flashlight. If you bring a telescope, set up a small toolbox containing extra batteries, lights, etc. If you want to make friends, avoid having to always borrow things. Bring a cooler or thermos, and something for a late night snack. Even better, bring along some goodies to share with your friends around you. If you are not familiar with
the observing site, arrive early enough so that you don't have to drive in unaware. Knowing where you are going can avoid disrupting everyone with your headlights.
No White Lights, No Green laser pointers are permitted
No white lights after sundown if there are other observers in the area. Allow yourself to become dark-adapted and see all that you can see. If you are on dangerous terrain and need a bright red light, for heavens sake, keep it pointed straight down! Just because it is red does not mean it will not impact night vision. Don't walk around waving it in everyone's face. If you shine it in the eyes of the wrong person, they may instruct you where to stick it. If you have to open your car door or trunk after sundown, be kind enough to remove the fuse or bulb beforehand. It only takes a second. If you want to become unpopular quickly, just be the one who is always ruining fellow observers dark adaptation by opening your car doors or trunk every few minutes, splashing bright light all over everyone.
If you have to leave the party early in an auto, park where your lights will not bother those who are still observing, and in a manner that will allow you to not use your headlights or backup lights when you leave. Even brake and taillights are bright and can be bothersome to those who are fully dark-adapted. As a preparatory method, you can move the shift lever to neutral before starting your engine, and the backup lights won't come on. If a bright light can't be avoided, just yell "LIGHTS IN THREE SECONDS" first, to give everyone time to turn the other way. You will be somewhat appreciated for your thoughtfulness! If you have one of the new cars that have "daytime running lights" that come on as soon as you turn the key, there IS a way to turn them off temporarily. Simply lift the emergency brake one click. Now you can turn the key without the lights coming on. After you drive a couple of hundred yards away from the observing group, remember to turn the emergency brake off, so you don't cause undo damage to the brake system.
Please do not use green laser 'sky pointers' as they may interfere with other folks astrophotography. They are also becoming increasingly restricted as they can interfere with airline traffic. These are powerful instruments and must be used responsibly and knowledgably.
Read the specific star party information that is handed out when you register. There will be a simple list of rules. FOLLOW THEM!! If they say "No moving of cars after sunset", then don't move your car after sunset. If you are registered in a local motel instead of camping on the grounds, then you must make arrangements beforehand so that you can leave when you wish. At most star parties this means parking outside the gates, or far enough away so you will be able to leave when you wish, without shining bright lights on those who are still observing and ruining their night vision. Almost all the problems that pop up
come from people who never read the star party literature, or those who believe that the rules only pertain to others. If you would rather not follow the rules... then go observing on your own, where your method of operation will not bother anyone else. Star parties are a community event, and they can be wonderful experiences for all, as long as everyone is a good neighbor.
Star Parties are the perfect place to learn more about observing, telescopes, accessories, techniques, targets and everything else that goes with the hobby. If you are considering purchasing a particular model, or building your own telescope, there is no better place to gather all the latest news, see the latest designs, and to get first hand advice from other amateurs who have experience with the item you are considering. Walking around the observing field during the day will show you almost everything imaginable. With the owners permission, you may be able to try that new item you have been considering, or to see if that new telescope design is as good as it looks on paper. However, remember to be considerate! Don't move in on someone without an invitation. Everyone loves to show off their equipment once in awhile, but they also have their own little group of friends that they are observing with. Unless you are lucky enough to be asked to join them for the entire evening, don't impose. Use common sense and keep your visit to a reasonable length of time. Also be sure to thank them for sharing their time and equipment with you. Everyone loves a grateful and gracious guest!
Bring your telescope!
Some amateurs have the idea that they can look through their own telescope any time they wish at home, so when they go to a star party they don't even take their telescope with them, thinking, "I'll spend my time looking through everyone else's telescope." What if everyone on the observing field thought the same thing? Not fair! Unless you are flying to the star party, there is no excuse for not bringing your own telescope - if you have one. Even if you only have a small telescope, it is only fair to every one else to bring it with you, and not just go to look through the largest telescopes. You may have a model that someone else would like to see. Don't expect everyone else to do all the work, so you can be entertained. You should do your share of entertaining too!
