Complete instructions for making a star party

Party Time – Astronomy Style!

So you want to invite some friends over and you need a theme for your party.  Why not make it as big as the universe, and take your guests on a view of the cosmos?  It’s fun, it’s easy, and you don’t need a degree in the finer points of astrophysics (although that could be a hoot as well).  The goal is for everyone to have a good time and not necessarily to earn three college credits in astronomy when the night is done.  So let’s get started.

When is the Star Party?

A good question.  It’s best to set the party for a specific astronomical event. Do a Google search for “Upcoming Astronomical Events” and see what sounds good.

It could be a lunar eclipse, a meteor shower, a comet, or even something as simple as a constellation party. A big question you need to ask is if you want the Moon in the sky.  The Moon can be very bright, especially around Full Moon. This is a horrible time for looking at the Moon (it’s too bright through the telescope, and it doesn’t have any shadows to show depth or contrast).

If you want a lunar party set it for around first quarter.

Of course a lunar eclipse party only happens at Full Moon, or you might want to have a special brightest Moon of the year party; there are always exceptions.  If you’re having a meteor party you don’t want the Moon in the sky at all, and meteors are best seen after midnight.  Figure out the event first, and then determine the date and time from there.

A huge consideration is what do you do if it’s cloudy?  Two options- you either have a rain date or go ahead and have the party anyway without the astronomical theme.  Let you guests know ahead of time if you decide that it is weather dependent.

Space

Yes, we’ll get your guests staring into space (even before they attack the punch bowl), but in this case I’m referring to the physical space of where the party will be held.  You want an area that has a view of the sky so your guests can contemplate the heavens.  You want an area where guests can be comfortable in case it gets cold outside, you want an area that is open to conversation, you want an area for eating and food preparation.  So do some feng shui and get these areas to flow into each other. Extra points if you incorporate several areas into one.  For example if your outside viewing area is also comfortably set up for conversation.

Start by imagining how the evening will go.  The guests arrive.  They need a place to put their coats, and also to collect them if they want them outside. Perhaps a coat rack by the back door to the deck or yard.  They have a sitting area for conversation, perhaps by a fireplace, and outfitted with small tables for food and drink.  They know the bathroom or powder room is down the hall.  They move into the kitchen where food, plates, cups, utensils and a drink station are all set up.  As they grab their coat they go out onto the back deck or into the yard to view the sky.  The area is dark, but there are dim perimeter lights strategically placed, and also chairs and small tables arranged for guests to sit and converse.  The key here is to make this area dark enough to see the night sky, with low lights for safety pointed to the ground, and shielded so they don’t allow light to go upward.  If you can make them red lights that not only is a cool effect it’s also easier on the night vision.

Music

Next set the tone for the party with a good space mix.  Speakers inside and out are ideal, but the music is low enough for those guests that don’t have teenage ears to hear the conversation.  Any space tunes will work, “Drops of Jupiter”, “Age of Aquarius”, “Fly Me to the Moon”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, the entire Holst Symphony entitled “The Planets”, you get the idea.  Or if you’re Pandora minded then maybe “Astronaut” or Asteroids Galaxy Tour” or “Astral Projection” would be more to your liking.

Food and Drink

Use the standards you would have for any party of course.  But you will need to have astronomical themed plates and cups for your guests, and tablecloths if you’re really into it.  Have some astronomical punch, or check out the Internet for astro-themed drinks for the adults (nothing better than a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster).  For those with a hankering toward the sweets, have star shaped cookies and other astronomical treats around (Starburst, Milky Way, Moon Pies, etc); you’ll need those for a few games later on anyway.

Equipment

You don’t need an expensive telescope mounted in a cool domed observatory.  Although if you do have such a thing, that would certainly be a bonus.  One thing to keep in mind, (and I can’t stress this enough), is don’t go out and buy a telescope for your party.  It will take time and experience to learn how to use a telescope well, and spending time at the party looking for celestial objects or trying to figure out this weird contraption is not the impression you want to give your guests.

If you don’t have a telescope and want optical aid then binoculars would work very well.  Some binoculars can easily be mounted on a tripod with a binocular adapter, but it’s not necessary.  Binoculars have a wide enough field to find things easily and most people already know how to use them.  If you go this route you might want to encourage your guests to bring their own binoculars along.

