Fall Star Party 2015
I WOKE UP AT 4am Sunday morning and, because I was quite awake, I immediately knew I wouldn't get anymore useful sleep after that. So I said the heck with it, I'm going to get an early start on my drive and get out of this cold weather. I left at 5:30am central time, the car thermometer reading at lowest 26 degrees Fahrenheit somewhere in the empty fields of central Illinois just as dawn was beginning. Driving at reasonable speeds through Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, I then encountered the unpredictable, illogical, and just plain oblivious drivers of the state of Tennessee. This is the state that doesn't understand that the left lane is for passing slower drivers, not blocking a line of 30 cars while you text someone on your cell phone as you perfectly pace the tractor-trailer on your right. Seriously, y'all, you have a beautiful state and I have many friends there, but just pay a bit more attention and tailgate a little bit less.
After leaving Tennessee behind, I entered Georgia, and the rain began. I didn't get tired, so I kept driving. The windshield wipers kept going. It rained and rained and rained, and rained some more until I exited of I-75 in northern Florida, making the much-welcomed diagonal down toward Chiefland, where I arrived about 10pm eastern time. I caught up with Dana, Doris, Pat, and Cindy, had a refreshing beverage, and slept a great night's sleep.
I had checked the weather before I left, but hadn't expected this much rain. It gave me flashbacks of previous trips to Florida when it just wouldn't stop raining. But, I had faith in the forecast, and trusted that it would clear up and dry up soon.
It rained on and off Monday, but trended towards less rainy weather. I managed to get a run in, which always makes me feel better. I then was able to have a large, guilt-free seafood dinner at Tony's in Ceder Key with the Crowleys, and we got back just after dark. As you can see above at right, it would not be a good idea to get between Tom and his beer or chowder, nor would I ever consider it. Below you can see my giant seafood sampler. Everything was fresh and quite delicious, though the crab cake was a bit salty for my liking. I had leftovers, too. The clam chowder is excellent, and is available in many supermarkets. No one better get between me and that seafood, either.
There were a few sucker holes Monday night, and a few suckers (including myself) trying to look at things through them. I wandered around the front field seeing who had their telescopes uncovered.
I stopped by Dave Cotterell's 12" f/6.5 Teeter scope with my optics and a JPAstrocraft mirror cell. He was famializing himself with the intricacies of the drive system in the Florida humidity, which, in other words meant he was annoyed with the drive system that was slipping a bit. However, once the proper procedure was followed to tighten up the cable, it worked perfectly - there was nothing wrong with it. The telescope was performing well and split the double-double with tons of space between the components. We were fighting a losing battle with the atmosphere, though. As the sucker holes went away and it clouded up quite convincingly, we hoped it would clear, but it never did, and us suckers went to sleep.
This year's event was mostly in the front field, formerly Tom Clark's property, now owned by Jonesy and his wife. This is the field that surrounds the shower and bathroom facilities and the covered picnic area. This is how it was used to be for many years before it moved to the back field for more space. Bad weather and other factors led to a decline in attendance, but this year things were different. There was a smaller contingent of astronomers, mostly imagers, on the back field.
It was great to see the front field heavily populated, and all of the area around the fence line was eventually filled with tents, telescopes, vehicles, and, notably, "The Swamp", hangout of Dave Gracy. Dave has a 16.5" f/3.7 Starmaster FX, one of the last few built. After some issues with an electronic box (that had filled with water during the rain) were fixed and dried out, all was well with his telescope. I forgot how compact the 16.5"s were, and it looked like a 14.5" sitting there under the stars.
But wait, there's more - there were also vendors! Howie Glatter (whose lasers I use and recommend) and Camera Concepts both were set up, as well as the food vendor. After years of low attendance, it felt like a real star party. Now for some visual stimulation - here's a photo of the back field....
....and here are a few of the front field. (Below) The north fence:
(Below) the west side of the field, looking east, crowded enough that people were filling in the center:
And from the northwest corner looking southeast:
Tuesday gave way to dry conditions, and skies that trended toward clearing. The sun emerged, and I gave an impromptu mirror-cleaning lesson to the owner of a 22" telescope that had not had the primary cleaned for a while, as well as several other people that were around.
