The first thing you notice about the Oregon Star Party is the dust.
You notice it when pulling into the site—driving up the winding gravel road through the Ochoco National Forest, and turning into the flat, gravelly clearing that hosts this darkest of all American star parties. The dust is everywhere, a fine reddish-brown coating on the dark-brown rocks, on the vehicles that preceded me to the star party, on any surface to which the wind could adhere it. The dust, the rocks… the site could pass for the surface of Mars were it not for the ubiquitous sagebrush and the stands of coniferous trees that sprang forth here and there among the trailers and telescopes.
And there were telescopes and trailers and motor homes in mass quantities: acres of them, tightly packed like passengers on a bullet train, close enough that many owners overlapped their canopies with each other, creating shady corridors floored with whatever coverings (astroturf, canvas, blue plastic tarp) could be staked down to keep the dust from being stirred up.
I wandered into this assemblage with nothing but my van full of food, water, and astronomy gear. I had enough food for a month, carefully screened to provide a full lactose-free diet for as long as I needed it, and cases of water and Gatorade (in addition to the requisite five gallons of water mandated by the National Forest Service for taking care of potential forest fires; I also had a fire shovel and an axe for those eventualities).
Scope-wise, I had only the EAS 18″ Dobsonian and my 11 x 80mm binoculars. I had had to make haste in order to get to the OSP before the 8:00 PM gate-closing—the Caveman-Mobile had been in the shop until 1:00, getting its AC unit and transmission fixed, and it was a five-hour drive to OSP—and I hadn’t packed everything well in the hour I had given myself to load the van. This meant that my 12.5″ Dob (Bob the Dob), my loyal and trusty companion, had to stay home. If I’d had another hour to Tetris through the van loading, I could’ve gotten both scopes in. Having only one scope would, of course, bite me in the ass during the week of OSP.
The drive was uneventful—always a good thing. I’d brought along a range of CDs that hearkened back to my early days of astronomy (Rush, the Led Zeppelin box set, some Steve Tibbetts, some Yes, John McLaughlin’s Shakti, etc.) but wound up listening to George Carlin most of the way. My computer printer had died, so I was unable to print out driving directions; I had to rely on GPS (not recommended by the OSP organizers, although it would’ve been fine) and an iPad with the directions downloaded. As it turned out, I didn’t need either for the last, complicated hour of the drive, as I got in on a caravan led by the food truck that served the star party. Recognizing it as such, I simply followed it through the forest roads to the site. We pulled in just after 7 PM.
Finding a place to set up was a bit more complicated. The woman at the gate referred me to one end of the site (“that’s the social part of the site”), although I did spend time looking for the other EAS regulars—I knew most of them weren’t coming in until Thursday, but wanted to see if I recognized anyone. Bill “Dr.Lapser” Basham was already there, but I didn’t see him until a couple of days later. I opted for the “social end” of the site, which, it turned out, was a lot quieter than the place where EAS would eventually set up.
There was a lot of room down on the northeast corner of the site. I parked the van in an open spot near a grove of trees and unloaded the scope hurriedly so that it could get acclimated to the falling temperatures. In my haste, though, I hadn’t thought about the positioning of the van—in which I would be sleeping—or the fact that I had placed the scope (and my equipment table) behind the van so that I wouldn’t be able to move the van at all without first moving the massive scope. (I had gotten the scope out of the van by myself, which was a really dumb thing to do—the mirror box weighs well over 90 lbs.) All in the name of observing all night the first night.
While waiting for sunset, I met with the folks on “my” end of OSP: Don from Astoria, a member of the Rose City Astronomers (of Portland), who brought a decent-sized refractor, a Lunt solar scope, and a 12.5″ Dob; and Thomas from Grants Pass, with a 10″ Dob, binoculars, and some photographic gear. On the other side of Thomas’ tent and vehicle were Star and Erwin (?), a hippie couple with a small child–they had come to OSP for the experience, rather than doing their own astronomy.
The second thing you notice about the Oregon Star Party is the summer Milky Way.
The Milky Way began to appear well before the sky was dark. It would have been easy to mistake it for a band of clouds, or an airplane contrail, if one didn’t already know where it should appear and that the Milky Way was an unforgettable sight at OSP. And as twilight began to fade, the spiral form (as seen from inside) of our galaxy stretched, lace-like, across the sky, horizon-to-horizon, filling the expanse from the Galactic Center in Sagittarius all the way northeast through Perseus, barely visible above the horizon, with a gauzy mesh of unresolved stars and the dark tracery of silicate dust and organic matter that split the glowing band of Milky Way into fragments, clouds, and arcs.
No matter how many times one sees the Milky Way in such dark-sky spendor, it remains one of the most breathtaking sights on the planet. It’s so rare to see our home galaxy this clearly—so few land-bound sites offer as dark a view—that it’s possible to understand why humanity has become so arrogant: there’s nothing in nature that can crush one’s ego into insignificance quite as thoroughly as witnessing the panoply of out vast galaxy wheeling above. The !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert consider the Milky Way to be the Backbone of Night, holding up the vault of the sky; the ancient Japanese considered it a Celestial River. Yet neither of these imaginitive myths (nor any other from around the world) hints at the galaxy’s true nature, and all attempt to shoehorn its magnificence into an easily-digestible anthropomorphic concept, rather than grasping at what it really is. To stand under the full splendor of the Milky Way is to feel infinitesimal, to transcend human constructs of religion and myth, and to be aware of the true vastness of the universe.
I sat on my observing chair for quite some time, taking in the view. The telescope sat idle for a long while. When I did finally press the scope into action, it was for a pathetic short time, cursory glances at only a few showcase objects (plus the first object on the OSP Advanced Observing Program, the interacting galaxy pair Markarian 691 in Serpens [NGCs 5994/5996]). I took no notes on it. Rather, I felt extremely small and a bit depressed. I was here at OSP and had no energy, or had all the energy taken out of me by the long day it had been: gathering my cargo in one place, getting the final touches on some of the gear I had cobbled together, getting the van fixed, tearing back home, loading up the van, and getting on the road with just enough time to get here before the gate closed, with no time to make sure I’d brought everything I needed. And it was more than chilly now; I’d had to put on my cold-weather gear already the first night.
