Saturday, March 28, 2009


Rebirth of a Telescope

Hard as it is for me to believe, it’s been going on six years since I started work on my “city observing book,” which was published in ought-six as The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. I don’t think any author is ever fully satisfied with the fruits of their labors, but Urban Astronomer comes purty danged close for me. But my purpose here today is not to tell y’all how great a book it is, or to convince you to buy it (though I wouldn’t mind), but to tell the story of one of the telescopes integral to its writing, an 8-inch German equatorial-mounted Newtonian a “GEM Newt.”

If you ain’t been reading this blog every week, you might be surprised to hear a Newtonian reflector is integral to anything I do. Ain’t I “Mr. SCT”? I’ve been called that, and that is not a title I shrink from, but if you have been reading this blog faithfully, you know SCTs ain’t the only scopes I use. I’ve long been a firm believer in “right tool for the right job,” and while the versatility of the CATs means one is often that right tool, not always. After fifteen years, my Meade 12.5-inch Dobsonian, or what’s left of her, for example, still gets doses of starlight. Not only does she bring considerable aperture in a small package to the table, there’s sometimes just something restful about the good ol’ nudge-look, nudge-look as opposed to the computers, cables, and grinding motors that often accompany a modern SCT into the field.

But the need for the right tool wasn’t why I glommed onto a GEM mounted Newtonian. The reason was that Urban Astronomer was to be a general interest book aimed at all amateur astronomers, not just SCT fanatics. One of my principal theses would be that almost any telescope can be used for city-bound astronomy. Problem was, while I had a (sorta) large Newtonian, the aforementioned Dobbie, and a small one, my beloved Pal Junior, I didn’t have a medium-sized reflector any more, and as I would stress the book, 8-inches really is the baseline for observing fruitfully from light-pollution. I had had one, a Coulter 8-inch f/7, but it had gone to a good home where it would actually get used some time before I started Urban Astronomer. I would need, I thought, a Newt in the 6 – 8-inch range to properly serve my audience. But which Newtonian?

Thumbing through the Orion catalog, it was obvious I could pick-up one of their minimalist 8-inch Dobsonians for a song, just a tad over 300 bucks. Which would be fine, no doubt about it. And yet…and yet…paging on revealed an old-fashioned twist on 8-inchers that had suddenly come back around thanks to the endlessly churning Chinese Telescope factories: an 8-inch equatorial reflector.

Thirty years ago, the GEM-Newt was still a staple of amateurs, but as SCTs and Bigdobs came ever more to rule the roost, German mounted reflectors headed for that laaaast roundup. The famous Edmunds and Starliners and Caves and Optical Craftsmen and Criterions vanishing from the scene as if they had never been. Which was kinda sad, since a GEM Newt does have at least one plus its Dob descendants usually don’t: tracking. If you want to do high power observing, any power sketching, or most photography, the beauty of one of these scopes becomes apparent.

"Apparent" to the far eastern telescope makers and western telescope importers anyhow, as there’s been a real revival, a rebirth of this forgotten telescope over the last decade. That’s become possible for one reason and one reason only: the inexpensive but effective Synta EQ4/CG5 mount (and similar clones of the Vixen Great Polaris). An 8-inch f/5 or 6-inch f/6 OTA is, if not perfectly suited for one of these GEMs, at least highly usable on one. The OTAs? The Chinese have mastered making good (not great, but good) optics cheaply and housing them in inexpensive but functional tube assemblies. Combine the two and you have the modern GEM Newt, not quite a Cave, no, but not bad neither.

Tracking appealed to me. I’d be featuring a lot of eyepiece field drawings in the book, and having to hold pencil and paper, draw, and nudge the scope along is not my idea of a good time. Sure, I coulda investigated Dob drivers and equatorial platforms and suchlike, but I was pretty sure the combination of even an inexpensive Orion or other import 8-inch and one of these solutions would bust the very small budget I had established for book-related expenses—about 500 bucks. Unfortunately, it appeared an 8-inch Orion Gem Newt would bust that budget too, by about one C Note. I could drop back to one of their 6-inch GEM scopes, but, again, I have come to believe 8-inches is really the lower limit (all things being equal, which they rarely are) for urban astronomers.

My perplexed state only maintained for a while, till one of my few remaining brain cells fired and I said to myself, “Self, I bet Orion ain’t the only outfit sellin’ EQ4-mounted 8-inch Newtonians. I betcha somebody without a big color catalog to print and mail is undercutting the Watsonville gang.”

A little poking around on the Internet revealed that was indeed the case. I turned up several 8-inchers that hovered just below or above the budget deficit level. The cheapest of all was from Konus. Who dat? Konus is an Italian company that used to sell some fairly upscale gear, but which in recent years had begun selling inexpensive Chinese scopes, today the cheapest they can get their paws on, telescopes some of it  decidedly down the quality ladder from Synta. When I undertook my search, they was still selling Synta gear, however, if Synta gear that was sometimes slightly cheapified over what the Chinese Scope Giant doled out to Orion.

Be that as it may have been, I found an 8-incher with dual axis drives included (usually an option on the Orions) along with a couple of cheap Plössl eyepieces, a Moon filter, a 50-mm finder, and the EQ4 mount for, yeah, 500 bucks. I wasted no time in dispatching my credit card number to the U.S. distributor (since gone) who was the Konus outlet at the time.

In a little while as the Brown Truck Boys measure time, a largish box showed up on Chaos Manor South’s front porch. I was excited as hell, or at least as curious as hell, anyway. What could somebody sell me for about twice the price of the extremely rudimentary Coulter 8-inch f/7? How good could an 8-inch scope on a dual axis driven mount be at this price level? What would come out of that big box?

OH! MY! GOD! MY EYES, MY EYES! If you’ve ever seen one of Konus’ OTAs in person, you know what I am talking about. When I pulled the tube assembly from the box and removed its protective paper wrapping I was confronted by the notorious Konus Yellow, a shade somewhere between Florescent Orange and Baby Poop. If you think Celestron Orange is brash, well you ain’t seen nothing! Once I got over the shock (and flash-blindness), I allowed as how the OTA appearance was “distinctive,” if nuttin’ else—meaning you wouldn’t lose it on a crowded observing field, even in the middle of the night.

Otherwise? Most of the OTA was good or OK. The tube was seamed, rolled steel. Mite thin, but sturdy enough and light enough. There was a surprisingly good 9x50 finder. The secondary holder/spider was a minimalist affair, with the secondary mirror glued onto the end of a strut. This secondary was easy enough to collimate, but in typical import fashion, that required a small Allen wrench. The spider that held up the secondary was fine, the vanes were a little thin, I thought, but that was better than too thick I reckoned. The tube was held in a couple of hinged and felt-lined rings that could be loosened to rotate the eyepiece to comfortable viewing positions. These rings were perched on a Vixen-style dovetail bar that, while skinny for an 8-inch f/5 Newtonian OTA, did the job. The aperture cover was a nice plastic affair that snapped snugly over the tube end. Removing this cover an’ peering down the tube revealed a primary that was nice and bright and—surprisingly enough—already center-dotted with a small paper-reinforcer ring.

That was the good/fine, though. I immediately noticed a couple of sore points. First was the focuser. Today, the Chinese megafactories are turning out Crayford focusers that are, frankly, a wonder. They are cheap yet blessed with action smooth and precise enough to make them fully competitive with Crayfords costing two or three times as much. In 2003, though, Synta was still a-using a 2-inch rack and pinion job that was something of a pain. This rack and pinion was cursed with a focus action that was invariably too hard or too easy no matter how the teensy weensy Allen screws on its underside were adjusted. I did the best I could and left it at “a little too stiff” in order to preclude drawtube wobble and focus shift.

The only other downcheck I toted-up was the primary cell. Mostly it was OK, working, as most Chinese mirror cells do, via pairs of push/pull bolts. The bad part was that it was covered with a metal cover that completely sealed the end of the tube. This would need to be removed to speed cool down, but doing so exposed the bare back of the mirror. I was concerned about reflected light from the ground in light polluted areas being transmitted through the primary. Since I intended to use the scope in badly light polluted locales, I left the cover plate on—it usually don’t get cold enough down here to worry about cool down to much anyhow.

Even moreso than the OTA, I was curious about the GEM mount. Mostly I was pleased. The head was the ubiquitous, then and now, Synta EQ4 (which the company’s Celestron division calls the “CG5”). The one I received with the Konus was a second generation EQ4, meaning the RA axis had been equipped with decent bearings, at least as compared to the very stiff early models. Some assembly was required, but other than attaching mount to tripod via a threaded knob, that consisted only of bolting the RA and declination motors onto their respective axes, a 5-minute job.

Included with the drive motors was a little hand control paddle allowing the selection of a slightly higher centering (not slewing) speed, a north-south switch, and, of course, four direction buttons. The drive system was powered by four D cells in one o’ them little vinyl “purse” style battery holders that, like the HC, was virtually identical to what Vixen was equipping their mounts with a decade or two previously. The Konus GEM shipped with three of Synta’s 11-pound “pancake” counterweights. One nice inclusion, often an extra cost option with the Celestron and Orion versions of the mount, was a workable if not optimum polar alignment borescope (the view through it being narrow and dim).

The only noticeable deficiency in the mount was the tripod. Not only were its 1.5-inch diameter legs a little skinny for a sizable 8-inch Newtonian, the fittings at the tops of the steel legs where they attached to the tripod head were plastic rather than metal, something that was obviously gonna cause flex and shakiness. That was aided and abetted by a wrongheaded decision on the part of whoever designed the tripod not to use a tripod leg spreader bracket.

Most Synta GEMs have a metal spreader through which passes a threaded rod. This rod screws into the bottom of the mount head at the top end, and is tightened against the tripod spreader with a knob at the lower end. This adds greatly to overall tripod steadiness. The Konus had none of this. In lieu of the spreader there was an accessory tray attached to the tripod by small, hinged brackets. The head was fixed to the tripod via a captive knob-headed bolt. I also noted that the accessory tray didn’t really spread the legs far enough apart to ensure a steady support for the scope. It didn’t tip over as I maneuvered the tube around, but it threatened to a time or three. The only saving grace as far a I could see, once I had the scope fully assembled, was that given the height of the eyepiece in most observing positions, there would never be a need to extend the legs of the flimsy tripod.

My reaction once I had the thing assembled before me in Chaos Manor South’s living room? Once I got over my shock at how dadgummed Yellow the Konus was, I couldn’t help bein’ a little impressed. Despite the florescent baby poop hue, the 8-inch just looked cool. This was mostly nostalgia, I reckon; somebody who, like Unk, grew up in the amateur astronomy of the 1960s just naturally has a soft spot way down deep in the most cynical and shrunken of hearts for that icon of the age, the big GEM Newt. And, in terms of my childhood, this was one big scope. An 8-inch. Same aperture as Edmund’s much-lusted-after but impossible to afford (for me and my lower middle class mates, anyway) 8-inch reflector.