Try to learn how to operate a Dobsonian before you are in an embarrassing position at the top of a ladder with 25 people in line behind you, and you have to yell down from the top of a ladder, "It's moving out of the field!" It's not polite to loose the object being viewed with a line of people standing behind you.
These large telescopes are easy to use if you know how. You can learn how with just a couple of minutes preparation ahead of time, so be sensitive to everyone's time and don’t wait until you are at the eyepiece and then ask what to do. Take the time to learn earlier in the day, as a courtesy to everyone else, or explain that you are new to this and ask a seasoned observer to give you a few tips on tracking an object when there are no long lines behind you.
The largest telescopes on the field are not necessarily public property. It is probable that their owners have their own observing programs to carry out. If you would like to look through one, and everyone does, ask first. If possible, ask ahead of time if the scope will be open for public observing during the star party. Find out when, and go during the proper time.
Lots of folks are imaging these days using various methods and equipment, which means that many are new to imaging and not aware of some of the light hazards that can exist to others on the field.
If you are using a DSLR, learn to use the camera’s settings for astrophotography before you go to a star party. Learn how to turn off or dim the display, which can be remarkably bright. If your camera does not have controls to adjust the display, cover it with red film or shield it from others view and be aware of the reflected light.
Video imaging has become very popular and can be a great way to share real time views through a scope with a number of people at once. Make sure that your viewing method does not negatively impact observers in the area. TV or computer screens are very bright and not everyone wants to observe this way. Unshielded screens can be great for initiating the public at “sidewalk star parties”, but inappropriate for star parties directed towards astronomers. There are ways to observe with a screen at these events, but be sensitive to others! A box or other covering can shield direct glare, but also be aware of the bright glow these devices can emit even when protected in this fashion.
For CCD imagers – make sure and shield or cover your laptops. Even with the screen brightness turned down and “red night vision” modes enabled, they are usually too bright for visual astronomers at a “dark sky” star party. Use a box, or build a garage to house the unit. Even with this shielding, it is critical to provide a red shielding for the screen. I use a piece of 1/8” red plexiglass, which I attach with Velcro. I also use a piece of black “duck” cloth on the front of my laptop garage to shield the front when I do not need to view the screen. Be aware of how you set up, and avoid setting up with the screen facing any observer’s setups. It is best to setup on the perimeter when possible with the screen facing away from all observers. I love to observe while my camera gathers photons. Practice being a good imaging neighbor and you will be invited to observe through neighboring scopes as well.
Hogging the Eyepiece
Don't become an eyepiece hog on someone else's telescope. Of course this does not mean that you should simply take a two second look at an interesting object, and when you are at your own telescope you should learn to study each object and train your eye to see all that it can see. But when you are at someone else's telescope, don't get carried away and spend hours hogging their observing
time. Keep your visit short, and then move on to the next scope on the field, thanking the owner for the shared views. There are times when you may be invited to become part of an extended observing session, but make sure you are not encroaching on the scope owner’s plans for the evening. They have also carved out hard fought time to observe under dark skies.
One way to become a welcome guest is to bring something to the table, such as a potentially interesting object to observe, a good quality eyepiece or filter that may enhance a view. By sharing and giving something back, everyone benefits.
Smokers need to be especially considerate of non-smokers. Since you are outside on the observing field, the smoke itself is not usually a problem. The problem is lighting up. The normally insignificant glow of a lighter or match is a killer to the dark-adapted eyes of your friends. Be careful to turn away, and cup your hands around the flash, so the flare of your match won't ruin anyone's eyes but your own. Also keep in mind that eventually someone will have to pick up every cigarette and cigar butt you throw on the ground, so please use an ashtray, or collect your butts before you leave. In general it is best to refrain from smoking if you are sharing views through a neighbor’s scope. The smoke can linger on a shroud, or ash could possibly foul a mirror. What you find acceptable practice at your scope may not be for someone else. So, when in doubt, go without.
