Wednesday, June 16, 2010

StellarVue Dark Sky Star Party

There are two kinds of star parties. There are the "public" parties, where amateur astronomers show the sky to non-astronomers. I participate in about 20 of these each year, and I also hold my own impromptu events where I pull my scope out at some place I happen to be when it's dark and show the sky to anyone who's nearby and not too nervous to look.

The other kind of star party is the sort where amateur astronomers gather to observe in especially good conditions. Usually this means dark skies, a site that's kept free of lights that affect observation, and the attendees are amateur astronomers of all skill levels, from beginner to expert, with few people who aren't observers of one sort or another.

One of these "astronomers only" star parties is the StellarVue Dark Sky Star Party. It is held annually by the owner of StellarVue, Vic Maris. For the past two years it has been held at an RV park in the tiny little town of Likely, CA, in northeast California. The whole area it is in has very little population, meaning no light pollution. It's also at a moderately high altitude, about 5400 feet.

StellarVue's Picture Gallery for the 2010 DSSP.

I was invited to attend this year's star party, as my daughter has recently accepted a job working at StellarVue as an assembler. She and I went and had a great time.

Regardless of this connection, I believe that StellarVue makes really fine scopes. The degree of care and inspection that goes into every single one means that every scope they ship to a customer has had personal care put into it to make sure that it performs to the highest standards. Every StellarVue scope that I've ever looked through (about 50 or 60 at this point) has performed better that what you'd expect for a scope of its size. Vic produces a quality product, in every instance, unlike other companies where the quality of the scopes varies considerably, even among different scopes of the same model. With those manufacturers, you might get lucky, you might not. Plus, extreme care is taken with the design of each StellarVue scope to give it the opportunity to be the best scope of its class that it can be.

This isn't an advertisement, it's a heartfelt personal statement. I felt this way before I knew Vic personally and before I had (through my daughter) any connection with his company. The more I've learned, the more impressed I've become and the more strongly I feel about the quality of his scopes compared to the rest of the market.

Here's a report on the StellarVue DSSP star party I've posted in the StellarVue Yahoo group, lightly edited. So if you want to see what an astronomer's star party looks like from within (to a somewhat aberrant observer like myself, anyway), here you go.

StellarVue on Facebook


We arrived in mid afternoon after a very nice drive of about five hours. The sky had about 40% cloud cover at the time. It was bone simple to find the site, it's on a county road off a State Highway with an entrance marked with flags and banners in an area where there's nothing but mailboxes and cows along the road.

The Likely Place RV park is very nice and well maintained. The staff works hard to keep the place clean and in good shape. I was very impressed at the professionalism with which the park is run throughout the trip. At our campsite, I was astonished that though food was left out at all times we never had a problem with that. Clearly the management here has some sort of a deal with the Varmint's Unions, as there was no sign of raccoons, skunks, or bears. There were a plenitude of ground squirrels (Belding's Ground Squirrel in the campsite area, with an occasional Golden Manteled Ground Squirrel in the area), but their contract apparently does not include picnic table raiding duties.

The Likely Place RV Park. It's a very nice place to stay, the most civilized place in nature I've ever been for a star party.

If you're a bird-watcher, come prepared. The area is rife with opportunities for seeing new species or seeing ones already on your list in a new environment. Bring your bug repellent whether you're a bird-watcher or not. For about an hour a day, the mosquitos come out. We only had one really bad day (Sunday evening), but the repellent is something you'll want every evening even if there are just a few mosquitos poking around looking for unprotected targets.

At dinner we sat with a delightful group of people. The food was wonderful and plentiful. During the course of our conversation we managed to solve the problems of national defense and foreign aggression. We were at the point of enacting our plans when dinner ended and we went to the Villa for the evening's program.

The Villa is a small house at the site that was apparently built as a model for seasonal housing at the park. It's a trim comfortable little place with a big enough area for the DSSP participants to gather and watch presentations and videos and such. There's some soft seating, wooden chairs from the kitchen for those who prefer that, copious carpeted floor, and places along the wall to lean if you don't care to sit after five hours' driving, like me. Outside the kitchen door there's a patio area with a propane barbeque.

At the program we learned new information from Preston that had a profound effect on us. Those of us who had solved the problems of national defense and foreign aggression were lucky that we hadn't moved hastily, as the new information would have upended our plans for world peace. Vic followed with his own presentation. The presentation was an expose on the life of Preston. Since much of the material touched on subjects that I'm not in a position to discuss because of my work, you'll have to attend a future DSSP to find out more. Jokes aside, thanks, and my hat's off to Preston for his service to our country and the world. It was a pleasure to cross paths with him at this event.

