Prairie Skies 2005
by Mike Lockwood
I pulled into Camp Shaw-waw-nas-see, the site of the 2nd annual Prairie
Skies Star Party, at about 3:30 pm on Thursday, the first day of the
event. The people at the registration tent said they had about
two hundred people registered, up a bit from last year. A cold
front had swept
through the area the day before, leaving beautiful blue skies with
high clouds. The temperature was pleasantly cool, in the lower
in contrast to the humid 80s earlier in the week. Clearly, this
party was off to a good start, and some deal had been struck with
The observing field was not full by any stretch of the imagination, but
this was just fine with me. This meant more room to set up and
less crowding of the facilities such as the showers, more hot water for
showers, and less noise overall. Absent the first evening were
telescopes (20" and up), with the exception of our MBM 30" scope, which
arrived with Mike Conron around 6pm. In the meantime, while
for Mike, I had set up my 12.5" F/12.5 classical
Cassegrain and my new 10" F/8.8 Dob,
collimated both, and caught up with some friends who had saved us a
spot. John Coulston had a 6" super-planetary AstroPhysics
and Lou Church had set up his 7" and 4" Meade refractors. John
and Lou (right) are pictured below. Refractors on their side of
camp, reflectors on ours!
Here's a wider-field shot of our camp area. Lou arrives early and
cordons off an area big enough for the three refractors, my two
and the 30" F/3.8. We're grateful he saves us enough space to set
everything up and have room for the line that inevitably forms near the
After a quick dinner, we de-trailered the 30" and set it up and
collimated, drawing a small crowd. No sooner than the sun had
set, our shoes became instantly wet with the extremely heavy dew.
The temperature dropped rapidly into the 40s, and likely into the
upper 30s. Some enjoyable viewing with the 30" accomplished, a
quick look at Mars in my 10" showed the seeing was not so steady.
That, along with my wet feet and the cool
weather convinced Mike C. and I to turn in around midnight, and we got
of sleep, waking up around 8am. It's always good to get some good
since there were two more nights to come. Also, we were scheduled
do a talk on the 30" scope on Friday at 3pm, and we didn't want to be
I was thankful for a good sleeping bag that night, as I stayed
Friday dawned a bit warmer and still dewy. We had bacon and eggs
for breakfast, and then we started preparing Lou's laptop for our
presentation. Software was installed and presentations
transferred. Everything worked except the videos, and Mike C.
made a trip to town to find some software to convert them to a format
the laptop could handle. Later we found that there was no cable
with the projector to connect it to the VGA output of the laptop, so
Mike C. graciously made another trip to town so that our presentation
would actually be seen. (I trust the organizers will have a few
more cables around next year.)
Lunch was a "Prairie Dog", a polish hot dog served up for a very
reasonable price (unlike other star parties), and a can of soup that I
had brought. The afternoon flew by, and soon it was time for our
presentation. We had an audience of about 20 people, and all
seemed to enjoy our hour-long description of over a year of mirror and
telescope making work that culminated (there's that word, Lou) with the
completion of our 30" F/3.8
I managed to finish the talk at exactly 4pm! I think if the PA
at the camp had been working, we could have summoned a few more people,
We went back to the field and found that some friends from the
Cincinnati area had arrived, and we headed off for our yearly
pizza/beer dinner at Chicago Dough Boys, where and exceptionally good
time was had by all. Their deep-dish pizza is the best.
Here's a photo of the Cincinnati group and friends.
Friday evening turned out to be clear and there was less dew than the
night before. Time flew by, and I finally showered and turned in
around 4am, after a satisfying look at Mars in my 10" scope, which is
with a new polypropylene foam light sheild. This foam is the same
that the round foam pipe insulation is made from, and can be painted
latex paint if desired. I found out recently that this telescope
will be featured in the March 2006 issue of Sky and Telescope Magazine.
The seeing Saturday morning was not as good as it was at Astrofest, but
some said it improved at dawn. I was sleeping soundly at that
We got up a bit after 8pm and found the free donuts in the dining hall.
Coffee and cocoa brought us back to life. My favorite thing
is to put some cocoa in the cup, and then fill it up with coffee -
mocha, sure to wake you up. I sat with the Cincinnati crowd that
taking refuge from the intense sun under the shade trees near the
to the field. After lunch, Mike C. and I took a quick hike and I
some photos of the scenic woods and river valley located north and east
the camp. It's so nice to have the hiking trails at the camp -
can walk for a few minutes and be in the woods, alone with nature.
Here are some photos of the river and its gorge, carved through
the Illinois limestone.
At 2pm I led a group of about 15 people on the first annual "telescope
walkabout", an idea shamelessly stolen from the Oregon Star Party.
The idea is that you gather all the telescope builders and then
walk around the field, and they talk about their scopes for about 5
minutes each. In the process, you learn their name and what they
look like, and later you can come back and ask more questions.
It's simply a way to get to know
more people. We looked at at least 10 very interesting telescopes
a variety of unique features, in sizes between 60mm and 20" in
aperture. We completed our tour of the telescope field in about
45 minutes, and
then sought refuge from the intense sunlight.
Here are pictures of a few of the memorable scopes we saw on the
A bit of relaxation followed, and we sat in the shade. At this
point I will note the excellent feature that the
organizers brough to the star party this year - a light shield
that spanned the entire west edge of the telescope field, so
shield the observing field
from car headlights of those leaving early from the lot there, and from
uncooperative local who lived across that road that refused to turn off
light for the star party. (Last year his irritating sodium light
brightly on some parts of the observing field, ruining dark
a photo of the barrier, blowing in the breeze, and some of the
of Saturday afternoon, with Mike Conron catching a nap before the door
Here's a closer view - this is the essence of daytime at a star party,
enjoying the beautiful weather and the shade of a mature tree (which is
absent at Vana's).
With the field not packed to the gills with campers, tents, and
there was room to relax, and it was generally quiet and peaceful.
Finally, here's a crude panorama of the observing field, taken from the
west side of the field by the light barrier.
Everyone gathered at 4:30pm in the dining hall for the awards program.
I was honored with an award for my 12.5" F/12.5 Cassegrain, for
innovative design. Our group from Champaign didn't win any door prizes.
I thought having
the program before dinner was an excellent improvement - in the past
program has been between dinner and observing, and often ran over into
when it was dark, and scopes should have been getting cooled off.
After dinner, as it got dark, we took some photos of the group.
we are (from left to right, myself, John C, Lou, and Mike C), with John
behind the camera and the 30" in the background:
Saturday night was somewhat cloudy early on, with patches of high
clouds drifting through early in the evening. At some point (I
think it was Saturday) two brilliant lights lit up Cassiopeia.
They were traveling together, likely two military satellites
maneuvering simultaneously. It looked like a double Iridium
flare! After 1am or so, the skies really cleared up and good
observing was had by those that were still awake.
I spent some time with John Pratte's excellent 20" F/5 scope, staring
at the subtle shadings in the Orion Nebula, which had risen high enough
to show quite a good view. John made his own mirror, and it came
out quite excellent.
He lives only an hour from Champaign (where I live), and we plan
future observing sessions in his fairly dark front yard. I look
to the first annual "Pratte-O-fest" at his house.
Tired and satisfied, I turned in around 2am.
Sunday morning we got up, ate breakfast, and packed up. It was
getting warm - unseasonably warm for October, but it felt like a nice
summer morning. I took a last leisurely walk across the observing
field, and noted how much warmer it was than Thursday.
I will miss the grass, trees, buildings, river, and friends until I see
them again next year, or hopefully before.