Not comfortable with telescopes or binoculars?  Then your astronomy party can be eyes to the sky only; you can even call it a “Naked-Eye Star Party”.  Who wouldn’t want to come to that?  There are a lot of things you can do looking skyward using your own eyes.

Regardless of the optical equipment you choose or don’t choose, you should have star maps available for your guests or recommend an astronomy app for their smartphones, and if possible a green laser pointer.  The green laser pointer extends a beam out about 2 miles and the beam can easily be seen by your guests if they are close by.

CAUTION: NEVER POINT THE GREEN LASER AT AIRPLANES OR PEOPLE.  Pointing it at airplanes is considered an act of terrorism, and pointing it at people can cause eye damage.  Used responsibly it is a great tool for getting everyone to look at the same spot in the sky, and pointing out star patterns or planets.

Activities

We can set this up into different categories. Inside games, telescope, binocular and naked eye.

Inside Games

You should have something set up for people who attend who have no interest in going outside.  Wait, why did you invite them?  If the weather is cold, an inside activity is just what you need to warm things up.  If it is cloudy and you decide to have the party anyway you’ll need some activities. Here are some possibilities.

Make Your Own Horoscope.

Check out some actual horoscopes online and write them out putting one sentence only on a notecard. Make up your own sentences too, and include some fun vague features about your guests. The idea is to mix them up and have people grab three or four cards randomly, and put them in any order to make their own horoscope.   Read them to each other, and declare points or a prize (maybe a Milky Way candy bar?) to the person who has the most interesting horoscope. An example of a possible horoscope could be:

Things just seem to go your way today. You’re going to have good moods and bad moods in your relationship with a quirky bald man.  Important transitions in your life will occur.

If nothing else, the quirky bald men at your party will enjoy it.

Astronomical Charades.

Just like regular charades except all of them have astronomical themes.  A good one might be astronomy sci-fi movies.  This works well with teams as you can imagine people trying to charade their way through “Night of the Comet” or “Apollo 13”.

Astronomy Terms. 

Make some notecards with an astronomy term and a definition on one side of the card.  The other side of the card is blank.  Be certain you have pretty obscure terms that your guests won’t know like “perturbation” or ecliptic” or “Ophiuchus”.  You can find a list of terms online.  The cards are placed in a pile face down.  Each person is given a bunch of notecards, a pencil and a certain number of candies.  This is to keep score.  A Starburst could be equal to one point, and a Milky Way Mini candy bar is equal to 5 points, etc. Select one person to become the reader for the first round.  He chooses a card with an astronomy term and the correct definition, and reads the word only.  He then asks everyone to write a definition for that word. Everyone writes down a definition on the card, and hands it over to the reader.  The reader mixes the cards up and then looks through each card, and then reads the word and the various definitions including the correct one. Now it’s time for voting. He reads the first card definition, and puts it face down on the table so people can’t see the hand writing.  Everyone decides whether or not they like the definition, and if so put candy on the card if they think it’s the real definition.  For example one person may put in 2 starburst or a whole Milky Way mini, another person 3 starburst, someone else nothing.  The next definition is read and this continues until all of the cards are on the table with candies on top of them. The owner of that definition now gets the card and all of the candy that is associated with it. The real definition is read and any candy there goes to the reader.  To start the next round a new reader is picked.  To add some variation tell everyone that their definition can’t be more than six words long.  Of course the real definition has to be cut down to six words as well.

Make Your Own Constellations.

Got star-shaped cookies (and who doesn’t?), then you can put a bunch of them on a plate and have your guests create their own constellations.  Having different size star shape cookies is great for different brightnesses of stars.  You could distribute them so each person gets three bright stars (large cookies) and six fainter stars (small cookies).  We’re looking for new star patterns so the Big Dipper, Orion or the Southern Cross doesn’t work.  The star pattern of the “wine bottle” or the “rake” could be possibilities, but let your guests come up with their own ideas. Best to keep it simple though, the star pattern of the Jaguar F-type SVR is going to require a LOT more cookies.  When finished let’s see if the other people can guess what the star pattern is, that’s half the fun.  As the piece de resistance, the creator of the star pattern then tells a story of how it got stuck up in the sky.  Only then does it become a true constellation.

Telescope

If you have a good telescope, and know how to use it you already know what celestial objects are the best for your guests to see. If you have a telescope and don’t know how to use it very well then just keep it on the Moon.

