Sunday, June 12, 2011


Shutting Down

“Far in the crimsoning east, wakeful Dawn threw wide the shining doors of her rose-filled chambers.”

It’s been a long night—or maybe not such a long night. Either I am weary, perhaps because of a long drive down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village that morning, or the sky has decided it just doesn’t want to cooperate any more. Maybe Unk’s old bones are cold, too. I can go for a long time when I’m doing video astronomy, sitting snug under an EZ-up canopy at the observing position, and on some special nights dawn gets me before the clouds or the sandman. Most often, enough is enough well before Aurora throws open her gates. When, for whatever reason, the last faint fuzzy has been spied, it is time to pull the Big Switch, muchachos.

What do you do with your gear on the star party field when it is time to call it a night? Newbies often ask me if they should pack the telescope up. I might do that if the scope in question were small or light or particularly valuable, like a Questar 3.5 or an AP Traveler. But probably not—not that Unk would ever be found toting such high falutin’ gear in the first place.

I’ve been to a couple of large star parties where somebody’s eyepiece or other small accessory was nicked, but that is unusual in the extreme, and I don’t ever recall hearing of a scope going missing. How about somebody playing around with your telescope in your absence? Not to worry. Almost without exception, your fellow attendees know not to mess with somebody’s gear without permission.

So the telescope can stay on the field. How do you prepare it for your absence? Even if you are only a few feet away in a tent, you want to cover it. Why? Unless you are out in the middle of a western desert, there is always a chance of rain, slim though that chance may be. Do you want your computer-everything Mead-o-Tron doused while you are cutting Zs? ‘Course not. Even if you are in the middle of a desert, you want to protect the telescope from dust (like that special extra-fine blend of horse manure and plutonium blowing in from Nevada you get at the Texas Star Party). It would also be nice to keep the Sun off the scope during the day.

What I use and have used for ten years is a Desert Storm Cover. It is a very strong, large, aluminized Mylar bag that is secured over my CAT with an elastic band and will keep the scope absolutely dry. It will also keep the telescope remarkably cool. Only fly buzzing in the butter? The seller of the original Desert Storm scope covers, Pocono Mountain Optics, went bust years and years ago. Surely somebody must make a Mylar cover that is just as good; I know those sold by Astrogizmos at least look great in their pictures. Maybe y’all can enlighten me.

If you can’t find a Mylar cover you like, and your scope is an SCT or similar size instrument, you can use Unk’s cheapskate solution, which worked for a lot of years. Get a plastic garbage bag and slip it over your scope. That is your cover; it will keep your instrument dry and free of dust and costs almost nothing. It has a drawback, however. Most large garbage bags are black, and will make your scope start running a temperature as soon as the Sun comes up. If you leave the telescope in this condition, it will take a long time to adjust to outdoor temperature when the pea-picking Sun sets.

There is a simple fix. Hie thee to a Wal-Mart or a sporting goods store, hit the camping/fishing/hunting section and get yourself a Space Blanket. These are thin aluminized Mylar sheets designed to be survival tools; supposedly they can keep you warm under adverse conditions. We are after the opposite, though, and they do that well, too. Drape a Space Blanket over the garbage-bagged scope and it will stay cool in the Sun. Secure everything with bungie cords and you are good to go. You will never fold the Space Blanket up well enough to get it back in its typically tiny container again, but so what? These things are so cheap you can throw ‘em away at the end of the star party if’n you’ve a mind.

The above works well for SCTs and refractors and some Newts, but what about BigDobs? The best solution I’ve found for my Dobbie, Old Betsy, is the telescope cover sold by AstroSystems. It is sturdy fabric and will last a long time. It is waterproof, that waterproofing can be easily renewed with 3M spray, it is available in a variety of sizes, and it is shaped to fit a Dob whose tube is lowered in altitude until it is nearly horizontal.

The scope is covered, but is it secure? If you are in an area where there is the possibility of high winds, you will need to take steps to further protect your buddy. Hell, even if you are not in an area prone to wind gusts, better safe than sorry. One spring at the old Peach State Star Gaze, back in the days when it was held at beautiful Indian Springs State Park near Jackson, Georgia, a strong wind blew up and toppled several telescopes one afternoon, including a friend’s lovely C5 Plus set up next to me. Luckily, I was prepared, though I didn’t think I’d need to be.

How had I prepared? I staked down each tripod leg with a hefty tent stake. I tied the three stakes to the tripod legs with short lengths of nylon line. If lots of wind is expected, you may want to make that two stakes per leg, “double staking” each with stakes pounded into the ground at opposite angles. If conditions might be particularly severe, kick it up another notch and use great big landscape timber nails instead of tent stakes. These have saved my scope from Prude Ranch’s notorious dust devils (more like mini tornados) a couple of times.

