Astrofest 2005 - from an ATM's perspective

by Mike Lockwood, 9/11/05

I returned from Astrofest 2005 this morning tired, tanned, and congested.  Visions of sun-baked light brown grass fields filled with tents and RVs are fresh in my head, and my air conditioned house provides much needed cool relief after three days of camping in the September heat.  What follows is my account of the star party, admittedly colored by my interest in amateur telescope making, but also by my previous experiences at the new and old sites of Astrofest, and my experiences at Astrofest 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and have been considered carefully.

THURSDAY, Sept 8th

I arrived at Vana's Farm, the new site of Astrofest, at about 5pm on Thursday, picked up my registration packet at the gate, and drove slowly into the telescope field to avoid kicking up too much dust.  The field appeared more sparsely populated than the previous year, likely due to impending cloud cover caused by a weak cold front that was in no hurry to pass through the area.  I had also heard rumors of reduced attendance due to the change in location the previous year.  The registration deadline had been extended and extra mailers sent out in the hopes of convincing more attendees to make the trip.

I found my group of friends on the north side of "1st Street", as it was designated by a cardboard street sign.  Their camper and telescopes were set up, just in time for the clouds to roll in, providing welcome relief from the midday heat that brutalized the field.  I parked the car in our orange-taped-off area, leaving room for the arrival of fellow MBM 30 builder Mike Conron, who was scheduled to arrive with the trailer containing the big scope around 6pm or so.  (Bob Nonnemann was unable to attend.)  I immediately pulled my camping chair from the jumbled mass of telescope parts in the back of my car, removed a cold soda from my cooler, and joined my friends under their camper's awning.  This was the first relaxation I had had in a few weeks.


For the last few weeks I'd been trying to finish up work on my new 10" F/8.75 telescope, with the goal of finishing it by Astrofest and viewing Mars in the early morning hours.  I had been devoting lots of time to the scope, and I was tired.  I needed a break to enjoy the scope and the company of friends.

We talked about what we'd been up to lately, and soon my friends headed for the dinner line to enjoy their prepaid meals.  Mike Conron soon arrived and cooked up some delicious hamburgers and corn.  We decided to forego the scope setup until Friday evening due to the overcast conditions.  When our friends returned from dinner, we sat around and talked until midnight when the sky began to clear a bit.

Humidity hung heavy in the air, and we became aware of a new disturbing arrival at Vana's farm.  A HUGE light dome had sprung up in the southeast sky, reaching up some 30 degrees high in the moist air.  It effectively wiped out the southern sky, and greatly reduced the visibility of objects and constellations in the southern milky way.  The glow was white, in contrast to the orange glow from nearby Kankakee to the east.  Whatever it was (it was a rock quarry, actually), it was offensive, excessive, and contributed heavily to overall sky glow.  The owner should be prosecuted.  We were collectively disgusted and disappointed.  Additionally, from any ladder with more than two steps, two bright sodium vapor lights on a neighboring building were visible over the tents and RVs that covered the field, shining brightly in the direction of the observing field.  Couldn't someone have talked to the neighbors?

Following a short interval of viewing, Mike Conron and I turned in the for night, leaving our friends to polar align a 7" Meade refractor and do some viewing with it.  They had an enjoyable time, but they determined that the collimation in the 7" F/9 Meade doublet was not up to snuff.

FRIDAY, Sept 9th

Friday dawned foggy and damp, but quickly the sun began to relentlessly heat the observing field.  I awoke to find dozens of small ants crawling on the outside of my tent, silohetted by the sun.  Maybe it's just because Astrofest was my first star party (in 1998), but there is something magical about hearing the words "Good Morning, Astrofesters" broadcast over the PA system.  The announcement brings sleepy attendees our of their tents and into the new day.