Drive me to the Moon.

Our closest neighbor looks great through anything- yes, I’m still talking about the Moon. If you have a high powered view and a slow motion hand control, show the guests which buttons to press so they can “drive” around the Moon. Allow them to find something they like, and then have them identify it off of a lunar map or a lunar app for your smartphone such as “Lunar HD”.

Planets.

You need a good high powered view of the planets to really appreciate them, but even a tiny Saturn showing its rings will have your guests oohing and aahing for more.

No Moon, no problem.

You picked this night for a reason and you didn’t want to have the Moon up and that’s fine.  Look for deep sky objects or stellar evolution objects (red giants, nebula, star clusters, supernova remnants, etc), or whatever else fits your astronomical goal.

Binoculars

A good pair of binoculars is a wonderful way to learn the night sky.  Some ideas might include the following.

Celestial Scavenger Hunt.

Create a list of astronomical objects that people have to see with their binoculars.  They have to check them off and write some notes about their discovery. Such as “That star is very red!”, and “I count 3 moons around Jupiter”.  Include fairly bright objects like the Moon, planets, stars, star clusters and bright nebula.   Of course they can use a smartphone app or star map to help figure out where these things are located.

Counting the Pleiades.

The Seven Sisters or Matariki is one of the most distinctive and beautiful objects of the night sky.  How many can you see with the naked-eye?  How many can you see with a pair of binoculars?

Lunar Eyesight

Using binoculars what is the smallest feature that you can see on the Moon?  Use an App like “Lunar HD” to give you the identification of objects and crater and mare sizes.

Naked Eye

Ok, so you don’t have a telescope or binoculars.  No problem.  There is plenty to see and do with the unaided or naked eye.

Constellation and Star ID.

Armed with an App from your smartphone or a star map have your guests locate some constellations and star names.  You can even have teams to see who gets the most. The green laser pointer is a big plus for this activity as it allows you to outline the constellations and point to the stars; just remember to keep it away from airplanes and other people.

International Space Station or ISS.

No, it doesn’t always go overhead when you want but you picked the date and time for your party for a reason. You can get the timing to the ISS off on an app or a website. If you can include this event it is fantastic to see, and very bright.  Have you guests raise a toast or wave to the astronauts!

Meteor Shower.

You will always see more meteors after midnight, but some showers with lower rates do occur at a reasonable hour for a party.  You don’t need a telescope or binoculars for this activity; your eyes are best.  If you have chaise lounges they would be the best way to see it.  Have your guests bring their own as well so you have enough to go around.  Each person will also need a cover or a sleeping bag if it’s cold.  The object is to just gaze skyward waiting for a meteor or a fireball to streak across the sky.  Remember to tell them to converse but be incredibly rude and don’t look at each other when you’re talking.  Everyone should look at the sky, the moment your attention is turned is when that great fireball blazes across the heavens.  Have them keep count to see who saw the most, but be suspicious if it’s the guest who has had more than three Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters.  And don’t forget to make a wish; my standard wish is to see another meteor!

Lunar Sketches.

This one will bring out your guests inner artist. Have some sketch pads, drawing pencils, and red lights available for them to sketch the moon naked-eye.  Start with a three inch circle.  They have to identify the mare features they drew from a moon map or app later.  You don’t want them using the app while they are sketching.  This actually works better at twilight when the moon isn’t so bright.

People

Seriously, I have to tell you who to invite to your party?  Friends, family of course.  However it’s always great to invite some people you don’t know very well, but were hoping to get to know better.  After all, you can never have too many friends.  And if at all possible it would be wonderful if you had someone at your party who actually had some knowledge of astronomy.  At least for constellation identification or for finding objects with a telescope or binoculars.  Don’t know anyone?  Visit a local astronomy club.  I’m certain you could find someone willing to come out with some equipment to be the “life of the party”. One thing you should know about astronomers- they are friendly people who absolutely love to point out objects overhead, and talk about the heavens!

So there you have it.  You are now on your way to creating an exciting astronomical party where the sky is the limit!  Enjoy and keep looking up!

 

Featured photo: Celebrating the designation of Canyonlands as an International Dark Sky Park, rangers presented astronomy programs at Grand View Point, September 18, 2015. This is a composite photo of 80 still shots at 25-second exposures, merged and processed with Photoshop. Credit: NPS/Chris Wonderly