As dusk falls, the Southern Oregon Skywatchers set up their fat telescopes in Ashland's North Mountain Park, cheerily noting when the first light appears in the night sky.
On this late winter evening it's Venus, which to the naked eye looks like a bright star not far from the moon. But through a telescope, its planetary crescent shape emerges, its craters beautifully lit by the slanting light of the sun.
To its left you can see Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, which by the time this star party's over will have shifted their watch over the red giant.
Then Sirius appears, the brightest star in our sky at 8.6 light years distant, and Betelguese, the supergiant, red star about 430 million light years from Earth. (Just to give you a sense of the magnitude of space, a light year is nearly 6 trillion miles.)
There's an unmistakable sense of silence and wonder as members of the Southern Oregon Skywatchers point their telescopes at newly emerging objects.
They'll share their wonder, knowledge and telescopes with anyone hoping to cross a star party off their bucket list. Their gatherings each month are free and open to the public; see http://www.orskywatchers.org for upcoming meetings.
The 20 members bring their telescopes and usually congregate on Shale City Road, just off Dead Indian Memorial Road, an easy drive but far away from city lights that might interfere with their peek into the heavens.
"Astronomy has immense aesthetic appeal," says Skywatchers president Erik Anderson.
"Most people have never seen a planet, other than with the naked eye, and they're dazzled by it," adds member Tom Peterson.
At the same time, Anderson notes, people often aren't sure what they're looking at or what it means — so star parties are a great opportunity to learn all about star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, even a comet, if one happens to be looping through our part of the solar system.
"It's all beautiful to behold, with a little knowledge," Anderson says.
Jessica Vineyard, who founded Skywatchers in 1993, gives lectures on the heavens as "Ms. Galaxy" at events and private parties.
"The attraction of astronomy is the gaining of knowledge of what one is looking at and knowing some of the physics behind it," she says. "It brings an entirely new dimension to the experience. You get the intellectual combined with the visual."
For Peterson, the attraction of stargazing is spying on double stars, which can be seen rotating about each other's immense gravitational field. For just-retired Rich Hume, astronomy is something he grew up with, peering through the telescopes at the Palomar and Mount Wilson observatories, where his grandfather worked as a professional astronomer.
"Now I have time for this," he says.
Though the heavens are well-documented, occasionally stargazers will see something new. In June 2011, astronomers throughout the world were abuzz with the explosion of a massive star whose core collapsed in the Whirlpool galaxy about 30 million light years away — meaning it took 30 million light years before the light of its explosion reached Earth's telescopes.
The Skywatchers meet one or two Saturdays a month, in Ashland or at North Medford High School's planetarium and observatory. Often they host lecturers at the planetarium. For star parties, members wait till the last minute to make sure of good viewing, then contact everyone via email.
Anderson hopes to double membership this year. Members pay modest dues, most of which go toward liability insurance that allows them to view from county land. Members are also raising $2,500 for a large-aperture telescope for "sky tours" at star parties. The club's Facebook page is www.facebook.com/SouthernOregonSkywatchers.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.