AstroCamp: A Starparty for Everyone

The eagerly anticipated second AstroCamp finally arrived in early May and the organisers were especially excited to be welcoming new people to the event in the Brecon Beacons. It's our passion to deliver a star party to new people by providing a welcoming, friendly and nurturing environment for new astros to get hooked and the opportunity for experienced astronomers to observe or image under spectacularly dark skies.

In May, the number of bookings increased by around 50% on the first AstroCamp in September 2012 and included people from far-flung astronomical societies as well as curious newbies – we were very keen to welcome everyone, get to know new people and share scopes as we pitched tents and set up a bewildering array of astronomy equipment.


The Friday that we arrived and took over the Cwmdu valley in the heart of the Black Mountains, promised poor weather for the evening– a meteorological set back that has plagued each and every star party so far this year – so this gave us time to get to know each other, talk astronomy and, more importantly for some, reconnoitre the local pub!

But the Saturday heralded a few sunny patches and hints of stargazing weather after sunset. This was enough of a chance that we felt confident enough to bring out the full force of equipment! ‘The Common’, the open central area in the campsite designed specifically to encourage a shared stargazing experience, suddenly became populated with scopes of all shapes and sizes as we teased out some lunar detail on the 24% lit waning crescent moon, resplendent in the rich blue skies.

Next up, a test of the solar viewing project. Neil Hawkins from The Tring Astronomy Centre kindly .gave us a Lunt hydrogen alpha scope to use for the event, and we soon progressed from eyepiece views to projection of the ‘bear claw’ shaped sunspot group onto a plasma screen TV that John Wildridge of the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers had brought for us to use. The experiment worked well and gave dozens of people their first views of solar prominences, sunspots and filaments.

pub-quizPaul & Ralph giving away tons of astronomy prizes in the AstroCamp pub quiz
image: Joolz Wright

But Saturday afternoons at AstroCamp are about astronomy talks, a quiz and giving away prizes! We filled the pub from alcoves to rafters and heard a beautifully illustrated talk from Tom Kerss on the solar cycle and the predicted long solar minimum. Then we had 2 quizzes – one for the children (won by Olivia Williamson from Winchester) and one for the adults (won by Barbara Isalska of Manchester Astronomical Society). Well done guys! We don’t make any money from AstroCamp, and put every penny of profit into prizes so, with the help of Simon Bennett of The Widescreen Centre, we were able to give away, in total, 2 planispheres, astronomy books, a sketching kit, space fact cards, 2 pairs of binoculars with tripods, a Celestron 127 Maksutov goto scope and a Coronado hydrogen alpha scope with tripod! Our aim was to give prizes that could be used right out of the box and allow people to use that night. A lot of people left the pub very happy and not just because of the excellent beers.

saturnimage: Damien Phillips

This began a gradual increase in our fortunes as the weather forecasts gave us hope of some clear skies on Saturday night and we saw the cloud bands and moons of Jupiter first. The small refractors mitigated the atmospheric shimmer the most to give us lovely views before we turned our attention, shortly after, to the beautiful ringed world, Saturn. Here we saw the benefit of the longer focal lengths of the catadioptric scopes as we picked out the Cassini Division in the rings and the majestic moons Titan, Tethys, Rhea and Dione. Sharing scopes is such a fun way to learn about the benefits of different methods of focusing the light onto an eyepiece and an excellent way of socialising.

The sparkling open clusters in Auriga, Cancer and Cassiopeia showed us why the contrast of a dark background sky is so important to reveal the full beauty of these star concentrations and the globular clusters, that are so plentiful in Spring, stood out as 3D spheres through the larger scopes – the 10½” Dobsonian, 9¼” Schmidt Cassegrain and, the monster in our midst, Owen Brazell’s 22” Dobsonian.