The heat of the sun was relentless.  We sought refuge in the shade of the trailer, moving our chairs closer and closer to the trailer as the shade slipped away.  Mike Conron cooked up a delicious meal of bacon and eggs.  Donning my hat and sunglasses, I made a hasty trip around the observing field, walking up and down the rows in search of what proved to be the elusive home built scope.  I found only a handful.  Disappointed, I returned to our campsite and sat in the shade, fighting dehydration with Gatorade and iced tea.

I did notice a valuable improvement to the setup this year - there was a sink with running water set up outside the smaller barn, complete with soap for hand washing and paper towels.  Another sink with foot pumps was set up in the middle of the observing field, conveniently located for most.  This was a great improvement over last year, when there were only the two sinks in the shower trailers to use, making brushing one's teeth somewhat difficult.  There was also a hose with a spray nozzle, which is great for washing dishes.  I also noticed hand sanitizer in the porta-johns this year, something I did not see last year, but could have missed.  The same shower trailer was present this year, and for the most part there was hot water.  However, using the shower in the afternoon could best be considered a trip to the sauna, as ventilation was poor.  I solved the problem by showering after 3am, when I was done observing.

The first speaker on Friday was cancelled, and Mike Conron and I later attended a nice talk on the search for extrasolar planets.  The talk was interrupted by lots of questions (many from one individual in particular and slightly off-topic), but was quite enjoyable.  However, the barn was HOT, and on the way out I whacked my head (not just a bump) into the bottom of a garage door that someone had opened to a height of 6'.  (I am 6' 2" tall.)  Stunned and in pain, I angrily threw up the door as high as it would go and headed back to camp, rubbing my head.  In my opinion, more ventilation and better usage of the doors are needed.

I went and got a couple of (overpriced) brats for Mike C. and I for lunch, and was distressed to see the guy handling both food and money without gloves on.

After getting tired of sitting under the shade canopy later in the day, we braved the sun to check the collimation of the 7" refractor, and adjusted the alignment to "stack" the reflections from the lens elements as best we could.  It appeared that the lens was aligned toward the edge of the 2" focuser, nearly 1" off center!  The lens was tilted as accurately as we could doing it by eye, looking up the focuser tube.  We resolved to tweak it on a star later that evening or the next night.

While lounging under the canopy, we waited for the shade line from the camper and the nearby tree line to reach the locations where we would set up our scopes.  John Stone joined us and waited too.  By 6pm, it was nearly shady, and I set up my brand new 10" F.8.75 Newtonian, which had had first light in my driveway on Tuesday night.   I also set up my 12.5" F/12.5 classical Cassegrain (with Naysmith focus) on my equatorial platform, and collimated both scopes.  I answered some questions from passers by that stopped to look at my scopes.  As I suspected, the wire spiders in both scopes were hot topics.  Common questions were "Doesn't it vibrate?" and "Does it hold its position well?".  The answer to the first question was no, and I answered the second question for a group of people by grabbing the central hub of the Cassegrain and moving the scope around with it!!!  It did not budge.  (Note - it is possible to move the secondary, but only with lots of force applied.  In practice, this is not done, and bumpy car rides do not seem to affect it.)

I had installed name plaques on my 10" and 12.5" scopes that gave the specs of the scopes and my name as the maker of the scope and optics, but I was still answering the questions asked by those who passed by.  Clearly these plaques need to be backlit with red LEDs!

We also set up our 30" F/3.8 scope, collimated, and were treated to an unexpectedly good view of the moon.  This scope would be under-utilized the rest of the weekend due to the poor sky conditions.  Mike Conron handled the scope and showed passers by the moon.  Here's a photo of the scopes set up in our area, covered to keep them cooler.


Behind the 30" is my 10" F/8.75.  Then from right to left we have my 12.5" F/12.5 Cassegrain, Lou Church's 7" Meade refractor, 4" Meade refractor, and 8" Meade SCT.  The 4" refractor was used almost exclusively for solar viewing, and the SCT was nearly unused all weekend.

The waxing crescent moon hung low in the southwest, an inviting target for my long focus scopes.  The 10" provided most excellent contrast, and countless craters, mountains, rilles, and subtle regions of gray-shaded terrain were evident.  The Cassegrain provided a higher-power view, and was clearly needing more time to cool off before providing its best images.  Some persistent undercorrection still appeared in the star test, some of which I am certain is cooling related.

