Category Star Parties Travel - TravelQuest International
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Category Star Parties Travel

Have you always been captivated by the stunning views of nebulas and galaxies beamed back to Earth by the Hubble Space Telescope? Perhaps the amazing images of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and even the Moon, captured by amateur astrophotographers, have grabbed your attention. You’ve got binoculars, but they don’t show much. You’d like to see more, but you don’t own a telescope—and don’t really want to purchase one. The solution? Attend a Star Party with our travel groups.

Star parties come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most common are small, local, one-night events, typically put on by your city’s science center or astronomy club. You don’t need to be a member of either to attend, but you will need to discover how to be notified of an upcoming event. Larger parties, often involving dozens of participants, are usually held during the summer and autumn months. These star parties take place out of town in remote locations, under dark skies, and happen over several nights. Finally, there are the specialty star parties, such as the one held annually in Costa Rica by TravelQuest.

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What is a Star Party?

What goes on at star parties? It depends on which type of party you attend. The small local ones involve amateur astronomers bringing their telescopes to a dark field in the city or to the local science center. During the early evening, the scopes are pointed at various celestial objects, depending on what’s above the horizon at the time. This usually includes the crescent Moon, perhaps a planet, and some of the brightest star clusters and nebulas. It’s a real family affair, sometimes with hot chocolate and cookies!

Out-of-town star parties are a little different. They involve overnight stays either via on-site camping or in nearby motels. At these parties the telescopes are typically large, the sky is dark, the Milky Way is magnificent, and the celestial quarry observers seek are often dim nebula and galaxies. During the day there are presentations by experienced observers and occasionally talks by noted astronomers. Often there’s an equipment swap meet, and sometimes companies selling observing gear set up shop at the site. Yes, it’s for serious observers but everyone is welcome.

Star parties with TravelQuest are also different. On our solar eclipse and aurora viewing trips, we might have impromptu stargazing evenings if the sky is clear and our hotel is the country. But our preplanned star party takes place in February or March each year in Costa Rica.

Star parties in the city usually involve telescopes set up in a field, school yard, or beside the local science center. (Photo by A. Huggett/IYA 2009)
A star party under a dark country sky takes place over several nights and features plenty of telescopes. (Photo by A. Dyer/IYA 2009)

TravelQuest’s Star Party

TravelQuest has journeyed to Costa Rica every winter for nearly 20 years. Why Costa Rica for our star party? It’s ideally located for views of the splendid southern sections of our Milky Way galaxy. Some of the brightest, largest, and most dazzling clusters, nebulas, and galaxies are visible in the southern sky. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, traveling southward to see the celestial spectacle for yourself is well worth the journey.

At a latitude of 10° North, our wonderfully dark Costa Rican viewing site is 10° farther south than the Big Island of Hawaii, and 15° farther south than the Florida Keys. Many astronomical highlights that hug the horizon in these popular stargazing locales are 10° to 15° higher in Costa Rica’s southern sky. As a bonus for North Americans, the country is on Central Time and is only a 2.5-hour flight from Miami.

Our Costa Rica Star Lodge provides a welcome retreat amidst breathtaking natural beauty. This is an “unplugged” experience: no guest telephones, no TVs, no in-room Internet connections. To further reduce our footprint, there’s also no air conditioning, but most guest rooms have screened windows on three sides, so you can enjoy the evening breezes—and there are ceiling and floor fans if you need them. Your room also includes red lights to keep your eyes adjusted to the dark before you head out to view the sky. The lodge’s manicured lawn has open southern vistas, offering a perfect site for setting up telescopes and other equipment.

The open-air restaurant and lounge, which overlooks the tree-lined grounds and the sparkling bay beyond, are popular meeting places throughout the day and evening. The chefs present meals made with fresh ingredients including fish and meat, locally grown produce, and tropical fruits. Throughout the night, you can count on regular cups of expertly-brewed coffee—Costa Rica’s most famous export.

If you have binoculars, bring them. Costa Rica is a birder’s paradise. Those binoculars will serve you well for stargazing. No need to bring a telescope (though you’re welcome to do so), because you can observe the heavens through the 30mm eyepiece of our Explore Scientific 16-inch Truss-Tube Dobsonian telescope. Our trip astronomer kicks off our first evening of viewing with a tour of the southern sky, pointing out the most impressive sights visible in binoculars and small telescopes. He also helps with astrophotography and is always around to answer your observing questions.

Costa Rica is more than stargazing. Our naturalist guides will show you the best of the country’s diverse ecosystems—from primeval rainforests to mangrove-lined waterways along the Pacific coast. Spot monkeys and sloths in the forest canopy, crocodiles and exotic frogs in the wetlands, and myriad species of jungle and water birds soaring overhead. Our Costa Rica star party will reveal a paradise of biodiversity and spectacular natural beauty, as well as a magnificent night sky.

Our observing field in Costa Rica is mere steps away from our lodging. Observe when you want, for as long as you want. (Photo by Aram Kaprielian /TQ)
For those who stay awake into the wee hours, their reward is the beautiful core of the Milky Way rising before dawn. (Photo by P. Papics/European Southern Observatory)
At our Star Lodge in Costa Rica, we have a variety of telescopes and plenty of chairs for stargazing in comfort. (Photo by Aram Kaprielian /TQ)

Star Party Costa Rica: What to Expect

When we visit Costa Rica in February or March, the southern Milky Way and its celestial jewels are on display: the Southern Cross, the beautiful Eta Carinae nebula, the glorious Omega Centauri globular cluster, the Jewel Box star cluster, and many more. As a bonus, the center of our Milky Way galaxy rises during the early morning hours, providing fine views of the bright star clouds and dark dust lanes of our galactic home.

But be advised. Looking at celestial objects through a telescope is an amazing experience, though it can also be challenging. You will not see colorful deep-space nebulas and galaxies that look like Hubble Space Telescope images. That’s because at nighttime, your eye sees best in black and white, not color…and besides, we don’t have a telescope with a 2.4-meter-diameter mirror like the Hubble! Faint objects often reveal themselves only after a little effort and careful scrutiny by the observer. Fortunately, many of the sights we observe are beautiful in binoculars or small telescopes. And many of our previous star party participants have spent many enjoyable hours simply scanning the Milky Way with binoculars.

Some of the highlights of the southern Milky Way include the Southern Cross (left) and the huge Eta Carinae nebula (right). (Photo by Gary Seronik/TQ)

Join Us in 2021

Our next Costa Rica star party takes place February 6–14, 2021. Jewels of Costa Rica and the Southern Milky Way combines starry vistas with rich biodiversity and spectacular natural beauty. Join us for this unique astronomy-based adventure in Costa Rica—a Central American paradise with an inviting tropical climate, spectacular natural scenery, abundant wildlife, hospitable people, and magnificent night skies.

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