But the clouds rolled in around midnight and we bided our time in conversation to see if we could ride out the weather. A few of us, having decided around 2am that enough was enough, were quite dismayed to hear the next morning that the skies had perfectly cleared up less than half an hour after we’d given up! Those that had kept the faith were rewarded with a sight of the Milky Way stretching away from north to south and views of summer skies to come: Lyra and Cygnus showing them the Ring planetary nebula, the Double Double binary star and the Veil and Pelican Nebulae.

sun-in-white-lightActive sunspot region taken in white light with solar film at AstroCamp
image: Damien Phillips

Waking up on Sunday, we set up the hydrogen alpha scope and plasma screen once again. We took videos to process into super-resolution images while people watched the rotating sunspot groups and prepared for more talks in the sunshine. Organisers Paul Hill and Tom Kerss gave talks on main sequence stars and Patrick Moore respectively, and we celebrated Simon Bennett’s 50th birthday with a cake that would have overshadowed many a wedding cake! All afternoon Paul and Tom answered follow up questions on their talks and we passed a very pleasant and sunny few hours engaged in astronomy and cosmology discussions.

But the night time stole the show as the skies remained crystal clear for as long as we could remain awake. We started the evening with the incredibly pleasurable experience of watching stars pop into view as the skies darkens. The gas giant planets Jupiter and then Saturn emerged from the fading blue backdrop first. Then bright Capella in Auriga, then Arcturus in Bootes, followed by Procyon, Vega, Betelgeuse… before long the sky is dark and rather than stars, we’re picking out deep sky objects with the naked eye… the Double Cluster in Perseus, the Beehive Cluster and later, the vast expanse of the North America Nebula - we don’t see that from London!

The Hercules and Serpens globular clusters and the galaxies that spanned Leo and Virgo loomed large in Neil Hawkins’ 11” Schmidt Cassegrain, while the contrasty views through the plucky Takahashi 60mm and Matthew Hodgson’s twin mounted APMs showed the refractors can be just as sensational. All views that I feel are delicately and indelibly etched onto my retinas.

A few people, myself included, were taking advantage of the opportunity to take some images of the skies too. Tom took wide-field images around the camp and into the light-speckled blackness above. I hunted down the Leo Triplet, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules and Kemble’s Cascade, while Jupiter and Saturn coaxed many people into a photographic keepsake – some who were trying astrophotography for the 1st time.


 It was also warm enough to enjoy the party atmosphere until late. The sight of people relaxing on The Common on airbeds with a drink in hand as they gazed up into the skies was a joy to behold. As were the regular sounds of a ukulele that floated across the camp from time to time! The mood was exactly as we’d planned. Clear skies for stargazing, help and guidance to newcomers (a special thank you to Damien Phillips for all his help there), a fun and relaxed atmosphere and a great social gathering to learn more about the skies and techniques to get the best views. A count of scopes on the Sunday showed more than 60 pointing their lenses and mirrors skyward from The Common, and many more dotted elsewhere around the camp site.

We also got the chance to talk to other astronomy promoters such as Callum Potter from Astronomy Now, Andrew Davies from Mid Cheshire Astronomical Society and Jim Anning from AstroPub, where we could exchange ideas, promote new ones and plan more ways to encourage others to look up. So you can bet that there will be even more astronomy outreach endeavours to enjoy in the future.


With each night being clear at the 1st AstroCamp, and 1½ out of 3 clear nights at the 2nd, a few people were suggesting that we’ll be remembered for being the only stargazing festival that can guarantee good observing weather – but we won’t put that on the website, it’ll only jinx it for next time! 

What this event was really about was a fantastic culmination of the hard work of the organisers, gracious offers to help the event from astronomy retailers and, most of all, the friendliness and enthusiasm of the people who booked to join us at AstroCamp. When a new astronomy event can be this much fun - and introduce new people to practical astronomy – we’d be foolish not to do it all again in autumn wouldn’t we?

Hopefully we’ll see you all again, and many more, under clear dark AstroCamp skies on 7-10th September 2013!


For more information, images, testimonies, future bookings, astronomy discussion and advice, please visit us at: | Facebook | @TheAstroCamp