I was wiped out, exhausted from the day, and crawled into the back of the van before 1 AM to sleep. Hopefully the weather would hold out well for the week—it was forecast to—and I wouldn’t care about bailing out early the first night. Still plenty of time to observe what I needed to.
I awoke the next day at 10:30, with the van heating up in the direct sun and with my winter coat still on. It had actually been a decent night’s sleep despite all the negatives working against it. But there was my unfortunate lack of forethought regarding the placement of the van to contend with—there was no shelter from the Sun, and as I didn’t bring a tent, the best I could do for sleeping was to rig a blue tarp with zip ties and hang it, curtain-like, from the clothing hooks in the van (finding a few extra places in the van where such hooks weren’t available). This proved to be perfectly adequate for changing clothes and darkening the van enough to sleep, coupled with a reflective sun-shade in the front windshield, although it did nothing to make the van actually cooler to sleep in. Rolling down the front windows and opening the vents only helped to a degree—fortunately, the first few days of the star party were relatively mild (in the mid 80s).
I also discovered, upon exiting the van, that I had new neighbors on the left; Jesse and her son Octavo had taken the space between me and Thomas. Jesse had degrees in philosophy and landscaping—they were at OSP because of Octavo’s interest in astrophotography, though, and he had an array of cameras and tracking mounts with him.
I walked around the site for a while, looking for others from EAS but also getting a feel for the hugeness of the OSP gathering. It was impossible to really tell how many were there; the site spread out too far, and I’m not sure I ever even saw the whole thing. Many of the vehicles and tents had been slipped between trees—something to remember for next time. Those who were packed in nearly on top of each other were congregated in an area near the amenities tents and trucks, at a spot where the OSP road forked. Astrophotographers had gathered just east of that point, and their area was marked as “ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY: SEVERE LIGHT RESTRICTIONS.” As if there weren’t severe light restrictions throughout; Rules 1-5 at OSP basically read “No white light of any kind after dark.”
There were talks of many sorts at the Activities tent, along with activities for kids. (There was a fair number of kids there, and a lot of dogs as well; I saw border collies, German sheperds, a greyhound, a bunch of smaller dogs, and a really derpy Corgi that should’ve been named Stimpy given its permanent facial expression.) Most of the talks concerned either astrophotography or next August’s solar eclipse (as OSP will be very near the centerline). Not being overly interested in astrophotography and having become burned out on eclipse-related stuff, I skipped the talks pretty much altogether.
I got back to the van and worked on my observing plan for the evening, then went back to sleep with the van windows open. It was surprisingly comfortable, although it involved a great deal of rearranging of food containers, coolers, and clothing buckets to make it so. The observing plan culled about sixty objects from my database of 700, and included a variety of types: Arp galaxies, flat galaxies, galaxy clusters and groups (including a number of Hicksons), a few Sharpless nebulae, some Abell planetaries, and some faint non-NGC globular clusters.
I woke up again at about 6:30. After some rations of beef jerky, apples, a banana, and some peanut butter filled pretzels, I spent the time until sunset getting my gear ready and talking with the other members of what became my OSP tribe down at our little out-of-the-way corner of the star party.
As night fell, I kept with my usual routine: collimate the scope, then observe planets and bright Messier objects while waiting for the sky to fully darken. This usually consisted of Saturn, Mars, M4, M80, M5, M10, M12, M14, M13 (the Hercules Globular), M 11 (the Wild Duck Cluster), M15, M17 (the Swan Nebula), M20 (the Trifid Nebula), and M8 (the Lagoon Nebula). I shared these views with anyone who came by—usually Octavo (who hadn’t gotten to look through a scope that required a ladder before), Jesse, and Thomas; Don had his own observing agenda, although he did come over for a few objects—he especially was interested in seeing the central star of the Ring Nebula, although we never did catch it. (I suspect because the nebulosity was too bright under the superb OSP skies.) Star and Erwin and their daughter also took a few looks at the “early” objects.
Once the scope had largely cooled to ambient and the twilight had faded to true darkness, I went to work on my list. A fair number of the objects eluded me—not surprising, given the difficulty level I was working on. Many of the targets I had chosen were more suited for 20-inch-plus scopes, but I also noticed that the sky transparency was not quite as good as I was expecting—the galaxies and clusters I was looking for, and those that I was already familiar with, had less “pop” than they should have. Nonetheless, I was able to pick up a number of objects I wouldn’t have acquired at a lesser site or with a smaller scope.
My notes from OSP are, unfortunately, a lot fewer than I’d intended. My phone battery dwindles very quickly these days, and although I did have means to charge it (a AA battery > USB charger and a Celestron power tank, whose ability to repeatedly charge phone and iPad I was uncertain of), I was still unsure of how the phone would hold up. So I limited my notes to objects that would best fulfill my observing-list criteria, and came away with a lot less than I’d hoped. Next time, I know—this time out at OSP was to be a huge learning experience regarding facilities and equipment.
My first targets off the list included Shakhbazian 166, an intriguing galaxy chain in Ursa Minor, and Hickson 72, a difficult galaxy group in Boötes. My first notes, however, were on Zwicky’s Triplet, an interacting trio of galaxies in Hercules:
OREGON STAR PARTY
MOON: 1 day old (1% illuminated), set at 9:01 PM
SQM: not taken
NELM: not checked; certainly over 7.0
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid 40s, little dew; slight breeze
Others present: too many others to count
Arp 103 (Zwicky’s Triplet; Her): NP NGC 6241 by about 18′–consists of two major components, one of which is double, and the more S of the two main components is halfway between two 11th-mag stars—consists of a larger object maybe 1.0′ across, very round, very slight central concentration—to just P slightly S of that, separated by only a couple of arcseconds is much much smaller and fainter object—N of those two, very close to one of 11th mag stars, is second component, almost blur together in 14mm—separation between that one and pair is about 3’—this final component visible mainly in averted in 14mm, better visibility in 10mm—in 10mm, second component almost touching star—NP that star by 3′ is another star of almost equal magnitude—looking at brighter component of Arp 103, separation between components much more apparent, brightest one about twice the size of smaller, and third component about 0.75 times the size of brightest one
It’s important to know that my sizes and distances may have still been scaled for the same eyepiece (the 14mm ES 82-degree Nagler clone) in my 12.5″ Discovery—having become accustomed to the scale of that eyepiece with the 12.5″, it was difficult to break the habit of referring to sizes and distances in that combination of gear. In the 12.5″, that eyepiece yields a 42′-wide field at 112x, while in the 18″ it yields a 30′ field and 178x. It should theoretically be easier to scale things to the 30′-wide field than to the 42′-wide field, but habit is habit.
Being (unduly) rather pleased with myself for tracking down Zwicky’s Triplet, I turned the scope toward the not-quite-at-the-meridian constellation Aquila, which holds one of my long-time nemeses, the mercurial globular cluster Palomar 11. I had attempted Pal 11 numerous times with numerous scopes and from numerous sites of various light-pollution levels, but surely the 18″ scope at OSP would be enough to grab this one. And so it was:
Palomar 11 (Aql): at long last—14mm—cluster is large, very diffuse, looks like it has a sprinkling of stars over it—in averted at east a couple across middle of cluster—to P side and slightly N of cluster is an 8th mag star—due N of cluster is a pair of 12th/13th mags—due F is a pair of 12th-mag stars spaced about 3′ apart—cluster is about 3′ across—sprinkling of very faint stars, N-S group of stars slightly brighter—about 3′ S of cluster is 13th-mag star—almost a triangle with long side N-S and other vertex P—just a tiny bit of not-quite-granularity, hints that there might be some granularity in averted
I then spent some time along the Milky Way, digging out Aquila’s other two globular clusters, NGC 6749 and 6760 (the former of which is quite difficult, but I had seen both before from Giant City). Up the Milky Way, I didn’t manage to catch the two Sharpless nebulae in Sagitta and Vulpecula that were on my list (Sh2-84 and Sh2-88), both of which I should’ve been able to get, all things considered. (I didn’t try as hard as I should’ve, not wanting to deal with nebula filters on top of the ladder. A weak excuse.) I also checked out the magnificent Veil Nebula (a requirement in the summer) before dipping down into Capricornus for M30 and Palomar 12. Why I didn’t attempt Palomar 10 while in Sagitta I don’t know, as it was on my list.
One thing that’s immediately noticeable during OSP nights is that, no matter how many tiny red LEDs can be seen around the fields, there’s almost complete silence. I had expected more socializing and verbal camaraderie among the gathered observers, but the quiet was almost unsettling—it was possible to be among 500+ people and feel like one is completely detached from humanity. An interesting feeling, not totally unexpected, but still somewhat startling to notice at 1 AM.
I moved into Aquarius from Capricornus, stopping at the huge Helix Nebula before working over to M72, M73 (a Y-shaped asterism near M72), NGC 7009 (The Saturn Nebula, bright green with its ring-like ansae easy in the 18″), and up to Hickson 88, which I had previously seen in the 12.5″. Oddly, this charming galaxy quartet avoided detection despite considerable time sweeping the area—I knew exactly where it should’ve been, but it just didn’t show. A victim of the transparency, perhaps.
I did manage a very marginal sighting of the Aquarius Dwarf Galaxy after quite some time—not a good enough view to consider it sighted, or to take notes, but I’m reasonably confident I picked it up.
From there, it was off to the NGC 6962 group, which I’d also had on my radar for some time:
NGC 6962 group (Aqr): 6962 and 6964 are two brightest—6962 about 1.5′ in diameter, has a large core maybe 1.0′ diameter—not much in way of a stellar nucleus—6964 just under 1.0′, elongated NP-SF slightly—has 12th mag star off F edge—those two separated by 3’—12′ N of 6962 is 12th-mag star—SP that star by 1′ is NGC 6967 : about 1.5′ across—doesn’t have a lot of central concentration—NP 6962/6964 pair is extremely faint galaxy [NGC 6961]about 5′ from 6962—really coming and going—NGC 6965?—hard to tell size—5′ NP that galaxy is an edge-on galaxy [NGC 6959] about 1.5′ x 0.75′ NF-SP—S the edge-on is a small scalene triangle of 12th/13th-mag stars—NF 6964 by 8′ is a pair of 13th-mag stars separated by 3′ and between them may be another galaxy, with a star superimposed on it, maybe two very close together, may be fuzz between/behind those stars [actually only field stars, no galaxy]
I definitely need to take new notes on this one, as I’m not satisfied with the accuracy of these.
As I was in Aquarius, I hopped over to nearby Cetus to steal some photons from the WLM system, a.k.a. the Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte dwarf galaxy, a member of the Milky Way’s own retinue of galactic satellites. I had seen this Leichtenstein-shaped galaxy, little more than a faint glow, in the 12.5″ scope on several previous occasions, but it had more presence here in the larger scope and darker skies. I couldn’t make out the brightest of its globular clusters, which was supposedly visible in scopes of the 18″ class, although I didn’t quite give it the attention it deserved.
Then I was off to Pegasus, and NGC 7479, NGC 7331, and Stephan’s Quintet. But I did notice that conditions were declining, and a look toward the eastern horizon indicated why—morning twilight was already starting to take over from the too-brief night. I kept observing until the sky was too washed-out for hunting down fainter objects, then started packing up my gear (leaving the telescope set up but covering the mirrors).
I now had a dilemma: quiet hours at OSP were from 3 AM to 10:30 AM. But to get into my van to sleep would require opening and shutting the doors a couple of times (getting all my smaller gear inside as well), and I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors. So I waited until the first signs of life on this end of OSP—about 7 AM—before crawling into the van to recover from the night.
