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 passing high clouds.  The temperature was pleasantly cool, in the lower 60s, in contrast to the humid 80s earlier in the week.  Clearly, this star party was off to a good start, and some deal had been struck with Mother Nature.

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 said showers, and less noise overall.  Absent the first evening were large telescopes (20" and up), with the exception of our MBM 30" scope, which arrived with Mike Conron around 6pm.  In the meantime, while waiting 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 refractor, and Lou Church had set up his 7" and 4" Meade refractors.  John (left) and Lou (right) are pictured below.  Refractors on their side of the camp, reflectors on ours!

John Coulston Lou Church

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 reflectors, 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 30" scope.


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 lots of sleep, waking up around 8am.  It's always good to get some good sleep, since there were two more nights to come.  Also, we were scheduled to do a talk on the 30" scope on Friday at 3pm, and we didn't want to be zombies.  I was thankful for a good sleeping bag that night, as I stayed quite warm.

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 telescope.  Somehow I managed to finish the talk at exactly 4pm!  I think if the PA system at the camp had been working, we could have summoned a few more people, but that's okay.

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.

Cinci group

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 pictured below, with a new polypropylene foam light sheild.  This foam is the same stuff that the round foam pipe insulation is made from, and can be painted with latex paint if desired.  I found out recently that this telescope will be featured in the March 2006 issue of Sky and Telescope Magazine.

10in F/8.8

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 time.

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 - instant mocha, sure to wake you up.  I sat with the Cincinnati crowd that morning, taking refuge from the intense sun under the shade trees near the entrance to the field.  After lunch, Mike C. and I took a quick hike and I took some photos of the scenic woods and river valley located north and east of the camp.  It's so nice to have the hiking trails at the camp - you 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.

river Cliffs

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 with 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 walkabout.

12" Cass 12in dob

6in dob

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 the uncooperative local who lived across that road that refused to turn off his light for the star party.  (Last year his irritating sodium light shone brightly on some parts of the observing field, ruining dark adaptation.)  Here's a photo of the barrier, blowing in the breeze, and some of the relaxation of Saturday afternoon, with Mike Conron catching a nap before the door prize drawing.


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 scopes, 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 the program has been between dinner and observing, and often ran over into time 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.  Here's we are (from left to right, myself, John C, Lou, and Mike C), with John Pratte behind the camera and the 30" in the background:

our group

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 (hopefully) many future observing sessions in his fairly dark front yard.  I look forward 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.

    Mike Lockwood

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