The light pollution at the site was proving most objectionable, a situation made profoundly worse by the atmospheric haze that refused to go away.  The milky way overhead was visible, but with very little difinition.  The eastern and southeastern sky was useless to an altitude of ~60 degrees.  Haze obscured objects to an altitude of ~30 degrees.  We resigned to viewing objects overhead, in the southwest, and in the west.  Despite poor conditions, I enjoyed excellent contrast with my 10" scope when viewing the Veil, Dumbell, and even the (admittedly faint) Crescent nebula.  Globulars like M13, M92, M15 and M22 were nicely resolved on a dark background.  I think I glimpsed the central star in the Ring Nebula, but I am not sure of it.  I and others have seen it flicker in and out in my 12.5" Cassegrain.  My 10" seems to enjoy better contrast, due to better baffling.  This was a good lesson learned during this event.

John Stone's sky brightness meter indicated skies fully a magnitude brighter than our club's observing site some ~5 miles southwest of Champaign, IL.  Overall, the reading was 19.7, and our Champaign site rated 20.7.  The bright eastern sky at Vana's rated 18.7, fully two magnitudes worse than our light-polluted site in Champaign.  Kankakee's light did dim later on, and brough the overall reading at Vana's to 20.1.

Bob Kirschenmann joined us Friday and Saturday nights and we had a great time talking to him.  He is an experienced observer, mirror maker and scope builder, and he  complimented the 30" scope's performance and my 10" scope's images and contrast.  He also commented that he was impressed with the design of my Cassegrain, and for that I thank him.  Coming from him it was a huge compliment.  FYI, Bob makes drives, mirror cells, and a large portion of the V8 and V10 for Starmaster.

By 1am Mars had risen high enough to reveal its polar cap and other surface detail through the hazy skies.  I enjoyed hand tracking the 10" scope at 250x and 450x, and the scope proved easy to move right off without tweaking.  The seeing improved until 3am, when lots of good surface features were visible.  By this time I was realizing that my 10" scope was succeeding at its intended purpose - high contrast, high resolution lunar/planetary observing, as well as high contrast viewing of deep sky objects.  Mars snapped into focus sharply, and smaller and more subtle surface features became visible as the night went on, like small dark regions (surface features) and smaller brighter regions.  My friends enjoyed the views too, and commented favorably on the scope and images

My friend Larry (an incredibly nice guy who has learned lots about scopes in the last year) and I compared views of Mars in my 10" with his 12.5" F/5 Starmaster with Zambuto primary.  Both instruments were in good collimation, were fairly well equilibrated, and provided views that could only be considered excellent.  However, my scope had a bit more sharpness and contrast.  We tried different eyepieces, variable polarizers, etc.  I attributed the difference to the longer focal ratio, smaller obstruction, and wire spider.  Satisfied, I turned in for the night and got some good hours of sleep.

Saturday, Sept. 10th

Saturday dawned hot and without dew.  Thankfully, a moderate breeze began to blow in the morning.  After breakfast, we again sought out shade.  I made a trip to the barn to get two telescope contest forms, and filled them out and taped them to my two scopes.   More arrivals filled the telescope field, but the overall attendance appeared to be somewhat reduced from last year.  No doubt gas prices affected the plans of some who had registered.

Judging of the telescope contest was set to begin at 2:00pm, and the judges appeared at 2:30pm to see my scopes.  I was pleased that the judging time was announced and was adhered to, as it made it easy for me to be nearby when they arrived.  This has not been the case in past years.  I was happy to meet Jim Seevers among the judges, as I had never met him before, but some of my friends knew him.