The photo at left below shows me hosing off the mirror, and the photo below right shows an intermediate step in which we used a spray bottle to apply some soapy water on it. After I thought most of the potentially damaging sharp dust particles had been washed away and removed, we used some cotton balls to blot and to wipe to help loosen the more firmly affixed residue. We used alcohol as a solvent, but that, too left a residue. Later on some more soap managed to remove that gunk. The last step, of course, was to rinse with a jug of distilled water.
I had to cut that cleaning short and head across to the field for dinner - we had a wonderful dinner at the Crowley's courtesy of houseguests Ben and Lanni, and those are meals that I cannot possibly allow myself to miss! As you can see below, everyone had a good time, whether or not they wished to be photographed.
After dinner it was clear for a bit, but then the cloud/fog mercilessly closed in very quickly, and we only glimpsed a few overhead stars over the whole evening. Fine water droplets were hanging in the air, showed easily with a flashlight, and though our elevation was quite near sea level (and the Gulf of Mexico was only ~20 miles away) we were simply in a cloud all night. Even the red lighting under the roof of the shelter on the front field was creating a light dome. Everyone was frustrated because clear skies had been forecast and we thought that part of Monday night would be OK for observing. Sadly neither was. We declared it a beer night and caught up on some TV.
Thankfully, though, this year the night-time weather was much warmer than last year's event. Typical lows were in the 60s, not the 20s. This made for a much more enjoyable event for all, and no doubt helped to increase attendance and keep everyone who was camping comfortable. Instead of heaters, a few air conditioners were heard running, and that is the way I like it when I visit Florida in the winter.
On Wednesday John Pratte arrived in the afternoon with Larry's modified 32" f/3.6, now with further improved motion and mechanics, and most importantly, a functioning ServoCat drive system and Argo Navis. After a mid-day run and a big lunch at ABC Pizza in Chiefland, I helped them assemble the telescope in the warm, sunny afternoon.
Below Larry, one of the friendliest astronomers you will ever meet, readies the site for the rocker box (below, left), and Tom supervises by pointing (below, right), which he is quite good at. I think he has experience supervising, or possibly has done government work. He also likes dark beer, so he must be a good guy.
First, we unloaded the mirror box and rocker from John's truck, then placed the rocker in the recess of the observing deck. Next we lifted in the mirror box, and finally placed the mirror in the mirror box, all by hand. The truss was assembled (though it resisted) and the tube balanced, secondary reinstalled, wiring reconnected, counterweights re-mounted, collimation performed, and other minor jobs done to get the telescope ready for darkness. Here are a couple of photos of that process - first everyone very helpfully points out spots that Larry has missed while he cleans the dust out of the telescope.
Next, we see John Pratte doing all of the assembly work while Larry entertains the other "workers" (well, not all of the work, I helped him put the poles on).
Thanks to all of the people who showed up to help, and thanks to Tom's supervision (or was it observation?), the reassembly went smoothly and the telescope (appropriately named the Phoenix by its original creator) rose again from a pile of parts that was spread across a truck, the grass, and the observing deck.
I managed to remember to remind Larry to turn on the secondary heater before we walked over to the food vendor "Kickin' Caribbean" for some tasty tacos and a brownie just as it was getting dark. The food was very good, and clearly a step above most found at star parties. Charlie Warren was here too, and I managed a "bike by" shooting of him with my camera (at left here) as I rolled by.
When we returned we found a dewed up SIPS/Paracorr in Larry's scope. Of course that was the one thing that we did not put a heater on, but wrapping a heater around the lower assembly took care of it fairly quickly.
We finally got some good observing in on this night. The early evening was was excellent with good seeing. That's right, it was finally clear. Moisture made a return, though, and fog soon appeared at the far end of Larry's field. It crept toward us along the ground, and then grew and thickened. Fog soon covered the observing fields, going in and out periodically in waves as the almost non-existent breeze moved it along with imperceptible speed. Dave Cotterell and I observed some very difficult double stars, easily separated by his 12.5" f/6.5 Teeter. He and I were both quite pleased with its performance.
Despite the fog (which can often indicate good seeing conditions), I managed to star test a couple of other larger telescopes with my optics that were having astigmatism issues mostly due to older sling designs or other issues. In one telescope the astigmatism mysteriously vanished after we fiddled with the sling a bit. We still don't know exactly what we did, but it worked!
Looking at a defocused star in another telescope, a 30", I noticed a significant heat plume coming from the secondary holder, indicating that the secondary heater was really producing a lot of heat. The owner turned down the heater, and after an hour or so the astigmatism was markedly reduced. This meant that heating the back of the secondary was actually causing thermal distortion of the Pyrex secondary's optical figure. I had long suspected that this could happen, but I had never seen definitive proof. Now I have.