No, it didn’t have quite the heft of the Edmund 8-inch, nor (quite) the focal length, but based on bitter experience with heavy but shaky 1960s GEMs, I suspected the Konus might perform every bit as well. I knew, as always, though, that a living room ain’t no proving ground for a scope, only an observing field will allow one to show its mettle.

The Konus, who I’d taken to calling “Old Yeller,” got a chance to prove herself shortly. Surprisingly, the vaunted New Scope Curse did not strike. Maybe 500 simoleons of telescope just wasn’t enough to anger the weather gods. Anyhoo, the late spring – early summer skies were amazingly clear when I hauled the scope out to one of my prime “City Lights” observing stations, the public schools’ Environmental Studies Center. This tract of land, which features a nice, open field, had become heavily light polluted as the city had flowed around it, but that was, for once, all to the good considering the nature of my project.

Transporting Ol’ Yeller was no problem. At f/5, the OTA fit in the back seat of the Camry with room to spare, and the tripod and GEM head took up but a small corner in the trunk. Assembly was a job of maybe five minutes. That done, the first question was “how good the optics”? The answer was, “amazingly good.” A star test revealed that the primary, while maybe a hair rough, as is often the case with mass-produced machine-made optics, was quite well corrected. A glance at a young Moon plunging into the west bolstered that finding. With a 2x TeleVue Big Barlow and a 12-mm Nagler II eyepiece, what little terminator was visible was beautifully detailed and fascinating despite Luna’s low altitude. Jupiter, hovering over in the west, was the next target. I was lucky enough to catch the Great Red Spot transiting, and it was starkly obvious despite its pale color at the time.

Looking at Jupe did reveal one of the scope’s weak points. Oh, not a problem with the Konus per se, but a problem for any 8-inch f/5 if planetary observing is the main course. Even with a 2x Barlow added to the 12-mm, I was only gettin’ 166x outa the scope. 1000-mm of focal length makes it hard to develop much magnification without resorting to high power Barlows and short focal length (and uncomfortable to use) eyepieces.

How did the mount perform at this semi-high power? Adequately. I won’t say it was the Rock of Gibraltar, but it was at least a little steadier than my beloved Palomar Junior or any of the many hallowed RV-6 Dynascopes I’ve used over the years. I believe the Celestron vibration suppression pads I put under the tripod leg tips helped Ol’ Yeller’s puny tripod a lot. What hurt? The unavoidable stiffness of the focuser made sharpening up Jupe somewhat frustrating.

How about the drive? It was OK. Despite a mere “eyeball it” polar alignment, Jupe stayed centered for long periods with only the occasional mash of a N/S button. I did note that, like many Chinese mounts then and now, there was a lot of backlash in the declination axis. Carefully adjusting the gear mesh later helped, but I finally concluded that much of the problem originated in the declination motor’s “loose” transfer gears, and that the backlash purty much had to be lived with (keeping the mount slightly unbalanced in declination helped a little). Having had some exposure to power-hungry go-to mounts by this time, I was a little concerned about the drive’s use of D batteries for power. I needn’t have worried; with no computer and no high-speed slews, it turned out the batteries lasted for long periods.

I was gratified the Konus performed well on the Moon and Jupiter. Looked like I’d got my money’s worth. There still remained the question of how well it would do as a tool for observing the deep sky and, specifically, for helping me make the observations I needed for my book. The answer was “mostly good, only a little bad.”

As I began working the Cygnus starfields, doing the many open clusters to be featured in Urban Astronomer, I was both impressed and frustrated. I was impressed by the telescope’s sharp, expansive optics. At f/5, you have got one hell of a lot of good-looking field to play with. When I was in a part of the sky (near zenith) dark enough for it to prove effective, my beloved 35-mm Panoptic chomped off giant sized bites of Milky Way. At first I found the diffraction spikes on bright stars caused by the Newtonian’s spider secondary support distracting, but I soon got used to them. How ‘bout contrast? There might have been some roughness to the primary, but not enough to harm images. The Konus showed up M101 almost as well as the C11; not a trivial feat in sodium orange skies. As I’d suspected, field sketching was much easier with the driven GEM than it would have been with a Dob—MUCHO easier.

But, yeah, I was frustrated, too, muchachos. That had nuttin’ to do with the Konus, but with my lack of experience in recent years with non-go-to GEMs. I’d center my target in Ol’ Yeller’s generous finder, and then find myself unable to find them frakkin’ RA and declination locks. By the time I did locate them levers, I’d almost inevitably have bumped the scope off target. Yeah, I reckoned I’d eventually get used to the routine, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to get used to it. I ran into the same frustration with a Vixen GP mounted C5 that the good folk at the 2007 Almost Heaven Star Party kindly arranged for scopeless Rod to use.

Mars during the "Great Opposition."
All summer and into the fall, the Konus just rocked on, never missing a beat, pullin’ some amazingly faint fuzzies out of b-a-d skies every time I had her out. I even did a little imaging. Oh, not of the deep sky, though I suppose you could do that with a dead-on polar alignment (so you wouldn’t have to make too many declination adjustments), but of the Solar System, specifically Mars who, as you know if you were a member of our fraternity/sorority in ought-three, was putting on his best show in millennia.

I’d obtained some killer shots of the Angry Red Planet with the C11 and C8, but one night when I was done doing that, I decided to give the Konus a shot at Barsoom. The result, as you can see, wasn’t that bad. The problem was not the optics, but, as when observing planets visually, the lack of focal length. Even on nights of so-so seeing I was shooting at at least 6000-mm with the C8. Getting that kind of image scale with the Konus meant stacking Barlows, further stressing the subpar focuser, and still not getting the image scale I was after. But the optics were good, and if I’d had a better focuser and a 5x Powermate, I reckon the 8 coulda done a job at least competitive with the C8 if not better.

It seemed like a long slog, but I finally had all the observing legwork for the book done, and not too long after that The Urban Astronomer’s Guide was off to the publisher. What would happen to the Konus/Synta? I didn’t foresee selling it; it was too cheap to get much money out of, and its weight and size would have made it an expensive pain to ship. But would I continue to use it for something? I intended to. B-U-T. My C8, now mounted on a go-to Synta/Celestron CG5 could, with a focal reducer, mostly duplicate the views of the Konus. Oh, occasionally I’d drag my Old Yeller out back, on those evenings when I wanted a little horsepower and didn’t want to fool with go-to computers. To be honest, even on those nights, I usually left the Curious Yellow OTA inside and just slapped a C8 OTA on the Konus EQ4. Steadier, easier to carry out and in. Most of the time I didn’t even fool with a C8 for the backyard. My little StarBlast got more use in the backyard than either a C8 or the Konus. A lot more. Uncle Rod is lazy.

I was using the Konus so little that I eventually found a new home for its EQ4 GEM. ATM Pat Rochford, had just finished an 8-inch mirror of short focal length, and needed a mount for the OTA. I handed over the EQ4 with a couple of caveats about the tripod. I needn’t have worried. Pat soon discarded that abortion and had fabricated a much nicer and nicer looking wooden tripod. Old Yeller’s OTA was relegated to Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault. I used the tube on the CG5 a time or two, but it was a bit heavy and long for that mount, even given a tripod worlds better than that of the Konus model. And, again, why bother? The C8 provided similar views with a focal reducer and was better suited for the CG5.

And so it went till one day when I was at Pat’s admiring his finished 8-inch Newt. Pat ain’t just an ATM, he is an innovator. His design for his fast 8-inch was radical and practical. In order to spare the EQ4 of too much of a payload burden, he’d built a minimalist truss tube OTA: three (non removable) tubes, a lightweight mirror box, and an e’en lighter weight upper cage. I must have gushed about the new scope a lot, since Pat asked if I’d like him to build a new OTA for my Konus optics. That might encourage me to use it on my CG5.

I was enthusiastic about the idea, and soon Pat was at work. In addition to fabricating a new primary cell, we (well, Pat did; I watched) used a much better focuser, one of JMI’s RCF Crayfords. I encouraged Pat to get as radical as he wanted to with my 8, and that he did. As you can see in the image, the upper cage (for want of better words) is hardly there at all. One ring, a plastic light baffle, and a mount for the focuser. Pat reused the primary mirror, secondary mirror, secondary holder, spider, the 50-mm finder, and some hardware (mostly the Vixen-type dovetail).

Alas, I still didn’t use this now-beautiful scope. Why? Same old - same old: too much trouble to tote into the backyard and not much reason to haul it to a dark site in lieu of a C8. Pat slowly came to feel the same way about his rig. Before I knew it, he’d converted his 8-inch into a low slung Dob, and wanted to know if I’d like him to do the same for mine. “Hail yeah.” Wasn’t much reason to keep the scope as she was. ‘Bout all she was doing was performing doorstop duties upstairs.

What’s special about New Yeller? First of all, she is light. When I arrived at Pat’s to pick her up and take first light, we needed to move the scope from its original set up position in the yard in hopes of getting Saturn into the field (the new scope curse did bite this time, with Saturn the only thing available through a sucker hole in the east). Pat said, “Move it where you want it; it’s easy.” I grabbed the scope by both handles, lifted it, and nearly heaved it into the air because I was not prepared for just how light it really was. It didn’t seem much heavier than my StarBlast + StarBlast Stand. Another wonderful surprise was the scope’s extra-buttery motions. The bearings ride on the traditional Ebony Star Formica and Teflon and provide the smooth action Dob users crave. Even more wonderful was the Dob’s lack of balance issues despite its short, light tube. Pat is a firm believer in large altitude bearings, and he’d not just gone “big” but “wide” this time. Removing even a sizeable eyepiece like an Ethos doesn’t send the scope tube up on a hunt for the zenith.

Obviously minimalism does come at a price. The secondary mirror is out there in the open and not much protected from dew, always a concern down here in the swamp. That problem was cured easily enough by the addition of a secondary heater we fashioned out of a .965 Kendrick finder eyepiece heater strip I had laying around the Old Manse. There was also the question of where to put a finder and what kind of a finder to put on the scope. While the balance on this Dob is not at all critical, we still didn’t want to add too much weight up top. Out went the 50-mm finderscope. Even a TELRAD seemed too big, heavy, and clunky-looking. The solution was a Rigel Quikfinder, which is more in keeping with Pat’s design, both appearance and weight-wise. I don’t like its reticle quite as much as I do the one on the TELRAD, but almost.

