Etiquette for public star parties: Or what to do or avoid doing.
At public star parties, a bunch of volunteer astronomers have brought their personal telescopes for the general public to look through. They do this without payment or compensation. The principles of etiquette are basically what we need to give everyone a good astronomy experience and to protect people and equipment. We consider all this to be obvious. But some people, like us, like to state the obvious — possibly in more detail than really necessary.
What to do
Ask to look through telescopes
Volunteers are there only to show you cool things through their scopes. So don’t be put off if they are ignoring you while fussing with equipment. Scopes can take considerable time to set up and they might not be ready to use yet when you wander by. But ask to look through our scopes anyway, and please check our General Observing Tips page to help you get the most out of what you can see.
Some telescope volunteers will wait for you to ask about what we’re looking at — mostly to avoid haranguing you with technical and geeky details you may not be interested in. But we love talking endlessly about those details.
Star parties are held in a dark field with no lighting. Give your self time to adapt to the darkness. Such adaptation takes at least 10 minutes (1/2 hour for full adaptation). People are often surprised that they can actually “see in the dark”. That’s because natural star light is actually quite bright and is easily enough light for walking on a grassy field without bumping into people — provided you are dark adapted.
If you use a flashlight, use a dim red one. Red light affects your night vision less. You can buy red lights, or red filters for standard flashlights, or you can just cover a flashlight with red cellophane. Don’t bring your bright white camping flashlight — you will prevent your eyes from dark-adapting, and will interfere with the night vision of the other visitors.
Ask to look at specific objects
Usually scope volunteers will set up on different objects and we’ll ask people to walk from scope to scope to see different things. That’s because it takes time to point a telescope to a new object and there are few things more boring than listening to our excuses as to why we haven’t found the object yet.
On the other hand, we are both willing and interested in showing things people ask for. Though we may ask you to wait until everyone has seen the current object, or to look though a different (already pointed) telescope. If you’re asking to look at difficult objects, we may well ask you to wait until later in the evening so we can show everyone the showpiece objects first. (A showpiece object is one where someone says “oh wow!” when they see it rather than “what am I looking at?”. )
Take care of your body
If you like star parties, you’ll wind up standing around unprotected for a couple of hours, in the dark, in a grassy field. So:
- Dress as if it was 10 to 15 degrees colder than the forecast.
- Wear or at least bring a wind breaker jacket, always. It may be calm at your front door, but in an open field far from home it may different.
- Remember to drink (not alcohol) to avoid dehydration.
- Bring a lawn chair if you’d like to rest. (Grass tends to get wet even on clear nights, so it’s not a nice place to sit.)
- Bring a snack if your blood-sugar regulation is manual. On cold nights snacks will help keep you warm too.
Tell us what you like
If you see something you like, tell us. Many telescope volunteers live to hear the “Oh Wow!” when someone sees Saturn for the first time.
If you look through a scope and don’t see anything, say so. Most likely the scope needs adjustment and it’s not your fault.
What to avoid doing
Lights: don’t use too much
One flash of light can destroy that half-hour of dark adaptation that allows us to see the faintest galaxies. So:
- Never shine a flashlight in someone’s face.
- No flash photography.
- Always use the dimmest flashlight you need to just barely see obstacles on the ground. The amount of light you need will decrease as you dark-adapt.
- Turn off your flashlight as often as possible.
- Don’t use a white flashlight. Use a dim red one. Cover with red plastic if necessary.
- Avoid shining your car headlights onto the observing field.
Telescopes: don’t break them
They’re expensive and are fiddly to get working, so:
- Ask before looking through a telescope.
- Look through telescopes without touching them.
- Don’t use bug spray anywhere near telescopes. The fine droplets get on expensive optical surfaces and are are hell to remove.
- If you need to re-focus, ask. The scope owner will help you. Don’t twist or turn random knobs — things usually fall off when you do that. But don’t hesitate to ask — everyone’s eyes are a little different, and chances are that adjusting the focus will help you.
- Don’t stand in front of a telescope. Light that has traveled 30 million light years to get to us will be stopped dead by the back of someone’s head.
- Don’t smoke near a telescope. Smoke particles can damage optics. Some of the larger telescopes use something called a nylon shroud which is flammable.
- Don’t hold your coffee cup near the eyepiece while looking though the scope. The eye-lens will likely fog over.
- Don’t breath on the eyepiece. It will likely fog over and nothing may be visible in the telescope. Cleaning the fog from the eyepiece is a very delicate and sometimes difficult procedure.
- When wearing glasses and looking though an eyepiece, avoid looking out the corner of your eye. It may cause the corner of the temple of your eyeglasses to poke into the eyepiece scratching the expensive optics. Instead, face the eyepiece square-on. Usually you can gently place your eyeglass lens flat against the rubber eyecup of the eyepiece.
- In general think of optical surfaces, lenses, mirrors and eyepieces as if they were your eyes: it hurts if you touch them, you don’t want to get anything in or on them and they’re really hard to replace.
- If you are looking though one of the larger telescopes that requires climbing a few steps on a ladder, don’t carry objects that you can drop. Ask someone to hold them for you. The general safety rule for observing with a ladder is: never let go of the ladder.
Strangely enough many telescope volunteers will bring their very best equipment, such as their most expensive eyepieces, to a star party. (You’d think they’d bring disposable gear considering the risk of damage.) They do so because they are committed to giving the public the very best view possible.
But it does explain why some of us are so paranoid about our equipment.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol significantly reduces what you can see in dim light. Plus rowdy behavior is not conducive to wandering a dark field littered with expensive equipment. But some of us like to imbibe at the local pub after observing.
- Note that kids can get bored. Star parties can involve delays. Telescopes take time to setup. The giant telescopes sometimes have lineups. Very young children have difficulty looking with only one eye through an eyepiece and may not see anything. Other than that, we welcome the enthusiasm of young observers.
- Please don’t give your kids white-light flashlights (or laser pointers) to hold. They just can’t resist turning them on and shining them at people. (We can barely resist it — they can’t.)
- Probably the biggest problem we find young children have is an almost irresistible desire to grab the eyepiece of the telescope as part of getting ready to look. (That’s what the scientists do in the cartoons.) Coach them in advance not do to this — keep hands on the handles of the step-stools, or behind their backs. It’s not that we mind having the equipment touched, it’s that grabbing the eyepiece moves the telescope and it then has to be re-aimed.
- Arguments: People are sometimes surprised to hear that telescope volunteers have never seen a UFO — even though we live to look at the sky. Some telescope volunteers find the topic un-interesting. Arguments about such should be conducted in their proper home: the internet.
- We love them too, but not at a star party. Leads and leashes, strangers, other pets, telescope tripod legs, all in the dark, can turn into a problem quickly. Please leave Poochiekins and Bruno at home.