Astronomy department’s ‘Star Parties’ returns to campus after year-long break

Julia Mahavier, Dina Barrish, Life and Arts Reporters

A 50-year-old telescope sits on the roof of the Physics, Math, and Astronomy building. Students, families and Austin residents gather in a line, waiting to stargaze. As Saturn appears in the sky, crisp air and the sound of “oohs and aahs” fill the atmosphere.

Star Parties serve as a longstanding UT tradition atop both the PMA, since the 1980s, and Painter Hall, since the 1950s. After a year-long break, Star Parties make their return to campus on Wednesdays at the PMA and Fridays at Painter Hall. This event, put on by staff and students, will resume as of October 13th and 15th.

As for COVID-19 safety, masks will be encouraged in the dome at PMA. Hand sanitizer, as well as spare masks are provided. At Painter, a sign up sheet posted online limits spectator groups to 15 people every half hour.

“We completely stopped doing (Star Parties) in the middle of March (2020) … The last (star party) I ran at PMA was March 11th, 2020,” Lara Eakins, a  UT alum and current Administrative Program Coordinator in the department of Astronomy, said. “I knew the writing was on the wall, this might be the last one I did for a while. Then, UT shut down two days later.”

After 25 years of running Star Parties, Eakins said she knows how to anticipate which Star Parties will attract larger audiences. She said when she doesn’t make a special effort to decorate the PMA with red and orange lights and co-host with other campus organizations, Star Parties often look like groups of people mingling.

“Occasionally, we have (Star Parties) be a little more ‘party’ when we (collaborate) with the Natural Sciences Council,” Eakins said. “They’ll bring up tables for demos and music and lights.”

This year, Eakins said she predicts Saturn and Jupiter’s placement in the sky will give Star Party attendees a unique view of the planets. She said students at previous Star Parties said this specific planet placement looked artificial, almost like someone placed a picture of Saturn and Jupiter in front of the telescope.

Star Parties feature two different telescopes: a 16-inch, water-heater-resembling antiquity and the traditional telescope: a long, slim model with lenses.

Sarah Olivera, an astronomy and physics senior, started arranging Star Parties and controlling the dome where the telescopes live in summer 2019.

“A lot of people enjoy watching the dome as it moves, especially since I have to hand crank it,” Olivera said. “Telescopes used today for research purposes look drastically different, so it’s like stepping into the past.”

A former organizer of Star Parties and UT alum, Oscar Kauffman said Star Parties attendees often cannot contain their excitement when they view distinguishing characteristics of the planets such as the rings of Saturn or the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. He also said he hopes people will continue attending.

“I love reactions from people who have no idea what to expect or have never looked through a telescope before, particularly fellow Longhorns,” Kauffman said. “I also encourage everyone to look up at the night sky for a moment every now and then, and to reflect on what’s out there – it is usually a very humbling and poetic way to ground your perspective.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier headline for this story mislabeled the Astronomy department as the Astrology department. The headline has since been corrected to say Astronomy. An earlier version of this story also stated that Star Parties atop the PMA serve as a longstanding UT tradition, taking place since the 1950s. The story has since been corrected to say Star Parties have served as a longstanding UT tradition atop both the PMA, since the 1980s, and Painter Hall, since the 1950s. An earlier version of this story stated the event is put on by faculty and students. It has since been corrected to say the event is put on by staff and students. Additionally, a previous version of this story stated the telescope atop the PMA building is over 100 years old. The story has since been corrected to say the telescope is 50 years old. The Texan regrets these errors.