A final surprise, though it shouldn’t have been, was the views the Konus optics yielded. At the highest power we could muster, Saturn’s disk was wonderfully detailed, the near-edge-on rings showed their ring nature clearly, and four little Moons lined up in a striking row east and west of the planet. What else was obvious? My much-loved StarBlast would have a real competitor in the grab ‘n go game. New Yeller is not much more of a strain to get into the backyard. When I want major-time detail on the Moon or a planet, or more than a glance at a deep sky object, there is going to be no contest. New Yeller is gonna blow the doors off the Little Feller.

In addition to its light weight, easy motions, non-fussy balance, and good optics this is also one of the most—If not the most—beautiful Dobsonians I have ever seen. When I toted her home and set her up in the livin’ room, Miss Dorothy went one step further, opining that this was the most beautiful telescope of any kind she had ever seen. I used to think Rick Singmaster’s famous 7-inch Oak Classic Dobsonians was the winners of the small Dob beauty contest, but Pat’s creation just beats the pants off ‘em.

So, while she served her purpose, the reborn GEM Newtonian just didn’t pan out for me? I reckon not. I love my C8s. They are more compact and more versatile than an EQ Newt. I don’t have to rotate the whole consarned tube as I slew across the sky. The SCT is far more practical for any kind of imaging. And yet, and yet… Six years later, Orion is still offering a GEM 8-inch for a still modest price ($649 without drives, but with a much better tripod than what the Konus had). Not a bad buy for someone who wants tracking so they can maybe get their feet wet with imaging and sketch to their heart’s content. Me? I’ll always have a soft spot in me little heart for them hulking and impressive (looking) GEM Newts, but it’s a fondness I’ll prob’ly henceforth choose to experience only in reverie.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Deep in the Heart

As most of y’all who’ve been reading this blog for a while know, I’ve been an amateur astronomer for a long time. I’ve seen the Caves and Optical Craftsmen and Coulters come and I’ve seen ‘em go. I’ve been going to star parties for quite a  while too. But I had never been to the Texas Star Party, muchachos.

Oh, I’d thought about doing TSP many times over the years, but that trip from Possum Swamp to West Texas always seemed just too daunting.  I still wanted to go, though, and as my career(s) began to move off Square One, that heretofore elusive goal out at Prude Ranch began to seem suddenly doable. For one reason or anudder, though, the stars didn’t quite align for me until about a dozen years back, when—what’s that? “What’s the Texas Star Party?” you ask?!

I doubt there are too many seasoned amateurs who have not heard of “TSP,” but if’n you are a wet behind the ears tenderfoot, here is the straight poop. Like quite a few of the biggest and most famous star parties that survive till this day, The Texas Star Party got its start way back in the 1970s, 1979 to be exact. The first several TSPs were small affairs held at the state park down the road from McDonald observatory. The prime mover in the beginning was Deborah Byrd, whose name should be familiar to y’all from her long-running and excellent Stardate radio show and her current project, Earth and Sky. Deborah was ably assisted by the McDonald staff (University of Texas), the Austin Astronomical Society, and a small group of deep-sky-crazy amateur astronomers.

The Texas Star Party did not stay small for long. Soon it had outgrown the state park and had moved across the road to Prude Ranch, a “dude ranch” well equipped for the enormous (in a smallish amateur astronomy sorta way) crowds it was obvious the star party would soon be attracting. And attract it did, reaching a peak of over 800 amateurs in the 1990s before TSP and ranch personnel reluctantly decided it was necessary to limit registration to 700 because of badly stressed facilities. What made and makes the Texas Star Party so popular, such a big thing in our little world?

It came along at just the right time. When TSP was aborning, there wasn’t, first of all, too much competition. Oh there was Stellafane on the East coast and Riverside on the west, but not a whole lot in between. Even the justly famous Winter Star Party was still just a gleam in Tippy D’Auria’s eye. In the 1970s, amateur astronomy was changing, too. Light pollution and a growing interest by amateurs in deep sky observing and photography meant that folks had to travel to dark sites to observe. So they needed a place to travel to—and Prude was that in spades. Out in the Big Bend area of the Lone Star State, TSP is blessed with skies that are both dark and dry (which is often more important than dark for seeing the real faint fuzzies). Limiting magnitude? I’ve never seriously tried to ascertain that, but I’d guess “7 or better at zenith.”

After sitting on the sidelines, my long-time observing companion, Pat Rochford, and I resolved that 1997 was gonna be the year for us, and just after Christmas we started planning a massive observing expedition. What would we take with us? If the skies were as good as we thought they was gonna be, we’d better go loaded for bear. I’d be equipped with my trusty 12.5-inch Meade StarFinder Dob for general observing, and, for photography under those lustrous skies, I’d have my Ultima C8. Of course we would need deep sky Dobsonian horsepower, too; for that we’d bring Pat’s massive 24-inch. Just in case, he’d bring another, smaller telescope along as well.

That was four. But we’d also invited a fellow club member and deep sky observer, Joe Diefenbach, along for the trip, and he’d want a scope of his own; his 12-inch ultra-portable truss made five. Since we’d decided to tent-camp (still not sure why we did that), we’d need tents, sleeping bags, and all the other accouterments required for a week of roughing it as well. How would we tote all that stuff across four states? We’d rent a truck. Not a van. Not a small rent-a-truck, but the biggest thing Ryder offered before you got to tractor-trailers; something deuce-and-a-half sized.

So we was set by late winter, checklists composed, gear gathered. I was a mite skeptical about tent-camping in Texas in May, but not too much. I was not as adverse to tents then as I am now. Everything looked like it would work out just ducky till we began hearing rumors over that new-fangled Internet thingie that there was big trouble in River City—or Prude Ranch. Seemed as there was a disagreement between the TSP organizers and the ranch’s owners. The result? A last minute decision was made to move the event from Prude to a new site, the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment near Leakey, Texas in the hill country (not far from San Antonio, that is). We were put-out we would not get to experience the storied Prude, but, on the other hand, Alto Frio was somewhat closer for us. When time came to load up the Big Rig and head west, we’d convinced ourselves that the move to Alto Frio might actually be a Good Thing.

The actual trip to TSP ’97 was not really that bad, anticlimactic almost. Yeah, it was derned close to 800-miles, and, being (relatively) young and foolish, we did all them miles in one day, setting out before dawn, and, yeah, being penny-pinchers all, the quick meals we took along the way was the worst sort of fast-food, Hardees and Dairy Queen, for god’s sake. Fortunately, when you are still on the sweet side of 50, roughing it don’t seem so rough.

Only thing I really didn’t like? Driving that big truck over the long, high, narrow bridge at Lake Charles, Louisiana. I don’t like bridges, was unlucky enough to be at the wheel when we got to this one, and by the time I knew what was ahead, it was too late to pull over and switch drivers. I made it across by the simple expedient of centering the truck on the white line and ignoring the irate honking behind me. Once we passed San Antonio, the rest of the ride was pleasant and pretty. Maybe too pretty. As we approached TSP’s new Alto Frio site, Joe began chirping about the “beautiful wildflowers.” I turned to him and said, “You know what makes wildflowers, doncha? RAIN.”

Once we hit the Baptist Encampment, we, in short order, got registered, found a few trees at the edge of the field under which to erect our tents, unloaded scopes and other gear, and stashed the truck, which I’d taken to calling “Big Mama,” in a vacant corner of the humongous field. Almost before we knew it, the sky was darkening, and, from the looks of it, it was apt to be a beautiful night. And it was, for the most part, with just a couple of irritations.

Rod's Omega:  C8 and Fuji Super G800 film.
Unfortunately, them irritations was major. Yeah, the skies were pretty, but it was windy. I wasn’t sure whether this was because of the passage of a front, or whether it was in advance of a front, but one thing I did know was that even my “small” 12-inch Dob suddenly decided it was a weathervane. That pushed me over to the Ultima 8, which showed that the race ain’t always to the swift (or largest aperture). Despite the winds, I was able to do quite a bit of observing with the U8, and even got a credible shot of Omega Centauri (on the fondly remembered Fuji Super G800 35 film) before clouds began to roll in. Which they did after a while, closing the sky with a thud (or, more accurately, with a boom of distant thunder).

The next several days was both good and bad. The Good was the friendly folks, both TSPers and the Alto Frio staff. Also good were the exceptional speakers, who included David Levy, Steve O’Meara, Richard Berry, and everybody’s fave imager, Robert Reeves. The talks were given in the facility’s main hall, which was one of the best venues for star party talks I have ever seen. The food, served in Alto Frio’s massive cafeteria complex, was also excellent. There was a nice building for use by vendors, who included the fondly remembered Pocono Mountain Optics, Lumicon, TeleVue, and many other biggies of the day.

The Bads? The bathrooms/showers were OK to begin with, but the Alto Frio folks never did clean them. At all. Not a lick. By the end of the event the bath house resembled the Black Hole of Calcutta. More serious was the light pollution problem. Not from Leakey, Texas; that was minimal. The problem was passing cars. One edge of the observing field was bordered by a road.

I don’t know if traffic along it is always as heavy as it was that week, or whether the locals were just out in force to look at the crazy astronomers, but headlights were a problem. The TSP folks had known about this from the beginning, and had endeavored to erect a “light fence” by stringing tarps along the field edge. Unfortunately, winds on that first, clear evening made this all but useless. Not that it made much difference, since the lingering and sometimes threatening clouds meant we went most of the week without seeing a blessed thing other than the insides of our eyelids. Luckily we had a bottle or three of the Rebel Yell to help keep our spirits up and which we (mostly me) consumed discretely--this was a Baptist Encampment, afterall.

By midweek, I began to notice tension between the long-time attendees and TSP organizers, which came to a head during an open discussion forum one (cloudy) evening. There was evident and expressed anger over the move to Alto Frio. People wanted Prude, not the Texas Hill Country. The feeling was so obviously and strongly against the Baptist Encampment; so many attendees were obviously disappointed in the new venue and pining for the old location's "better skies" (despite the fact that, according to weather reports, the ranch was also clouded out) that I had little doubt that come hell or high water TSP would move back to Prude for “next time.” If the skies had been clear for most of the star party at Alto Frio, it might have been different. But they were not. The week wore on with only minor respites from gray skies, and culminated in a thunderstorm and torrential rain that collapsed our tents and sent me, Pat, and Joe scrambling for the safety of Big Mama.

