An excellent addition to any science classroom curriculum is a star party, where students can observe stars, the moon and planets with the help of telescopes and amateur astronomers who can not only help teach students about the night sky, but also teach them about how to observe through a telescope.
Here are some tips for planning a successful school star party from Jane Houston Jones, an amateur astronomer and outreach specialist with the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The most important guests to invite to a star party are the stars themselves. Invite the moon and planets, too. Local newspapers usually have a moon phase table and often a listing of what planets might be visible at different times of the year. Ask an astronomer for help selecting the date of your event.
Plan your star party near the first quarter moon, if possible. The moon will be high above any trees and very bright early in the evening during this phase.
Plan your nighttime event after twilight in October, and before it begins again in April. This way you can hold your event from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and students of all ages can enjoy the viewing experience without staying up too late.
Contact local science centers, astronomy clubs, colleges and other local organizations for amateur astronomers with telescopes to share with your students. Provide at least a month lead time when requesting amateur astronomer volunteers. One or two telescopes are enough for a school group less than 50. It is nice to have a variety of telescopes, especially if there are several astronomical targets.
The Night Sky: To See or Not to See?
At different times of the year there are different views of the stars, moons and planets. Most of these can readily be seen with a telescope - however, don't expect to see faint objects from the schoolyard. Most galaxies are too small and dim to see with an amateur telescope within the schoolyard limits.
Location and Logistics:
To determine the best viewing location, it is a good idea to invite the amateur astronomer to the school before hand.
Allow all astronomer volunteers to drive to the blacktop area or as close to the field as possible to unload their equipment. This way the astronomers don't have to haul their heavy and/or delicate equipment.
Rain Delay: Prepare a backup plan. Rain or clouds can ruin a star party, but if you are well prepared, it can still be a fun night. You might keep a slide presentation or movie handy. Ask the astronomers or science teachers for some favorite hands-on activities. It is always a good idea to plan a backup date for the star party prepared in advance "just in case" of rain, too. And plan to contact the astronomers the day of the event to get a weather reality check.
Here Are Some More Ideas For a Successful Star Party:
- Giveaways: A one-page description of what the night sky has in any particular month is a great way to inform students of what to look for through the telescope. Another good giveaway idea is creating a fact sheet about bodies in the night sky - size, mass, distance from the sun, and other "factoids" will help students retain information about what they are viewing.
- Create an astro-treasure hunt for extra credit.
- Invite students to bring their own binoculars or telescopes. The astronomers will be happy to help your students align their scopes.
- Moon tables and other star and planet listings of good viewing opportunities are good tools to have when planning views of the night sky.
Johnson Space Center
NASA JPL Amateur Astronomy Education
Last Updated: 24 February 2011