The Observatory's climate offers us a high percentage of clear nights so, in general, most of our Star Party guests experience a clear or mostly clear evening. On those nights, our program begins in our outdoor Amphitheater at the Visitors Center (i.e., not at the research telescopes at the top of Mts. Locke & Fowlkes) with a short introduction to the program basically welcoming our evening's guests , explaining the general flow of the program, discussing many of the objects to be viewed through the Centers' telescopes, and providing important information about restricting the use of various sources of lights during the program. In general, white-light flashlights, camera screens, camera flash, cell-phone/smartphone screens, tablet computer screens, other electronic equipment screens, and even bright flashy LED children's shoes are all things that are discouraged at the Star Parties for their potential to interfere with dark adaptation and the enjoyment of views of the night sky (both with the unaided eye and through the telescopes). We do have special opaque non-residue "gaffer's tape" available that can be used to cover up bright sources that may not be able to be turned off (e.g., those LED shoes, motorized chair control panels, etc). We also describe how to exit the visitors parking lot so as to minimize headlight interference with viewing that may still be taking place when other visitors decide to leave. The introduction typically takes up approximately the first 15 minutes of the program.
After the introduction, guests are led through a constellation tour pointing out brighter stars and constellations, relating some of the practical uses of the stars, the mythology of some constellations, and the scientific understanding of various patterns and objects in the night sky. As the night sky slowly changes from week to week, month to month, season to season, so to do the constellation tours as some constellations fade from view in western twilight and others become visible in the east. These constellation tours serve as an orientation to the night sky and can help make the telescope viewing to follow more meaningful. The constellation tours typically run 25-30 minutes.
At the conclusion of the constellation tour, guests are invited to disperse to the Telescope Park at the Visitors Center (i.e., not at the research telescopes at the top of Mts. Locke & Fowlkes) where, depending on the expected crowd size, anywhere from 4-5 telescopes on low attendance winter nights to 8-10 or more telescopes on busy holiday, Spring Break (we'll sometimes have as many as 16 telescopes set up), or other big nights will be available. The telescopes range in size from a pair of 4" giant binoculars, various 8" telescopes, 12" telescopes, a 16" RC, an 18" accessible telescope, two 22" telescopes, and a 24" RC. Guest move from telescope to telescope where, typically, different objects will be viewed in each telescope. Participants will actually be viewing directly through these various telescopes with their eyes at the eyepiece and not on a screen which is why issues regarding night-adaptation are so important. On nights with larger crowds and ample telescopes, we may double up telescopes on one or more of the objects to help speed things along. Visitors Center personel and volunteers staff each telescope assisting with views and making sure the telescopes stay on target. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions while waiting in line.
During the entire Star Party, our Visitors Center remains open making our Gift Shop, Cafe, and restrooms available to all participants. Also, during the telescope viewing portion of the program, we typically offer a short video presentation in the indoor theater.
Typically, within about two hours or so of the program start-time, things are winding down and wrapping up with folks taking their last views through the telescopes.
Of course, not every night is clear, unfortunately. Some nights start out clear only to become cloudy. Some nights start out cloudy only to eventually clear. Some nights never seem to want to make up their minds and alternate between conditions. And some nights are just plain cloudy and/or rainy. No matter the conditions (except when snow or ice may make driving conditions treacherous) we will always offer a program. We make every effort to appropriately plan out the evening's events based on the best available satellite and weather radar information at our disposal. Because we will always take every reasonable opportunity to do telescope viewing whenever possible, we do not offer refunds for weather (except when those treacherous conditions force us to completely close for both visitor and staff safety).
When conditions do not allow for telescope viewing, we offer various indoor talks and demos .. from virtual sky tours using sky simulation software, video/animations, and images from ground-based and space-based telescopes to demonstrations of the principles of the technique of spectroscopy which forms the basis of much of the research conducted at major research facilities like McDonald. Various talk topics are offered depending on the staff available that evening. While many of our visitors who have joined both clear-night and cloudy-night programs tell us that it may be frustrating not to get a chance to look through telescopes on those cloudy nights, they also typically say that they feel like they learned much more about astronomy and how astronomers know so much about the Universe by joining a cloudy-night Star Party.
On occasion, conditions may be such that we will offer some sort of hybrid program of telescope viewing of a few brighter objects that may be visible through thin cloud-cover as well as indoor talks.
Other conditions may prompt us to alter the order of constellation tour and telescope viewing as most visitors prefer to do telescope viewing if it appears that there may be a chance that one or the other may be clouded out depending on timing.
Crowd size may also enter into our decisions about how to organize the program. For instance, on very large crowd nights, we may offer two constellation tours to split up the group and minimize the crowding at the telescopes.
No matter the night's offerings and organization, the Center's staff will do our best to let guests know what to expect.
Star Party program content is appropriate for ages 5 * and up (although nearly anyone can enjoy the night sky and views through telescopes).
The StarDate Cafe opens at 7:00p during the summer months on Star Party evenings to give Twilight Program and Star Party participants the opportunity to grab dinner prior to the program. The Cafe remains open through roughly 15 minutes prior to the end of the Star Party.
*The Observatory reserves the right to ask unruly visitors (regardless of age) to leave the program venue if their behavior becomes disruptive.