Once the storm passed, it, as you might expect, brought clearing. As you also might expect, that didn’t happen till the last night of TSP ’97. Oh, the three of us tried to stick with it as long as we could, but the knowledge we didn’t just have to pack up and leave in the morning, but had to do an 800-mile trip in one go put a bit of a damper on our enjoyment. I’d had a good time as I always do at any star party, but, yes, TSP ’97 was a bit of a wash. We’d spent the majority of our time looking at satellite weather images instead of the sky. Not that I regretted the trip; there were great speakers, great food, great vendors, and great people. This was my first major star party since I’d attended Riverside ages back; how could I not have a good time spending a week with 600 fellow amateurs? Would I be back to TSP? If it continued in Alto Frio? Prob’ly not. If it returned to Prude? Maybe someday.

The more I thought about the “taste” of TSP I’d got, the more I resolved to experience the Real Thing. But that was not to be the following year. I had a destroyer to take to sea trials and there was no way I could absent myself from the good old shipyard. 1998 came and went without me. But 1999 was different. My decks were clear for another try at deep sky heaven. This would be a different medium and mode, though. Pat couldn’t do 1999, and Joe had moved away. Miss Dorothy, however, expressed interest, and soon we were planning a TSP-cum-family vacation.

One small fly in the always sticky ointment? We missed out on the cabin lottery (back then there were always more amateurs wanting Ranch accommodations than there were accommodations for them). I was a mite distressed at first, but a couple of phone calls revealed that if we could make do for a couple of days “something will turn up.” To that end we purchased a new tent and arranged for a motel room for Miss D. in nearby Fort Davis. Being still (relatively) young and stupid and figgered I could easily put up with a tent for a week. Ha.

I gotta say the trip to TSP ’99, while longer than the ill-fated expedition to Alto Frio, was much more pleasant. It wasn't just having Dorothy along, but also the difference between driving a deuce-and-a-half and a Toyota Camry over rutted Texas Interstates. It was like, well, yeah, night and day. Dorothy and I also didn’t try to push it. Leaving early on Saturday morning rather than Sunday, we spent the night at Dorothy’s brother’s place in Houston. Yeah, that made for one heck of a drive Sunday, but still better than going all the way to that dadgummed Baptist Encampment in one day. The drive itself, once we got past Hill Country, was interesting, with the land rapidly changing to desert southwest with dry expanses and mesas as far as the eye could see an’ no wildflowers in sight.

When we finally made it to the vaunted Prude Sunday afternoon, we were pleasantly surprised. Rather than being a ramshackle collection of lean-tos as we’d feared, Prude Ranch was a dude ranch in the old and kinda elaborate mold. Think Gene Autry’s TV show. In addition to a large “ranch-house” containing offices, cafeteria style dining, and a large meeting hall, Prude featured an indoor swimming pool, many cabins and motel type rooms (too bad we weren’t in one), and an adequate vendor building. Following registration, a quick drive around (done slowly so as not to stir up the deep, fine dust; Prude had not had appreciable rain in months) showed the Upper Field was wall-to-wall telescopes. Somewhat disappointedly, I set up scope and tent on the Middle Field, which actually had the advantage of better horizons in some directions, but, at the time, the liability of a lot more of that intrusive dust.

Once we’d checked Dorothy into her old and plain but clean motel, we investigated the other major question mark: food. We’d heard some chilling tales of Prude Ranch food, but these turned out to be quite inaccurate. Every meal we had at TSP was several cuts above normal star party fare, and was served in pleasant surroundings by courteous and attentive staff. A glance outside as I finished stuffing myself showed it wouldn’t be too long before the main course, the sky. Actually, we had several hours to get ready before getting down to it. Prude is way far west in the central time zone, so it don’t get truly dark until about 9pm in the spring.

Dark did come, though, and when it did, MAN ALIVE. If you’re an East-of-the-Mississippier like Unk, you are ripe to be shocked by southwest desert skies. At first you don’t realize how much better they are. The sky doesn’t look black. Despite the absence of light-pollution at Prude, it looks more a shade of gray. But then you realize how much you are seeing. For even well-experienced sky-watchers, the constellations take on a disturbingly unfamiliar look as hordes of normally unseen stars wink into existence. By the time the night grew old, the Milky Way was arching overhead like some monstrous burning rainbow. Looking to the south, I finally found out why they call NGC 6231 “The False Comet.”

Long before the Milky Way reigned overhead, though, I was in deep sky heaven. At the time, my 12.5-inch Dobbie was not equipped with digital setting circles. She did have a decent 50-mm finder in addition to her Telrad, but I found I didn’t need to use the finderscope. With so many stars to hop by, the zero-power finder was more than sufficient as I effortlessly cruised from object to object, marvel to mystery. I had one major goal on this first evening, locating and observing the famous Double Quasar. Well, sort of a goal, anyhow. More like “faint hope” given the Double’s frighteningly dim magnitude figure of 16.5. The Double Quasar is a gravitationally lensed QSO, with its two components bein’ about six seconds apart. Finding is not a problem, since the pair is less than 15 arc minutes northwest of prominent NGC 3079.

When I landed on the proper eyepiece field, the first surprise was 3079. This 11th magnitude galaxy is normally just a smudge even from good skies back home. Here, it was a showpiece, displaying considerable detail in the form of contrasty dust lanes. So good I had a hard time pulling myself away to continue on to the Quasar. What did I notice in the field right away besides the NGC? The little sprite of a galaxy CGCG 266-7. This 14.8 magnitude fuzzball was bold. OK, nudge the scope a little west and north. There’s the “dipper” asterism they talked about on Adventures in Deep Space and…and…and there she is! No, I won’t say I saw the double as a resolved double object, but I did see a small smidge-smudge in the proper place. Not easy, but THERE!

As the night grew old, I worked and worked hiking through the great forest of galaxies that extends from northernmost Coma to southernmost Virgo and then, as the summer skies came in, wandering through trackless Milky Way star fields until a small and old Moon began to peep over the mountain and the east began to lighten noticeably. As I crawled into the tent, Miss Dorothy was still sitting outside, listening to the horses in the nearby corral come awake and watching that slim crescent float into the sky to the accompaniment of their neighs and snuffles.

Only complaint at the end of our first day? I found it impossible to sleep long in the tent with the Sun over the horizon. Due to the low humidity, I never felt hot outside, but in the tent, even with it well ventilated, humidity built-up and made it aitch-oh-tee-tee hot. What to do? Miss Dorothy decided to haunt the ranch office and get us a room. Her persistence paid off; by Tuesday afternoon, we were in one of the “family cabins” right across from our position on the field. These are actually large attached motel-type rooms and feature blessed air conditioning and hot showers. Frankly, I don’t think I could have done a week in a tent and continued to observe all night.

What else do I remember from ‘99? What sticks in my mind observing-wise in addition to the QSO is how wondrous M51 looked. Yeah, like you I’d seen it a million times before, but rarely—if ever—like this. At high magnification, it stretched on forever, and I wandered up and down its arms picking off HII regions as I went. Also still bright in memory is another familiar object, M8, The Lagoon Nebula, which in a 12-mm Nagler and OIII was a towering thing, seeming to stretch way over my head and almost inspiring vertigo. It wasn’t just the sky, though. I also recall how many wonderful friends we made that year. Oh, and we still chuckle about the evening a herd of deer almost charged onto the field, the buck in the lead screeching to a halt and turning his gang away at the last moment when he noticed them weird humans all over the place. And the speakers. World class starting with David Levy and Steve O’Meara and working all the way down to li’l ol’ me who served on a discussion panel.

So it went night after night after night of ‘99. I, who couldn’t imagine ever getting enough of the deep sky, almost had a surfeit by week’s end. When the sky closed-in with clouds for the first and only time on Saturday night, the last night, I don’t think I was alone in heaving a small sigh of relief. The sky seemed to say, “OK, I’ve given you everything I have to give; that’s enough for this year.” I agreed—for a little while. Despite the wonderful time we’d had, I couldn’t help feelin’ a bit melancholy as Dorothy and I passed under the “Vaya Con Dios” sign at the ranch entrance on our way out. For once, though, I was satisfied to a “T” with a star party experience. It had all come together: sky, people, scope, facilities. But satisfied as I was, you’d better believe I was plotting our return before we hit I-10 on the way home.

To my disappointment, that return did not come in 2000. This time it was Miss D. who was snowed under with work. TSP 2000 fell right smack in the middle of final-exam time, no time for a professor to be away from her university. But the following year, 2001, those stars all came into alignment again, and we were gearin’ up for another expedition west. Only thing that worried us? We had such fond memories of 1999, we didn’t see how 2001 could possibly equal that. Would it be a letdown?

The trip out sure wasn’t. This time we decided to push on as far past Houston as possible on the first day in hopes of making Day Two a mite less stressful. We resolved to not stop before San Antonio, and by the time we got to San-An, we found that we were not very tired, and also that there didn’t seem to be any near-the-Interstate-ramp motels that looked overly appealing. We kept on trucking till we hit the small town of Kerrville. This wee retirement community was blessed with both nice motels and a selection of restaurants. The Best Western we chose was straight out of the 1960s with huge, clean rooms and an elaborate pool area. For eats, we did as the Desk Clerk suggested and gave Mamacita’s Mexican Restaurant a try. Ice cold margaritas soon washed away the dust of the road and Tex-mex soon cured the hunger pangs. Add excellent service in attractive surroundings and what more could a middle-aged astronomer ask for?

Next morning we was up bright and early and raring to go, hitting Prude just after noon. Dorothy suggested I drop her off at the ranch house to take care of registration details while I scoped out the field sitchy-ation. Second time, once you’ve got the lay of the land, is always so much easier. Not only did I find a spot on the upper field, but I found myself setting up next to one of the friends I’d made at 1999, Tom Wideman of Dallas. Soon we had my 12.5 setup next to Tom’s beautiful LX200 10-inch f/6.3 and was chomping at the bit for darkness.

Dorothy appeared in due time with our registration material and a key to our ranch motel room. That room, close to the upper field, was even better than the family cabin we’d enjoyed in 1999. Maybe not quite as fancy as your average Holiday Inn Express, but clean and comfortable, and featuring those musts for Prude living, air conditioning and showers. I wouldn’t have to endure the walk through the thick Prude dust (a superb blend of the manure of uncounted generations of horses, microfine dust, and leftover plutonium blowing in from Nevada) on my way to the bath-house. In 1999, I believe I was actually dirtier after my showers than before.

While waiting for the Sun to finally give up the field to the stars, I ran into another of my acquaintances from 1999, the late Jeff Medkeff. Jeff, who was taken from us way too soon, was one of the best observers, writers, and people I’ve run into in this game. If you knew Jeff, you also know that in addition to being a literal storehouse of astronomical knowledge, he had quite a (dry) sense of humor. In the picture, he is on the left and Tom on the right. I cut Tom’s head off because I was laughin’ so hard at whatever it was that Jeff had just said. All I know is that when we lost Jeff Medkeff, the astronomy writing business and amateur astronomy in general suffered a severe blow.

What was memorable about 2001? While the sky was not quite as good as it was in 1999—there were a couple of evenings that was partially closed out by clouds—the star gazing was still a couple of clicks past “awesome.” What I remember best is probably the time Tom Wideman and I observed till dawn and capped that off by tracking the International Space Station in Tom’s LX200 just ahead of Sunrise. That and running John Wagoner’s yearly observin’ program. Not only were the objects almost as tough as 1999’s “Planetary Party” (somebody opined that year that “TSP” must stand for “Twenty-five Stinkin’ Planetaries”), Mr. Wagoner said, cryptically, that there was a surprise awaiting us at the end. Much as Tom and I tried to determine what that “surprise” might be, it was not until we turned in our lists to collect our pins that John pointed out that plotting the objects on a star chart and connecting ‘em formed the numbers “2001” (the theme/t-shirt for the year was “Open the Pod Bay Doors Hal, I'm Late for TSP 2001!”).

That was 2001, though. Eight years back. If the Texas Star Party is do gosh-darned groovy, why haven’t Miss D. and I been back since? It’s not for lack of wanting to. Everytime spring rolls around, I get nostalgic for “the ranch,” and so does Dorothy. It’s just that as we—and especially she—have moved up the career ladder, it’s become more and more difficult to take off a week and a half in the spring (after a week of the TSP experience you will definitely need a day or two to recharge your batteries before putting your nose back to the grindstone). I’ll tell you right now: I’ve been to a lot of star parties, including some great star parties, but my heart is still in Texas. I have never had a better time and I guess I never will. I won’t make it this year, but I will be there in spirit. I’ll be back, too, many times. I may have to wait till I’m a little closer to retirement, but I will be back on that hallowed and luminous observing field.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


This and Every Season II

Last week I addressed the less than controversial subject “What You Gonna Bring?” (to a star party); this time we shall talk over the stickier subject of “How You Gonna Act?” Bottom line, muchachos? Everybody wants to have a good time at the Hoot Owl Star Party, and the secret to everybody having one, as with most other things, is practicing the good ol’ Golden Rule: treat your fellow amateurs like you want to be treated. Laughably simple and easy to abide by. Which mostly it is for most of us most of the time, I reckon. Not always, though. Occasionally we do things that make our fellows enjoy a star party less than they should. These things are done not out of malice (usually), but out of ignorance or forgetfulness. What kinda of things? Glad you axed.


I reckon it’s a good sign concerning the health and growth of our avocation that almost every star party I go to of late is so well attended that the observing field is about to burst at the seams. This occasionally leads to a bit of friction, since prime real estate (lots of folks like the west side of a field, for example, to catch the “new stuff” coming up in the east) gets snapped up in a hurry.

If you arrive late, don’t whine. Just because you’ve been coming to the Raccoon Flats Star Gaze since Hector was a pup don’t mean you get a reserved spot. If you arrive late, you take what you can find. And don’t get the idea that you can spread your junk over two spots in order to reserve room for your buddy Elmer who can’t get away from The Plant till Saturday. The star party bosses don’t like that kind of thing (or shouldn’t). You can’t always expect a lot of elbow room at the popular events, either. Yeah, it would be nice to have more space between setups, but, when somebody pulls into the spot next to you, just grit your teeth and say “Welcome;” don’t scowl at ‘em like you think they are plague carriers.

Frankly, the only times I’ve really been ticked off about the setup situation had nothing to do with me being relegated to the south end of the field on a slope. I can accept getting a less than optimum spot; first come first served, and I always have a great time anyway. I’m only perturbed when the playing field ain’t level. That was the case at a popular southern star party I used to attend each year. The rules spelled it out clearly: “No one will be allowed to set up on the field before the gates open at noon.” Which was cool. But, invariably, when I arrived at noon the prime spots were taken and the field was already derned near half full. Seemed as the star party staff didn’t believe the “not before noon” applied to them. And, naturally, shouldn’t apply to their buddies, either. Don’t bother guessing which event I’m talkin’ about; they are long-since under new management in a new location. I may even consider going back some time.

Light Rules


I think we purty much put this subject to bed last time: you want a flashlight that is really red (not a standard flashlight covered with a layer of brown paper bag paper) and not too bright. Be careful with the thing, too—your “not very bright” may be “blinding” if you shine it in someone's eyes. Keep your lights pointed at your charts or at the ground. There are various other red lights amateurs (including me) tend to accumulate and use on the field. Same considerations apply: if you’re gonna fashion a red table lamp out of one of them LED lanterns you get at Academy, fine, but make sure it is plenty red, dim enough, and keep it shielded from the direct view of your neighbors.

Most of the complaints I’ve heard recently concerning “utility” type red lights have to do with the little red LED blinkers some folks attach to their tripods with abandon. The purpose of these is to prevent passerby from bumping into the tripod. Blinkers may accomplish that, but I believe most of the folks who use ‘em just like ‘em because they are cool. They may have some utility at the local public star gaze, but at a real star party, where everybody is gonna be carrying a red light and will know to be reasonably careful on a field full of scopes, there ain’t much need for them. If you feel moved to use these blinkers, consider just pasting one on your tripod, not five or six; that should be enough to warn folks away but less distracting for your neighbors than a Christmas tree display.

Computers and Other Electronic Devices

This has become an important enough issue that I devoted half a blog to the subject not long back. To summarize: if you are using a laptop on the observing field, you must take steps to prevent the display from disturbing other observers. As was touched on last week, you will need a piece of red filter material over the screen. I don’t care how good the night vision feature of your PC or Mac program works, it still ain’t gonna be red enough or dim enough, even with the brightness down real low.

The addition of a sheet of Rubylith red transparency film (available, from the good folks at or, what I use, a SightSaver, makes the difference. Personally, I find a filtered laptop display easier to read than I do one that has been turned way down in brightness. The difference is that the filter material makes the display colors really red and easier on the dark adaptation without having to turn the brightness down too low. As described in last week’s screed, you may also want to place the laptop in some kind of a small enclosure.

As I’ve said before, you’ve got to think about more than flashlights and laptops these days when it comes to light rules. All the little devices we’ve come to take for granted and which are always at our beck and call—cell phones, PDAs, iPods, CD players, cameras, yadda-yadda-yadda—are invariably equipped with displays that have two things in common: they are big and they are bright. Treat them as you would a computer, applying Rubylith as needed. With DSLRs being ever more popular for celestial imaging, they are becoming prime offenders in this regard. If you use your DSLR with a laptop, you won’t need to look at the camera’s screen at all. You can get little plastic flip-down/pop-up covers for DSLR displays at the camera store (which also come in handy for shading the read-out from the Sun during the day). You use the DSLR barefoot and gotta look at its screen? Rubylith, Rubylith, Rubylith.

Green Lasers

Green laser pointers, which some amateurs like to use for pointing out objects in the sky and as “finders” on their scopes, threatened to become a severe problem on observing fields a few years back when their prices began to drop precipitously. I did, in fact, go to a star party or three where they were a problem. Not only were their owners zipping them across the sky in lightsaber fashion, they just could not keep them pointed at the sky, illuminating the tree line on the opposite side of the field, or their buddies’ tent canopies proving irresistible.

The harm being many people found the lasers ugly and distracting and light polluting when used on the sky, and potentially dangerous when pointed near the ground and people. Some imagers also worried about their pictures being spoiled. Ground truth? A normal (5-milliwatt) green laser adds absolutely nothing to a site’s light pollution burden, probably wouldn't cause permanent damage even if shined into somebody’s eye by accident, and is unlikely to interfere with CCD images.

So I think green lasers should be allowed at star parties? No. They are ugly and bother lots of people, and that is reason enough for them to be banned in my opinion. I have used a green laser at star parties, but only as part of pre-planned naked-eye sky-tours I conduct as a speaker. I am careful to do my presentations on a sparsely populated part of the observing field, and always do ‘em early in the evening before hard-core imaging and observing get rolling. Yep, green lasers threatened to become a problem at star parties--but never did. Most events were quick to ban most use of ‘em, and most green laser wielding amateurs seem to have accepted that with good grace.


Cars and trucks are a constant source of friction at star parties where they are allowed on or near the field. How’s that? Their owners simply cannot stay out of them. At some point the desire for something left in the passenger compartment or in the trunk becomes overwhelming and Johnny Amateur opens door or trunk and, on a field full of dark adapted folks, stuns everybody with interior, door, and trunk lights.

It don’t have to be that way. Any modern automobile I have seen has a switch for the dome light. Set her in the middle, usually, and the doors can be opened all night long if that’s how you get your jollies. If your jalopy has warning/courtesy lights positioned on the lower inside of the doors, you’ll need to deal with those, too. Since there is rarely any way to switch them off, and it is difficult to get at the bulbs, a piece of cardboard taped over the fixtures will have to serve. Trunk lights usually cannot be easily disabled, either, but the bulbs can be unscrewed and squirreled away in a baggie for replacement when it is time to go home.

What’s more annoying than somebody opening car doors and trunks? That goober who seems to go to each and every star party I go to and who sometime during the night will inevitably set off his car alarm. His hooting horn and flashing headlights inspire the meekest on the field to murder. Why does this happen? I have no clue. The cure would seem simple: either turn off the car alarm (the owner’s manual likely has instructions for that) or, if that is impossible, mercy sakes alive, just leave the car unlocked. You are right there with your vehicle, and it is unlikely any of your fellow amateurs will be so blinded with envy as to try to steal your prized Ford Focus.

Then there are the characters who decide they need to leave the site via car in the middle of the night. If it were an emergency, everybody would understand. But it never is. Jimmy-Joe just wants to call it a night and drive back to cabin or motel. Look, if you think you might want to leave before dawn, park your car somewhere where it will be as unobtrusive as humanly possible. And, even then, try to put some distance between you and the site before engaging headlights. I know that can be difficult with modern vehicles that insist on deciding when their lights should be on, and that also insist on flashing their lights when they are unlocked. Read the manual and do the best you can in this regard. But if you’ve positioned your car an appropriate distance away, your departure shouldn’t bother anybody no matter how much Nellie Belle beeps and flashes.

When all is said and done, the only way to eliminate this and other vehicle light problems is for star party organizers to mandate “no vehicles on or near the field.” If cars and trucks are at hand, their lights will get turned on before the evening is out. And there are always gonna be the worthies who think the rules simply do not apply to them. One star party I have attended for years used to offer a couple of “windows” during the night when vehicles could be driven away from the field periphery. Not a good thing in my opinion, but not a huge problem either. Or it wouldn’t have been if folks had followed the rules. All some heard was “OK to drive off the field,” which they proceeded to do all freaking night long whenever the fancy struck ‘em.

