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Entice the masses

Astronomy Day offers a perfect opportunity to introduce newbies to our wonderful hobby.

In writing this column, I try to keep things fresh by avoiding previously covered topics. That’s why I maintain an ongoing record of my articles, both chronological and by subject matter. Nevertheless, some topics bear repeating now and then. Such is the case with Astronomy Day.

This outreach event began in 1973 as a way to acquaint the general public with the joys of stargazing. The day marks the culmination of Astronomy Week, which is observed twice a year, in spring and in fall. This spring, Astronomy Week runs April 16–22 with Astronomy Day on Saturday, April 21. The autumn counterpart will take place October 8–14 with Saturday, October 13, being Astronomy Day.

A public star party typically highlights Astronomy Day. It can be an organized and publicized event or simply a sidewalk happening. In either case, you can’t show up unprepared. Here’s a brief list of things to consider for your star party, whether it’s on Astronomy Day or at some other time of year.

You can get your Astronomy Day gathering off to an early start with some solar viewing, as this snapshot from the 2013 Tucson Star Party shows
Michael E. Bakich
Plan ahead

If you’ve been asked to host a star party for a local school or library, make sure that they have an open site that’s relatively free of bright lights (or they can turn off any lights on their property). If you’re organizing your own star party or sidewalk event, be sure it’s in a safe area and that you have permission from the property owner.

Next, prepare a list of objects to observe. (More on that later.) Make a checklist of gear to bring along that includes a telescope and accessories, as well as a step stool for any children who might be present.

Hold a brief introductory session

Many people have never looked through a telescope. Nothing is more frustrating than to have someone grab the scope by the eyepiece and move it completely off target. With a small reflecting telescope as a prop (I use a 41/2-inch Dobsonian), I show them how to approach the eyepiece and, without touching the scope, peer in.

If a fair number of youngsters are present, I suggest that they move around slowly, for their safety and the safety of the equipment. I end with a rundown of the night’s targets.

Wow your audience with heavenly splendors, not your telescope’s magnificence

My telescope of choice for public star parties is a 10-inch, no-frills, Dobsonian-mounted reflector. It’s ready to go in minutes, and there are no wires or cables to trip over. I also set up the aforementioned 41/2-inch Dob with a low-power (usually 60x) eyepiece. The smaller scope is easy to use, so I put it in the hands of a volunteer whom I prompt to view the same objects I target through the big scope.

My goal is to leave the participants with two impressions. First, the night sky is pretty awesome. Second, and just as important, many telescopic wonders are accessible through modest, inexpensive telescopes that don’t magnify a gazillion times.

Astronomy Day typically coincides with a waxing crescent or a First Quarter Moon — a lovely sight through any size telescope.
Miguel Claro
Choose appropriate sky targets

There’s a reason Astronomy Day coincides with a First Quarter Moon. Neophytes, especially youngsters, often struggle to place their eye at the sweet spot of the eyepiece. The Moon lights up the eyepiece, guiding the viewer to the target. A gasp of “That’s awesome” leaves no doubt that your guest has made visual contact.

The Moon is a tough act to follow. Jupiter and Saturn are crowd-pleasers, but neither will be available in the early evening hours of April 21. On my list are the Beehive star cluster (M44) in Cancer and a few showpiece double stars like Mizar (Zeta [ζ] Ursae Majoris), Castor (Alpha [α] Geminorum), and Algieba (Gamma [γ] Leonis). I generally avoid galaxies because faint fuzzies rarely impress uninitiated viewers, but if the site is dark enough, I might tack on a low-power view of M81 and M82. A star party bonus is a flyby of the International Space Station (ISS). A website like will alert you to potential ISS passages.

Don’t lecture!

Let the telescope do the talking. Limit your dialogue to brief anecdotes or “wow” facts. When showing schoolchildren the Moon, I point out that they may be up there some day — if they keep up with their math and science. High school seniors are taken aback when I explain that the light they see from Sirius, 8 light-years distant, left when they were in 4th grade.

Plan for any follow-up

If I’m able to present an introductory session, I provide my email address for anyone who might want to contact me in the future. Members of astronomy clubs or those holding sidewalk sessions can hand out fliers that supply appropriate contact info and list useful resources. Make sure Astronomy magazine is on the list!

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Email me at Next month: Hey kids, what time is it? Clear skies!



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