For many members, the central club
activities are the monthly star parties at our Anza site and
at our Orange County site, which is now in Black Star Canyon.
Other club members have never made it to a star party. This
article started as a response to comments and questions from
members who hadn't gone to any star parties simply because
they were too uncertain of what they'd find there. As one
who has become a confirmed "star party junkie" after
overcoming my own initial reluctance to go to these unknown
events, I'm hoping this information will help those of you
who haven't tried one yet to come and join in the fun.
In general, if you have a question
about the club, its facilities, its activities, etc., please
email me, or send by snail mail to P.O. Box
1762, Costa Mesa, CA. If I don't know the answer, I can probably
find someone who does. Comments about or additions to anything
I've written are also welcome.
These are events where people bring
their telescopes (or whatever else they observe with) to a
specific location at a set time. These are social events as
well as observing events, but they aren't "parties"
in the sense that someone brings refreshments or provides
entertainment. Besides giving you a chance to meet fellow
star-gazers and see old friends, these events are often a
good way to get advice and help if you have equipment problems
or are maybe thinking of a new purchase - a real benefit of
a well-attended star party (such as summer parties at Anza)
is that you have a chance to look through a lot of different
telescopes, which lets you see differences between different
telescopes and different eyepieces for yourself. Perhaps most
important, star parties give you a chance to do your observing
in darker, safer and more convenient conditions than you would
probably find if you went out looking for a dark site up a
back road on your own.
OCA has two regular parties set each
lunar cycle, which usually (but not always) means we have
two parties each month. The party at the Anza site is the
Saturday closest to the dark of the moon, and the Black Star
Canyon party is usually the Saturday before, in the last quarter
moon. If the dark of the moon is on Wednesday, there will
be two Anza parties set, one before and one after the dark
of the moon. Don Lynn determines the dates of the Anza parties,
and Bob Buchheim the dates of the Black Star Canyon parties.
If you are going to be doing any viewing
with your own equipment, of course you'll need to bring all
of the equipment you need for what you plan to do. If you
come out to Anza, we have AC outlets available in the Football
Field (the big viewing area below Anza House). The member
pad areas also have AC outlets. Undeveloped areas, such as
the RV parking area and the Last Members viewing area, don't
have power. If you want to use AC power, it's a good idea
to bring a heavy duty extension cord as well as whatever connectors
your equipment needs. And, even if you intend to use the AC
power, it never hurts to have battery backup.
Warm clothing is a "must"!
Temperatures drop a lot overnight, even in summer. In winter,
temperatures at Anza can get down into the 20's, or even lower,
which is far too cold for most people to enjoy the viewing
much. Even the 40's or 50's can feel really cold if you're
just standing around or sitting a lot. Besides multiple layers
of coats, jackets and pants, be sure to bring a warm hat and
gloves, and warm socks and shoes or boots (fleece-lined boots
can really help keep your feet warm). Some people also bring
chemical handwarmers used by skiers or winter backpackers
to help fight the cold.
Food and drink - be sure to bring
food for whatever meals you will be at the site for, as well
as snacks. We don't have any facilities at Black Star Canyon,
so food there should be ready-to-eat. At Anza, there are stoves
and microwaves at Anza House, and a microwave in the observatory,
so food can be heated. You should also bring drinking water;
Anza has water from a well, but most people prefer not to
drink it, and Black Star Canyon is a "dry" site.
Hot drinks in a thermos are nice to have as the temperatures
drop at both sites, and you can also make hot drinks at Anza.
Other things that help make life more
comfortable while viewing are a tarp, if you have to set up
on dirt instead of a pad, chair(s), table (for charts, computer,
etc.), hair dryer (to fight the dew), and sleeping bag (for
warmth, or if you get a sleeping spot at Anza House). Anza
has showers, both at Anza House and in the observatory, so,
if you want to use them, remember to bring your own towel
as none are provided, as well as clothes and toiletries.
And, of course, you'll need a red-light.
Star parties usually are the ultimate
in informal events, but even informal events benefit by having
some set ground rules. Those that apply at star parties are
aimed at improving the overall experience for everyone there.
The biggest difference between star
parties and non-astronomical events is the concern about light.
