Illinois Dark Skies Star Party 2006

With the weather conditions degrading during the day on Thursday and clouds thickening, Mike Conron and I decided to skip Thursday at IDSSP06.  Despite the forecast of rain and storms, we packed up and headed over Friday afternoon.  I arrived around 2pm, and Mike C. arrived around 5pm.  The site is the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Park, about 25 miles northwest of Springfield, Illinois.  The park is fairly large and  has prairie as well as some hills, lakes, and stands of trees.  It's a nice variety coming from the farm fields of Champaign.

Upon arrival we were annoyed to learn that we could not park on the grass - we had to unload and leave our vehicle parked next to the gravel road that led to the shelter.  So, we decided to park our trailer, which didn't weigh much, on the grass to the west of my tent, which was quite large.  This would provide shelter from the wind if it blew.  (This turned out to be a wise choice.)  Of course this led to a game of "save the parking space" which caused annoyance later in the weekend when someone took my space despite my marking it with my cooler later in the weekend.  Hopefully this will be rectified next year - it's really a hassle and quite tiring to trapse back and forth between your vehicle and your telescope to put stuff away or dig it out.  (No one said anything about the trailer.)

The sky was partly sunny with building storms around, but nothing substantial overhead.  As we chatted with new friends under a canopy, an ominous cloud on the western horizon caught our eyes.  Report of tornadoes nearby were being chatted about as I snapped this picture and Mike Conron rolled his video camera.

Ugly storm cloud

As the cloud raced towards us, we threw everything in the vehicles or tents, grabbed our umbrellas and headed for cover.  For me, this was the shelter.  For Mike Conron, it was his minivan, where he later recorded some interesting narrated video as the wind shook the van and some small hail briefly pelted the roof!  Minutes later heavy rain and wind gusts beat down on our tents, vehicles and the shelter.

One particularly strong gust threw branches and leaves straight up into the air from trees several hundred feet west of us, betraying its identity as a microburst, the type of gust known to cause airplanes to crash!  We saw the leaves so we knew what was coming.  The ~60mph gust damaged at least two tents and overturned a canopy that tumbled end over end until coming to rest against a small tree, only feet from parked vehicles.  Fortunately it was undamaged.  The wind burst through the shelter, blowing rain horizontally and soaking many.  Those taking shelter in their campers reported an unsettling experience as they wondered if they would be overturned.  Fortunately none were.

Suddenly lightning struck close enough that we heard the sizzle as it arced through the air.  It rained heavily, more lightening boomed, and then things calmed down.  Soon the setting sun was seen through the falling rain, and this continued for a while.  Finally a beautiful double rainbow graced the sky, and we emerged from our shelters into the humid air.

I headed for my car, donned my waterproof boots, and slogged off to check my tent - dry except for a few drips that had blown in, and undamaged.  Glad we left the trailer beside it!  I pulled my camera out and started taking pictures of the rainbow.

It seems that things besides a pot of gold may lie at the end of the rainbow.... like a porta-potty....

Rainbow over the john

and a trailer (see below) housing a 30" telescope!  Also pictured below is one colorful guy that was glad his tent was still standing, even though some of the flaps had been open during the storm.

Rainbow over trailer The tent's OK!

Shortly after this, the sky cleared to the northwest, and the clouds to the west were beautifully lit by the sinking sun.

sunset sunset

People wandered around near the shelter and the circle drive/parking lot in front of it, debating whether or not to set up their telescopes.


Despite the high humidity left after the storm, we had generally clear skies from ~7pm to midnight on Friday night.  We enjoyed reasonably dark skies, the the light dome from Sprinfield and another small town to the southwest was enhanced by clouds over them, which reflected their light our way.  We set up our 30" F/3.8 scope as darkness fell, and I gobbled down my Jimmy John's sandwich during that process.  Soon it was dark, the dew was heavy, and we enjoyed fairly mosquito-free observing.  I had some coffee, but I noted there was no hot cocoa available in the shelter nearest where we camped.  (There apparently was cocoa at the other shelter.)  We had to use a 12V heater to blast the dew off our secondary mirror TWICE, but other than that we enjoyed some good observing and got to sleep at a reasonable hour.

The next morning dawned gray, drizzly, and slightly cooler.  Everything was wet, including my chair that got soaked in Friday afternoon's storm.  Mike Conron obtained breakfast and we ate in the shelter while it rained, having a lively discussion with some of our observing friends from the night before.  We were in rare form and laughter echoed from the shelter.  At some point I wandered over to the other camping area where the astronomy trivia event was being held, and I managed to answer a question and wind a very nice waterproof plastic chart of 600 notable deep-sky objects which I think I will really enjoy and use.  Many prizes were awarded.

We ate lunch (more sandwiches we had brought) and sat around talking during the afternoon.  I visited a few friends, killed some time, and drove over to the larger camping area to take a shower.  The facilities were excellent and very clean, and I came back clean and refreshed.  At that point the clouds seemed to be breaking up.  The awards and door prize drawing were held, and as usual I didn't win anything.

We cooked dinner under clearing sky.  We set the 30" scope back up, and soon strong wind gusts buffetted the camp.  Even our relatively squat 30" did a little weathervaning, and I grabbed a sweatshirt and jacket after wearing shorts and a T-shirt all afternoon.  Some clouds remained in the south, but overall the sky looked quite blue and beautiful, and we were optimistic about the coming night's observing.  Here are somep photos of the sunset and the 30" scope all ready for observing.

Saturday sunset

30" at sunset

Saturday night was indeed beautiful, with improved transparency.  The seeing was not quite as good, but we didn't care - Jupiter set quite soon after sunset, and we were there for the darkness and deep sky objects anyway.  The globulars and nebulae in the southern Milky Way were spectacular, from the humungous Lagoon to the Trifid showing four parts (OK the quadfid), to the Omega with tremendous detail, and the Eagle showing the pillars of creation.

The Veil was the best I have seen it, seeming to show some color in both the northern and southern halves, along with lots of detail in the often overlooked center section.  The Crescent (NGC 6888) showed lots of structure and a nearly complete loop.  The Dumbell was bright with lots of stars in the nebulosity.  Even the little Dumbell (M76) showed lots of detail.  The central star in M57 blinked in an out, and was actually more visible on Friday night.  M31 showed three dust lanes.

A friend (who had way too many toys) brought over his Denkmeier binoviewer and we had even more fun looking at globulars and Andromeda yet again, as well as M33.  We were impressed with its quality and how it handled the steep light cone from our very fast primary mirror.  At this point we noticed substantial cloudcover coming in from the west, just as Orion was rising, of course.  So much for the all-night observing session we had hoped for, but we could definitely use some sleep.  We stole a few quick looks through my 10" F/5.5 at the Pleaides and the Double Cluster.  We packed up the 30" in anticipation of more rain.

Sunday dawned drizzly again, and we slept in a bit and packed up in a light drizzle.  Despite the rain, we had a great time, and plan to attend again next year.  We just hope we can park on the grass!

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