It was the summer of 2012 and we’d had our new telescope for a few months. A go-to mount, more inches, more power – more frustration. A go-to mount, we thought. Brilliant, we thought.
We’ll be able to find everything we want at the touch of a button … we thought. Months down the line and we were still trying to get to grips with it – the jargon-filled instructions really didn’t help. We were at the end of our tether – conversations about sending it back were numerous and heated. Then we got an email from our supplier about this new star party – Astrocamp by name; a group of astronomers gathering under the dark skies of the Brecon Beacons to gaze at the heavens and all the beauty they hold. It sounded intriguing but would we fit in? Would we be out of our depth among a group of experts, who knew everything about everything? What if they laughed at us struggling with the basics?
We decided to bite the bullet and go. If all else failed, we could just leave and go home, which was only an hour and a quarter away.
We needn’t have feared. From the moment we arrived, we were made to feel welcome. Fellow sky watchers were eager to help in any way possible. Fortunately for us, one particular astronomer made life easier – known only to us as Paul, he had exactly the same telescope! They say fortune smiles on the brave – it certainly had seemed to. Paul spent hours with us, explaining that we had to point the mount towards Polaris (yes, we really had absolutely no idea) so that it could be aligned and would track. He explained the different information you had to give the mount and why. All our questions were answered, with a smile and the traditional pint.
The friendly atmosphere extended to all participants – from the novice like us, to the tried and tested imager. Everyone shared everything – knowledge, telescopes, eyepieces, filters, (beer, cider, food) and just as importantly, their friendship. We couldn’t have had any more fun than we did.
Fast-forward to September 2014 and the fifth Astrocamp and we’re no longer the novices we were. In fact, I now have people asking me about how to set up their telescope – why won’t it go where I want it to? What does this mean? All the questions I asked all those camps ago. Now I can answer them and answer them well. Not only have we grown as astronomers but so has Astrocamp. Our numbers have swollen and so has the variety of scopes that attend each party. From the table-top Dobsonian to Solar scopes to Newtonians to Schmidt-Cassegrains to the home-made variety – the list is endless. We now have The Common, where most scopes and their owners can be found, swapping tips and borrowing equipment. Imagers’ Corner has developed, a haven for all those hard core astronomers, spending hours pouring over their data to produce beautiful images.
Astrocamp is not all about the night – much like most star parties. We have talks at the Village Hall (beer on tap) and quizzes (prizes include telescopes and eyepieces). Back at base, we have how-to guides (such as how to collimate and how to use a DSLR to take images), Limerick competitions and High Tea (where everyone brings something and we have a jolly good time eating rubbish and chilling out).
I know I’ve wandered off on a tangent about Astrocamp but I can’t help it. It’s such a wonderful event to attend and be a part of (I now give talks and, with my father, run the Limerick Competition). I cannot recommend it enough – or any star-party, for that matter. Yes, you gain knowledge and experience and get the chance to test out telescopes and equipment before you buy but it’s so much more than that. You build life-long friendships that continue outside of the telescope world. You become part of the friendliest community on Earth, for I have never known an astronomer be anything other than warm and welcoming.
If you have any doubts or concerns about attending a star party, then I say throw them to the wind. Go. Just go. You’ll have the time of your life, even if the weather doesn’t play ball. Astronomy is not a hobby; it’s a way of life. Embrace it – you’ll never regret it.
You can also hear Jenifer speaking about AstroCamp on this month’s installment of Pythagorean Astronomy.