Below, take note of how Duane, the owner of the 30", shelters his telescope from the daytime sun under a shade tent. This helps keep the temperature of the primary mirror down, resulting in much faster cooling and better performance during the light. Those of you with large telescopes, learn from this!
Thursday was sunny and beautiful, as Florida should be.
At 2pm I gave a presentation based on my article "Four lessons in mirror testing", describing some of the inconsistencies between different testing methods such as star testing and bench testing. Then a few of us did some target shooting at a neighbor's very nice range. I had dinner again at Tony's in Ceder Key, this time with Larry and John Pratte. So much seafood to enjoy, so little time!
On the drive back as darkness was falling we could see a little fog forming here and there in fields and swamps along the road. Larry's 32" was also performing well this night, and I stayed around for a while and observed a few objects. Then I wandered both observing fields. Observing was quite good through Dana's 28", cleverly located on the second story in his dome, which is quite often above the ground fog that is not uncommon at Chiefland. It was a bit crowded in the dome, so I wandered off to get out of the way.
On the back field (owned by John Novak) Tim Khan from WSP was imaging with a small scope and observing with a large refractor, Jon Joseph of Starlight Instruments was imaging (seen in the photo at right doing solar observing), Richard Wright was imaging, and Gary and Vandy, had their 24" f/3.3 Starmaster operating well. There were also may other imagers that I didn't know personally. At some point fog came in again and made observing anywhere below 45 degrees elevation quite pointless.
I eventually decided to wander around the observing fields with my Canon DSLR and tripod, trying to capture interesting images that involved the fog. Most of those images are near the end of the article below, but a smaller one showing some observing of M42 through fog is shown directly below here. This was the only night-time photography that I did this week.
I went for a longer mid-day run on Friday, then had a leisurely lunch while others went out. I wandered around the field talking to people, and I think I finally had gotten into the rhythm of the event. I started editing a few photos, curious to see larger versions of what I had captured through the fog on the previous night.
In the late afternoon a number of us had dinner at the Treasure Camp on the Suwannee, a nice, relaxing, off the beaten path place on the Suwannee river. The only excitement there was someone scraping the bottom of a large boat on the concrete ramp as they put it into the river. It sure made an odd sound. We forgot about the boat as soon as our delicious seafood arrived, and then the table grew quiet as our mouths were full.
Friday night ended up quite clear, with no fog or dew, but the seeing was poor. It was cooler and a bit breezy, and stars were the bloated orbs that those of us who don't live in Florida are familiar with. Later on in the evening I wandered the observing field again, just talking to people and socializing a bit.
On Saturday the weather was similar - sunny and breezy but high clouds were arriving and building a bit. It became clear that it would not be clear. I had dinner at the Crowleys', and of course there was beer and there were other refreshments, too. Some of their houseguests worked miracles and turned leftovers and random ingredients into tasty dishes. Later on we enjoyed some beverages and lively conversation until late in the evening, one of the things I really enjoy about visiting the Chiefland Astronomy Village.
I biked around the observing field on Sunday and found it mostly empty, with a few last folks packing up. It was a bit sad, but it was a beautiful day, I was in Florida, the sun was shining, and I didn't have anything pressing to do, so I couldn't get too depressed. I got a bit more target practice in, and besides, the next day I'd be working on my waterskiing and then making a quick visit of some relatives before finally heading home, so I couldn't help but smile. This is one of my rewards after working many weeks of long hours in my shop, and it is a very necessary thing.
Now, with the trip over, as I work here late in the evening in my shop, I look forward to the Winter Star Party and my next break. Until then, it's long working hours and many mirrors to finish.
Enjoy the fog photos below, and try to imagine a warm, humid, Florida night.
Clear, dark skies, warm weather, no fog or an elevated observatory, good friends, and good seeing.
-Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics
Above: Pat images with two scopes while Dana's 28" sits ready in the dome behind.
Above: Looking northwest, the red lights under the picnic shelter create an eerie red glow in the layer of fog hugging the ground, and appear to support the setting summer Milky Way at it arches across the northern sky.
Above: Finally, Orion shines high up through the trees over red lights and roll-off-roof observatories, and reminds me of the upcoming Winter Star Party. Until then.