Wednesday was largely a repeat of Tuesday, schedule-wise. I got a few hours of sleep early and went back to sleep by about 3 PM. In between, more conversation with my tribe (during which they told me not to worry about waking them up by slamming van doors), including some spectacular views of the Sun through Don’s Lunt solar scope, a 60mm with extra double-etalon stack. It was the best view I’ve ever had of our local star, with a half-dozen tremendous prominences and numerous black filaments snaking across the surface, all in crisp detail. For the first time, I felt compelled to get a solar scope.
I was coming back from brushing my teeth—it was easier to do so over the ridge in front of the van, as it was possible to spit in the woods in private without being too vulgar—when a voice beckoned me.
“Hey, Eugene!” (Not my name, of course, but I could recognize the use of my affiliation as an identifier.)
I recognized the speaker, vaguely at first: it was Steve F, EAS member and part of the “Jerry’s Garage” telescope-building group; he had brought his violin to one of our workshop sessions, and he and Mike C had played some appealing folk music while we painted and glued telescope components together. (Steve preferred Django Reinhardt/Hot Club-style jazz.) He had gotten in to OSP that morning, and after driving around, had found only me of the group. As there was space on my right-hand side (between my spot and Don’s), Steve pulled in and set his camp up there. He was a welcome addition to the group, being a “social captain” sort, and helped tie the lot of us together.
The night was clear again, and warmer than the two previous nights—temps only fell to the mid 50s. As I was poking through Sagittarius, however, waiting for twilight to end, I managed to push the big scope down past its lowest altitude; the altitude stops didn’t prevent it from going down lower than it should. I knew this was trouble—the scope had come off of the Teflon pads the altitude bearings rode upon, and wouldn’t move back up in altitude. Crap. I managed to wrestle the heavy mirror box back onto the Teflon, but when I attempted to push the scope upward, I heard a snap. Double crap. The front two inches of bearing surface—Formica—had sheared off one of the bearings.
I had broken the club’s flagship scope. Visions of leaving OSP and returning to Eugene to fetch Bob the Dob (or just staying home in shame) wandered around my early-hominid skull for a full minute before I got up the nerve to fully inspect the damage.
Fortunately, the rest of the bearing surface was still securely attached. Even better, the other altitude bearing was fine. The scope was still usable, provided I stayed above a certain altitude and the rough sans-Formica bearing surface didn’t end up on the Teflon bearing pad. Cue sigh of relief, although I dreaded telling Jerry about what I’d done.
After looks at the usual nightfall suspects, I intended to go back into my list from Tuesday. However, I was interrupted as I started the star-hop from M5 to where Palomar 5 sat in southern Serpens Caput.
“Hey—this is that monster scope! Come over here, guys!”
One of the drawbacks to having a large scope at a star party is the attention it draws. This usually wouldn’t be a problem; the 18″ wasn’t even close to the biggest scope at OSP, and I actually enjoyed showing astronomical objects to people. However, while there were much more impressive scopes here, the 18″ was the biggest scope at this end of the star party, and so attracted more attention than it would’ve had I been parked in OSP’s main drag. I fully expected people to stop for a look, as Star and Erwin had, and that was fine. But there was something incredibly rude about the way this group barged in on me, especially because they didn’t ask if they were interrupting what I was doing, and the way that waited around for me to show them object after object for a full ninety minutes increasingly got on my nerves. Meanwhile, Palomar 5 sank lower and lower toward the trees. I showed off multiple examples of each major type of deep-sky object, climbing up and down the ladder to reposition the object in the eyepiece for each of the faceless demanders. By the time they left—finally saying “thank you”—Pal 5 was in the trees and I was fuming. I wanted to shout
but held my tongue, gritted my teeth, and went back to work.
I spent the first part of the night in Delphinus, catching NGC 7006 (one of the most distant Milky Way globulars), NGC 6934 (one of the more underrated globulars), NGC 6905 (the Blue Flash Nebula), and the Delphinus galaxy trio (NGCs 6927, 6928, and 6930). I had observed all of these multiple times, although I hadn’t seen all three of the trio before; NGC 6927 was tremendously elusive on the previous occasions, but was quite obvious here.
I also went back to Palomar 11, getting another look at this dim globular glow.
With the altitude bearing broken, I could forget doing the OSP advanced observing challenge; the scope wouldn’t go low enough to catch NGC 253 in Sculptor, which I was counting on to complete the list (the challenge here was to detect to galaxy’s barred-spiral shape and its attendant dwarf galaxy). I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do the list at first, despite having started on it, but there was no way I could finish it now. I couldn’t even track down Burbidge’s Chain, a string of tiny galaxies attendant to the large spiral NGC 247 and one of my long sought-for wish list targets. There was no end to the objects I could track down with the scope, but I was still disappointed at being unable to mine the lower southern reaches of the sky.
Back up to Pegasus, and the familiar NGC 7479. The galaxy was less the target here; instead, it was the leaping-off point for star-hopping to Palomar 13, another super-faint globular and one I had first spied with a 17.5″ scope from the late, lamented Star Hill Inn back in 1999. I spent 20 minutes hunting for the globular on this night, but just couldn’t winnow it out of the background sky. I had slightly better luck with UGC 12281, a super-thin “flat” spiral galaxy I had first heard of on the Deep Sky Forum (deepskyforum.com); this galaxy was barely visible, even with averted vision, but I’m pretty sure I caught several glimpses of it against the somewhat less-than-dark background sky.
