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the Chiefland Fall Star Party 2014

Another nice trip to Florida, trying to leave the cold behind but not quite succeeding...

All images and text Copyright Mike Lockwood, 2015.  May not be used without permission.

The Fall Star Party at Chiefland was once a very large event, but poor weather in recent years has shrunk it dramatically.  It now seems to be more of a social event, with observing and imaging taking place when the weather allows.

That's just fine with me - it is still a good reason to visit friends and clients in Florida and to get a bit of a break from my normally hectic schedule.

2014's event brought clear, but cold weather for the first part, then clouds and a threat of rain for the ending weekend.  The seeing was steadier than the midwest, but not as good as would often be experienced under the best conditions in Florida.  It seems that 2014 as a whole was just not good for astronomy in Florida.

As usual, I stayed with my friends Dana and Doris, along with Scott and Diane, Pat and Cindy, and Joe.  Scott and Pat mostly imaged, while the rest of us enjoyed visual astronomy through Dana and Doris's 28" f/3.5, Joe's 32" f/3.6, and Diane's 24" f/4.2.

Here's what the local observing field, in Dana and Doris's yard, looked like as things got underway.

The local observing field

Below is an all-sky shot from my camera showing the porch, a travel trailer, observatory, a couple of imaging setups, and a 24" Starmaster.  Some light pollution from the Ocala area lights up the underside of some clouds to the southeast of the site, clouds which seemed to persist for days.  This brightened the sky a bit, but still left reasonably good conditions.  Transparency was average.

The Chiefland sky

Joe arrived mid-week with his 32" f/3.6.  In the image below, he aligns and collimates as the light of dusk fades.  Fortunately the weather was reasonable during the day, and several of us managed to get some golf in.

Joe aligns his 32" f/3.6

We finally set up Dana's 28" f/3.5 outside (image below).  Normally it is set up in the dome in the background, but we wanted to see how it performed outside of the thermal envelope of that building.  Dana has quite a bit of work planned to improve the insulation below the dome and ventilate the entire building to help his 28" perform up to its full capability.  Note the box fan on the rear helping to cool the primary mirror off.

28" set up outside

Diane, Pat, and Scott seemed immune to the cold.  Diane stayed up very late a couple of cold nights observing a variety of things with her 24" scope, and Pat and Scott imaged very late, too.  Personally, I should have brought my arctic parka because I tend to get quite cold in the early morning as my metabolism comes to a grinding halt.  I will remember to bring it on my next trip, and all to follow.  Twenty degrees in Chiefland can feel colder than other places due to the higher humidity.  Dana's dome would have been much warmer, but his 28" scope was not up there for this week.

Keep in mind, this is not uber-serious observing - this is fun for us, and a bit of a vacation.  Often we will be tweaking the telescope or looking at possible improvements for it while enjoying a tasty beverage.  If the weather doesn't cooperate, we can always go inside and enjoy everyone's company.

Later in the week, the field looked like the image below on one evening.  The 24" Starmaster is closest, and Dana's 28" is farther away at left.  The imaging scopes are set up between them, two scopes for Pat and one for Scott.  Joe's 32" is hidden behind one of the imaging scopes.  In the mornings everything was covered in a layer of frost, and it looked like fall observing in the northern latitudes.

More telescopes on the field

As I said before, this star party can be more of a social gathering if the weather is not ideal.  We still have to eat and drink, and the vegan enchiladas made by Doris and Diane are simply fantastic!  They are spicy and encourage one to enjoy a good beer or two with them.

Wonderful food

Finally, no week in Chiefland is complete without a trip to Gainesville, FL to stop by Swamphead Brewery.  Many Chiefland residents and guests attended, and we basically took over one end of their tasting room.  I am a fan of dark beer, and I always enjoy Swamphead's stout.  Usually we go out for lunch at a good Chinese buffet restaurant and then relax at the brewery for a while.  A nice nap then sometimes follows when we get back to Chiefland, before the night's observing.

A visit to Swamphead brewery in Gainesville

As I finish writing this article in late February of 2015, after attending the Winter Star Party, I don't remember too many of the fine details of the fall star party because of the time that has passed, but I do remember having a great time despite the weather.

For me, astronomy has always been a social activity - I don't enjoy observing by myself very much unless I'm trying to catch a rare event, so I like to share the views with others or share what others are looking at.  Since I live astronomy and optics most of the hours of most of the days of my life, it is good to see how others enjoy it and the astronomy lifestyle.  Chiefland is one of the places where I can do that.

As the star party ended, the rain risk increased, so many broke down their scopes or wheeled them into Dana's shop just in case.  After the event I did an afternoon of waterskiing and then visited relatives.  I spent Thanksgiving with my uncle and his fiance's family in south Florida.  It was a nice change to enjoy that holiday some place with warm weather and palm trees.

On the way home I stopped for the night at a client's place near Chattanooga.  Ned has a fast 25" f/3.2 mirror that I made, and he has been working on tuning his telescope to work properly.  He mainly uses it with a video camera for occultation timing, and occasionally visual observing.

A home-built 25" f/3.2 telescope

Ned built his own telescope, and it is unique.  That's why I'm including some photos of it.  A retired mechanical engineer, he uses the Sidereal Technology drive and his own drive mechanics.  Below is a closeup of the altitude drive.

Unique altitude drive

We worked on tuning the collimation, and I showed him how to get the best accuracy from his laser.  The weather was much better than the first time that I visited his observatory, when clouds came in before we could find a star and do some initial testing.  This visit had much clearer skies.

Our main discovery was that the 5" secondary that he already had for the scope was likely too small due to where the focal plane was positioned in order to make both the camera and visual observing work.  He will be getting a larger secondary in the future.

Ned is located near a major hang gliding area, and the image below was taken from his roll-off-roof observatory as we looked at the telescope.  A hang glider is being towed aloft by a small airplane, and then it will be released so it is free to glide and seek rising air to stay aloft.

Flying the friendly skies

It's a very scenic area, as you can see below.  It looks better in person, actually.  Often the top of the ridge is shrouded in clouds.

The observatory in the hills

Finally, I had to shoot a few night-time shots to show his observatory and Orion rising over a tall ridge and the neighbor's scattered lights.

Night time image in the mountains

I'll be checking back in with Ned on future trips to see how his telescope is working.  I think he's close to having it working very nicely.

Clear, dark skies, warm weather (or warm clothing), good friends, and good seeing.

-Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics