The Nebraska Star Party offers truly dark skies enjoyed by veteran observers and first-timers alike.

NSP2022 Dragan Nikin at his 25-inch Dob
Dragan Nikin balances atop a ladder while peering into the eyepiece of his Obsession Classic 25-inch f/5 Dobsonian at the 29th Nebraska Star Party. Nikin, like several other attendees, drove some 12 hours from Chicago to observe under the pristine Prairie skies.
Matthew Bielski

Skies in the Midwest are big. Really big. And really, really dark, as I discovered on my recent trip to the Nebraska Star Party.

This was my first time at a star party since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the first time in too long under rivetingly dark skies. As I stood in the Nebraska Sandhills with the prairie winds soughing past, I marveled at the vast expanse of the celestial vault and the Milky Way — true to its name — arcing overhead, and I couldn't believe my luck. Here I was, under the stars, sharing this special moment with some 300 other avid astronomers.

Prairie Perfection

Inspired by other national star parties, a handful of Nebraska amateur astronomers bandied about the idea of establishing a star party of their own. And so, in 1993, around a half dozen Prairie Astronomy Club members, joined by a smattering of Omaha Astronomical Society observers, headed for northern Nebraska armed with their telescopes. Tom Miller, who had long hunted and fished at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, was truly impressed by the dark skies there and recommended it as an observing spot. And so, the intrepid bunch held their impromptu gathering there. The Nebraska Star Party had come into being.

NSP2022 Panorama of Nebraska Star PArty site
The site of the Nebraska Star Party is at the Snake River Area Campground in the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, a little more than 30 miles southwest of Valentine, Nebraska. If you want to explore the site further, you can visit this virtual tour of the area put together by photographer Mark Dahmke.
Mark Dahmke

On my first afternoon at the Snake River Area Campground, I wandered around, absorbing the immensity of the prairie and marveling at the vast horizons. As attendees started to trickle in, the frisson of excitement at the anticipation of a night of collective observing was palpable. All around me I could hear the excited chatter of people as they exchanged observing lists, news (many are repeat attendees and have known one another for ages), weather reports, and the like.

Myriad stars

As with most star parties, there are those who have been coming for decades and those for whom this was their first event ever. Participants at the NSP exuded a sense of camaraderie — regulars set their equipment up in their "usual" spots. This inevitably lent the designation of territorial names to certain areas — Dob Row was where, you got it, the behemoths lined up, while Illinois Hill hosted many of those who’d come from, well, Illinois.

As I walked the field before sunset, I could overhear the veterans advising new observers where the best spots were to set up. John Johnson, active in the planning and execution of the NSP since 1999 and has attended 26 of the 29 events thus far, says that the most exciting thing for him is meeting first-time attendees, especially the young people among them. “Their exclamations when they see the myriad stars with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon in a truly dark sky, void of any artificial light, is truly an emotional experience,” Johnson reflects.

NSP2022 Two young observers
Kaylee (at left) and Xandy (at right, with her grandfather Clay Cardwell) were both eager for darkness to fall so they could get going with their observing!
Diana Hannikainen / S&T

The gamut of the observing experience stretched across all ages and all types of equipment. Wandering the grounds, I came upon eight-year-old Xandy, who had her very own telescope set up alongside her grandfather's. A little farther along, 13-year-old Kaylee — who was at her seventh (!) NSP — had an observing plan for the night: She was going to follow her standard MO and start by checking out her favorites, Mizar and Alcor. Kaylee also planned on finding “the comet.” Armed with a star chart, off she went and did just that — a short while later the triumphant cry of “I found it! I found it!” rang through the night air. Bingo, one comet bagged.

NSP2022
Sonali Deshmukh preps the mount for her 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope. Note the bug spray in the armrest of the blue chair, a must-have at most any star party. Sky conditions turned out to be just perfect that night.
Diana Hannikainen / S&T

There was a lot of chatter about “the comet,” which was, in fact, Comet PanSTARRS (C/2017 K2). Sonali Deshmukh also planned on observing Comet PanSTARRS. Deshmukh drove up from Omaha for her fourth NSP, her car brimming with equipment (she's a prolific photographer, as well as being a passionate astronomer). Besides the comet, she also pointed her scope and binoculars at a plethora of Messier objects, double stars, and carbon stars.