Even better were the Taffy Galaxies, UGCs 12914 and 12915, also in Pegasus:
OREGON STAR PARTY
MOON: 2 days old (4% illuminated), set at 9:34 PM
SQM: not taken
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid 50s, little to moderate dew; slight breeze
Others present: too many others to count
UGCs 12914, 12915 (Taffy Galaxies; Peg): with galaxies centered, a 7th-mag star to P edge and slightly N of field—galaxies are oriented NP-SF—one to P side is brighter—little bit of central brightening—about 1.0′ long by 0.75′ —by ¾’ SF has a 13th-mag star—galaxy to F side about 0.75′ long by 0.5’—star off to S edge is part of a long isosceles triangle of 13th-mag stars, other two are NF galaxies—at 14mm, galaxies are slightly curled toward each other on S ends, not easy to tell (may be a memory from photographs rather than actually seen)—kind-of parenthetical looking—about halfway and a little N between galaxies and bright star on edge is 11th or 12th-mag star
I observed for another hour, although what I went after I don’t quite recall. Perhaps it was fatigue from the all-nighter the night before, or perhaps I was a bit devoid of inspiration. In any case, I was the last one standing in my corner of OSP as I covered up the scope and crawled back inside the van, less concerned this time about the van doors waking anyone up.
What to say about Thursday? It followed much the same pleasant pattern as Wednesday. Steve had gone to the TeleVue tent to borrow an eyepiece (simply hand over your driver’s license and you could borrow any TV eyepiece they had) and was showing off the 24mm Panoptic he had gotten from them—he would later buy one to go with his 10″ Dob. I considered borrowing an 8mm Delos, or an Ethos (100˚ AFOV!) of any focal length, but chose instead to stay with what I brought. I used my 10mm Delos a fair amount, although not quite as much as I likely will with the 12.5″ Dob (where I don’t have to worry about traipsing up and down a ladder with eyepieces). I need to build an eyepiece rack that can fit atop the ladder that came with the 18″ scope.
I noted with some curiosity that my (well-attested) fear of ladders didn’t apply to this particular ladder—or else it didn’t apply at night. Perhaps the reward of photons was enough to get me to the top of a ladder in the dark, or perhaps not seeing my surroundings well suppressed that fear. I’m sure that the half-steps that had been installed in the ladder helped, because it was possible to find the perfect height more easily, without having to bend awkwardly—and perhaps dangerously—to peer into the eyepiece. In any event, I was willing to go up the ladder even with it tilting somewhat precariously, far more than I ever would if having to paint or clean something in full daylight.
Nightfall brought with it an unwanted quantity on Thursday—clouds.
The clouds weren’t a huge problem—more an annoyance that kept part of the sky unusable but seemed to leave the rest of the sky alone. Seeing them silhouetted against the Milky Way was a bit disorienting; the blackness of the clouds seemed to create new, drifting dark nebulae along the starry course of the galaxy’s spiral arms. In fact, I’d never been anywhere where the clouds at night were pitch-black and seen only in silhouette against the night sky. Not even the Ozarks, on our two trips there, had dark enough skies that cloud and sky had such contrast.
Fortunately, the clouds stayed mostly to the east and southeast, so once an object rose above them, it was possible to observe it at length, rather than having to skip all over the sky, seeking objects that appeared in sucker holes.
The first part of the night was spent with my 11 x 80 binoculars, rather than with the scope. Binoculars are ideal for wide fields and extended objects (the Pleiades, the Andromeda Galaxy, etc.), but are particularly good for dark nebulae—an object type in abundance along the summer Milky Way. For the first time, I was able to trace out much of the Great Galactic Dark Horse in Ophiuchus and the dark vanes that surrounded the Scutum Star Cloud, as well as the profusion of dust clouds swirling around northern Sagittarius. Barnard’s E, a pair of dark nebulae near Altair in Aquila, stood out boldly against the unresolved glow of the Milky Way near the Great Rift. Amazing stuff, none of which could be visible where the Milky Way couldn’t be seen… like Cincinnati, where my journey along this road had started.
I took no notes this particular night, quite stupidly. Having determined that I could get an 80% charge on my phone with the battery charger on a set of four AA batteries, and that I’d made barely a dent with the charge on the iPad, I could well afford to take more notes than I had been. So why I didn’t do so I had no idea, particularly given that I observed a lot of objects that deserved to have notes taken.
I spent much of the night in Pegasus, Cetus, Pisces, and Andromeda. I struck out on Palomar 13 again (damnit), but managed to get a decent look at IC 1613, the Local Group dwarf in Cetus that’s so unpredictable in its visibility. With his borrowed 24mm Panoptic, Steve was interested in tracking down Uranus and Neptune, so I broke out Sky Safari on the iPad and hunted the two ice giants down; Steve used my Telrad to zero in on these two planets and soon enough had each of them in his 10″ scope.
The other Cetus dwarf Local Group galaxy—the Cetus Dwarf—also proved too elusive. I clearly need more persistence on these Local Group objects. But I did sweep up the much easier NGC 185, NGC 147, and NGC 278 in Cassiopeia, the former two being among the Local Group retinue. Ditto for IC 10, a much-fainter Local Group dwarf in a richer area of the Cassiopeia Milky Way. (Somehow, I forgot to search for Maffei I and Maffei II, highly obscured galaxies near Perseus’ Double Cluster; I’d seen Maffei I several times, but it was always fun to track it down.)
I spent quite a while in the Pegasus I Galaxy Cluster, on the Pegasus-Pisces border. Here I picked up a dozen small galaxy glows stretched over a couple of eyepiece fields; I must’ve taken an hour on this group alone. I wish I’d sketched it, or at least taken notes. (I even had my sketching equipment with me, but it would take more motivation to do the job correctly than I was evidently willing to summon.) From there, it was a hop up to the NGC 467/470/474 trio and NGC 520 (the Honeysuckle Galaxy), all in Pisces.
I also checked out the huge edge-on spiral NGC 891 in Andromeda. This one stretched nearly half of the field in the 14mm eyepiece, a huge needle of a galaxy with its dark dust lane unmistakable against the galaxy’s lambent glow. (Octavo and Steve both considered this one of the coolest objects they saw during the week.) Also tres cool was nearby galaxy cluster Abell 347, which I had first explored at Eagle’s Rest; here, I picked up nine galaxies with relative ease, not even including the much-smaller edge-on spiral NGC 898, very near NGC 891.
