Light is the enemy at a star party. It’s the only enemy; otherwise astronomy gatherings are thoroughly amiable occasions. At the state’s largest gathering of night-sky buffs, darkness is the goal, and an undimmed iPhone or sedan dome bulb is catastrophic.
The Table Mountain Star Party stretches over five summer days in a field of dry yellow grass in the Okanogan Highlands, a remote stretch of prairie in north-central Washington. Amateur astronomers gather at Eden Valley Guest Ranch during a new moon, when the sky is darkest (“We don’t like the moon; you can’t see anything else,” gripes one attendee). Most sleep in campers or tents around dozens of telescopes in the flattest real estate, in the middle. Some scopes are as big as cannons, barrels aiming for the sky, with mirrors more than a foot in diameter.
The event name dates back to when it was held on Table Mountain near Ellensburg, but it outgrew the Forest Service’s willingness to permit a large gathering. The party drifted to Eden Valley, a private retreat and working farm where light pollution is incredibly low. During the day vendors sell to gadget-minded hobbyists and attendees explore nearby ghost towns or just nap in the sunshine.
But a star party is about night. To keep all eyes primed for telescope viewfinders, white lights are banned after 10pm, the astronomers using only red light and taping crimson cellophane over headlamps, lanterns, and RV porch lights.
Kids and newbies flock to a scope-building workshop and an evening orientation where an expert with a laser pointer locates the International Space Station, plugging through its 92-minute orbit, then familiar constellations and planets. Experienced star spotters relax until the night gets really dark, many competing in a scavenger hunt for 25 cosmic items.
“We want people to see the sky in a new way,” says Tom Masterson, a list maker for the hunt. The challenge includes faint planetary nebula, double stars, and globular clusters (what Masterson calls “100,000 stars in a ball, going around like a beehive”).
Star searchers whip their cannons to a corner of the sky, locating far-off bodies, and then invite others to view the bounty. “What do you have?” is a common question; the answer might be, say, the Necklace Nebula 15,000 light-years away. The celestial cloud is spectacular through the hard eyepiece of a homemade telescope: a ring of intense light so sparkly that it lives up to its name, tiny through the lens yet actually 12 trillion miles wide.
On clear nights the viewing goes until dawn, the dark field lit by bobbing red headlamps. An all-night food stand is strung with rosy lights, the sizzling grill glowing red like Satan’s personal hot dog stand.
“It’s such a simple thing, to say we’re looking at stars,” says Masterson, who built his first telescope from a Quaker Oats box and a magnifying glass he nicked from his father’s dresser. “But stars are all different. Stars of different color, stars that orbit stars. Exploded stars that have debris around them.” It’s simply the universe, visible from a dry patch of farmland that’s about as far away from earth lights as you can get.
Table Mountain Star Party
Eden Valley Guest Ranch, Oroville