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

From several years of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with groups of strangers in shelters and in nearby tents, I have one more suggestion: Ear plugs. A pair of those little foam ear plugs that are sold for rock concerts or airplane travel can make it much easier to sleep through some movement by folks who get up early and are trying to be quiet.
I think that is a very good idea, indeed, and is something I will try to practice if I do go back to occasional tent-campin' (if I'd used ear plugs more often when I was in the ICBM business, I'd probably have better hearing today, but I will admit I have never liked wearin' em...
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