As the sky darkened we returned to the campsite to get ready for the evening. It was looking good, as the cloud cover was at about 30% and the clear areas were quite clear. As it got closer to dark, though, clouds began blowing in to cover more of the sky. Amaryllis and I hadn't set our scopes up yet, but when I went back to open up the car to get them we started getting some sprinkles.

So I decided to take a nap instead. I stirred about once an hour, but each time I heard rain on the top of our tent so I went back to sleep. Until I once when I woke, when I noticed it'd gotten a fair bit colder, and that I didn't hear any rain.

This seemed promising, so I came out of the tent. The sky was wide open over me. I stopped. I couldn't move for a moment. Once I could move, I had been struck so hard I checked myself for signs of The Purple Death. My forehead was clear, so all seemed OK. The Milky Way spanned overhead. I immediately saw the North America Nebula standing out like a map hung in the sky. Next to it the Pelican took only a little more looking to perceive.

The Meadow, where we set up the scopes (only about half of what was later set up is visible here.) Look at how the sky gets really dark as you go up.
I went out to the meadow where we  had set up scopes (now under cover) for a better look. The north was clear to the horizon. A few stray clouds were to the east, the west was clear, and some clouds covered the lower 20 degrees of the south, but it was clear to the southwest. I would have gone for my scope, but my feet were rooted to the ground by the incredible detail of what I was seeing with my eyes. To the north, the Double Cluster stood out bright enough to be distracting. It was so bright it was hard to look away to find other objects. It wasn't possible to distinguish the two clusters as separate objects, but they formed a sort of figure eight shape in the sky.

The Little Dumbbell was visible by eye, as was the nebulosity around M103. When I looked up at the Little Dipper, I saw that the sky was around magnitude 6.5 to 6.8 (the moisture levels in the air were quite variable.) The Dumbbell was barely visible by eye, and M82 was visible to averted vision but not direct vision.

As time went on others stirred and joined me out on the field. We had a very pleasant conversation while enjoying the incredible sky overhead. At any given time, there were four of us out there--exactly who changed over time. At least two of us tried using binoculars, but we learned that any optical instruments other than eyeglasses would fog over immediately in the high humidity. Fortunately, the sky was amazing enough without anything other than our eyes.

The south cleared around 2:30-3:00 and Scorpius and Sagittarius came out to play. M8 and M20 stood out like beacons. M22 and M28 were easily visible. M7, like the Double Cluster, was bright enough to be distracting. It's shy sister, M6, was an easy catch by eye. I didn't count the number of DSOs I could see by eye over the course of the night, but it was on the order of fifty or more.

Finally, dawn came and sent us all to bed.


We went on a great hike near the campsite to see a waterfall and the site where Bigfoot had been spotted the previous year. The hike was a wonderful outing along a set of very well maintained trails. The waterfall was very impressive, thanks to the very wet year we've had in California this year. It roared and fell down a long slope, where it turned into a whitewater torrent in the gulch below. Further in we came to a beautiful lake, apparently named "Clear Lake." It made me wonder how many lakes must share that name, but it was very beautiful. It had either a beaver dam or a snag that looks convincingly like a somewhat under-maintained beaver dam at the narrow end. Further along, the lake opens up and becomes a broad expanse. The skies were light blue at the horizon but faded to the inky dark blue at zenith that we astronomers love in our daytime skies.

At the furthest point of the hike, we met some young volunteers maintaining the trails. They were apparently let loose to work in the area without being fully apprised of some of the local hazards. Vic told them a story from the area that reminded me strongly of the Calaveras County Monster story I was familiar with from further south in California's high country. Hopefully they were able to use the information.

Vic's dog, Buddy, a trained Bigfoot tracker, didn't pick up much of a scent until we were on our way back. About that time we started hearing a grinding sound in the distance. Buddy seemed to pick up some scent near the trail. He cast back and forth, but apparently wasn't able to pick up the direction it led. Bigfoot is notorious for being able to throw off trackers, and it looked like Buddy was beaten, this time. Vic informed us that the grinding sound we heard was Bigfoot grinding tree limbs against each other as a way of warning intruders off its territory. I saw what appeared to be some clothing stuffed into the crotch of a tree about 25 feet off the ground near where we were. I couldn't tell exactly what it was, but through binoculars it looked like at least part of it was a barbeque apron reading "Virginia is for Lovers."

Buddy, the trained Bigfoot Tracking Dog, visits with astronomers. The scope at left is a home made 6" Dobsonian, the one behind it is one of StellarVue's incredible 130mm refractors. In the background you can see a 24" Dobsonian and at right a 90mm StellarVue refractor (a perfect beginner's scope, which I highly recommend!)

After we returned to the cars, we were all ready for some lunch. We returned to the camp where we all put together a magnificent lunch at the Villa. Mavis provided meat for barbeque, there was a salad and plenty of other great food. Amaryllis took charge of the grill and cooked up hamburgers and polish sausages. She later chided me for letting her leave the house without her usual seasonings for grilled burgers, apparently I thought her opportunities for using them on the camping trip when we weren't bringing hamburger ourselves would be limited.

During lunch a solar scope was set up, and there were solar prominences and sun spots to be observed. Since these have been missing for the past two summers, there was much rejoicing.

After a nap, I got together with the others for another spectacular dinner at the park's restaurant. At the table I was at, we discussed the weather and prospects for the evening alongside solving the problem of world hunger or something like that. I forget exactly, as that night's presentation at the Villa has muddied my recollections. Jon showed us the results of his work in astrophotography. The images are best described as "life-changing." If it hadn't been for the fact that we had to see the images through a less than perfect system of reproduction, I think we would all have been translated to a higher state of being about halfway through the presentation. Amazing work, Jon! Thanks.

When we came out, the sky was leering at us with a cloud cover of about 20% and the sort of smile that you normally see on a car salesman when your car pulls up in front of his lot with a shuddering stop and a cloud of smoke. We didn't know what to expect, but hoped for the best. I decided to plan only "unstructured" observing. I didn't make up a list of objects, I just decided to see what was up and look at it when it appeared.

The good sky held through the early parts of dusk. We got our equipment out and set up, and started observing the early objects like Venus, Mars, and Saturn. Then a cloud began to grow out of the air. Directly above us. Other clouds appeared out of the air at some distance from us, but not near the horizon. When I walked from the meadow to the parking area, the sky was clear. Back at the meadow, the cloud clung to the zenith. As I looked around, I realized the clouds were forming over the grassy areas. The meadow and each of the links of the golf course had their own cloud directly overhead. There were still things to see, but there were those darn clouds blocking about 70% of the sky from where we had our telescopes (except for some of the folks who went up on the nearby hill to do some astro-imaging. They were probably laughing at us and throwing things into the cloud to try to get us to add to those stories of rains of stones and fish that Charles Fort liked to collect.)

As it reached full dark, however, the clouds began to diminish. A few of the clouds in the distance hung around and circled us, laughing as they blocked this small bit of sky or that. But the cloud overhead cleared and we got our sky as dusk reached its end. The seeing was pretty poor for the first half of the night, but the air stilled in the early morning about the time Jupiter came to the party. Overhead I could make magnitude 6.5 by eye when I checked, there were times during the night when it was better but I didn't measure.

I spent some time with my scope, but more time looking through other people's instruments. The 20" Dob showed M51 with incredible detail. Detail within the dark lanes was visible, with about four turns of spiral arm immediately visible. I got a view of M82 through one of the StellarVue 115mm scopes that showed its center looking like whipped cream on coffee. The sharpness of the image and detail for that aperture were incredible. Every time I looked through one of the 115mm scopes I had to wipe the drool off my chin afterward. The clarity of detail they give is nothing short of amazing. At the time I didn't know there was a distinction between "old" and "new" 115's, so I can't say anything about relative quality except that every single one did things I didn't think a 115mm scope could do, and I say this as someone who has a 90mm scope that can pick up the eyes in the Owl Nebula.


After a gigantic breakfast of some of the best biscuits and gravy I've ever had short of my wife's, Amaryllis and I joined Vic and Jan for riding a couple of hours of driving around the park's golf course on a cart. We had another family with us on two carts. I remember the names of Mavis, Anthony, and Josh but I'm afraid I've forgotten "Dad's" name. I've just slapped myself for this, since he and I spent a lot of time talking together through the whole time there, having some of the best and most stimulating conversations imaginable. They were up from Reno, and were a highlight of the DSSP for us. Amaryllis was pleased to not be the only younger person there, and they were pleased to have her there, too. Anthony and Amaryllis were observing buddies, sharing time on her telescope. During the party they independently discovered M25 and M28 together, and spent a lot of time hanging out and talking about things people over 20 wouldn't get.

