I remember the first time I ever went to a star party. I was 26 and the thought of combining two of my passions, camping and astronomy, was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
It was in the wilds of Norfolk, UK, that I had my first experience -- at the Equinox Star Party -- and I must confess that I had the most surreal, bizarre, yet wholly enjoyable time.
Star parties are rapidly becoming 'en-vogue' amongst amateur astronomers and the public -- even President Obama is a fan -- so I decided to set about finding out what makes a successful one and why you should get involved.
Before that though, it's probably a good idea to explain what a star party is.
A star party is not a party attended by the rich and famous (usually), and unlike a standard party, doesn't involve copious amounts of alcohol and dancing into the small hours. At least, not the dancing bit.
A typical star party is a gathering of keen amateur astronomers -- newcomers and experienced -- to share their enjoyment of the night sky and for a few days, immerse themselves in all things astronomical. Since most star parties take place in very remote locations this is usually accompanied by camping in one way or another.
Lynn Young, Public Events Coordinator of East Valley Astronomy Club who organizes the All Arizona Star Party each October, told Discovery News, "It's a great time to renew old acquaintances, check out what other people are using for equipment and work on various observing programs."
You can find a star party near you in most countries now, some lasting for just a few days, others for a couple of weeks, but regardless of their duration you will find remarkable similarities between them.
You will often find traders selling equipment at special rates, second hand equipment, lectures for rainy days and perhaps raffles with astronomical prizes. Holding all this together, is a buzz of enthusiasm for all things astronomical, from the most experienced observer on site to the youngest newcomer.
Everyone you meet, loves the night sky. Andrew Robertson, one of the organizers of the Spring Equinox Star Party in the UK told Discovery News what he believes makes a great event: "Clear skies help but it's about having a gathering of like-minded people together with a common purpose of observing the night sky. Everyone brings different instruments and a different level of experience, sharing this knowledge and views through different telescopes gives a greater experience than can be had by observing alone."
It's the great variety of equipment, and indeed characters, that makes star parties the roaring success that they are. Whether you're a newcomer or experienced observer, you will be welcomed. Not only will you undoubtedly see objects you've never seen before through telescopes, you will more than likely come away with new friends too.