The afternoon was HOT.  My thermometer read 96°F in the sun and 93°F in the shade, with 29% humidity.  A nearby black vehicle measured 146°F with the infrared thermometer.  I did not measure the temperature in a porta-john, but it was definitely well above 100°F, probably near 110°F.  Unfortunately, porta-johns were the only choice for those who had to heed the call of nature as Astrofest.  What if someone passed out from the heat in one of them?  Would they be found before (gulp) death?

I took some pictures of the observing field under the hot afternoon sun.  Here's a view looking toward the exit of the farm, and towards the back of the field.  I also took some shots that I hope to eventually merge into a 270-degree panorama.  Note the dry ground, and browning grass.  It has been a very dry summer.

View out

view toward back

The afternoon wore on.  At some point we witnessed an employee of the place aggressively driving a front end loader around the observing field, checking for trash cans that needed emptying.  He was seemingly driving it as fast as he could, and kicking up clouds of dust as he went along - not something we were thrilled to see, given all of the optics sitting nearby.  Aggressive driving of heavy equipment and delicate equipment don't mix, and shouldn't be tolerated.  However, I will say that none of the trash cans ever overflowed, and generally there was no trash blowing around.  The porta-johns were also pumped out daily, and were generally in good shape.

Soon we made dinner and made our way up to the barn for the door prize drawing and the announcing of awards.  Dinner was a $15 buffet!!!  (Warning - my strong opinions follow!)  My God - if I ate $15 worth of food I'd fall asleep a half hour after dinner, and then wake up and spend the better part of my evening in one of the unlit porta-johns!  (This is not high on my list of favorite activities.)  What will meal prices be next year?  I complain only because I have seen the exponential rise of on-site meal prices - in the last three years (which, coincidentally, is the number of years they have had the new caterer) they have shot up more than gasoline!  In my opinion, the food is overpriced and fattening (especially breakfast), not what astronomers require to stay up until dawn, and it does not justify the high cost.  I personally have no desire to triple the cost of my registration by ordering meals.  I cannot comment on the food quality before and after, but I will acknowledge (but cannot confirm) that the food may have improved - I just can't say.  End food price rant.

The evening program began with the astrophoto contest awards, which had been changed somewhat to accomodate the influx of digital images.  Next, door prizes were awarded, in the usual slow manner - a name is called, and then someone eventually appears in front of the announcer to claim the prize.  Lou's wife Jane won a CCD camera early in the awards.  Soon it was getting dark, and we were getting impatient.  The personal solar telescope (PST), an exceptionally fine door prize, was finally claimed by the 3rd person whose name was drawn.  Then, two special awards were given out, and the program ended.  Everyone got up and left.  Of course, I noticed something was wrong, but I was too disappointed to say anything.  They had forgotten to announce the telescope making awards!

Why was I so mad?  Well, last year I received some sort of award for either or both my 16" F/4 scope and our 30" F/3.8, but I couldn't tell exactly what the award was based on what the announcer said.  (There was a long delay in getting the award certificates, but I now have received my awards for Astrofest 2004 and 2005, thanks to the efforts of those in charge of the contest.  I greatly appreciate it.)

As everyone walked away, I did too, angry and disgusted, and I resolved to return later and give someone a piece of my mind when I wasn't so hot.  This was the absolutely perfect illustration of what I have observed at Astrofest - every year there is LESS and LESS emphasis on telescope making, more emphasis on commercial vendors.  And higher food prices.  And less and less enforcement of the "no white light after dark" policy.  (I for one am not afraid to yell at someone who turns on their headlights or interior camper lights after dark.)  I have been attending Astrofest since only 1998, and over that relatively short time period I have seen these changes come about.

After walking behind the barn on our way back to the observing field, the PA crackled to life again, and the organizers realized their omission and announced the 8 awards to people as they walked back to their telescopes.  I was honored to receive an award for both of my scopes, for design and craftmanship.  I thank the judges for their prompt arrival on the field, for their thorough questioning and examination of the equipment, and for their time.