You’ve got a Dob with no tripod legs to tie down? Bully for you, but you still need to secure it. The way to do that with a Dobsonian is to lower the tube in altitude till it is as horizontal as it will go. Then, make sure (check, do not assume) that the telescope is free to “weathervane,” to move 360-degrees in azimuth, so that if a wind comes up, the scope will move with it. If anything impedes the Dob’s azimuth rotation, it may be knocked right over. Since it is vital that the tube be as horizontal as possible to allow it to weathervane, the AstroSystems cover, which will fit over the horizontal tube and rocker box, is a godsend.

Anything else to you need to do to Miss Telescope? If you have cables running from the scope to a computer or other electronic device, disconnect them. If you are running the telescope off local AC power via extension cords, unplug the scope from them. You don’t want some bleary-eyed astronomer tripping over ‘em and causing damage to telescope or self or both.

If you use an EZ-up or some other sort of picnic canopy I salute you. One will keep the dew off you and your accessories at night, rain off your stuff if that should happen during the course of the star party (never), and the Sun off your punkin if you hang out on the field in the daytime. You need to tie it down, though.

At one recent event I had my picnic canopy take to the air when a cold front passed through. What you do, and what I neglected to do that time, to prevent the tent from lifting off is double-stake each of the EZ-up’s poles as described above. If your canopy features ropes that can be staked into the ground, all the better. If it doesn’t, you may want to rig some. Last thing you want when your walk onto the field in the morning is to hear your shade was last seen winging its way to the next county.

How about all the junk you’ve got set up next to the telescope? Depends. When it comes to eyepieces, I usually take them off the field with me. Again, I have never had a single problem with anybody getting a five-finger discount on my stuff, but even a case full of massive Ethoses is easy enough to haul off the field—so why not?

Other things? Maps, charts, notebooks, etc., etc., etc.? If it’s something that can be blown away by the wind, put it away. If you don’t use a picnic canopy, you will definitely need to protect anything that can be harmed by dew, which, unless you are in the desert, will come on heavy as dawn approaches. Don’t place your faith in books’ and atlases’ claims to be dew-resistant.

If you’ve got any food on the field—I like to have snacks on hand to take care of the midnight munchies—put it away. You are unlikely to have trouble with bears at most star parties, but raccoons are a distinct possibility east of the Mississippi, and ants are a certainty. Into an ice chest or a Tupperware container goes all the food. I have one plastic box designated to hold the Jack Links and granola bars I favor.

What else? If you’ve got an observing chair on the field, put it under your canopy or somewhere else where nobody is likely to trip over it. Same goes for any small camp tables you may have stationed at the telescope. Secure any other gear that may be knocked down/blown away by the wind. Either collapse your observing table and lay it flat on the ground or stake or weight it down.

I always take my computer with me. Not because I am worried about somebody messing with it, but because, even in its case, I figure it’s better off out of the dew indoors. If Internet is available, I might want to check Cloudy Nights or Astromart, anyway, and if I’m not very sleepy I might watch a movie. I can’t imagine being without my favorite star party flicks, The Rocket Boys, Contact, and The Devil’s Rejects. Why is the last one a star party movie? Dunno. Maybe because that’s the way I felt at the end of the 1997 TSP.

Are you running your telescope or other gear off batteries? If so, disconnect them and place them on charge on the field or move them someplace where they can be charged—a cabin, a park pavilion, etc. Don’t put that off till the morning. If a battery is badly discharged and you don’t wake up till noon, you may not have time to fully charge it before sundown.

The jumpstart batteries many of us use to power our scopes are easy to lug to an AC outlet if there is no power on the field. But what if you are using a big old trolling motor bat’try, a deep-cycle marine battery, to power your scope or computer or camera? Those thick lead plates mean it probably weighs in at 75 – 100 pounds. Ain’t something you want to schlep half a mile to your cabin, though I did perform such Feats of Strength when I was young and foolish—till I wised up.

I hit on the perfect solution and you can too—if’n you hurry, anyway. I trotted down to Target and bought the last luggage cart they had in the store. One is perfect for rolling big batteries around; they even come with bungie-like straps. Only problem with this idea is that these days almost all luggage has integral wheels, and the once-common luggage cart is becoming an endangered species.

OK, batteries on charge or ready to be rolled to a place where they can be charged, and all the field gear secure—give it all one last look—how do you secure yourself? Where do you sleep? Where do you spend the hours till the next dark cycle?

Where you do that depends both on you and on the star party you are attending. Our local event down here has been particularly fortunate in that regard. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze’s original venue, Percy Quin State Park in McComb, Mississippi, had an observing field within fairly modest walking distance of excellent cabins. They were large with indoor bathrooms, GI bunk beds, and central air and heat. When we left PQ for darker skies, we had to settle for spider-infested chickie cabins for a few years, but our current site, the Feliciana Retreat Center, has honest-to-god (small) motel rooms with private bathrooms, Internet, and a lovely cafeteria.

Not every star party will have such lavish (relatively) accomodations, but some do, and most have bearable cabins. My druthers? I usually prefer to stay onsite if the housing is even marginally acceptable. I seem to have a more star-party-like experience if I’m bunking with the troops. Yeah, it’s nicer to have a room of your own, but an “open bay” dormitory is more than alright for me for a few days. Sometimes I actually enjoy roughing it in this fashion, though I am unlikely to go much rougher at my advanced age.

