Last year I tried to organize a Star Party here in Michigan. A date was targeted and scouting a location in an unfamiliar forest proved successful. I also found myself surrounded by new friends, many with an inclination toward camping and/or astronomy.
Things were looking up!
But it wasn't to be. The summer of 2018 delivered several personal and family losses. Camping at the time might have been a soothing getaway, but not as the organizer of an event hosting dozens of people. Alas, no Star Party was had.
But it's a new year! With every year comes a new camping season that's not to be missed. If you're reading this you're invited to join as we make a fresh attempt.
Because the night sky is dark and full of wonders.
FYI: The post below is more or less a copy of last year's post for the Star Party that never was... updated for the 2019 night sky of course.
If you've never attended a star party, in a nutshell, it's a bunch of folks camping in the wilderness with telescopes and cameras pointed at the night sky.
Oh, but it's so much more than that. First of all, camping is fun. Camping with a big group can be even more fun. And camping with the explicit purpose of using astronomy equipment for what it was meant for... well that's a rare treat.
The best part about the star parties I've hosted over the years are the folks who are new to the scene. I like to invite all my friends, not just those who own telescopes or are seasoned campers. It's a terrific opportunity to see a completely new side of the universe for some... a much, much bigger side than the side they're used to, and helping folks have that opportunity is very fulfilling!
To get a feel for the amateur star party vibe, watch this short time lapse I compiled of one back in 2013. It was such a good time!
What does it cost?
It's free! This site is dispersed camping in the Huron National Forest. It's federal land, and it's legal for a group of up to 75 people to camp without a permit or any fees to pay anywhere in the forest.
What type of facilities can I expect?
None. Seriously. This is dispersed camping - an open field tucked in the forest, no power, no trash service, no running water, and no bathrooms. However, the small Wagner Lake Campground is very nearby (1/4 mile down the road) and it has vault toilets and running water.
How many people are coming?
Nobody knows until the day of, but there's been a fair bit of interest. Having hosted similar star parties before with roughly the same number of invites we've seen anywhere from a dozen to thirty or so people show up, including kids and dogs.
What should I bring?
You're ultimately responsible for all your own camping gear, so shelter, bedding, rain gear, food, and water. We'll also have a big campfire for everyone to gather around, so please bring a bundle of firewood to contribute.
Can I get my tiny car / huge trailer into this site?
Yes! It's very accessible and camping vehicles of all sorts are welcome.
What if I don't have a telescope (or only have a dinky one)?One thing telescope owners love more than anything else is wowing other folks by capturing neat things in their scopes. Come along and enjoy the show. If you've got a scope of any size this is the best place to try it out, so bring it along.
What about photography?
Got a DSLR camera and a tripod? Try your hand at astrophotography! There will be folks there (myself included) who can give pointers if you've never done it. If you've got a few lenses bring them all or favor the "fastest" ones - the ones with the smallest f-stop number (e.g. f/2.4) as they tend to work best when shooting the dark sky.
Should I bring my kids and/or dogs?
Absolutely! This is a very kid friendly and dog-friendly outing. Especially if you've got little ones that have never really looked through a telescope before.
What if I hate camping?
Camping isn't something everyone automatically knows how to do such that it's fun and not a hassle. If you've never had a great time camping but want to give it another shot this is an excellent way to do it. Camping with a big group around a common fire is a very different experience from camping with only a few people or the family. While it's still important that you be prepared and self sufficient, our group will be a friendly social one and if you need help you'll have it!
What if it rains or is cloudy?
That will be a disappointment, but my core group (wife+kid+dog+me) plan to camp regardless. Even if we can't use the scopes it's still fun to camp! If heavy rain is likely we may cancel, and I'll be in contact via the email threads where invites are sent.
What will we see?
Selecting a good star party camp site can be difficult. A suitable site must combine several factors for a successful outing:
The first three points are basic mechanics of group camping. Since star parties like this are wider invitation, where most participants won't be already a part of the amateur astronomy community, ease of access is important to get a decent turnout. This is where the National Forest System is phenomenally helpful! Dispersed camping in national forest is legal without a permit pretty much anywhere as long as your group is under 75 people. Also, Michigan campgrounds that require reservations tend not to have group sites suitable for a star party. They cost money and favor wooded areas and areas near water, so the latter points about unobstructed views and light pollution become almost impossible to achieve.
As for unobstructed views, the forests in Michigan tend to be pretty dense so there are only a few sporadic clearings worth considering. This site was selected after a scouting trip to suss out different clearings found by poking around satellite imagery on Google Earth.
Finally, there's light pollution. In the eastern half of the United States it can be difficult to escape the glow of the denser population centers all around. However, even in Michigan's lower peninsula, there are options! See the image below showing where our site appears on darksitefinder.com, an excellent interactive map showing light pollution around the world. From this map it's pretty clear how different the lower peninsula's two national forests (Huron-Manistee in the west vs. Huron in the northeast) fare with darkness. And local darkness isn't the only factor... also worth considering is the proximity to light pollution sources to the south, since that's the direction we'll tend to look to find all the neat things. In the Huron-Manistee forest to the west the big glow to the south is Grand Rapids, a larger/brighter population center than Midland / Bay City / Saginaw to the south of our selected site. We'll find out in August October just how well our selected site stands up.
A star party thrives primarily on having good night vision and stable equipment. The guidelines are pretty simple...Light
Star Parties are ever so much fun! I think I may have gone to my first when I was only two years old. My dad is an astronomer and brought my brothers and I along to star parties with dozens of other astronomers all throughout our childhood. It was at a star party that I first remember hearing the sound of my eyelashes whisking on my sleeping bag, thinking it was approaching footsteps of my dad or another camper.
Camping and the stars have always been closely intertwined and bring so much joy. I now have a son of my own who will be approaching 20 months old when he attends this star party in 2019. He's already no stranger to camping, but he has yet to look through a telescope (or stay up late enough to see the stars in the summer time). But to my surprise he's looking to the sky far ore often than I am (and I look up a lot)... he's always pointing out distant planes and birds that I miss.
Though I'm not an astronomer like my dad before me I still grew up with a deep appreciation for the night sky and all the wonders it keeps. And one doesn't need to be astronomer to learn about the heavens above and make real attempts to get out and see them, photograph them, etc. This will be the fourth star party I've hosted (maybe fifth?) and every time the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing new friends who may be inexperience campers or inexperienced with the night sky discover something new and dazzling about the universe and about themselves.
Here's hoping for clear skies!