Immediately we set about to lunar viewing, and talking with the small crowd that had gathered in our area.  My anger vanished, as I enjoyed the company of friends and strangers eager to have a look through my scopes.  Larry congratulated me on my awards, and observing began in earnest.  I ventured over to a 4" refractor down the "street" and we worked on collimation.  Through trial and error we then improved the collimation of Lou's 7" refractor, which was producing images greatly improved over those late Thursday night and early Friday morning.

At some point, probably around 11pm or so, an auroral display graced the northern sky.  A bright spike appeared centered about 40° high, 10° to 15° long, and disappeared in about a minute.  You could hear yells across the observing field.  After this, a green band appeared across the northern sky, about 30° up.  It persisted for 10-15 minutes, and then the display faded.

I ventured out to "Mars Field" and looked through a beautifully restored 12.5" Criterion (Dall-Kirkham, we think).  It had exactly the opposite result of the star tests of my Cassegrain - some overcorrection, with the amount being a bit more than the undercorrection in my scope.  However, the closed tube provided superior contrast to my Cass as it let in less light from the sky.  The owner of the Criterion (Scott, I believe) and I resolved to look at it some more at Prairie Skies in three weeks.  Adjustment of the spacing of the mirrors may help correct the problem.

I returned to our campsite.  Some time late in the evening a very nice woman walked by and conversation led to the topic of the quarry's artificial sun.  She commented that the owners simply forgot to call the owner of the quarry and ask him to turn it off, and no one was around to do it since it was the weekend.  We were flabbergasted.  How do you forget this?!  The single most offensive, excessive source of light pollution I have ever seen is located less than a mile away, and no one calls to tell them to turn it off!!  This is simply unforgiveable, a truly fatal error for anyone who hopes to observe the southern sky from this site, compounded by the haze.  Apparently the call had been placed last year, sparing us the flood of photons

Folks, talk to your local politicians and maybe we can stop the morons who needlessly deprive us of our right to see an unpolluted sky full of stars.  Hopefully the organizers will talk to the neighbors, too, and get them to shield the damn sodium vapor light bombs next door.  Personally, I'm not sure how you can have a star party with over 500 people traveling from various corners of the state and even the region and not have it farther away from major sources of light, namely Kankakee-Burbonnais, and that damn quarry.  There are far better sites farther west and south.

After shaking off this disturbing bit of information, we observed some more.  Jim Seevers joined us, and we talked about optics for at least an hour.  He viewed Mars through my 10" F/8.75 and complimented the images.  The planet looked good in my Cass, too.  Soon it was 2am, and I decided to put the Cass. tube assembly in my car and use the tracking platform under my 10".  At 450x with a 5mm Nagler in the focuser, Mars hung in the center of the field, showing excellent detail.  The breeze shook the scope only slightly, and affected viewing less than I had feared.  Fellow CUAS member Willard Brinegar used his Monocentric eyepieces and various filters to bring out other subtle details.  While some may prefer a filtered view, my eyes generally prefer the bright image.  At about 3:30 am, I decided to shower and get some sleep.  I hardly saw a soul.  I think most had turned in earlier, and were missing the good seeing.  Visions of the detailed Martian disk at high power filled my head as I fell asleep, with the tent shaking gently in the breeze.

Sunday, Sept. 11th

I awoke, groggy and hungry.  There was a free breakfast buffet, so I stumbled up to the barn and got some dry sausage, overcooked eggs, and a biscuit and gravy.  We packed up our scopes, loaded up the trailer with the 30", and said goodbye to our friends.  We will see them again and many others in three weeks at the Prairie Skies Star Party nearby.  I look forward to better sky conditions there, and more home built telescope creations.

I did not realize the significance of the date until I was on my way home.  That's the nice thing about star parties - you leave all the world's problems behind (with the possible exception of light pollution).

Overall, I had a good time at Astrofest 2005, but deep sky observing was futile, in my opinion.  The facilities were improved for those of us that camped, and I had a tremendous time being with friends and looking at Mars.  Personally, I'm not sure if I will return.  I have been craving darker skies lately, and we may decide to spend the time somewhere darker.

                    Mike Lockwood

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