NSP2022 Dave Knisely and John Johnson
At left, David Knisely is getting ready for a full night of observing with his 14-inch f/4.6 Newtonian, "The Black Mamba," and is explaining why he calls it that — "because it is fast and it is a killer on the deep sky." At right, John Johnson sits by his binocular telescope, figuring out which target to pursue next. Jupiter has just risen, and Andromeda can be seen as a faint smudge left of center. The light from a red-light flashlight — the only permissible form of light on the observing field after dark — illuminates the ground.
Diana Hannikainen / S&T; Sonali Deshmukh

Star parties provide great opportunities for veterans to play around with new or novel equipment. Johnson reveled in the views through his 82-mm binocular telescope, lingering on the Veil Nebula, which he could catch in its entirety in one glance. Others, who live in light-polluted environments, enjoy pushing their scopes to the limit. Dragan Nikin, for example, likes the challenge of hunting for dim galaxy groups.

But it's not only visual observers who occupy the spots on the observing field — imagers set up as well. Jasonn Pellegrini launched himself into imaging during the pandemic, and went on to win first place in the NSP astrophotography competition! (He also brought along a nifty Dob that he 3D-printed.)

NSP2022 Jasonn Pellegrini Setup and Scope
Jasonn Pellegrini (also of Chicago) emerges from his tent (top left). He brought along his 3D-printed one-armed Dob (right), which conveniently collapses into a portable pile that fits in the back of his car.
Diana Hannikainen / S&T; Jasonn Pellegrini

The organizers have plenty of other fun activities in store for attendees. Among these are the Beginner’s Field School — a great introduction to all things astronomical — coordinated by David Knisely. The NSP also invites speakers for an afternoon of presentations at the Valentine High School. Among this year’s speakers was 12-year-old Astronomy Ambassador Libby White, who gave a phenomenal talk on her role as a young spokesperson for all things space and astronomy. She inspired both the young and not-so-young in attendance!

NSP2022 Young Astronomy Ambassador
Young Astronomy Ambassador extraordinaire Libby White regales a rapt audience with her tales of space camp and efforts to promote astronomy, both in her community and farther afield.
Diana Hannikainen / S&T

Under A Shared Sky

It quickly became clear to me that the NSP is a venue for sharing. I could not walk a few feet before someone was calling me over to ask if I wanted to see the view in their eyepiece. How can one resist such an invitation? The sights that floated before my eyes were superb, no matter the size or setup of the instrument — sharing the wonders of the night sky is powerful.

NSP2022 Dusk descends
As dusk descends on the Prairie, observers take in the deepening colors of the post-sunset sky and discuss observing plans for the night ahead.
Diana Hannikainen / S&T

Among the big (literally) sharers were those set up at Dob Row. When you enter Dob Row there’s a buzz of excitement as eager viewers mill about awaiting their turn atop a ladder. One would think that finally finding time at a truly dark site with one’s treasured instrument one would prefer to be left alone to peruse the skies at one’s leisure. Not so.

Nikin with his 25-inch scope was among the eyepiece-sharers. He said he'd never forget his first NSP (in 1999) when Tom Miller not only allowed him to look through his 30-inch Obsession but also let him take control of the telescope and slew to targets of his choosing. “His generosity has been ingrained in me ever since,” Nikin says. And now he’s “paying it forward” — because he delights in the reactions he hears from atop the ladder when viewers catch their first sight of an object through a really large scope. “I’m very fortunate to be able to own such an instrument and I just truly enjoy giving someone a mind-blowing view they may not otherwise get to experience.”

NSP2022 Clay Cardwell and granddaughter
Clay Cardwell enjoys a moment with his granddaughter Xandy under the spectacular Milky Way.
Clay Cardwell

The marvelous thing about the shared experience of being under the night skies is that no matter the instrument — be it a 25-inch Dob, or an 8-inch reflector, or only your eyes — you can fully engage with the universe. Take Xandy. At a certain point she pointed her telescope at the Milky Way, peered into her eyepiece, and marveled at the star patterns she saw. Not only that, she’d already learned from the people around her — as I strolled past, she grabbed my hand and insisted I look through her eyepiece. We both oohed and aahed at the pretty patterns.