During our time driving around the golf course we got to enjoy the park's beauty and some of the local wildlife, as well as Vic's amazing driving skills. I probably shouldn't say this here where he can see it, but speculation outside his hearing has it that he was a leading NASCAR driver under another name, before some tragedy drove him out of the business and into the relatively quite pursuit he's in now. Anthony received some valuable training from Vic, though, and shows promise as a driver himself, based on what I saw.

We saw a number of gopher snakes around the property, but no rattlers at all, which is really good (gopher snakes displace rattlers in the environments they inhabit, typically.) There were also some wild turkeys (the feathered variety, not the bottled kind), ducks, flycatchers, and, when we returned to the restaurant, well--I'll leave that bit of wildlife a surprise for anyone who goes there. It was surprisingly hard to see, but calmly sitting under a tree.

At dinner that night they served us local beef, New York steaks that were very tender and cooked as you like. Over dinner we solved a number of persistent medical problems that have plagued mankind since antiquity. The answers were amazingly simple, and I wish I had taken notes, but they may be lost until we can get the same brain trust together again.

Rather than napping as I should, I attended the astrophotography session. Since my work is instrumentation, it sounded a lot like my work, except for bits that sounded like the astrophotography. I used to do astrophotography back in the days when we used to slap some egg albumin and silver nitrate solution on a stegosaurus skin and hope for the best. I can tell I'm not ready to take up digital astrophotography for myself just yet, and I have an even deeper respect for those who do it. Those who see the shift from emulsions to digital technology as a sort of "easy way" or cop out compared to film and darkroom work have no clue. The skill and art it takes to produce great astrophotos is every bit as great as it takes to get a film shot with less data and beauty in it. Again, thanks to Jon for this session.

The day was less humid than Friday, but we'd learned that the sky here held more tricks than we knew. So as it got dark we were all wondering what we'd actually get. At dusk, there were only a few clouds, less than 10% cloud cover. As it was, we worried for nothing. Some high level humidity made the sky background not as dark as it could be, but there was nothing blocking our view except for a few small clouds poking around the horizon.

This evening I'd opted for a more structured observing plan. I decided to see how many Messier objects I could catch. I knew this would leave me with plenty of time between bursts of activity to socialize and catch views through other people's scopes. I was starting to put together a plan in my head and write a list of what wouldn't be visible when I decided to ask George Robinson his opinion on M48's visibility. George has run several local Messier Marathon groups and is a veteran of =the= Messier Marathon in Arizona. As it turned out, he whipped a list out of a notebook that had an observing plan for this time of year, from one of Don Machholz's books (get Don Machholz's book on the Messier Marathon if you don't have it, even if you don't plan on doing anything more than casual Messier observation. It along with the Kenneth Glyn-Jones books are my favorites on the Messier objects.)

I taped the list to the tube box of my home-made 8" dob and worked my way through it over the course of the night. I worked my way up from the Beehive to the Leo galaxies, then trudged painfully through the Virgo galaxies (I only really learned my way through them last year, after many years of trying to learn them under pristine skies, I found out it was far easier to learn them under so-so skies that wash out all the background galaxies.) Once I was through them I took a break. I kept up the work a while, break a while routine through the night. I had a great conversation with Vic during the early hours. Vic actually stayed up later than George Robinson that night, for the record. As dawn approached, I ended up being the last person out on the field as I was trying to catch M74, M77 and waiting for M45 to appear. The list I had from George showed the clusters in Auriga as well, but the list was for "late June" and I could tell that they wouldn't really be visible for another week or two.

I misjudged the location of Jupiter in Pisces, so I couldn't catch M74 before dawn. I would have given up on M77, but the fact that I was waiting for M45 kept me at both it and M74. Finally, with averted vision and by jiggling the scope I managed to catch M77. I moved off it and came back again from a different direction to make sure I wasn't seeing things. I found it again, it wasn't just a floater in my eye. Then I walked back and forth across the field, blocking the light on the edge of the horizon with my arms, looking for M45. I kept changing where I was hoping that I'd see it from one side of the field if I didn't pick it up on the other. At last, I thought I could pick out Atlas and Alcyone. I ran back to my scope and confirmed it, I picked out the bright six and about four or five dimmer stars from the group. So I got 94 Messier objects for the night, a new personal record for myself, over 20 more than ever before. There was only one object that was possible that night that I missed, M74. The sky was too bright to see any stars in Auriga, even Capella was washed out.