Two other excellent groups that I hadn’t observed before were down in Pisces: the NGC 128 and NGC 200 groups.
NGC 128 is an odd lenticular galaxy with a rectangular core and long, wispy “tails” (the edges of the galaxy’s disk) that curl slightly. It was surprisingly bright and over an arcminute long. Flanking 128 on either side was a much-smaller elliptical galaxy (NGCs 127 and 130), and NGCs 125 and 126 also appeared in this interesting and impressive field. A really cool sight.
Larger and even more impressive was the NGC 200 group, a few degrees to the east. This group comprises a dozen NGC galaxies aligned roughly north-south in a 1˚-long chain, a truly impressive sight spanning two fields of the 14mm eyepiece. I swept up every one of the galaxies in this group that was labeled on the TriAtlas chart of the region—an easy group worthy of further study.
I crashed out at about 3 AM, regretting my lack of notetaking but well-pleased with the quantity and quality of the sights I had seen.
Friday was a bit different—I had my obligatory 10-11 AM wakeup, then talked to the tribe for a while; But after some socializing and going over my list once again—adding a few objects and crossing off those I had taken notes on or merely seen—I went up to the “junction” to try to find the EAS tribe.
It didn’t take long. I bumped into Randy coming back from the shower tent, and he directed me down the main road. I heard recorder music just past the astrophotography area, and knew that Randy’s daughter Kristen was there; she’s a member of the Eugene Recorder Choir, and evidently the folks she was with were also. They had a huge RV parked there, with Orion (the club’s scope that we had built as a group project) set up nearby, and I recognized Kristen’s 14″ Orion Dob on the equatorial platform that we had designed and built in recent workshops.
Across the road, I found Jerry and Kathy, Mel B and his wife Barb, and Frank S, with his VW Minibus. They had a tent up with an EAS banner in front of it. Group or club banners weren’t plentiful, but there were several of them visible (most noteworthy: the Vatican Observatory) throughout the OSP grounds.
The EAS group had gotten in fairly late Thursday evening. Their traditional spot was next to a tree stump marked “Rob’s Tree Stump,” the significance of which I’m still not sure, but it served as a landmark along the road for EAS to gather. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was content where I was and didn’t really plan to move my site.
After spending some time with the EAS crew, I went back to my end of OSP for a while, in part to get ready for Mel’s telescope walkabout, an OSP tradition in which Mel leads the assemblage around the grounds to look at homebuilt projects that had been put together since the previous OSP. I may have fallen asleep for a bit while waiting.
The walkabout was enjoyable, if a bit hotter and sunnier that I would’ve liked. Temperatures had been gradually getting warmer throughout the week, and we had broken into the upper 80s by this point, with the Sun a remorseless and relentless presence.
The walkabout ended by the EAS canopy, with Jerry and Randy discussing the building of Orion and the equatorial platforms with the crowd.
As I was leaving the walkabout, one of the volunteers (an older Indian gentleman who could have been a classic religious guru, with white flowing hair and a beard) stopped me to chat briefly and look at my shirt–one that I had bought 11 years ago at the Very Large Array, with the caption “The Universe Expanded Out of Nothingness 14 Billion Years Ago—and all I got were 15 trillion interconnected cells, a self-aware consciousness, and this lousy t-shirt.” He was very pleased with this caption, grinning broadly at it and grabbing a clipboard so that he could copy it down.
The walkabout took about an hour and a half, and as it was ending, we noticed an unwanted intruder: a bank of clouds building to the south. These were not the scattered, fluffy clouds from the night before; these were dark, dense, and very obviously rain-laden. The forecast had called for clouds in the afternoon and early evening, breaking up in time for sunset, but these looked to be more than a few hours’ worth.
And they were. By the time sunset rolled around, the clouds were still rolling in. To the east, there was an impressive lightning storm happening, one far enough away that we could appreciate it without much fear of it affecting us beyond obscuring our Universe.
Steve, Don, Thomas, Octavo, Jesse and I sat around watching the lightning and chatting, until we were joined by an OSP volunteer named Dana. Dana had a walkie-talkie over which we could hear weather updates; he told us that the revised forecast was calling for the clouds to break by 10:00. Over the course of our discussion, it came out that Dana had graduated from SIU in the late 60s, and knew of its party-school rep—this led to us talking about the strange connection between SIU and UO via Animal House (filmed at UO, but based on a frat at SIU), among other things. Meanwhile, Thomas and Octavo set up their cameras for time-lapse photos of the storm, hoping to catch lightning on a computer chip.
10:00 came and went. The clouds just kept rolling in. Dana went back to his rounds of the OSP site, spurred on by our humorous threats regarding “his” failed prediction of the clouds dispersing. Several of the others turned in for the night. I wandered up to see what the EAS crew was doing.
Nothing, as it turned out. Aside from the strains of recorder music coming from the huge RV, there was no real sign of the group. I waited for a few minutes and then went back to my van. No rain had been forecast, at least for the OSP site, so I crawled into the van and left the scope set up (albeit partially covered with a canvas tarp and pointed low to avoid wind gusts), as it had been throughout the week. I set my alarm for 1:00 AM and set to work on the crossword compendium I’d been working through. I don’t know what time I turned the lights off.
1:00 came quickly. I pulled some of the curtain-tarp aside and checked the sky: still cloudy. I reset the alarm for 2:30 and went back to sleep.
2:30 also came quickly, with the same result. With only an hour before morning twilight, I told myself a night off from observing wouldn’t be a bad thing and went back to sleep.
Saturday dawned still somewhat cloudy. There was some blue sky, but not enough to have been useful for observing, especially given that it would’ve come just before twilight broke.
I felt better having had a full night’s sleep. When I was younger, this wouldn’t have bothered me; I could have observed every clear minute of the star party and been perfectly fine for more. On the downhill side of 40, though, four hours’ sleep a night only goes so far, even with afternoon naps.