What’s worse—more disruptive—than the light rules violators, whether it be million candlepower pickup truck fog lights or flashlights or camp stoves or anything else? The members of the Greek Chorus who erupt in screams of “DOUSE THAT LIGHT” whenever so much as a cigarette lighter flame is shown. Guys, I want the light rules adhered to, too, but you bother me considerably more than Sissy trying to light up her Marlboro does. Leave light rule enforcement to star party staff. If they are not doing their job, bring that up with them, but no more hollering, please. Second place? Folks who have fits about white lights or headlights when it is cloudy and will obviously remain cloudy for quite some time to come. Wouldn’t think anybody would raise a fuss in those circumstances, but they do.


Yeah, I know. The supper spread down to the Mount Pilot SP ain’t exactly what you call “haute cuisine,” but I have never been to a star party where meals were furnished where the food was not at least acceptable. Never. Oh, it might be simple, but it’s always been edible, if occasionally barely edible. Many events publish their menus ahead of time. Don’t like it? Roll your own. As I said last time, a Coleman stove is a good alternative if there ain’t no Hardee’s or Mickey D’s at hand. What shouldn’t you do? Order and eat the meals but complain about ‘em between every mouthful. Your fellow diners will get tired of hearing that in a right quick hurry. Meals are often cooked and served by volunteers. How would you like to be tasked with serving 100 meals out in the middle of nowhere? On a shoestring? Think you can do better? By all means, volunteer your services for next year.

If you are far from home, expect to encounter food with which you are not familiar. Be polite. That white stuff next to your piece of catfish is grits. It’s made from corn. Yes, we eat it. We like it. Yes, we have heard all the jokes about grits a time or two. One other no-no? Since most star party meals are done on a shoestring, usually with little money and no food leftover, don’t expect to arrive onsite, see the food looks good, even the grits, and decide you’d like to participate in the meal plan after all. Oh, it don’t hurt to ask; somebody may have cancelled-out. Just don’t expect to be accommodated and don’t whine if the answer is “no.”


Many of us are acquainted with communal living from having once resided in a college dorm or a military barracks or both. But some folks have never experienced the joys of such a lifestyle, and some who have have forgotten. Cabin behavior can be summed up simply and easily: be considerate and clean up after yourself. You like to sleep with the window open when it is 50 degrees outside? Your cabin-mates may feel different. Ask ‘em before you crack a window. You go to bed at midnight, star party or no? Fine, but if you wake up at 7 am and need to get up and get out, be quiet doing it. Many of your buddies will have gone till dawn, and will not appreciate your off-key shower-stall rendition of  "Hippity Hop to the Barber Shop." And last, but far from least, if you make a mess, especially in the bathroom, clean it up. I ain’t yore mama.

Miscellaneous Issues

Smoking and Drinking

Smoking-wise, lots has changed in the 44 years since I entered our avocation. Back then, almost everybody smoked cigarettes. Now, not so much. Smokers, those who are left, sometimes, justly or unjustly, feel put out and put upon. Truth is, people are just more conscious of the dangers, real or imagined, of second-hand smoke. I don’t care if you have concrete proof (you saw it on the Interwebs) that second-hand smoke is harmless. Most of the people on the field do not want to breathe it or have their optics exposed to it. It makes them unhappy, so you should not do it.

Need a cig? Step off the field, downwind of the field, and enjoy. I know you will. I smoked for many a year meself and will readily proclaim the only bad thing about cigs is that they kill you. Shield your lighter, or invest in on of them flameless jobs. Cigars your thing? I won’t naysay your savoring a good stogie, but your friends out on the field are gonna like it (and you) e’en less than they do cigarette smoke. Get off the field with yer cheroot, way off. Oh, I shouldn’t have to tell all y’all to dispose of butts somewhere other than on the ground.

When it is cloudy or dawn has arrived, I will be the last person to turn down a drink. I don’t like to drink before/while observing, but I think anybody who wants to should. We are (mostly) all adults, and as long as nobody gets drunk and makes a nuisance or a hazard of themselves, have at it. There are some events where (often ostensibly for insurance reasons) drinkin’ ain’t allowed, period. Yikes! My solution? Depending on the circumstances, the answer is usually “be discreet.” Don’t advertise and usually nobody will care. I’ve yet to be somewhere where the Beer Police came through searching ice chests. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told whether I can drink a consarned Michelob or not as long as I ain't drunk and running amok. In all my years of star partying I can think of maybe one instance where somebody caused anything approaching a real problem on the field because of Demon Rum.


Everybody likes star party raffles; even your old Uncle, who rarely wins a thing. I’m not sure how much I like raffles as they are usually run, though. The problem, if there is one, is there is often some joker who decides he can “buy” the prize he wants by purchasing two or three hundred dollars worth of tickets in order to win (they hope) that Dogpatch Optics 88-mm ED. This is good and bad. Star party organizers/sponsors may like it. If two or three “buyers” are onsite, they don’t have to worry too much about selling tickets. Not at first, anyhow.

Eventually, though, word gets out to the star party rank and file, and they get mad (“What chance do I have to win a thing with my two tickets? Bubba’s got two hundred!”) and will stop buying. So, tickets, maybe more than before, go unsold. My suggestion to star party organizers? You’ll do much better PR wise if you either limit the number of chances that can be purchased, or do away with raffles completely, sticking with door prizes. Course, then it may be necessary to raise registration prices to make up for lost ticket sales revenue. Which will P.O. (“put out,” of course) some of your audience. And so it goes.


Not much to be said here. If’n you don’t wanna have to listen to my In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, don’t make me listen to your Pachelbel’s Canon. Seriously, everybody just use headphones, day or night. Course, some folks simply cannot seem to do that. What do you do then? Corral a star party staff person and let them take care of the problem; almost all events have formal rules that cover this situation.


Now we come to a game I know intimately, having spoken at star parties without number in the last decade. As always, it’s a two way street. You (attendees and organizers) should expect your speakers to be prompt, professional, and reliable. And they should expect you to be the same. Frankly, most of the problems with speakers are not with the professionals. Most of us, who are mostly astronomy writers used to deadlines, know what is expected of us. Come hell or high water we will make the date and will deliver a professional quality presentation.

The trouble comes when star party organizers want to skimp. They want quality speakers for the event, but they don’t want to pay for them. Frankly, I have recently cut back on the freebies to the tune of only doing that for one local star party anymore--and I'm getting tired of that. The problem? People tend to value something based on what they've paid for it.

Many’s the time I’ve been asked to do freebies. I don’t mind that occasionally, depending on the circumstances, but star party organizers should understand that this is a business. Yeah, we may sell a few books at the star party or because of our exposure at your event, but a modest “honorarium” helps keep most of us going. If you like what we do, don’t carp about paying a modest amount for it. If you don’t want to pay, by all means enlist amateurs from the local club as speakers. I have seen some fantastic presentations done by “civilians.” Just accept that someone who speaks at one star party a year and has been in the hobby five years will not be able to deliver a presentation comparable to that of somebody who does a dozen events a year, has been in the avocation for 30 or 40 years, and writes for the newsstand astro-mags.

Actually, I have very little to complain about when it comes to how I’ve been treated at star parties. I can’t think of a single one where I’ve got less than stellar treatment. The only complaint I can muster is that occasionally a local speaker goes on-and-on-and-on, pushing my presentation back fifteen minutes or half an hour. Not usually a huge deal (though it can be if it is pushing up against supper or sundown), but star party staffs should understand that we want to do the very best job we can for you. If I am rushed or annoyed, I cannot do that. I will be on-site on time, and, barring the unforeseen I expect to be allowed to go on on-time.

Attendees? If you want to see someone’s presentation, please be on time. If you don’t think you can stay for the entire thing, stay away. Nothing is more disheartening for a speaker than people drifting out midway through. Your departure may have nuttin’ to do with how well you like the speaker, but that’s not what the person onstage will think.

One great thing about the star party speaking business? I don’t know of any prima donnas. Sure, we expect to be treated professionally and courteously, but don’t expect to be treated like kings or queens, and none of us that I know of act like kings or queens. One of the greatest things about the pros doing the star party circuit is that we are all still “just” amateur astronomers. I haven’t met anybody who didn’t still like to get out on the field and observe with the troops—or sit under a picnic canopy and schmooze with ‘em when the skies are cloudy. We are happy to spend time with y’all enjoying the skies and the comradery. That is why we are all—to a man or woman—in the business.


Alas and alack, fun is fun, but done is done. Even if it was cloudy, you had a great time. But the “be good” is not over. On the field, make sure every scrap of your trash is disposed of properly. If the dumpster is full, pack the garbage bag in the car and dispose of it at home. Your goal should be to make your spot look as close to the way it looked when you arrived as humanly possible. Same goes for your cabin. Who will have to do the cleanin’ up if you don’t? Usually the star party staff. If they have to do that too many times, they may decide putting on the Hogswaller Star Gaze is just too much trouble—something we most assuredly do not want. When everything is cool, just before pulling out, take the time to find a staff person and say “Thanks.” It will be appreciated.

So, a few things for y’all to ruminate on before your next expedition. Believe me, I am not trying to take the fun out of star partying with a bunch of blamed rules. I don’t like rules anymore’n any of y’all do. Here’s the deal: if everybody is polite and considerate, there will not be much need for rules. If you are like me, you have not met many fellow amateurs you don’t like, and that fact alone should be enough to ensure you treat ‘em right. I keep comin’ back to the Golden Rule: every body practices that and everybody will have a good time and everything will be OK.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


This and Every Season

You’ll forgive me if I repeat myself, I hope. Some repetition in an endeavor such as this here blog is inevitable. When I have to turn in fresh copy every cotton-pickin’ week, there’s bound to be some stale stuff in the bargain. But this is one time I am repeating myself on purpose. We are, you see, on the cusp of yet another star party season (as I reckon things, we have two, spring and fall), and at least once, if not twice, a year I like to address two concerns for star party goers, particularly novice star party goers: What you gonna bring? How you gonna act? This week we will talk Stuff. Next week will be Deportment.

I was about to say if you are an old timer you can probably stop reading here. Surely you know the ropes after a few years of shuttling between Chiefland and Prude Ranch and the WSP or wherever you get your dark-site jollies. But, on second thought, given some of the silly stuff I occasionally see from folks who oughta know better, maybe we had all better sit down and talk this over once again. That’s no indictment of star partying amateur astronomers, just the observation that we all (Unk included) can occasionally get off the strait-and-narrow, doin’ things we shouldn’t or not doin’ things as well as we should.

