FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

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What the heck is a star party?
One thing that separates us from the animals is our intense, innate curiosity. We look up into the night sky --- and just keep staring! --- wondering what it all is and what it all means.

We also have an inborn sense of beauty. We can look at a big blob of stars, or an irregular cloud of dust and gas, or a planet with a ring around it and, for some reason, simply be amazed at its aesthetic elegance.

Unfortunately, though, most of us can't see the rings of Saturn or the globs of stars or even the moon's craters because we don't have the tools to do so.

Fortunately, there are people who do have the tools and are willing to share them to show you those objects of paradisiacal beauty.

Those people would be members of your local astronomy club. For the most part, they consist of amateur astronomers equipped with very nice telescopes and a very real desire to share their knowledge of the skies with you.

Do you have a group --- school, church, or special interest --- that might enjoy an evening seeing the stars and planets up close and personal? Most astronomy clubs would love to host a "star party" for you. But before you call them up, do a little homework.

Have two or three dates ready for them. Don't pick them randomly or even at "the same time we had one last year." A few minutes of research and some helpful hints can help you pin down an ideal date.

If you have an elementary school group, for example, you might not want a star party in summer. It doesn't get dark enough for viewing until about 9 PM, at which time a lot of younger children start to get a wee tired.

On the other hand, the winter months offer much earlier viewing but the chance of clouds increases, too.

One thing you want to avoid any month is the full moon. It is so bright then that it bleaches the sky, eliminating a lot of "deep sky" objects like galaxies and nebulae.

The best moon is First Quarter (called half-moon by some). Most home calendars display it. This is the phase when the moon's mountains, craters, and valleys come alive through a telescope. Moreover, this moon is always above your head at sunset, sets hours later, and doesn't light up the sky.

If possible, try and pick an evening that also includes planets --- namely Jupiter and Saturn. But know that these two, just like everything else up there, don't show up on cue. Like Hollywood stars, they arrive when they arrive.

By November and December and into the new year, they rise around sunset, so that by about 8 PM or so they are high enough in the sky for good viewing. And what viewing!

On a good, clear night, a decent scope can show you Jupiter's Galilean satellites, its lines of cloud patterns, and sometimes the Great Red Spot.

Near Jupiter you and your group can witness the golden orb of Saturn and its magnificent rings in all their glorious splendor.

And along with the moon and planets are the countless deep sky objects --- double stars, galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me