Star parties for beginners

Astronomy has been enjoying an unexpected boost in popularity lately. I have it on good authority that sales of telescope spiked after Stargazing Live in January, and a star party I attended in early March had a bigger crowd than an event at the same location a few months earlier.

That event, at Tyntesfield estate near Bristol, was a joint venture between the National Trust and Bristol Astronomical Society.

I’ve noticed more and more astronomy events organised by conservation bodies over the past couple of years. There have been stargazing evenings at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) centre at Slimbridge, not to mention several at RSPB-managed sites such as Newport Wetlands. In fact, there’s one this weekend (13 March) at RSPB Old Moor Nature Reserve in South Yorkshire. It's already fully booked.

This kind of linkup seems like a marriage made in the heavens. According to issue 5 of Fascination Magazine, an event in January 2011 at Lacock Abbey, run by the National Trust, attracted a crowd of 800 people. That event was run with help from the Wiltshire Astronomical Society and Swindon Stargazers.


An event at National Trust-owned Lacock Abbey attracted hundreds of people


WWT and RSPB reserves are generally in rural areas and although I haven't been to any of them after dark, I imagine they’re fairly free from light pollution. Tyntesfield, on the other hand, is relatively close to the centre of Bristol so it's not. To a certain extent, that doesn't matter: it's dark enough to see some of the sky’s “greatest hits”.

Nature parks like Slimbridge and RSPB reserves are also very accessible. They usually have decent access roads and large car parks and are generally well signposted. Plus they have facilities such as toilets, making them appealing if you're thinking of taking along youngsters or other family members who have never been to an astronomy event before.

It’s true that the skies in most of these places will be nothing like as dark as amateur astronomers enjoy at the biggest and best events for amateur astronomers, such as the Spring Star Party at Kelling Heath in Norfolk. But everybody’s got to start somewhere.

I applaud the National Trust, the RSPB and the WWT not only for hosting the events but also for marketing them to their vast number of members, which can only help to bring new people into astronomy.

If you've been to one of these events, or were involved in organising one, let me know what it was like by leaving a comment below.

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