Tuesday, April 26, 2016

This Year's Star Parties

It's once again time to start planning which star parties are worth the travel expense and time to attend. A big attraction of nearby star parties is their skies which can be much darker than those nearby, which are marginal at best or abysmal (like my back yard). But that's only one attaction. Let's look at the most important factors:
  • Sky darkness
  • Open horizons
  • Light domes
  • Programs
  • Amenities
  • Downsides

I would list ambience as a factor, but the truth is I've never been to a star party where the people have been anything less than great.

Here are some information about the ones I plan to attend this Summer and Fall:

Nebraska Star Party


I put off attending this because of the comments about heat and storms. What a mistake!
  • Sky darkness: Dark gray (the darkest zone possible). 
  • Open horizons: Excellent in all directions; the observing fields are surrounded by low hills. 
  • Light Domes: Only one dome worth mentioning, and it's a feeble one from Valentine (population 2700, 26 miles to the northeast.) The dry air seems to suppress domes.
  • Programs: Exellent. The Wednesday talks at the local high school are top notch with nationally known speakers.
  • Amenities: Campgrounds are available, as is primitive camping on the observing fields.  The observing fields are essentially "bring whatever you need," providing only mowed land with three pit toilets. There's no power or water (drinkable or otherwise). There are catered suppers on three nights; the food is basic but very good. Door prizes that range from very good to grab-bag stuff you'll donate to your local club.
  • Downsides: Prickly pear cacti will puncture unguarded feet and tent floors that aren't protected by ground covers. By day there are occasional biting flies and just enough mosquitoes to provide distraction. DEET up and it's fine. And don't forget the possibility of withering heat and violent thunderstorms packing lightning, wind, and hail. 
  • Hints: If you're concerned about the heat, make the half-hour drive to Valentine where the public library has WiFi and A/C! A great place to cool off. Also be sure to visit the showers at the nearby campground (bring quarters).
Summary: I'm going for the third time, despite never having won a door prize! If you don't mind the primitive conditions, heat, and threat of storms you should make the pilgrimage to NSP at least once.

Iowa Star Party


This is a personal favorite of mine, in part because I was a charter member of the host club and did my graduate study in nearby Ames.
  • Sky darkness: Light blue
  • Open Horizons: Excellent if you set up in the middle of the field.
  • Light Domes: There's a significant dome from Des Moines (population 611000, 50 miles to ESE). During humid conditions a few others can be seen. To the south, nothing.
  • Programs: Usually there's a talk by a scientist from one of the nearby universities and another by a host club member. These are given in an old barn which can sometimes be stiflingly hot and humid. 
  • Amenities: There's no power or water at the observing field, but power for recharging batteries can be had at one of the nearby buildings. There are a limited number of cottages and houses for those who want to sleep in comfort, and one is kept open during the day for those who seek respite from the heat. Saturday night there's a home-cooked supper that's always terrific. Door prizes that vary in quality from year to year.
    If you like hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife there's a lot to do during the day.
  • Downsides: Summertime heat and humidity have been insane the last couple of times I've attended. This year it's on the Labor Day weekend, so maybe it will be cooler. Pests are usually not a problem.
Summary: A nice sub-regional party with dark sky and pleasant surroundings

Heart of America Star Party


I've only been to this once, but it's a really well organized event with a lot of things going for it. Unfortunately the one time I attended it rained all three nights so some of my information is incomplete.
  • Sky darkness: Light blue
  • Open horizons: Excellent
  • Light domes: I think there may be one to the north from Kansas City (population 2 million, 50 miles N) and probably from Butler, MO (population 4100, 12 miles E)
  • Programs: Substantial--usually at least one speaker of national significance, another visiting from a university, and members' talks. These take place in a building with good A/V adjacent to the observing field.
  • Amenities: Limited field power; showers set up nearby, and good food aplenty. Food and drink are available throughout the night, as are activities (movies and bingo) for cloudy nights. Very nice door prizes.
  • Downsides: People like to pack together on the observing field, but there's ample room.
Summary: A superb gathering, well organized and attended. Usually in October, so it doesn't conflict with other major parties and is unlikely to be subjected to hot weather.

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