Monday, October 22, 2007

Calstar 2007

Here's my observing report, slightly changed from the original submitted to the astro mailing list I'm on.


I had begun with great plans to bring my family with me to my first ever multi-day star party. They didn't wanna, and after packing inefficiently around my XT8 I was just as glad. With the weather forecast as it was, it was nice to be organizing my first camping trip in a decade and a half for just myself. And my telescope.

Arriving Thursday afternoon, I sought advice from Peter M and Eileen S about where to set up. Snagged myself a lovely spot under a big tree, and due to weather woes and low attendance got to keep the whole place all weekend. Of course, I shared it with some cute little tufted something-or-other bird friends and a really loud scrub jay, but otherwise it was just me under the giant tree.

Setting up Thursday was exciting. My main goal was to see some things to the North, since my regular observing site at Coyote Lake doesn't afford much of a view in that direction. For awhile, the clouds cooperated and I got to know Draco a little bit. M102 was a thrill, and then I mostly just mucked about and tried to peek between the clouds. I realized later that there are some nice doubles up there that I'm going to want to go back and find! It was nice to check with a few other people who were also fighting the clouds to grasp faint fuzzies and bright sparklies. After awhile, though, the patchy clouds became more solid than patchy and the "sucker holes" so few and far between that I was having a hard time getting oriented. So, I covered the optics against the coming rain and headed for my sleeping bag.

Friday morning, it was oh so marvelous to roll out of my drippy (inside and out-it really would help to seal the seams on one's $25 tent, for what it's worth) tent and head for Chez Dan's. He had the coffee ready before I could even utter a coherent sentence! Bracewell the Younger and I set out the fightin' gear (aka plasticware) and then it was time to cook. All I can say is, Dan's the man. Hot, tasty food and good company are two of the greatest joys around, and he provided both. Thank you, Dan.

(A note on Chez Dan: Dan makes it his business to set up a full kitchen for the purpose of cooking breakfast for everyone at these multi-day parties. We're talking eggs, sausage, hash browns, coffee, pastries, cereal, oj. The works. This requires 4 camp stoves with 2 burners each, a ton of groceries, folding tables galore, and the rental of a cargo van. He goes all out. I honestly don't think I'd have made it through the weekend without him.)

Most of the rest of Friday was dedicated to staying dry. I hung a makeshift wind/rain shelter from "my" tree and picnic table, and had a great place to cook. I hung giant garbage bags between my tent's rain fly and poles and suddenly had a great, non-drippy tent. That evening, Peter, Eileen, Bill and I sat around my table after cooking some good food and talked and ate. After doing the dishes and making a thermos of hot chocolate and Bailey's, I headed to Chez Dan's to see if there was a party cooking. Hah! "If!" Hahahahaha

The party was in full swing, and Greg had already brought at least one pitcher of margaritas. Good wine was flowing well, including my current favorite in all the world. (Gravity Hills Base Camp Sirah '04, available at Trader Joe's for under $8/bottle.) Gortatowsky was in great humor, apparently after a full day of parboiling children. ;) Greg posted a description of the conversation that was pretty accurate. He politely refrained from mentioning the number of people who fell down getting up from the table, so I will too.

Once the rain let up, I benefited greatly from the great sky tour. Thank you, Michelle! It was fun to have so many people out there looking UP and pointing and chattering excitedly. I'm pretty new to this whole hobby (having attended my first star party ever back in May or June-when was that, Greg?), so it was really great to have what amounted to a personal invitation to meet some of my new friends up in the sky.

Saturday morning was wet with promise of better things to come. Coffee at Chez Dan's increased my optimism, even as I watched a lot of my new pals head for home and other commitments. By mid afternoon, it was downright balmy. I spent a good portion of the day looking longingly at Eric's beautifully designed 10in travel scope and dreaming of how much easier it would be to take my family out if I had such neatly packaged optics. At lunch, several of us got together to share our favorite charts and show off the finer points of each. It was good to see what everyone else was using for tools!

Saturday night, the field was abuzz with raw energy. All the people who had left earlier in the day had been replaced with new arrivals who were equally fun to meet. I set up between Eric and Chris and got to work making sure I had things right. Eric gave me a great lesson on collimation, and convinced me that I really ~do~ need to use a barlow when I'm adjusting my primary. I think I also need something that fits a little more snugly in my focuser than the laser Orion provided with my scope.

My new favorite toy is my copy of Objects in the Heavens (Edition 3.5) by Peter Birren. Since I had finally been able to pick out Cepheus after Friday's sky tour, I opened my guide to the Cepheus page and jumped in. It was really exciting to see NGC6946 the "Fireworks Galaxy" and NGC6939 a rich open cluster in the same field of view. So pretty!

Fresh from the success of that, I led several people down the garden path in search of NGC7023. It is apparently the "Iris Nebula". And a real beast to hop to. I mean REALLY. No good landmarks nearby, so it was a challenge anyway. Eric finally got to where we both agreed it ought to be and we were mightily disappointed. All of that work for THAT?! Maybe we were doing it wrong, though, because I've since looked up some pictures of it online and they are gorgeous! Somebody else out there take a look and tell me what you think. And gimmie some pointers on how you get there, wouldja?! (Note: The images you see are always going to look more impressive than what you get in the eyepiece, this one happened to just be especially disappointing after a lot of hard work.)

After that, we went for Herschel's Garnet Star. Lovely, lovely, lovely. I want to spend some more time there.

Dan stopped by and reminded me that there are some nifty double stars in Cepheus. We looked and he was right! Fun stuff. I can't remember now which ones we looked at, though. Somewhere in all of this, Eric planted the seeds of an eyepiece fetish by lending me all kinds of spectacular optics. And Chris dazzled me with his patience as he imaged the Cocoon.

(Forgotten in the original was my first view of the Orion Nebula. Ohmygosh that is something else. Even in my "small" scope with no filter the thing was amazing. I can't wait to get another look under better conditions.)

Another first for me this night was splitting the double double. I'd heard of it but hadn't managed to do anything about it before. Eric convinced me to give it a go and also gave me good hints about looking at the stars for a bit until the doubles of the bigger doubles appeared. It was so cool-like one of those stereo vision puzzle things where all of a sudden this 3-D image jumps out at you. Wahoo! Then I was off to a triple, which I did slightly less well. (Which one was that, Eric?)

From there, nearly everything became a planetary nebula and I popped my most-used eyepiece in my pocket. That helped a bit. I thought the battery was going out on my red dot finder because it was so dim. And then my 9x50 finder was acting funny. And then everything was drippy. DEWED! Frustrating as that was, it was nice to experience it along with a bunch of other folks so I could get some good advice on what to do with my optics. I'd never been dewed out before. Now I know to just give that secondary a good rubdown with my shirt sleeve and keep going. ;) (Note: This was a joke for my astro pals. Under no circumstances should one rub a telescope mirror with one's shirt sleeve.)

Sunday morning saw some truly spectacular fog. I missed a lot of it though, as I slept in the latest I have in the nearly 4 years since my daughter was born. I think that the entire trip would have been worth it for me just for that...

Another incredible breakfast with Dan, and a final serving of Carl's truly spectacular eggs. Wow was that some good food. I promise to be around for clean-up next year, Dan, instead of just the cooking. And really, thank you.

Packing up wasn't so fun, but things mostly dried out and now I have some nicely dried LSA mud to bring back the fond memories. The Iron Ranger was restocked with envelopes when I finally left, so I paid my debt to society before hitting the road.

I came to this hobby for the stars and stayed for the people. Thanks for a great party, everyone. See you out there again soon!

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