You never want to use white light in the vicinity of star-gazers,
because it destroys night vision (it takes about 20 minutes
for most people to regain full night vision after being exposed
to white light). So, to deal with light problems, the following
rules are standard at all star parties:
· Never use a flashlight during
a star party that isn't a red-light (or other night vision
compatible light). A white-light flashlight can be converted
to a red-light simply by covering the lens and anywhere else
that light shines through with red cloth tape (red cellophane
isn't dark enough unless you use a lot of layers). However,
a red-light that's too bright can be as bad as a white light
- you generally don't need anything brighter than a standard
penlight. You'll find, as your eyes get fully dark-adapted
on a clear night, that the stars themselves give a surprising
amount of light, and you actually need a lot less artificial
light than you might think.
· Keep your flashlight pointed
down rather than outward, and never shine it in anyone's face
or at or into someone's telescope (unless you are invited
to by the owner for some reason), even in fun. Even a red-light
will damage night vision if it shines in someone's eyes, and
shining even a dim light into a telescope will damage night
vision if someone is trying to view at the time, or destroy
the image if the telescope is being used for photography or
· Turn off the interior lights
in your car before the party, and cover any that can't be
turned off with something like red cloth tape, or pull the
fuses that control them to turn them off.
· If you use a computer while
you view, you should get or make a red cover for the screen.
Ruby lithe, a deep red flexible plastic sheeting available
in many art supply stores, is good for this purpose.
· If you know you'll have to
leave early, or outside of set "escape" times, park
your car so you won't have to back up to get out, and preferably
as close to the exit as possible. "Escape" times
at Anza are 11:30 p.m. to midnight during standard time, and
12:30 to 1:00 a.m. during Daylight Savings Time; these times
are when people who are leaving before the end of the party
are expected to leave so they cause the fewest problems to
others at the party, especially anyone doing photography or
CCD imaging (even if you leave during those times, please
leave your headlights off). The parties at Black Star Canyon
generally end around midnight, so there is no set "escape"
· If you arrive after dark,
or have to leave before the party's over, or have to drive
anywhere on the site during a star party, leave your headlights
off! Drive with your parking lights only; if necessary, have
someone outside the car act as a guide for you. If you have
headlights that come on automatically, try pulling the parking
brake knob or lever a notch or two - often this will be enough
to turn them off without actually setting the parking brake.
If this doesn't work, cover the headlights with something
that blocks the light until you get off-site.
Other "rules" are really
more common courtesy and common sense. Some of the basics:
· If you like to listen to
music as you observe, make sure it isn't disturbing your neighbors
(or use headphones).
· NEVER shine any laser pointer
into any telescope or other viewing equipment - you could
cause physical damage to someone's eye. If you are using a
green laser, keep its use to a minimum, as the beam could
interfere with the view for other people on the site, and
could cause problems for anyone doing imaging.
· If you bring children or
pets, be sure to supervise them and, where appropriate, keep
them properly restrained. There can be serious hazards to
them at any dark site, including both Anza and Black Star
Canyon. In addition, any damage they might do would be your
· Remember that star parties
are volunteer-run events - so, clean up after yourself and
(especially at Anza and Black Star Canyon, where we don't
have trash service) take all of your trash out with you when
· No fires! Fire is a serious
problem for almost all Southern California dark sites, as
they tend to be in wilderness areas that are regularly subject
to wildfires. In addition, smoke and flames create problems
for viewing, so fires are generally forbidden at star parties,
and are definitely forbidden at the OCA sites.
· No smoking at Anza or Black
Star Canyon, except in your car. This is for a combination
of reasons, including general fire hazard concerns, the protection
and convenience of non-smoking users of the site, litter,
and protection of equipment that may be downwind from smoke
residue. If you smoke, please remember that the smoke can
affect people for a long way downwind of you. And, please
- no cigars at either site, even in your car, if anyone else
· Our Anza and Black Star Canyon
sites are both in wilderness areas and are themselves fairly
wild. While at either site, remember that there are a lot
of animals around, including poisonous creatures such as rattlesnakes,
scorpions and black widow spiders, as well as rats, mice,
coyotes, skunks, deer, rabbits, possums, raccoons, and other
common Southern California wildlife, and take precautions
accordingly. Some suggestions: stay out of brush areas at
night; keep an eye out for snakes that might be warming themselves
on roadways or rocks; be wary of putting your hands or feet
in cracks or crevices that might harbor scorpions, black widows,
or even snakes; check shoes, sleeping bags, etc., that have
been exposed to the local environment for any length of time
for local wildlife before using them; and keep your food in
secure containers. And, if you happen to see a kangaroo rat,
count yourself as fortunate and leave it alone - it's a protected
· Many dark sites, including
our Anza site, don't have paved roads. Please remember that
dust doesn't help the viewing or viewing equipment, which
is another reason for keeping your speed down while driving
around these sites.
