What is a star party?

A star party is an evening under the stars, observing with others. First of all, it’s a chance to view the night sky and the dozens of kinds of objects in it. A star party is also an opportunity for the public to learn about astronomy, telescopes, and how to observe.

Monthly Star Parties

Rappahannock Astronomy Club hosts free, public, family-oriented star parties every month. They are generally held in a state park or other public venue with an open view of the sky, easy access for guests, and a dark sky. See our schedule for this year’s star parties.

We schedule star parties on the Saturday closest to New Moon. When the Moon is in the sky, it’s a good night to observe the Moon and not much else. When the sky is moonless and dark, it’s a good night to observe everything else.

The party begins when it is dark enough to see stars in the sky. RAC members and guests with telescopes arrive earlier, so we have daylight to see how to set up our equipment.
Sunset occurs at a different time each day of the year, and then the sky gradually becomes dark a half hour to an hour later.

To see anything in the sky, there must be a clear sky. Star parties are at the whim of the weather. If the forecast calls for cloudy skies, we will cancel an event. On the day of a scheduled star party, we update our RAC Home Page around noon to let you know if the event is on or off. We may have a backup star party on a different date, but this is likely to be at a member’s private home. Only our public events are posted on our schedule.

Guests often ask how to set up a new telescope for the first time. We will be happy to help you out. It’s best to arrive early to do this. Please contact us ahead of time to see who can meet you early.

We welcome guests of all ages, background, and experience. If you have a group, please contact us to let us know how many people to expect. We frequently provide programs for school groups, Scout groups, or other organizations. See our outreach information for more about programs for groups. If you have children, please stay with them.

Also check out Star Party Etiquette. Looking for something to observe? You’ll want to see our Observing the Night Sky. We traditionally host a Messier Marathon in March.

What to Expect at Star Party

People coming to look through a telescope for the first time may hope to see the special effects of a movie. There really are grand and glorious things in the sky, and we love showing them to guests. They don’t look like movie posters — but we hope you enjoy what they do look like.

Once the sky is dark, people with telescopes will be pointing them at the objects they came to look at that night. We encourage you to wander around, ask questions, and take a turn looking through the different instruments on the field.

Astronomical Equipment

If you’re interested in buying a telescope, a star party is your chance to test drive and compare different kinds of instruments. Also, check out our Resource Guide for Telescope Buyers or our Your First Telescope.

What is a Messier Marathon?

A Messier Marathon is a chance to see a large number of well-known objects in the sky in a single night. Charles Messier was a famous French astronomer of the late 1700s. Today he is best known for compiling a list of objects that he did not want to confuse with comets. During Messier’s time, these galaxies, nebulas, and other attractive targets deep in space marked the limits of what professionals could see with the best technology of their time. Today, enthusiasts can see all of them with small modern telescopes. This makes the Messier objects a great list for us to use to develop our skills.

In late March and early April in our part of the world, all of the Messier objects are above the horizon at some time during the night. A Messier Marathon is the attempt to see them all in a single night.

If you’d like to join the fun, we have a Messier Marathon checklist to help you keep score.  In-The-Sky.org  has a large data set on the Messier objects.