Dark site etiquette is an important part of astronomy to ensure that everyone enjoys their evening under the stars.
When you are going out to an astronomy club dark site there are some guidelines you should follow to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone. Some of them probably seem like commons sense, and they are, to someone who understands what is going on. Unfortunately a lot of newcomers have no idea and this can cause friction. Help avoid the friction and stares by following a few simple astronomy etiquette guidelines.
Dark Site Etiquette Guidelines
- If you park anywhere near where people are observing make sure you arrive before dark and park your vehicle so that the headlights are pointed away from the observing field. This makes sure that when you leave before the serious observers or astrophotographers (and you will leave before them unless the sun has already risen) your headlights will do as little damage as possible.
- Get everything out of your vehicle as soon as you arrive. Stack it next to the vehicle if needed but whatever you do avoid opening the doors and causing the lights to come on repeatedly after dark. It is amazing how bright your interior lights are once everyone’s eyes have adapted to the dark. Many astronomers and astrophotographers go one step further with this dark site etiquette by removing or disabling their interior vehicle lights completely.
- Speaking of amazingly bright lights, do not use that super bright LED flashlight or the light on your phone to shine on the walkway so you can see where you are walking. Wait by your car until your eyes adjust to the darkness or bring a dim red astronomy light (available on Amazon or telescopes.com) to light your way. Even if your light is red, never shine it at anyone’s eyes or towards their equipment unless you ask first. Astrophotography is about photographing dim lights in the night sky, many of them red, so your red flashlight will ruin an hour long exposure and tend not not make you any friends. If you want a red flashlight used one specifically for astronomy as they are not stupid bright, one such as the Celestron 93588 Astro Night Vision Flashlight is an excellent choice and very affordable. Getting a dedicated red light for this will show everyone you really care about dark site etiquette.
- Never touch someone’s telescope without their express permission. They could be imaging and you are fumbling for an eyepiece to look through, destroying their image they have been exposing for the past hour. Or maybe they are in the process of aligning their telescope and your touching could move it off center messing up the computer’s calculations. Or they could be one of “those” people and they could get pretty hostile that you got handsy with their $1200 eyepiece on their $10,000 telescope (why did you bring it out here then goofus?).
- Watch where you step. Remember that many of these telescopes run off power cords, and those power cords run across the ground to outlets. Also watch for the legs of tripods. Tripping over either one can completely destroy an astrophotographer’s entire evening and cause a visual observer to waste thirty minutes or more setting everything back up.
- Use the restroom before you come out, some dark sites have no facilities. The bushes may be fine for you but you will be in mixed company and quite possibly have other people’s children running around.
- Laser pointers should only be used by experienced astronomers who frequent this dark site. Not only is it dangerous to point a pointer towards a person, it is more than bright enough to ruin someones image should the beam enter the area where they are shooting. In addition, it is not only bad astronomy behavior, but it is also a federal crime in the US and many other countries to point at an aircraft. Do you know where the local flight patterns are around this dark site? I know exactly where they are around mine because I constantly see planes there.
- If you borrow something, take it back immediately when you are finished. This is not only respectful but makes sure that the item is available should someone else want to borrow it.
- Lastly, if you take your children, please make sure they understand the expected astronomy behavior and keep a close eye on them. While most astronomy events welcome children and indeed are geared towards them in many cases, everyone wants both the child and the very expensive telescopes to survive the night undamaged.
When in doubt about astronomy behavior, ask around. Most astronomy gatherings have more experienced people who will be happy to lead you around and show you the appropriate dark site etiquette. Don’t let these guidelines scare you, we all make mistakes. As long as they see you are making an effort you will probably be excused for any little faux pas you may inadvertently commit.
I hope you enjoyed my article on dark site etiquette!
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