What You Gonna Bring:

As the years go by, I’m tending to simplification, “less mess.” Certainly I still load up with a good amount of gear and support equipment, but these days it is only what I can get in my Toyota sedan, not as, on one occasion, everything two buddies and me could squeeze into the largest truck Ryder rents before you get to tractor-trailers (no fooling; I’ll tell you about it some time). A few years ago I decided I was spending more time fiddlin’ with astro-junk at star parties than I was enjoying the skies and my fellow partiers. I was also getting weary of the hours of packing (and, moreso, unpacking) before and after. Finally, I wasn’t using a lot of that extra stuff. I was, for a few years, bringing two—if not three—scopes to nearly every event. The kicker, though, was that I invariably wound up only using one. Something that helped? Doing lots of star parties as a speaker. I discovered it is perfectly possible to have a great time with nothing more than a pair of 10x50s and a copy of Orion’s Deep Map 400. The experience was not just relaxing; it was liberating.

Which don’t mean that’s the way I do the star parties as a “civilian.” Heck, I’ll even occasionally do some imaging at one. But mostly the tendency is in the other direction. Don’t tell anybody I said this, but sometimes I don’t even bring an SCT with me. Much as I love my CATs, there is no denying they are STUFF MAGNETS. What’s a C8 without a computer running SkyTools 3? You’re gonna need dew heaters, too. Gotta have one battery for the scope, one for the dew system, and one for the PC. Gonna need a charger. Don’t forget an inverter. Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda. With my 12-inch Dobbie? In addition to the scope and his little Sky Commander computer, just a star atlas, a notebook of lists/charts, box of eyepieces, and a couple of 9-volt batteries to run the Sky Commander and the secondary heater. That is it. Like I done said, liberating.

Not that I’d ever think of bringing just a scope, eyepiece case, and set of star charts to the Hoot Owl Star Party—or anyplace else. There are a few items you are gonna want whether you are packing a 6-inch Orion Dob or a 14-inch Meade Monster; I consider all of the following at least “desirable” if not “mandatory.” Note that the Stuff listed below includes everything but scope, eyepieces, and other telescope specific gear. You know what kind of rig you own and the pieces you need to bring.

Observing Table

You will for sure need something to put your eyepiece box and charts on. It’s very easy to skimp here, but that only makes things tough. A too-small table means you are always stacking things and moving things around to get at what you want, which will get old at 3am. Or you are putting things where they don’t belong. Parkin’ an eyepiece or flashlight on the seat of your observing chair means you are eventually gonna get a big surprise.

I used a card table for years. Sometimes still do. Most often, though, I use a “camp table;” especially if I am carrying a PC instead of a print atlas. The table I own was purchased in the sporting goods section of Walmart, and is twice the size of a standard card table. It don’t take up no more space in the vehicle, though, as it folds in the middle to exactly the dimensions of the aforementioned card table. While not the Rock of Gibraltar, one of these or similar is more than sturdy enough, and mine has never groaned under the copious weight I saddle it with.


I don’t care if you are way up yonder in latitude someplace like the Idaho Star Party, or down here in armadillo country, you’ll want something to keep the Sun off your noggin if you intend to spend much time on the field during the day. Even Uncle Rod, who tends, when possible, to spend the balance of the daylight hours in a motel near the star party site, still likes to have a canopy setup on the field (assumin’ that is permitted by star party rules). Not only will a cover keep the Sun off, it goes a surprisingly long way to reduce dew “fall” on the observing table.

So what do we use? For years and years, Unk and Miss Dorothy stuck with the ubiquitous and inexpensive picnic canopies; you know, a sheet of polyethylene, some ropes, numerous poles (in numerous sections), and a bunch of tent stakes. These had one strength: price, selling for less than twenty bucks, usually. Otherwise, they were a pain in the butt, tending to collapse in a heap if the wind got over 10 knots. They were also a pain to unpack and repack, with the ropes snarlin’ and tanglin’ no matter how careful we were.

Then we started seeing a rig called the EZ UP at star parties. While these canopies looked similar to our rope and stake deals, that similarity was only skin deep. No poles to assemble, no ropes to untangle. The EZ Up unpacks in one piece and unfolds accordion- style. Once unfolded and locked into place, all you gotta do is pound-in one stake per metal riser. Setup takes about 10 minutes max. And, wonder of wonders, the EZ UP is also incredibly easy to get back in the case. Not only that; that case has wheels, which make it trivial to position the EZ UP on just the right spot on the field.

The only thing that didn’t impress me was the price, from about $140.00 depending on size and features. Well worth it, though, if’n you ask me. Many’s the time I’ve stood on a burning hot field at noon tryin’ to untangle those consarned Nylon ropes, fearing for my sanity. Confirmed cheapskate in the Uncle Rod mold? Chinese knock-offs of the EZ UP are available for $50.00 and up nowadays. I suggest you stick with the quality original though. Ours has lasted through five seasons and has really paid for itself, since we had got in the habit of buyin’ a fresh picnic canopy before each outing.


Naturally you’ll want to use a laptop, not a desktop, for safety’s and power’s sake, but which laptop? A bigun with a widescreen display? One of the newfangled mini-PCs like the Asus? That’s up to you, Skeezix. The main consideration is that whatever you choose be able to run your software of choice, be that Hallo Northern Sky or Starry Night Pro Plus. It’s really the stuff you need to bring along to allow you to operate the PC comfortably and without annoying your fellows that’s the question. Plan on equipping the computer with a red filter over the display, even if your program has a night vision mode. We will talk about that more next week. What else? It’s a good thing to put the laptop in a little enclosure of some kind, both to protect it from dew and to further shield it from the view of folks annoyed by computers. Well, where do you get a computer enclosure, then?

You make one. That’s what I did, anyhow. After trying several approaches, I settled on a box with sides, back, and top but no bottom or front. As a material, I chose plastic signboard stuff. You know, the sheets of corrugated plastic the dadgummed politicians make their yard signs outa. It is just about perfect: light, available in a variety of colors, and cheap. I obtained a lifetime supply from Sign Warehouse for just a few bucks. I cut the pieces into appropriate sizes, and fastened them together with strips of industrial strength Velcro. I coulda used duct tape; I used Velcro, not because of its hook and loop character, but because the self-adhesive on these strips, available (like most ever’thing I buy) from Walmart, is strong and waterproof. As a final touch, I added a sheet of black vinyl (a garbage bag) to cover the front. When I’m not using the laptop, it is completely shielded from the peepers of lurking computer-phobic astronomers.

You’ve got a place for the laptop and some kind of red filter to keep star party villagers from lighting torches and coming after you with pitchforks. All that’s left is providing power for your PC. Yeah, I know you’ve got a built-in battery, but you can forget usin’ that for an all-night run. If you are very lucky, a laptop’s battery might give you two hours. You power the ‘puter with an external battery.

What kind? That depends on the computer. If it’s relatively power efficient, a 17ah jumpstart pack will be fine. If it’s a big dog like Unk’s P4 3.2ghz Toshiba, you need a deep cycle marine battery. Course, there is also the question of how you get the battery power into the laptop. There are two ways. You can use an inverter, an electronic widget that turns DC into AC. Connect inverter to a 12vdc source (usually via alligator clips) and plug the laptop’s power cord into the standard AC socket on the front of the inverter. Inverters have the advantages of being easy to find locally (any automotive or outdoor store), inexpensive at something less than fifty bucks, usually, and capable of producing current good enough for a laptop computer. They are also handy for powering various and sundry AC devices you may have with you, like cell phone chargers.

There is one problem with the inverter, howsomeever: it is inefficient. The process of converting flatline DC into sinewave AC wastes battery power. If you’ve got a sizable battery and an efficient PC, that may not matter. If not, though, you may want to investigate a more expensive alternative, a DC – DC supply. If you do much airline travelling, you’ve seen the Business Drone in the next seat using one.

A DC – DC supply looks like a normal PC power-brick, but instead of an AC plug on the end, it’s got a cigarette lighter adapter. What these gadgets do is take the 12vdc from a battery and convert it into the voltage level(s) needed by the computer. These work good, though, as always, there are a few flies a-buzzing in the ointment. The noisiest one is that these things can cost up to a hundred simoleons. You will usually need to order one specifically for your laptop, too, which may be a problem if you own an older machine. Finally, they generally supply just enough current for the laptop. If you have a power slurpin’ USB device like a Meade DSI, you may find the DC to DC supply tripping off line (the solution is a powered USB hub, but since most of those want AC, you will be back to toting an inverter again).

Observing Chair and Other Chairs

Unless you are a masochist, you will want something to sit on while you look through the eyepiece, or, if you are the possessor of the biggest of big dobs and resigned to Ladder Hell, at least something to plop down on during the day and on breaks during the night. When it comes to observing chairs, I favor models that feature sliding seats that move up and down a “rail” type structure. These are adjustable over a wide range of heights, and I find them useable on everything from my ETX, Sweet Charity, to my 12.5-inch Dob, Dobbie. Which one specifically? Most chairs of this sort are more alike than different, but my fave is the economical, sturdy model from What? You do have a big-big Dob? You may still find it possible to sit and look (which helps you see considerably more, believe it or no) using the Cat’s Perch. I haven’t seen one in person yet, but the reports I am hearing say, “Strange, but very effective.”

To lounge around on during the day? I used to make do with el cheapo lawn chairs from Big Lots, but then came folding canvas camp chairs that weren’t much (if any) more expensive, but were considerably easier to pack—and more comfortable. These are available in a crazy range of colors and with things like beverage holders in the arm rests (ahem), and foot rests. You can even find ones that recline for 2pm napping. Where? WallyWorld, Big Lots, Academy Sporting Goods, you name it.


As I’ve mentioned a few times, your ol’ Unk is purty much over tent camping. Advancing age? Too much soft living? You be the judge, but the fact is I’ll choose an offsite motel room every time. Other than that Unk likes his high-speed Internet, hot showers, and cable TV, there’s a good reason for my preference: it’s usually impossible to get much rest in a tent. There are always people at a star party who turn in at 10pm. That’s fine; nobody says you have to do all-nighters every time—or any time. But these folks often start puttering around, making breakfast, and shooting the breeze at 8am, waking you from your blessed slumber. Or, by 9am the tent is too hot and you wake up sweating. Or the foam rubber pad you thought would make your sleeping bag uber comfortable and isolate you from the cold, cold ground doesn’t do much of a job. I will still tent camp if I have no alternative (e’en a spider-infested cabin), but if I am gonna tent camp, I am gonna do it right. Penny-pinching on a tent means disaster.