At Anza, there is a metal box at the
entrance that has maps of the site with specific site rules
on the back. It's a good idea to read these periodically,
especially on your first trip out there. As you will see when
you read them, their goal is to help everyone using the site
have a good and safe experience, not to have rules just for
the sake of having rules. There are some guidelines specific
to Anza, though, that you might find useful to know in advance:
· In general, if the licensee
for a particular member pad has not arrived by sunset, any
other member can use that pad on a "first come, first
served" basis. One exception to this is when the licensee
for a pad has notified one of the neighboring licensees that
he/she is going to be late but is going to be there - so it's
best to check with people on the neighboring pads before you
start to set up. ["Member pads" are the individual
pads located at several different levels at Anza, as indicated
on the site map. The so-called "public pads" in
the football field are open to any member on a "first
come, first served" basis.]
· If you sleep anywhere at
Anza House, the cost is $5.00 per night, and payments are
left in the payment box opposite the front door. The bunk
beds are available on a "first come, first served"
basis, and, to be fair to everyone, reservations are not permitted.
Several of the couches are hide-a-beds, and are also available
for sleeping, as are the sitting areas of the non-hide-a-bed
couches and the lounge chairs. Sometimes people sleep on the
floor or on their own cots; if you do, please be sure to leave
the walking areas clear.
· After dark, please keep the
windows covered and the doors closed at Anza House. Light
from inside the house can interfere with viewing as well as
damage images people may be taking, especially for people
in the levels closest to Anza House.
Come anyway. Most people at a star
party will be happy to let you look through their telescopes,
and to tell you about the pros and cons of their equipment.
This is particularly helpful if you are thinking about getting
a telescope of your own and are trying to decide what to get.
Of course, it helps to go to a star party where there's likely
to be a good turnout - winter star parties at Anza, for instance,
are often sparsely attended. If you have any binoculars, you
should bring them with you - people are often amazed at how
much they can see with even basic binoculars, with or without
a tripod. And naked-eye views of a dark sky can be worth the
trip all by themselves - besides enjoying the sheer beauty
of the night sky, you can spend time learning the constellations,
and some events, such as meteor showers, are much better when
At Anza, the club observatory is almost
always open for star parties. Besides our beloved 22-inch
Kuhn telescope, we have two Meade LX200's permanently mounted
in the observatory, one a 10-inch and one a 12-inch. At least
one of these three is in operation for general viewing during
any star party, and anyone at the star party is welcome to
spend as much time in the observatory as he or she wants.
Russell Sipe, who has the member observatory, Star Cruiser,
next to the club observatory, generally opens his observatory
for star parties and welcomes visitors.
If you want some experience using
a telescope yourself without buying one, you should sign up
with Henry Fry for one of the club's loaner telescopes, and
bring that to the star party. Besides giving you some "hands
on" experience with a telescope under darker skies, a
star party is a great place to get help as you learn to use
The easiest way to find out who may
be going out to an Anza star party is to be on the firstname.lastname@example.org
and/or the AstroImagers@yahoogroups.com email groups. To join
either group, you have to sign up with Yahoo Groups - you
can join from the home address (http://groups.yahoo.com/ and
click on "Register") or you can register directly
from either of the group pages (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ocastronomers/
or http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AstroImagers/). To join either
group once you're a member of Yahoo Groups, click on "Join
this group" on the upper right of the screen on that
group's page and follow the instructions. Ocastronomers is
the more general group, and AstroImagers, as the name says,
is more for imaging concerns. If you don't see any discussion
about who's going out to Anza for a star party in the two
or three days before the party, you can always post an inquiry
yourself about who's intending to be out there.