And, as thrilling as deep-sky objects are, it’s always reassuring to realize there’s a genuine fondness for our own solar system. Reminiscing on a perfect night of observing countless eye-catching Messiers and the like, Deshmukh said, “My favorite part of the night, though, was seeing the planets rise in succession — Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter, Mars, Uranus, and Venus drifted across the star-studded sky.”

Before sunrise washed the night away, the thinnest sliver of the crescent Moon, just one day shy of new, rose in tandem with Venus, with only a few degrees separating the pair. This sight delighted Deshmukh who concluded, “A wonderful way to end a night of observing.”

We all agreed.


Whether you're a veteran of star parties or have yet to attend your first, get inspired by the listings in our Event Calendar in Sky & Telescope magazine, or head to Upcoming Astronomy Events on our website.


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Comments


Image of OwlEye

OwlEye

August 19, 2022 at 12:35 pm

Thank you, Diana, I enjoyed this article immensely!

The awesome darkness found in Cherry County, NE, is really so remarkable that it cannot be overstated. I drove from KC to the august emptiness of this part of northwestern Nebraska for the first time in August of 1988. The maps I had seen showed that this gigantic county was only ringed by a few small towns - Valentine being the largest. Inside? Virtually NOTHING!!

I camped on the evening of August 13th in tall, lush prairie grass just off of highway 61, halfway between Merriman to the north, and Hyannis to the south. I had been to the Texas Star Party for the first time the previous year, but bad weather prevented an experience of those fabled, Fort Davis skies. Here, under the darkest skies I had ever seen, I was hoping to photograph some Perseid meteors with Konica SR-V 3200 film (remember that stuff?). I neither saw nor imaged a single meteor, but was wholly drawn up into the inky-dark blackness of the sky, and was slain by how large and bright the Andromeda Galaxy was as it rose in the east. In fact, to this day I have not seen it so plainly. M33? Easy peasy!

I was able to get to the NSP for just a few days in 2004, and the whole week the following year. The zeitgeist of the people who journey to this incredible land is infectious and so remarkably refreshing that if you (yes, YOU) have never been to one, I urge you to do so. You will be delighted with the friendliness of the folks, and the aura of storms, sunrises and sunsets; the near-sentience of the Sand Hills, and of course: skies so dark that the Milky Way in Sagittarius casts subtle shadows!

Perhaps I can get up there at least one more time soon!

Thanks again, Diana!

Regards,
Doug Z

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Diana Hannikainen

August 22, 2022 at 2:18 pm

Thank you for sharing your memories with us! And for describing so beautifully your experiences there. I fully agree that the people of Cherry County are super-friendly and kind -- so welcoming of all of us. Yes, seeing Andromeda like that was mind-blowing!

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captjwj

August 27, 2022 at 9:07 pm

Hi Doug,

I don't know if you remember me or not, but I remember you being there at NSP-12 in 2005! It is so great to hear from you again, and to see your wonderful comments about your experiences at the Nebraska Star Party in the past! We would love to see you at another in, how about next year?! It will be our 30th Anniversary for holding the star party at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area! I promise you it will be a very special one with some exciting news to celebrate there next year!

Best Regards, and Clear Skies,

John Johnson
Dir. of Outreach & Promotions
Nebraska Star Party, Inc.

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[email protected]

August 20, 2022 at 11:08 pm

I appreciate your attention to the youth who attended. When I was a teenager I joined the Des Moines Astronomical Society. A member named Allen Beers took me under his wing and even let me use his telescope quite often at star parties. Soon after I arrived at the Nebraska Star Party this year I met Allen! His kindness and generosity nearly 40 years ago deepened my interest in the hobby. You never know how much impact your support can have on youth.

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Diana Hannikainen

August 22, 2022 at 2:19 pm

Thank you so much for sharing! This is such an important message. And how amazing that you met Allen again. Thank you!

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