Day Five: Observing at Night/Star Party

Getting Ready
The big day has arrived! You can have a group star party at the school where the students can observe together or the students can make their observations at home and report back the next class period. Students should record their observations on their observations sheets they filled out in class the day before.

If you are having a star party at the school, be sure to check your observing location beforehand. Athletic fields and large parking lots are usually the best choices as they will not have a lot of trees and other obstacles around. If you choose a parking lot, be sure to put up cones so cars do not drive through your observing area.

Try to turn off as many lights are you can around the observing area. You will have better luck observing from a slightly darker site. If you are on an athletic field, check with your maintenance department and be sure that automatic sprinklers will not come on at night (yes, we have had this happen to us more than once during star parties!)

You may invite student’s parents to the star party as well. Since you are asking students to come to a night event at school, including the parents is a good idea. You may want to consider some light refreshments if families are attending.

Safety is important at star parties. You want a fairly dark location. One solution is to use red lights. Red lights do no effect night vision as severely as white lights. You can use regular flashlights with red cellophane or red balloons over the end. Red LED lights are inexpensive and available at many stores (check the automotive department).

If you are having students make observations at home, you may send a note home with the students explaining the assignment to the parents. The parents may need to go outside with the students to complete the observations depending on where the student lives.

You should always have a backup date in case of clouds or rain. Decide in advance what you will do if the weather does not allow observing. You can find special forecasts for astronomical observing conditions at Clear Dark Sky.

Sometimes satellites are visible and you should look up times for any passes from your location. You can see a variety of satellites including the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and Iridium satellites. Heavens Above and the Spaceweather Simple Satellite Tracker are both good satellite-spotting resources.

At the Star Party
Have the students set up their telescopes and make their observations of their selected objects. It is okay if several students have the same object (if the Moon is visible, most students would probably observe the Moon). Make sure the students take their time and sketch the object in some detail. On the Moon, they can record the craters and maria they see. For Jupiter they should sketch the positions of the Galilean Moons. For star clusters, sketch the positions of stars and prominent patterns they see.

Have the students show each other and their parents different objects. Try to have each student observe multiple objects (even if they only make detailed observations for a few).

You may have the students try the Galilean eyepiece. It will be a frustrating experience. Objects are much harder to find using the Galilean eyepiece due to the small field of view. Experiencing the night sky as Galileo did can be an educational experience in itself!

When you discuss the observations, have each student describe what went well and what was difficult. Other students may have tips that can help overcome difficulties in observations. Discuss what questions they have about what they saw and what follow up observations can be done to answer these questions.

Galileoscope Observing Guide (link)
Uncle Al’s Sky Wheel
Sky and Telescope
Astronomy Magazine
Clear Dark Sky
Heavens Above
Spaceweather Simple Satellite Tracker