Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wine Tasting Under the Stars

If you haven't had a chance to enjoy a star party, either as an astronomer or an attendee, I highly recommend going to one. Chances are there are astronomers in your area who hold regular star parties. In my fairly remote area, there are at least three groups running star parties on a regular basis.

One of the star parties I helped organize this year was at a local vineyard. They combined our star party with a wine-tasting and music event at their site. We did this star party at David Girard Vineyards, in Coloma, California.

We had six different telescopes out at this event (the sixth arrived after these pictures were taken.) Attendees got to see a wide variety of astronomical objects through the scopes while enjoying wines, cheeses, and so on. It was a very nice event for everyone.

Attendees got to see the heavens not only through the astronomer's telescopes, but with their eyes alone on green-laser guided tours of the constellations. Green laser pointers are used because the beam itself is visible at night, so it can be used to point things out under the real sky just as effectively as a planetarium lecturer can point things out in their dome.

The astronomers who chose to partake of the wines got to enjoy those while showing the skies, and we all enjoy sharing our hobby and knowledge with an appreciative audience. When I spoke to the other astronomers afterward (there's usually little chance for us to talk among ourselves while during the event itself), we all felt like the time had gone by amazingly quickly. This is a good sign that everything was going well, and that we all had lots of interested attendees to show the sights in the skies.

For at least one of our astronomers, this was their first time showing the sky to the public. It's a great experience, no matter what your skill level is in astronomy. There are always a few basic, easy to find objects you can show off at a star party. So long as you're familiar with your equipment and it's in good enough shape that you don't have to fiddle with it constantly, you're ready to do star parties.

I've been sharing the skies myself for over 40 years now. It started without any doing on my part. I got my first telescope when I was very young. I'd set it up on our front lawn to look at the Moon and stars while I was learning my way around the sky and my new telescope. This was during the heat of the space race, in the 1960s. People driving by on the street would see me with the telescope, stop their cars, and come have me show them things through my telescope.

For many people it was the first time they'd actually seen craters on the Moon with their own eyes. Even objects as simple as bright stars would interest them, even if I didn't know the name or constellation yet.

Their questions got me to learn more about what I was looking at. They'd ask me where the Surveyors and Rangers were on the Moon (Apollo hadn't landed yet.) That made me learn my way around the Moon with a map from National Geographic magazine that showed the locations of the probes, as well as the selected Apollo landing sites. I memorized them and that allowed me to answer the questions about the Moon. Similarly, I learned the names and constellations of the brightest stars, which was much harder since I really didn't know my way around the sky, yet.

The breakthrough came when I learned from a copy of Sky and Telescope in the library that the correct way to use a star chart is to hold it over your head. Just as you hold a map of the ground down low, and align it with the Earth, you hold a sky map over your head, and align it with the sky by putting it's north to your north.

If you are an amateur astronomer, find or organize a local star party. You'll find it improves your appreciation of your hobby in too many ways to list. If you're just interested in astronomy, find one to attend and enjoy. It's like having not just one telescope of your own but a whole bunch of self-pointing, self-maintaining telescopes to enjoy the heavens through.