Sunday, October 14, 2012


The Star Party Zoo

This was supposed to be an article on imaging, muchachos, but pore old Unk was well and truly skunked last Saturday, which had looked close to perfect all day. Just after I had, natch, lugged a ton of gear out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site, the sky closed down with an audible thud. No DSLRing for moi. So, since the fall star party season is now in full swing, I thought I'd say a few words about that instead.

Star party zoo? The whosit of the whatsit? Believe it or not, it is fall star party season again. That means it’s not just time for observing under blessedly cool(er) hurricane-free skies, it is time for my semiannual rant about how we should conduct ourselves at star parties. I know you get tired of hearing this every cotton-picking fall and spring, but I still see way too much questionable behavior, and me and you and Sister Sue can do better.

I am an animal lover. Not just cats and dogs; I even love Bambi—shame he and his kin have to be so dadgum tasty. But there are a few species I would like to see go extinct. I expect you will recognize some of these critters, and I also expect you, embarrassedly, like Unk, will have to admit you’ve sometimes shared some of their traits:

Fieldus Territorialis

These aggressive beasts are highly territorial. Their natural habitat is the observing field, where they can be spotted during the early hours of an event. Please approach with caution, as they will vigorously defend their range with, at least, blood-curdling howls

I am happy our major national star parties and even our smaller regional ones are so popular. The growth of light pollution and the more social character of today’s amateur astronomy have seen to that. But that causes problems for events that have experienced explosive growth over the years—The Texas Star Party and the Winter Star Party come to mind. Observing fields that used to be spacious are now cramped, and you can’t expect more than just enough room for you, your scope, your observing table and maybe a tailgating canopy.

Alas, some folks just don’t understand that. Why shouldn’t THEY get two spaces? THEY like plenty of room, and it is all about THEIR needs, after all. Fuhgeddaboutit. If space is at a premium, you grin and bear it. When somebody pulls in beside you, smile; don’t act like they’ve got the cooties.

Observicus Noticus

These curious creatures, which sometimes travel in herds, are usually inoffensive but sometimes annoy their fellow beasts. They don’t seem to build nests, remaining constantly on the move…

I really have to wonder why some folks go to star parties. I’m talking about the people who set up a scope but never uncover it, or at least never use it. The telescope may be a nice one, but the owner never does a thing with it. They don’t even seem much interested in looking through other peoples’ telescopes. They wander the field all night long without seeming purpose. The Noticuses wouldn’t bother me if not for the fact that in their aimless shambling they tend to do things like bump into tent ropes and poles and trip over cables. More than once, I’ve lost my mount’s go-to alignment when a Noticus has snagged my NexRemote cable in his unending progress from Here to There.


The Watchalookinatamistus is not dangerous. It is just a pest, if sometimes a big pest; especially for the larger animals of the field. This scavenger’s constant search for the leavings of fellow creatures has occasionally driven field inhabitants to near madness…

Like the closely related Observicus Noticus, Watchas never use their own telescopes. If they have brought one with them it stands unused and unloved collecting dew all night long. Unlike Noticus, Watcha doesn’t just shamble up and down the field, though, the Watcha cadges looks constantly. In fact, its name comes from its distinctive call, “Watcha lookin’ at mister? Can I see? Huh, can I?”
Most of us are happy to let all and sundry observe through our scopes occasionally, but people with serious observing programs, especially those with the large telescopes, which draw these field denizens like flies to—err…honey, get tired of not just being asked for a peek, but their guests’ near insistence that they turn the scope to M13 or M42 one more time.

Raffleus Mopicus

Mopicus’ survival mechanism is its extreme suspicion of other animals at feeding time. This scavenger finds it impossible to cooperate with its fellow creatures, even those of its own species, when choice prey is at stake…

Everybody loves star party raffles. The exciting prospect of winning an Ethos or an ES 100, or even just a book or DVD is a powerful inducement to buy tickets. Alas, even when there are lots of prizes, not everybody can win. Unk, who rarely wins a dagnabbed thing, has learned to accept that with good grace. Some folks cannot, and in their disappointment forget how to be good sports. You are allowed to be disappointed when that beautiful 13mm Ethos goes to Cousin Ezra and not you, but keep your whining and muttering about RIGGED RAFFLES to yourself. We really don’t want to hear your conspiracy theories about why the Pixley A.S. members always win everything.