Which don’t mean you have to go to some fancy-pants bicycle-hiking-outbound boutique store and spend a grand. The tents you see in Wal-Mart and Academy can be perfectly serviceable. Usually they’ll have some set up as samples. Examine the brands for reasonable sturdiness for starters: if a tent’s seams are beginning to unravel in the store, how long do you think they will last on the Upper Field at Prude Ranch? When you have a brand in mind that suits for sturdiness (and price range), get specific. I prefer dome-type tents; they are easy to assemble, even when you are hurried by the setting sun after arriving late at the Hoot Owl Star Party. Avoid cabin styles. They will have you cussing a blue streak before you are half done putting ‘em up. What else? Even if it’s just you, go larger rather than smaller, and, very importantly, taller rather than shorter. If you can come close to standing up straight in the tent, it will make changing clothes much more pleasant. Finally, make sure the thing comes with a rain fly. Not only does this “umbrella” for the tent help keep rain drops out should you be that unlucky, it will preserve the fabric of your tent by blocking UV rays.

Ice Chest

You will probably want an ice chest of some kind. What kind depends on your budget and the room you have left in the vehicle after the primary gear is loaded. One thing I have done in the past is not pack one at all if there’s a town close at hand to the star party site. If that is the case, I bop on down to the Walmart and buy a cheap Styrofoam deal. If there’s no room to pack it on departure, I put it in the trash. No, that prob’ly ain’t environmentally friendly, but I never once said I was perfect. One other thing you can do to reduce weight/hassle is wait till you arrive on-site to buy ice. Many star parties will have ice available or it will be obtainable nearby.

Camp Stove

I much prefer even humble star party food to cooking my own, but occasionally that is not an option. If there’s no food onsite or nearby, I’ll make do with chili and soup and suchlike heated on a propane Coleman stove. I specifically said “Coleman stove” because I think they are the best for the money. What specifically works for me is a two-burner model with electric-start. To keep things simple, I use plastic cutlery and inexpensive “mess kits” from the sporting goods store. The stove, a stand for it, some chili (Wolf, no beans), some Vye-enners, can or two of Campbells (Chunky is right filling), loaf of Bunny bread, some of them canned tamales I like, bottle o’ Tobasco (habanero flavor), maybe a dozen eggs, and I can survive and thrive. Oh, remember NOT to fire up the stove after dark—one gives off a shocking amount of light.


I will leave it to those of you who don’t tote a computer to decide whether you will stick with your dog-eared Atlas Borealis or go for Millennium. See this blog entry for some ideas. For those of y’all who do do computers, but print your charts out and bring the hard copy instead of the computer with you, I do have a few suggestions. You will want to put the charts in a notebook, and you will want to put them in plastic page protectors, but you will also want to print them on a laser printer rather than an inkjet. If you are where the dew is heavy (i.e. anywhere east of the Mississipi), inkjet charts will soon get soggy and run, even if they are in page protectors. Don’t got access to a laser? I recently heard a good suggestion: try waterproof paper. This stuff, designed for hikers and suchlike to use for map printing, may be the secret to using an inkjet under dewy conditions. When I find some, I will let y’all know how it works. Alas, putting your charts and lists in plastic protectors makes it hard to mark on ‘em and check stuff off. Answer? The grease pencil. Use the best friend of Air Force pilots and missileers to mark the plastic instead of the paper.


You know what you need as far as Ds, Cs, As, and AAAs. Bring plenty. Powering the telescope? The jumpstart batteries the discount and automotive superstore joints sell. They are handy and self-contained, with integral handles and chargers (and sometimes weird stuff like blinking lights and radios). The scope merchants will sell you jumpstarters, but you can save money and gain more capability if you don’t mind one that says “Prestone” on it instead of “Celestron.” The real good part? If you scout Wally World, you can find a jumpstarter with 20 – 25 amp hours capacity for less than you’ll pay for Orion’s or Celestron’s 17-ah jobs. Yeah, jumpstart batteries are sometimes more expensive than the combination of a higher capacity marine battery and charger, but, again, they are convenient.

Since you will be paying as much as sixty to seventy bucks for a good jumpstarter, you want it to last a long time. Secret? Charge for 12-hours after each use; if you don’t use a battery over the course of a month, charge for 12 hours anyhow. By observing that simple protocol, the battery I use for my telescopes will be seven years old this spring and is still rarin’ to go. It’s usually easy enough to find a mains outlet for battery charging at any star party, but come prepared with extension cords, power strips, and three-prong adapters.


Even the greenest newbie knows she will be in for a Severe Talking To if she shows a white light on the field at night. The question is “Which red light?” The requirements are “really red,” “not too bright,” and “easy on batteries.” Fulfilling the first requisite is most easily done with a red LED light, which is mainly what you find on sale at the astro-gear peddlers these days. The second requirement? Don’t get one o’ them things that has umpty-seven red LEDs that all turn on at the same time. Red or not, one will extinguish your dark adaptation and that of everyone around you.

Buy a light designed for observing. Battery-life-wise? A torch with one or two LEDs, especially one with a brightness adjustment, will both keep your dark adaptation healthy and run for a long while on a little 9-volt transistor battery. How about those lights that have selectable red/white LEDs? They can be handy for helping you walk around after you leave the field (and are well hidden from it). Just make sure the light has switches that are so arranged as to make it difficult to change from red to white by mistake. If’n you don’t, you will be awful mad when you blast your night vision away by accident when looking at the chart for final confirmation you have really found UGC Umptysquat.

Keeping Warm

Let’s face it, we don't often get truly cold weather in my sunny south, and those of y’all who live up in Yankeeland will know the score on keeping warm outdoors much better than I do, even if you are new to amateur astronomy and/or star parties. For Johnny and Jane Reb? Be aware that even when it’s 75 degrees at sundown and the prediction is for mid-sixties at midnight, you can still get awfully cold on the field. You will be out under the open sky, you will be standing nearly stock still, and you will be doin’ that for hours on end. Wattayado? Dress in layers, applying ‘em as the night goes on and as needed.

I begin with long sleeves, put a sweatshirt over that, a fleece next, and top-off with my leather jacket just before dawn. On a few occasions at a few sites, I’ve gone nuclear with the coat I bought up in Bath, Maine the time my employer had me spend February there (!). One thing I find helps immensely is the little chemical hand and body warmer packs from the sporting goods store. Remove one of these from its package, shake, and in a little while it will begin generating a surprising amount of heat and do that for hours. Finally, what you’ve heard is true: look to your head and feet. Even a ball cap will keep you warmer. Footsies? If you, like me, don’t own snow-boots, standing on a square or two of carpet can help insulate feet from the ground and help a lot.

Snacks and Drinks

I get weary about 2am. The fix? Hydrate myself and have a snack. The former I mostly do with water. Yep, nothing does that as well, and you will be surprised how much better you feel after a good chug-a-lug from the jug. Often when you think you are tired, you are really dehydrated. What else do I drink? Hot coffee. The “experts” will say something like hot cider will keep you warmer, but I’ve always found coffee works fine and is considerably easier to obtain at the Hoot Owl SP than cider. Finally, my students turned me on to the best new astro-accessory I’ve found in a while: Monster Energy Drinks. These really do get me and keep me attackin’ the H400 like a dervish as the night grows old. You can even get ‘em in a low-carb version if such things are important to you. Rod’s beloved Rebel Yell? That is for dawn or clouds. Good as it is, it will trash your night vision and, while it (and other alcoholic beverages) will make you feel warmer for a while, it will actually cause you to feel colder after all is said and done.

Snacks also keep tiredness at bay. Stop, have a bite or two, chug a can of Monster, and you may find you are suddenly anxious to go till dawn. What do I eat out there? I’ve tried ever’thing snack-wise from Little Debby cakes to Vienna sausages. What fills the bill best for me after much experimentation? Beef jerky and trail mix bars. Both are handy, non-messy, and easy to find in stores even out in the Northern Mississippi Timbuktu.

Cabin Stuff

If you are staying in a cabin, do NOT expect to find anything there other than a bed and a mattress. Everything else must be packed: personal hygiene (including a couple of rolls of Charmin if you are smart), towels and wash cloths, bed clothes, etc. Miss Dorothy and I used to maintain a box of twin bed sheets with some blankets stenciled “U.S.” (left over from the Cold War days) to take to star parties, but we finally got smart. Even if you are staying in a cabin instead of a tent, make it simple and use a sleeping bag. As with tents, don’t scrimp; get a good one. If you find star partying becomes more than a once-in-a-while obsession, you will thank me. Very important: get a sleeping bag tailored to the conditions in which you will use it. Don’t get one suited for arctic temperatures unless the star party cabins are igloos. You will be much more comfortable in a cabin, most of the time, with a bag intended for temperate climes. Do NOT forget a pillow. You will be unhappy if you try to sleep with your head flat on the bed or ground or on a rolled-up coat made into a pillow.


You will want something to keep you distracted during the day and if—heaven forbid—clouds come in. Modern Times makes that easy: laptops play DVDs, and the ubiquitous iPod can do everything from music to movies to books on tape. Want reading material, but don’t want to pack a stack o’ books? There is the Kindle electronic book reader (Rod’s Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope is now available in this format—along with numerous other astro-books). I sometimes like to listen to music while I observe, mainly in the wee hours after most of my bubbas have called it a night. What? I find the Allman Brothers or George and Tammy strangely appropriate for late night runs, but that is another story. Remember, as always, use your headphones. Believe it or not, some folks will not appreciate hearing the reissue of Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad at 3am. Go figger.


Do I forget stuff, even after over thirty years of star partying? You are danged right I do. I finally turned to Checklist Discipline. When something goes into the vehicle, it is ticked off, and not before. You’ll want to customize yours, but here’s one of mine to use as your template if you like. Now, spring’s a-coming; let’s get out there and party!

Star Party Equipment Checklist

C8 OTA or C11 OTA or 12.5-inch Dobsonian (mirror box, rocker box, upper cage, truss poles)

C8/C11 dew shield

ASGT HC/cords case or NS11 HC/cords case

C11 Tripod

CG5 Tripod

CG5 Mount Head

CG5 counterweights

PowerSwitch Diagonal

Large Eyepiece Box

Small Eyepiece Box


Two Jumpstart Batteries

Deep Cycle battery

Battery charger

Large Tupperware container (inverter, cables, dew heaters, tools)

Ammo box (filters, adapters, etc.)

Card table or Camp Table

PC enclosure


Laptop red filter

Observing chair

ST2000 or DSLR Camera Case (incl. cables)


Rabbit Light or Coleman Lantern

Sleeping Bag(s)



Ice Chest


Soft Drinks


Garbage Bags

Clear plastic Tupperware box

Camp chairs

Rebel Yell



Coleman Stove and stand

Canned food

Utensils and mess kits

Battery powered cooler

Towels and washcloths

Personal hygiene items

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