Music is a great relaxation to many. To some, it just isn't possible to observe without the proper mood setting musical accompaniment. Many love to scope out the heavens while listening to heavy metal rock at 110 decibels. Others may enjoy an eight-hour Elvis session. Great! Enjoy yourself! Turn it up! Play it as loud as you like it.... just wear earphones. The battle of the bands does not belong on the observing field. Many appreciate New Age or "space music" at a low volume, to set the mood. This style of music is generally non-offensive to most, but if anyone complains...back to the earphones. Noise pollution can be like light pollution.
Share your knowledge. A star party is a place for learning, and a place for teaching. If you see a novice struggling to locate an object in his telescope, or set up equipment, ask if you can be of assistance. Chances are they will truly appreciate it. By the same token, avoid sounding like a ”know-it-all” or taking over their “observing experience”. Be gracious about the equipment they are using, even if it is lacking. If you are a seasoned observer, add value and encourage. Your interaction may the the reason they get hooked on this hobby for life, or relegate there scope to the closet forever after. Every once in a while take a break and walk around the observing field. You will see both some amazing and some comical sights. Enjoy yourself, and help others to enjoy themselves!
Loud talking or other loud noise before noon should be avoided. It is disruptive to the observers who stay up until dawn. On the other hand, loud talking on the observing field at 4 AM is rude to early risers who may be leaving on a day trip at dawn. If you are a family with small children, and other early risers, consider placing your camp in an area where you won't be disturbed by late viewing astronomers, or disturb astronomers who are trying to sleep late the next morning. Setting up near people with similar viewing habits makes this an easier guideline to follow.
Trash Trash belongs in trash can, not around your site. Don’t be one of those people who think nothing of leaving trash lay until "tomorrow". By morning it may have blown over into someone else's space. If you finish a drink while visiting someone else's area, take it with you.
Convention or Star Party?
There are two major types of conventions that fall under the heading of star parties. The first is an astronomy convention, but observing is not the highest priority, as other activities come first. If you are one of the organizers, be honest in telling the people what to expect. Don't advertise a dark sky, when in reality your site is close to town and has a light dome reaching to the zenith. Honesty is always the best policy. At Dark Sky star parties observing is the major attraction, with other activities built around the observing. Before you decide to attend a star party, check it out to make sure that the party you select will fit your needs. An astrophotographer will not be very happy trying to take astrophotos at a convention where people are walking around with white lights, and an armchair astronomer may not be at his best at dark sky star parties where only dim red lights are allowed.
Don't Forget a "Be Nice Attitude" As the end of a week-long star party nears, you will notice that most of the die-hard observers are becoming a little brain-dead. Observing till dawn night after night, followed by too few hours of sleep, has a tendency to sharpen ones tongue a little. Be careful what you say while in this condition (sleep deprived). Nothing is worse than looking into someone's 48" Mega Monster telescope, and declaring the view to be much worse than it was in your Super Duper 6" last night. That's not how to win friends. Be considerate. Just because you paid a few dollars registration fee does not entitle you to boss everyone around. Also remember that the people who run he star parties are just volunteers, not paid servants! Volunteer your services if they need help. Running a star party is a lot of work. When you see a crew setting up chairs to convert the mess hall into the lecture hall, jump in and lend a hand ...it will be appreciated. Never touch or move someone's telescope without first asking permission. A telescope that looks unattended may be in the middle of a difficult star hop to some elusive target, and you may have one angry person on your hands if you act before thinking.
Star Parties are for fun. Go in a good mood, and stay in one. Things will go wrong, especially with the complicated equipment amateurs use. You will forget something, or you may not be able to set up exactly how you would like, park where you would like or have optimal facilities.
Make the best of it!
Don't get in a sour mood and spoil it for everyone. As always, the age-old advice "Do Unto Others...." is the best perspective, and hard to beat.
If you find someone who is new to this, and breaking the rules of star party etiquette, educate them politely in an encouraging and informative way. If you are a veteran, remember your own awkwardness at your first event and be kind in your correction. You will be doing them and the rest of the attendees a great favor if you instruct and mentor in this way. Better yet, be prepared and carry a copy of these guidelines, and hand them out to those who might need them.
Download a pdf version of this Star Party Etiquette article