Foodus Horribilus

Foodus is something of a contradiction. While it is an enthusiastic omnivore, feeding on just about anything, it never seems able to find the sustenance it really wants…

When you sign up for a star party meal plan, don’t count on five star dining. If you do you will be badly disappointed. That said, most star party fare is at least edible. I can count on one hand the times I’ve had meals at star gazes that were or were close to indigestible. Good old Foodus, though, never stops complaining about the victuals (and also never, ever volunteers to help prepare meals).

Funniest thing? Foodus complains a lot, but only between large mouthfuls; a meal’s supposed poor quality never affects its appetite. It usually fails to sign up for the bad old meal plan in advance, but is right put out if it can’t be accommodated at the last minute when it decides supper looks OK after all.

Whiteliticus Rex

Whiteliticus is less common than it used to be on most observing fields, thanks in part to the downright aggression most other species display to these dim-witted beasts. One’s mere presence evokes the deafening call “DOWSE THAT LIGHT!” from other fauna…

You would think amateurs who attend major star parties would know not to blind everybody around them with a white flashlight or a too bright red one, but a few folks never seem to get the message. Even when they’ve been embarrassed a time or two. The way to make this one go extinct? I don’t know, but hollering won’t do it. Having one of the star party staff give ‘em a good talking to, which, if appropriate, includes the phrase “Or you will be shown the gate” is the best defense against these brutes.

One promising development? Use of (too) bright red headlights, the LED lights that go on your head with an elastic band, seems to have fallen off. These things are not a bad idea, but their red LEDs are almost always too bright, and most wearers are not careful to keep them pointed down, even though that is easy to do.


Most star party species are nocturnal. The Earliupicus, conversely, is out foraging at the break of dawn and returns to its nest shortly after sundown…

I used to be surprised to be awakened at 6 a.m. at a star party, but eventually came to expect it. At oh-dark-thirty a few worthies start rustling around in the bathroom, gargling their little throats out and SINGING, and trotting around the field chatting happily and at full volume with fellow Earliupici. You can shush these folks, but they will never change, and by the time you’ve finished giving them a good piece of your mind, you are fully awake, anyhow. Best bet? Ear plugs.

Why do some people get up so early at a star party? Because some folks go to bed early, even at star parties, I reckon. Yeah, I know it’s difficult to switch over from the 9-5 routine for just a few days, and it’s rare for Unk to make it past 2 or 3 a.m. for that reason. That doesn’t explain why it is not unusual to see some Bubbas hitting the hay at 2100, though. When I ask ‘em “why,” the response is invariably “Big day tomorrow, best turn in.” OK…well bless their pea-picking little hearts, I reckon.

We all enjoy star parties in own way, and if you are an Earliupicus, that is cool; all I ask is that you keep it quiet in the a.m.—no more marching to the showers singing "Hippity-Hop to the Barber Shop" in off-key fashion. Oh, and don’t get all huffy about observers returning to the cabin in the wee hours and disturbing your beauty rest.


These lumbering, solitary beasts have no home range. They are strictly nomadic, appearing on the field’s savanna without warning…

In principle, “walk-ons,” folks who don’t register in advance for a star party, are not a bad thing. Nothing wrong with a little extra moola in the event’s coffers is there? But when you think about it, they are another species that needs to go extinct. What’s so bad about somebody appearing at the star party after it’s got underway and asking to register? Planning, for one thing. If the organizers don’t know how many folks will attend, they cannot guarantee there will be space on the field and in the cabins for everybody. If there’s to be a meal plan, it will be impossible to know how much food will be required.

If everybody were to decide to play this game, not registering in advance for the Possum Holler SP and only showing up for it if and when they are sure the weather will be nice, there wouldn’t be many star parties. The organizers would not have the money to put on the event even if they were able to estimate the resources they’d need.

The worst thing about walk-ons? Many of ‘em do not arrive in the morning. Or in the afternoon. They wait till dark and try to drive onto the field in a vehicle with headlights blazing, causing major disruption. That alone is enough to encourage this as a standard response:  “I am very sorry. You can’t attend the star party if you are not already registered. We look forward to seeing you next year.” I’ve got a heart, and am willing to consider individual/special cases, but, hey, y’all, in the absence of extenuating circumstances just register by the date you are told to register by.

Musicus Dratticus

Who doesn’t enjoy the melodious calls of our wildlife? Unfortunately, few of their fellow creatures can tolerate the loud and grating song of Musicus. Despite the annoyed and even threatening responses of other creatures, Musicus persists in his unending symphony of distraction...

I like music. Sometimes I even like to listen to music while I am observing. Usually when I’m doing casual star gazing rather than a serious project, and usually when most of my fellow partiers have gone to bed. And when I listen to music, I listen with headphones. I wouldn’t dream of imposing my musical tastes on the people around me on the field. Amazingly, some amateurs don’t get that.