Although OSP didn’t technically end until tomorrow—still one night to go!—an exodus was already taking place. Jesse and Octavo were packing up; Steve had already stowed all his gear in his car and was saying goodbyes, and Don was closing up shop as well. For various reasons, people were heading home.
Up at the EAS encampment, there was now space, as Frank had left as well. I sat around with Bill, Mel, Barb, Jerry, Kathy, and Kristen for a while, talking about various things (next year’s OSP [which I would be missing to go to Carbondale for the eclipse], the merits of Sky Safari and the TriAtlas, EAS in general, and more that I don’t recall). By 2:00, it was time for the OSP group photo, and although many attendees had already left—not just my tribe at the end of the road—several of us opted to get in the picture anyway. (I’m not sure why they waited until Saturday for the photo, to be honest.)
We gathered in an empty area near the fork in the road, about 200 of us, standing in the hot Sun. The Indian gentleman who had been so amused by my shirt the day before sang a song while the photographer readied his camera—I was sure the song wasn’t a ghazal, but didn’t know what kind it was, and he only described it as a song of blessing (I think I heard Shiva mentioned, but couldn’t be sure; I wasn’t even sure if the song was in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, or which of the hundreds of Indian languages it might’ve been—I should have asked.)
After the picture came the door prizes. Mel had given us his and Barb’s tickets and Frank’s, as well as a couple of others whose origins I didn’t know; he didn’t feel the need to win anything. Having always had bad luck at prize drawings, I wasn’t overly optimistic.
Prizes for OSP volunteers were first, then prizes for the kids in attendance. The kids’ prizes were pretty good; there were several telescopes and some nice drones (a number of larger drones were flying around the site Friday night during the distant storm). I hoped that there would be drones available for the adults, although I didn’t actually need one. I commented that the guy doing the door prize drawings (I think it was OSP Vice President Jim Todd) was very quick with his banter and quite funny, both as a result of natural gift and a lot of practice.
One young lady won a package of star-patterned duct tape and glow-in-the-dark stars, which ended up being something of a lesser reward compared to the other prizes. By the end of the drawings, though, the grand prize was still yet to be won—a Celestron telescope, the specifics of which I couldn’t see on the box—and all of the kids present had won something already. With no tickets left for the finale, the crowd began chanting for the girl with the duct tape to get the grand prize. And so she did.
The adult prizes were impressive: several eyepieces (A Nagler, a 5mm ES 92-degree, and a couple of others I don’t recall), a couple of equipment cases, some binoculars, several Amazon gift certificates, a number of telescopes, and some books. (No drones, although they had one box seemingly containing one that, in the small print, turned out to be a computer “drone simulator.” Talk about a lame concept—and the crowd pretty much agreed with that assessment.) The prizes were raffled off in groups: eyepieces and binoculars, then gift certificates, then miscellany (some magazine subscriptions, a personal planetarium, the drone simulator, etc.), then books and scopes.
One of the books was Albert Highe’s Engineering, Design, and Construction of Portable Newtonian Telescopes. Jerry muttered “Kinda like to have that one,” and we nodded (the EAS tribe stood or sat as a group on the perimeter of the tent where the prizes were being drawn). But they didn’t call his number. They did call Kathy’s, though, so Jerry got the book anyway!
The next book was a huge coffee-table type, donated by the guy who did the nightly introductory constellation talks. The book, Giles Sparrow’s Cosmos: A Field Guide, was quite huge, and the MC noted that anyone winning that book had to show proof of ownership of a large coffee table. It certainly looked impressive from where I was standing.
I got to look at the book up close, though, because I won it.
The last of the scopes to be given away had been donated by EAS. Traditionally, there had been an 8″ Orion Dob as the grand prize, but the previous couple of years had seen the scope’s donor not providing one anymore. So Jerry had taken up a collection form EAS members to make sure there was such a scope to give away; he and Kathy had planned to pay for most of it, but enough EAS members had kicked in that the cost was well distributed. We had also given one of the 8″ Dobs away at the Dexter Star Party, our yearly one-night public star party at Dexter State Park, the weekend before OSP.
After the door prizes, there was a heightening of the OSP exodus, as a number of participants only had stuck around long enough to see what they might have won. The EAS tribe went back to their canopy. I left the book with Randy and his girlfriend while I went back to my van; with space open by the EAS tribe, I intended to spend the last night at OSP with the group I was a natural part of. Steve had helped me break the 18″ down and get it into the van; with most of “my” tribe gone from the end of the road, I was more OK with moving than I would’ve been the night before. I did apologize to Thomas for abandoning my site—he was the only one of the group left, and I apologize to him again for moving to more-familiar stomping grounds and leaving him pretty much by himself.
Setting the scope up again gave me a chance to re-attach the secondary cage to the truss poles—this was the weak link in the chain of stability of this scope, and the cause of some of the collimation problems I’d had (the shifting of the secondary misaligned the optical axis). So I took extra care in reattaching the secondary cage, and it paid off in the more-stable views I had the last night of OSP.
Although clouds continued to plague the south and southeast regions of the sky, Saturday night was one of the better nights of observing I did at OSP. In addition to better collimation, I was just “dialed in” a bit better than I had been. Maybe it was the presence of my regular people. Mel was set up nearby, showing legendary mirror-maker Steve Swayze portions of the integrated flux nebula through his 6″ f/2.8 scope. On the other side of Mel’s setup were Jerry and Kathy and their 12″ binoscope; across the road, Randy was using Orion, the club’s home-brewed scope, and his daughter Kristen using her 14″ Dob. I avoided bothering them on the night, as I didn’t want to disrupt anyone’s own projects.
I started—once again—with Palomar 5, once the sky was sufficiently dark. (Or as dark as it could be with frequent flashes of lightning to the southeast.) The distant globular once again eluded me, despite having Alvin Huey’s globular guide for getting the exact position. There were a few moments in which I felt I could detect something, but they didn’t add up to what I would consider a successful sighting. Other globulars were better: NGC 6366 and IC 1257 in Ophiuchus (the latter quite difficult!), then the NGC 6517/NGC 6539/Palomar 7 chain from Ophiuchus into Serpens Cauda. I was still disappointed at being unable to scavenge the fainter globulars around M55 (Terzan 7, Terzan 8, and Arp 2), as well as Sagittarius’ Hickson group (Hickson 86) due to the scope’s bearing being damaged, but there were enough other things to look for.