There is generally less discussion
on the groups of whether people are going to the Black Star
Canyon party. If you want to know if anyone is planning to
go, usually your best bet would be to post an inquiry to the
ocastronomers group; people on the AstroImagers group are
more likely to go to Anza if the weather looks good.
If the monthly general meeting is
before the star parties, you could also ask there about expected
attendance at the star parties.
Star parties are basically informal
and unstructured - people come out with their telescopes and
other equipment, and often spend as much time wandering around
to see what other people are doing and to check out their
equipment as they spend working with their own. To help get
into the "flow" of the event, it's best to arrive
well before sundown, so you have a chance to get familiar
with the site in daylight and also set up your own equipment,
if you bring any, while it's still light. A lot of times you'll
find the social ice gets broken during the set-up process
- and, even if you're not one of the people setting up equipment,
offering to lend a hand where needed can help you get acquainted
with the people who are. And, if you have any doubts about
where you should set up or questions about where things are
located on the site, asking the other people who happen to
be around can not only get you the information you need but
can also give you an easy way to start getting to know the
other people who are out there for the party.
At Anza, there are three areas in
particular where there is naturally a lot of mixing and socializing:
Anza House, the club observatory and the "public pad"
area in the Football Field below Anza House. Usually it's
not hard at all to strike up conversations with people in
any of these areas, especially as it is usually much easier
to find topics of mutual interest than at most social events,
as just about everyone there is interested in some aspect
of astronomy. Common topics include equipment, viewing plans,
recent viewing experiences, comparing views through different
eyepieces or telescopes, sharing experiences with different
types of equipment or usage, exchanging information about
techniques, talking about weather, complaining about encroaching
lights, discussing recent astronomical discoveries, and, of
course, talking about club-related matters. If you find the
Football Field too intimidating, go up to the club observatory
to do some observing and to meet the various people who come
through there - most people on the site make it to the observatory
at least once during a star party.
Observing in the Football Field, especially
on a busy star party night, is usually more gregarious than
in the member pad areas, partly because there are no clear
boundaries between observing areas, and it's easy for people
to wander up and down the strip of concrete that forms the
pad area there. However, even though the observing areas aren't
as concentrated in the member pad areas as in the Football
Field, and there are often pads that aren't in use, if you
wander through those areas of the Anza site you will almost
always find people who offer to let you look through their
telescopes, especially if you show any interest in their equipment,
or talk to you about what they're doing or answer questions.
And, one of the real benefits of observing at Anza is the
fact that you can leave your equipment set up in one area
of the site and wander around to see what's going on elsewhere
with no real fear that it'll be gone when you get back.
Our new Orange County site in Black
Star Canyon is much smaller and more compact than Anza, and
there is a designated "host" for each star party
there. Bob Buchheim is the coordinator for the Orange County
site, and has the practice, when he is the host, of making
the rounds and helping to get newcomers oriented, which helps
break the ice at these star parties. This practice is generally
followed by the other designated hosts for these star parties
as well. If you're interested in the Black Star Canyon parties,
you should contact Bob Buchheim
and ask to be put on his emailing list. He usually sends out
an email before each party with notice of when the gate will
be opened and who will be hosting. When possible, this information
goes on the OCA Calendar, as well. This would give you a contact
person, which may make you feel more comfortable about going
for the first time.
If you would feel more comfortable
about going to Anza if you had a contact person to help you
get oriented, an easy way to find one is to talk to any of
the club regulars at the general meeting, including any of
the club officers or trustees. If they aren't going out there
themselves for a particular party, they should be able to
direct you to someone who is. Or you can contact one of us
by email or phone (emails are generally best) - see the back
of the Sirius Astronomer or the club website for that information.
Or you can check to see who is hosting at the club observatory
or operating the Kuhn; if they are too busy to talk to you
much, they usually will know at least some of the people who
are on site who may be able to help you get oriented.
Will you enjoy yourself? If you like
looking at the stars and being around other people who like
looking at the stars, it's hard not to enjoy a star party.
It helps if you are prepared for the conditions (it's hard
to enjoy anything when you're too cold), and if you're willing
to be spontaneous and go with the flow of events. It also
helps to keep in mind that some of the people out at the sites
are doing things that require a lot of concentration at times
- if someone doesn't respond to a greeting, assume that's
one of those times and move on to someone else who isn't so
We look forward to seeing you out