To put it simply: if you don’t want to be made to listen to Uncle Rod’s music, Tammy Wynette’s “This Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” or The Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore East, don’t make me listen to your “Pachebel’s Canon” or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Nuff said?


Most species do not foul their own nests. Messasaurus, who is anything but extinct, is an exception. Evolutionary biologists speculate these animals save energy by forcing other field inhabitants to clean their dens…

I’ve addressed this more than once. Bottom line? Unk ain’t your mama. In the cabins, clean up after yourself. On the field, clean up after yourself. I don’t want to see or deal with the mess you leave in the bathroom. The star party organizers sure don’t want to deal with the mess you leave on the field after you’ve gone home. Savvy? I thought so.


The Anything is a creature that is seemingly poorly adapted to the observing field. Nevertheless, they are common there...

Why do people go to star parties? I know there are many reasons other than or in addition to observing: to spend time with their fellow amateur astronomers, to look longingly at dealer tables, to attend presentations. Still, I wonder about some folks. I mean the people you’ll find on the field and in the chow hall talking anything but amateur astronomy or astronomy in general. Ever. That's not the problem, though; the problem is their choice of topics.  They aren’t always obnoxious, but often are, since their gab-fests almost inevitably devolve into elevated-volume “discussions” of Democrat versus Republican/Conservative versus Liberal. Y’all can listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Bill Maher at home, so why doncha?


This creature is notorious for its tendency to sudden flight from the field at any moment. It may be grazing peacefully one second, and take to its heels the next, sending its fellow field residents into a panic...

I do not mind people walking off the field early. Heck, I don’t even mind them driving off early. Hardcore as Unk used to be and would still like to be, by 3 a.m. he most assuredly feels the strong pull of the motel or cabin. What is hard to stand is Headlightonicus’ usual behavior: blinding the whole field with his vehicle’s backup lights, interior lights, trunk lights, and headlights.

This is a no-brainer, y’all: if you know you will want to leave before dawn—and most times you will know—park your car well off and facing away from the observing field. Turn off interior lights and disable backup and running lights if possible, but if you are sufficiently far from the field, that won’t be a problem. If it is possible to do so safely, you might even navigate by parking lights until you are down the road apiece.


The most timid of all star party field creatures, Burglaraticus will emit deafening alarm cries when it feels threatened, which is “often.” This species is so constantly fearful its howls of terror are frequent even when it is not in observable danger…

It happens every star party: Goo-goo Mew-mew decides he needs something out of his vehicle. He grabs the door handle, forgetting he’s turned on the car alarm. Or he squats down at his scope activating the horn and lights with the key fob in his pocket, or at least unlocking the jitney and flashing the lights and beeping the horn. Nobody likes him.

Kats and Kittens, it is easy to turn off the car alarm. Or, if you can’t do that, you can leave the vehicle unlocked. Scout’s honor, none of us is out to pilfer your beautiful Ford Fiesta.  Put the keys somewhere where you won’t keep unintentionally mashing the buttons—and where you won’t lose them, of course…

Yeah, every one of these beasts should go extinct, and that could happen very easily. If each and every one of us—including Unk, who is hardly innocent of assorted star party foolishness—would simply remember the good ol' Golden Rule: TREAT OTHER PEOPLE LIKE YOU’D LIKE TO BE TREATED.

If we all did that, there’d be none of the unhappiness and friction that sometimes happens at star parties. Which would be a good thing. Star parties are supposed to be fun, and I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time having fun if the people around me aren’t having a good time, too. Now, get out there and party. Just be sweet and all will be well, muchachos.

Next Time: Unk's Yearly M13...

I am extremely tolerant of what fellow (serious) observers may do at the observing site. Somebody (accidentally) flashes the car lights, it's OK. Somebody needs to leave early, arrive late... run the engine, smoke... it is all fine. It is fine for four people on the field. Not forty, not even sixteen. I am yet to attend a star party. I've set up in the field across the road from star parties, on the mountaintop above star parties, the nights before star parties, the nights after star parties... Your "zoo" is hilariously described but it is scary.
I enjoyed your article, when "light" accidents happen it's usually obvious when someone regrets it immediately or is truly oblivious. Modern vehicles are definitely making it a challenge with their light management systems. My own truck is fully automatic with a light sensor to turn lights on - there's no way to override it. It takes some extra planning and some realization that you just will not have the option to use the vehicle after twilight.
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