I also took time to track down one of the flat galaxies on my list, UGC 11093, in Ophiuchus’ shoulder:
OREGON STAR PARTY
MOON: 4 days old (16% illuminated), set at 10:03 PM
SQM: not taken
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid 50s, no dew; slight breeze, lightning and clouds in low east and southeast
Others present: JO, KO, RB, KP, Mel B
UGC 11093 (Oph): a member of FG catalogue—very very faint thin streak more visible in averted—about 2.0′ long, razor-thin, well less than 0.5′ wide—running SP-NF—has a brightish (12th/13th-mag) star superimposed right across middle, making it hard to see galaxy—star is bottom of kite-shaped asterism that is almost due F that star—four stars on opposite edge, three are much brighter—star to S edge is brightest of diamond—with galaxy situated in middle of field, there is a smattering of very bright stars including one of 8th mag 2/3 of the way to the edge of field and F galaxy—series of bright stars on P edge of field—really interesting, tough find
Kristen stopped by the 18″ as I was exploring the Lacerta Milky Way, hunting down a series of galaxy groups in the southern reaches of the constellation. We checked out the NGC 7240/7242 group just south of brightish 1 Lacertae, then swept southeast toward NGC 7265 and the NGC 7274 trio. Kristen was intrigued at being able to pick out these fairly faint little galaxies floating among the rich starfields in Lacerta, and it was gratifying that I was able to show them to her; she’d put her own scope to bed for the night, having had some mechanical issues with its collimation. We also got a good look at nearby NGC 7008, the Fetus (or Starchild) Nebula, a bright planetary with fascinating internal structure, and one of the best planetaries in the whole sky.
She was also patient enough to wait while I tracked down the NGC 80 group in Andromeda, a densely-populated clump of galaxies on the Andromeda/Pisces/Pegasus border. We noted (IIRC) ten of the galaxies in this group, which really needs a good view with notes taken on it. I’ll definitely return to this one. We also checked out my favorite galaxy chain, the NGC 383 “Duck Flight” group (my nickname) in extreme northern Pisces, the large edge-on spiral NGC 7640 in Andromeda, near the Blue Snowball planetary nebula (NGC 7662), NGC 404 (“The Ghost of Mirach” galaxy), the gorgeous equal-magnitude double star Gamma Arietis (my favorite autumn double star), the great globular M15, and the large bright barred spiral galaxy NGC 7479. I had never seen NGC 7640 before, and would later find it in Orion, the club scope, for Randy.
Kristen thanked me and went back to over to Orion and Randy; Jerry came by a few minutes later. I showed him NGC 7460 and the NGC 80 group, then we looked at M30 and hunted down Palomar 12, very nearby M30. We had observed Palomar 12 before at Eureka Ridge, but it was more difficult here—a fact we attributed to poor transparency. Jerry commented that the skies at OSP this year were sub-par for the site—he had checked the SQM reading Thursday night and had gotten a mediocre 21.3 average on his readings, which was below what we often got at Eureka Ridge.
After some more discussion, of the 18″ scope and of the OSP skies, Jerry went back to his own scope. I went back into my list and dug out a pair of targets that were intriguing but a fair distance removed from my usual galaxies: the pair of dim reflection nebulae around the naked-eye star Gamma Cassiopiae, IC 59 and IC 63. Sweeping north and east of the star, the two nebulae were surprisingly apparent even at the medium power I was using. I should’ve examined the field with a lower-power, wider-field eyepiece, but was satisfied with the view I’d gotten already.
I had also acquired another curious onlooker, a guy named Jonathan who had his own plot closer to the OSP entrance, but was intrigued by the massive 18″ scope. (There was a 42″ across the road, with its huge mirror made of seven fused panes of shower-door glass, but the scope was set away from the gravel road and not obvious to anyone walking along the road; and being f/5, the EAS 18″ scope is quite an imposing presence, and much longer than a typical 18″.) Jonathan was just looking to see something in one of the bigger scopes, so I showed him M15 and NGC 7479, as they were easy to find and in convenient position in the sky. He also asked to see Uranus, so after consulting Sky Safari, I managed to get the ice giant planet in the field. Having seen Uranus a couple of times at OSP, I was still surprised at how obvious its non-stellar disk was amid the starfield, and by how bright a shade of blue it was.
Jonathan then wandered off, apparently satisfied with what he’d seen. As it was getting late, and I had to leave fairly early in the morning to get home by 3 PM—Mrs. Caveman’s deadline, as she needed the van Sunday afternoon for a university function—I resolved to chase only one more target, the galaxy group around the star 1 Arietis.
I had seen this group before as well, but never this good; this time, with greater aperture, I was able to spot not just the six NGC objects in this group, but also IC 167, which I hadn’t seen before.
Randy and his girlfriend Annette stopped over to help me cover the big scope with a tarp; with the weather somewhat iffy, I didn’t want to risk it getting rained on. I went back to their side of the road for a few minutes, helping to track down Uranus in the 14.7″ Dob. While doing so, we caught one of the brighter of the 200 or so brightish meteors that I’d seen over the course of the week.
And with that, my observing from the 2016 Oregon Star Party came to an end. Despite having only seen a fraction of my intended targets—and taken notes on only a few—it had been a successful first major star party for me, and I knew how to make future ones (including the Brothers Star Party at the end of August/beginning of September) even better.
Packing up the next morning went quickly. Randy helped me load the scope; it took about an hour to situate everything, and I was on the road before 10 AM for the five-hour trip home.
It will be two years before I can get back to OSP, but I’ll have my notes and plenty of leftover dust to hold me over until then.