The sun then chased me to bed. Only Mercury and Jupiter were visible as it rose.


By Sunday I was barely able to stand on my feet. I was lurching rather than walking, and I spent most of the day in a chair trying to shove my brain along with a forked stick as I logged the prior night and laid plans for another. Conversation was a lot easier to manage, so I spent some time working with the group to solve humanity's needs for energy. We attacked the problem from both the personal, ground-up level and the general top-down approach. Once I realized we were having two different conversations and I stopped being contentious, we managed to find a wide range of solutions at all levels. Somehow time got away from us and we forgot to take sufficiently clear notes. Fatigue left me putting long rips into the paper with my pen when I tried. I'm sure that when we get together again we'll manage to fill in the gaps and come up with a plan to present to the world that will be heralded as genius in its simplicity and elegance and provide everyone with everything they need as well as opening up space travel to everyone of any means. The areas where my notes are legible sound promising.

At dinner, the group I was with this night had an interesting dynamic. As we each shared our own knowledge and experience, we discovered a hidden code of secret knowledge within forgettable works of science fiction. Behind the facade of bad dialog, impossible physics, and threadbare characterization we discovered a stream of human knowledge that has been preserved since ancient times. Behind the radio shows and serials, Commander Cody, Tom Corbett, Flash Gordon, and Rocketship XM we uncovered much that we already knew, including Integral and Differential Calculus, basic laws of sociology, and fundamental knowledge of human organization. When we each shared our viewpoint, we realized that we were able to describe within what we knew the forms of science that was not yet codified in conventional form. Unfortunately, dinner ended, but we've committed ourselves to continuing our investigation after we get home and get more sleep.

The evening's presentation of science fiction humor only added new questions to our search. Like, where do people get the time to come up with this stuff? I'm sure the answer is out there, if only we watch more old S.F serials and listen to more old time radio programs.

When night came, I was barely on my feet. I helped my daughter sort out a problem with her mount at the outset. Once she got me to shut up and do as she told me, we had it sorted. We were both beat, though, so about 12:30 we decided to pack it in and just enjoy other people's scopes.

Prior to that I had the chance to experience Saturn and the Veil through Inge's 165mm StellarVue scope. Saturn was huge and gorgeous. The view of the Veil was like nothing I have ever seen through any scope ever before. It looked like a ribbon of thick oil on water. The sharpness and detail were amazing. I say the Veil through the 24" that same night, and in the 24" it looked three dimensional. Which view was more amazing? I couldn't say. But I have seen the Veil look as is looked through the 24" in other large instruments. I have never had a view of the Veil in an instrument under 18" as astounding as what I saw in the 165. I have never seen it look like that before. The gaps looked like rips in shiny fabric, the subtlety of the shading was beyond description.

Seeing the whole Veil in a 115 was another experience. It was clear, sharp, and bright. It didn't take looking to see, it was just _there_, in its entirety. Another unique view.

After my daughter and I packed up our scopes, we realized that we couldn't walk well enough to trust ourselves around other people's scopes, so we turned in. We made vague noises about getting up once we'd rested a bit to enjoy the rest of the night, but Mr. Sandman had other plans for us.


Monday morning was bright and clear. If I'd resembled something more alive, I might have considered extending my stay. As it was, I had to restrain myself from demanding "Braaaaiiiinnnnnssssss" for breakfast. Breakfast and the subsequent conversations were very invigorating, though (for the record, I reduced my food demands to chicken-fried steak and eggs.)
Amaryllis was a big help in packing the car (she packed up the campsite while I talked to Vic and Gordon), so I drove the whole way home while she read and napped. The driving was great, except for the parts on California highways near Reno where interminable construction projects exist to keep Californians from going to gamble anywhere but to Indian casinos that pay California taxes.

Now I've managed to finish my logs (and this message) and I'm ready for next year. I'm hoping we can get the whole family there.

Note that I didn't take formal logs of anything on the trip outside of my astronomical observations, so anything above that's not strictly astronomical only comes from personal recollection. Other persons in the same place at the same time may recall something else entirely. In fact, I'd be surprised if they didn't, based on some of what appears to be hidden within the backstory of "Flash Gordon Saves the Universe."

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