By “rougher,” I mean tent camping. Oh, I used to do it at the drop of a hat. Hell, I even tented on the old star party ground at the 1999 Texas Star Party (we put Miss Dorothy up in a motel in Fort Davis that year). But even back then, tents were getting old for Unk. I was overjoyed when Miss D. was able to get us a room at that TSP after just a couple of days.

Last time I slept in a tent? At the Chiefland Spring Star Party in 2002 and that’s what broke me of the practice for all time, I fear. That year, when my old pal Pat and I decided we’d go to the vaunted Chiefland Astronomy Village Spring Picnic, we resolved to lowball it. I can’t remember why, but we resolved we would really save money, spending not much more than what was required for the gasoline to get us down there and back. We’d camp on the field in tents. I still had the dome tent I took to TSP ’99, and which had been alright there, more or less, so I was good to go. Or so I thought.

Hah! That year, the Spring Picnic was held in May. Do you have any idea how hot it gets in Chiefland, Florida in May? I like to died. When we arrived at the CAV it was well into the 90s on the (natch) treeless Club Field. By the time I’d got my tent up and had helped Pat pitch his, I was drenched in sweat. Went into the tent to change clothes, and, by the time I was done, my fresh ones were soaked as well.

And so it went. We had some good nights, but the mornings? No-sir Buddy! You can’t be a productive observer if you don’t get some rest during the day, and by 9 a.m. it was too hot in the tent to sleep; way, way too hot. My dome tent was also too low to allow me to stand up straight, a huge pain in the rear when changing clothes. By Saturday afternoon, temperatures had climbed into the triple digits, and I believe I would have melted away if good buddy Tom Clark had not let us into his air conditioned shop for a spell. If I’d a-had good sense, I would have sprung for a motel room, but I was still young and foolish—foolish, anyhow.

I learned my lesson: never again. The Spring Picnic was wisely moved to April after that horrendous year—for those of us dumb enough to do tents—but I was traumatized and have never tent camped at a star party since. Recently, I thought about trying it again with a much better tent, but I really didn’t want to. I considered it only because I was afraid changes in my day-job employment—maybe the end of that altogether—would mean I’d need to severely economize if I were to continue going to star parties. But that didn’t happen. I’ve sailed through the hard changes at work, come out the other side, and, thankfully, I can continue to “camp” in my way.

By which I mean motel rooms. Yes, I prefer to be onsite with all-y’all, but if there aren’t cabins I will check into a motel. And even when there are cabins I am often sorely tempted. I am just much more rested if I stay at a motel. Even the cheapest of venues—for example the little independently owned hostelry in Chiefland, Florida I call “The Pregnant Guppy Motel”—is noticeably better than a cabin and infinitely better than a tent.

It is a joy to come back to my room after a long night with the Herschel Project or whatever other fool deep sky tear I am on, to a room that is private and quiet and either cool or warm as appropriate. I am usually all spun-up even after a long night (prob’ly has something to do with the dadgum Monster Energy Drinks I drink), so a good bed, a TV with a big array of cable channels, and a refrigerator to keep my Colorado Kool-Aid cold helps me make a soft landing.

In the morning, the room’s coffee maker and either a motel breakfast or one at a nearby Waffle House or Huddle House gets me off to a good start. If there ain’t much going on in the daytime at the star party site, I can stay cool or warm and calm and collected in the room and will be mucho ready to enjoy another big night.

How do I feel about leaving my gear miles away? Even when I’ve stayed a considerable distance from the site, at Chiefland and the Mid South Star Gaze, I’ve never worried about my stuff. Whether close to home or at distant venues, I’ve always been able to depend on my wonderful fellow amateurs to keep an eye on it. It was my buddies that caught my EZ-up before it could set sail for Venezuela.

And so that inevitable time has come. I run an eyeball over the field set-up one last time, sling my netbook case over my shoulder, pick up the jumpstart bat’try, and head for the vee-hickle which I have parked well and truly off the field. After a short trip down CAV’s well-remembered and kinda spooky lane of mossy oaks and over a modest stretch of highway, I am back at the old motel, lapping up some Yell or some brewskies, or sometimes both if I am really celebrating a great night. I can now settle in and contemplate the wonders I have seen. The gear is as snug as a bug in a rug and so am I.

Next Time: The first big one.

Rod, once again a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening blog installment. What you didn't mention however, were RVs. What are the conventions concerning RV etiquette at star parties? How far away from the observing field must they be to run generators? Are there RV hookups available at either Chiefland or the retreat center? How about in general.
I've often though a small pop-up camper or Casita type trailer would be ideal for cruising star parties. What do you think?

Mike Morrone
Hi Mike:

I didn't mention any of this, because it tends to vary tremendously from star party to star party. With some, it's ABSOLUTELY NO GENERATORS EVER...and at the other end, "let her rip." :-)
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