A visit to the
Three Rivers Foundation Astronomy Campus

A trip to a northwestern Texas observing site

All images and text Copyright Mike Lockwood, 2013.  May not be used without permission.

I like Texas.  It's big, and the people are nice, especially the astronomers.  Well, OK, most astronomers are very nice.

I had the opportunity to travel to an observing site with Christina, the owner of a 30" f/3.3 Starmaster, and her husband Doug.  Yes, that's right - it's Christina's telescope, and Doug admits this freely.  His telescope is a large refractor that was also brought along on this trip.

Below the trailer is all opened up and ready for unloading, and the sky is mostly clear.

The 30" arrives at the 3RF site

The site is truly impressive in size, facilities, and the people who hang out there.  It is the Three Rivers Foundation Astronomy Campus, and it is a little slice of astronomy heaven in northwest Texas.

Below you can see the meeting building that connects internally to the large dome, which houses a large refractor, all under a nice blue sky.  The heat was not too bad, but it was definitely a nice day to stay in the shade if you could.  Note the nice rocking chairs on the covered porch.

Meeting building and dome at the 3RF site

There were many domes, including at least three in the "Butterfly Garden".  I did not see what was in these domes.

Domes and more domes

Continuing around the side of the complex, below is another view from the southwest side of the dome and meeting building.  The connecting hallway can be seen between them.  The red dirt is typical of this part of Texas and parts of Oklahoma, and sparse grass shows that it had been a fairly dry year.

The large dome and meeting building from another angle

Inside of the dome, you can see that one never has problems changing power (eyepieces) on the refractor - it is well and conveniently stocked with nice eyepieces, and several finders.

Inside the dome

The meeting building has a large wrap-around porch stocked with chairs and rocking chairs.  They were inviting on this warm, but tolerable Texas afternoon.  I can't remember, but these guys were probably talking about astronomy, telescopes, the weather, or dinner.

Relaxing on the porch

Speaking of dinner, we ate some good food, talked for a bit, and then it was time to go out and enjoy the sunset.  Wait, where did the clouds come from?  Hopefully they will pass.

Sunset at the Three Rivers Foundation Astronomy Campus

With the heat subsiding, it was time to set up a telescope.

First, though, the 30" mirror was dusty from being at the Texas Star Party, and it needed a bath.  So, we put it in its cell and leaned it against a conveniently placed transformer, and gave it a bath with distilled water.  This is the best way to clean a mirror, since you don't touch it - the water does all of the work.  After several rinses, most of the dust had been loosened and knocked off, and the mirror looked a bit brighter.  We dabbed a few remaining droplets off of the mirror, and finished assembly of the telescope, the parts of which are seen in the background in the image below.

Rinsing the mirror

Below are Christina and Doug with her telescope, under now cloudy skies, lit by the red lights of their trailer.

Doug and Christina with her 30" f/3.3 Starmaster

That ends this part of the story, but I will say one thing - it was quite difficult to walk around the site at night under cloudy skies.  This was because the clouds blocked the starlight that normally help you walk around at a good, dark site.  Without that, the ground was black, and I had to use a flashlight.

Well, maybe washing a mirror wasn't the best idea.  The clouds came soon after.

As the night began, clouds had rolled in, and we started noticing some flashing to the north, which turned out to be distant lightning.  We were checking the radar to see where the storms were, and they were to the north.

By late evening it was clear that the storms were coming, and clear skies were not.  A long drive back to the Dallas area was possible if we didn't want to stay in the very nice bunkhouses at the site.  We decided to break down both telescopes and pack them in the trailer.

With everything safely stowed, the storms were getting closer, and it became apparent that a drive back to Dallas would probably also feature some significant time driving through those storms, possibly most of the way home.  So, we decided to ride out the storms at the Three Rivers site and stay there for the night.

Decision made and sweaty from packing up, I headed for the wonderful, new showers and cooled off.  Then I joined the rest of the crew.... where else.... on the front porch watching the storms approach.  Time to get my camera and tripod.

Another gentleman had his camera and tripod ready, and we chatted as I tried different lenses and settings.  I typically shoot storms with a 14mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens or a 24mm f/1.4 lens.  Aperture setting depends on what I think is right, and shutter is set on bulb so I can close it after a good strike.

The image below is over exposed a bit to show the "lay of the land", basically looking north from the porch where the rocking chairs were seen in my earlier image.  At right is another building where I believe an almost-resident amateur lives during new-moon periods.  The white trailer seen in front of it holds the scopes we had just packed up.

Lay of the land as the storms roll in

As the storms moved closer, the shots got more interesting.  Below the gust front of the storm is seen, illuminated by a lightning strike or two.  The bolt is seen right of some trees just right of center.  I love the subtle colors that come out in these images.  The Three Rivers Foundation (3RF) entry gate is seen at lower left in the image.

Gust front rolls into the Three Rivers Foudation Astronomy Campus

Finally, with the storm getting close, I got one very nice shot.  I reversed it left-to-right so that the Three Rivers Foundation gate was easily readable - you drive through it when you enter the site.

The money shot - lightning and the Three Rivers Foundation gate

The wind picked up, rain started blowing in, and we headed inside to the meeting room.  It was like being backstage at the Weather Channel in there - everyone had their laptops out looking at their favorite radar or weather site, tracking the precipitation, looking for any traces of rotation in the large storms, and discussing their findings.  The other photographer was already downloading and processing lighting shots.  I was just relaxing and talking.

The "weather center" set up in the meeting room

Keep in mind, Oklahoma City, site of several devastating, massive tornadoes in recent years, is not that far up the road from here, and people take the weather seriously.  If you don't, it can kill you.

The only effects the weather had on us were the noise of the storm, an occasional power drop-out, and some dripping water from a leaking vent on the building.  Laptops were quickly moved to avoid that!

Lightning flashed, thunder crashed, the wind blew, and rain pounded on the roof.

As the storm decreased in intensity, I wandered out to the covered porch to see what things looked like.  I emerged to find a flash flood in progress on the walkways just outside the building, and lightning illuminating the scenery.  So, of course, I grabbed my camera and tripod and started shooting.  Here's what the flood looked like from the porch, lit only by a bright lightning strike.

Porch and flooding

As the sideways rain let up, I moved out nearer the edge of the porch to get some more lightning shots.  This strike was some distance off, and did not hit the large roll-off roof observatory seen at right.

Lightning and flooding

Turning to the right from the photo above, the dome is right there, so I had to get a photo of it lit up by one of the frequent lighting strikes.  The wet, shiny metal made this easier.  Comparing the two photos, you can see that in the one below, the flooding has subsided soemwhat, and the walking paths are becoming visible again.

Dome lit by lightning

I decided to compose a nice shot with some chairs, the flowing water, and a lightning strike.  After some time waiting and shooting, I finally got my shot, possibly my favorite from the trip.  The red lights of the shower building are visible as are the truck and trailer.  The chairs sit, observing the storm.

Another type of view from the porch

Despite the inclement weather, I had a great time traveling with Doug and Christina out to the site, and really enjoyed just seeing the place.  I also enjoyed the storm - I had not done much storm photography this year, and it was nice to have a chance.  Sometimes you just have to make the best of what you are given.

One thing is for sure - I'll be back to the Three Rivers Astronomy Campus in the future to do some observing with a telescope rather than my camera lenses.  Hopefully Christina and her 30" scope and Doug and his refractor will be there under clear, transparent skies.

Clear, dark skies, warm weather, good friends, good seeing, and good storm photos.

-Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics