RASC Ottawa Centre schedules several star parties throughout the summer. Some of these will be cancelled because of poor weather or cloud, but several usually survive. They are open to the public and free, and you are invited to attend. This article will give you an idea what to expect.
Note: Although RASC is no longer using Pinhey’s Point, this article is being kept online as a general guide to star parties.
Why Attend Star Parties?
A Star Party is an evening event where several amateur astronomers will set up several telescopes, at a reasonably dark location, and allow visitors to view celestial objects through their scopes. For many, star parties are RASC Ottawa Centre’s “premier events”.
By attending a star party, you will have an opportunity to talk with a number of amateur astronomers, and to see, discuss, and try out a variety of telescopes of different designs and sizes, observing a variety of beautiful celestial objects. This is a great way to introduce yourself, a friend, or a child, to the observing hobby. It is an especially good idea to visit a star party and see a number of telescopes in action before you invest in equipment of your own.
Plan to attend several star parties. You’ll find they are very enjoyable, and that the objects you can observe change with the seasons.
Why Pinhey’s Point?
RASC Ottawa Centre’s regular star parties
are used to be held at Pinhey’s Point, which is near the Ottawa River, in the West end of Ottawa. Pinhey’s Point is a good site for public-oriented star parties. It has reasonably dark skies, yet is easy to access, being just outside the built-up city limits, and it features parking and washroom facilities. A site like Pinhey’s Point is not dark enough to be a location where serious amateurs would travel to do their own serious observing, but it is darker than the average urban location from which you get a good sky view (parks and parking lots). Especially if you have rarely or never looked through a telescope, you’ll be able to have a good experience at this easy-to-reach site.
Note that Pinhey’s Point is a heritage site and park owned and operated by the City of Ottawa museums department. RASC has permission to use this site in return for agreeing to obey certain restrictions and rules of use. Please help us to be welcome users of this site by reviewing these rules (link removed — no longer using that site).
Note: Since this article was written, the City of Ottawa has installed bright, glaring security lighting at Pinhey’s Point, destroying its usability as an Astronomy centre for the public. RASC and the OAFs club have started having their star parties at the Carp branch of the Ottawa Library (the Diefenbunker) site instead.
The original sections of this article that dealt with finding Pinhey’s Point have been removed.
Who Can Attend?
You can. Star Parties are for the public. Anyone can attend, there is no fee or membership required.
The public is welcome at our star parties, as are amateur astronomers of all experience levels, with or without telescopes. You do not have to be a RASC member to attend, and you do not have to register in advance. Just show up.
If this is your first star party, however, you should be aware of some rules designed to keep the site safe and to protect the dark-adapted “night vision” of our participants. The rest of this document will outline these rules — please read them.
You are welcome at any time, but we suggest you try to arrive at, or just before, dusk. Then you can learn your way around the site while you can still see. And, again, we’d prefer to minimize the number of headlights coming in after dark.
Generally the astronomers pack up about midnight.
Visitors: How to Participate
What to Expect
On three large grassy knolls, from five to a dozen or more amateur astronomers will have their equipment set up. There will be a number of telescopes of many designs, shapes, and sizes. Each will be operated by its owner, who will be finding and observing their favourite objects of the season. You are welcome to visit, chat, look through the telescopes, and discuss both the sky and the equipment.
What to Bring
will be used to be fairly dark — there are were few streetlights, and the astronomers use no lights, or very dim red lights, to see what they are doing. This is important — your eyes need to remain in the dark to adjust properly. So please don’t “help out” by bringing a bright flashlight. It’s neither needed nor welcome. You can use a dim red flashlight (available at astronomy, sporting goods, and hardware stores) to help you navigate the area. Red light has the least damaging effect on night vision.
It will probably be cool, and might be damp. Even on a hot summer day, you will be surprised how chilly it gets when standing still at night, so dress warmer than you think necessary. We recommend long sleeves, pants, and possibly a light jacket.
It will probably also be buggy, so you will want insect repellant. Please be careful when applying it — don’t use a spray anywhere near the telescopes, as the chemicals can damage the delicate coatings on the lenses.
If you own a decent set of binoculars, bring them along. You will be surprised what you can see with a dark sky and some guidance.
If you want to bring your camera, please turn off the flash.
Rules and Etiquette
The most important rule is one you’ve already heard us mention. No white lights in the observing area please. A dim red light is acceptable. Even then, use it as little as possible, and keep it pointed at the ground — never at the people.
You’ll be walking around, in the dark, among some sensitive and delicate equipment, so please move slowly and be careful.
- Please don’t handle or adjust any equipment unless the owner is present. Better, even then, to let them adjust it.
- Never touch any glass surfaces (lenses, mirrors, or eyepieces).
- Don’t smoke or spray any chemicals near the telescopes.
- Avoid kicking up dust on the road with vehicles or feet.
- Some of the telescopes may be very tall, and may require climbing a ladder. Be careful and keep an eye on your children.
Your children are welcome — we hope the experience may interest them in science and Astronomy. However, please keep them with you and under control at all times. There are woods, hills, cliffs, and a river nearby, and there are few lights.
Don’t give your kids regular flashlights — it’s just too much fun to turn them on and wave them around. Dim red lights are OK but, even then, ask them to point them at the ground and not at the people.
Please leave your pets at home. This is not the place for them — it’s pitch dark, and there will be a crowd of people with varied opinions on pets. And there is a lot of sensitive and delicate equipment standing around.
If you must bring a pet, keep it closely leashed (not on a long retractable leash) and under complete control at all times. You may think he’s the best dog in the world, but when he knocks over that $15,000 telescope you’re going to have an awkward conversation with the owner.
Visit and Chat
By all means visit all the telescopes, chat with the owners, look at what they are showing, and ask questions. These parties are for you; you are not inconveniencing or interrupting us. Plan to cycle by each telescope several times — most operators will show more than one object as the night goes on.
Remember that the operators are volunteers who have brought their own equipment out on their own time. They are not paid performers. So please be patient and polite.
Astronomers: How to Participate
Anyone is welcome to come out with their telescope too. Just show up before dark so you can be set up before night falls.
Beginners to Astronomy are welcome — in fact, encouraged. Come out before you buy a telescope, or with the new telescope you just bought. There is no expertise required, you’ll have fun, and other members will be pleased to help you better understand how to operate your equipment. If you do want help setting up, then come extra early. Others will be pleased to help you, but they will also want time to set up their own gear before dark.
Bring everything you are likely to need, as there is nothing available on site. Bring your own power, table, chair, water, and so on.
Check your proposed setup location with your nearest neighbour, just to be sure you aren’t in the line of sight of some low object they were hoping to observe. And by introducing yourself to them, you’ll have a buddy to help watch your gear if you need a break for washroom or car.
Plan to stay for the whole event. If you must leave early, follow the above parking guidelines for visitors to keep your headlights out of the observing area. And if you are the second-last person to leave, make sure the final person you are leaving behind knows they are alone.
Finally, remember these star parties are for the public.
- Expect visitors and welcome them.
- Bring a step stool or step ladder to allow shorter people or children to reach the eyepiece. (Ladders and stools with handles are best because children can hold the stool, not your scope, to steady themselves.)
- Don’t expect perfect dark-site behaviour; people will make mistakes with lights.
- Don’t plan on doing serious imaging. There will be lights, laser pointers, etc., and you are not allowed to be irritated when a delighted child with a flashlight accidentally ruins your photo.
For more thoughts on preparing for and enjoying public outreach astronomy, see this article.