Sunday, January 10, 2010


Finding One, Keeping One

One what? A dark site, a club dark observing site, muchachos. If I ain’t said it before now, I should have: having a dark location where you and your astronomy club buddies can observe as a group is crucial for the long term health of your club. Yeah, I’m sure some clubs do survive only as forums for demonstrating officers’ knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order, and I’m sure some (worthy) clubs only do public outreach “sidewalk astronomy” from light polluted areas. But for most of us, having access to a secure dark area where we can do deep sky observing is one of the major reasons for belonging to an astronomy club in the first place.

Example? My club, the PSAS, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (the name has been changed to protect the innocent AND the guilty), went for several years without an observing site to call our own. Our previous location had been arranged by our club President who one day out of the clear blue sky up and quit both the PSAS and amateur astronomy. We were going through a cloudy period at the time without many opportunities to do observin’ of any sort, so we let things slide. By winter, we’d lost track of the owner of the land we’d been using, and being hesitant to continue at the site without approval, let it go.

Didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. I had a couple of locations where I could do my faint-fuzzy hunting, including, at least occasionally, my observing companion's, Pat’s, observatory. We could do public outreach sufficiently from the light polluted public school facility where we held our meetings. So what? Why did we need a dark site, anyhow?

I soon found out. Wasn’t long before I noticed the club beginning to lose focus and, shortly, members. Oh, new people would come to us, but one of the first things they would want to know would be “When do we get together to use our telescopes?” Since that never happened, they’d tend to drift away after a few months. We’ve done a fairly good job over the years of keeping our meetings interesting, with the emphasis on astronomy and having fun, not BUSINESS, but it shortly became obvious that was not enough. To top it all off, some of the longtime regulars began to fade away as well.

Back in the stone-age, before the Internet, going to an astronomy club meeting just to shoot the breeze with your like-minded colleagues was maybe enough to justify membership. For many of us, that was the only contact we had with the larger world of amateur astronomy over the course of a month. Today, as I’ve said before, there’s a virtual astronomy club meeting going on 24 hours a day—on Cloudy Nights, Astromart, and the Yahoogroups. Sure, there’s more fun to be had at a club than just observing, but a dark site is probably now a more important reason for membership than it ever has been.

It all came to a head for me one meeting night when I looked around the room and realized this was the second month in a row where our attendance was a grand total of four folks—one of whom (not Unk) was asleep. My first action was a finger-in-the-dike maneuver. I knew it would take time to find a good site, but we needed to get out together for group observing somewhere, good or not, right away.

Unk's Ultima 8, Celeste (right).
The aforementioned school land was our salvation. No, it wasn’t what you’d call “good,” being deep in the “red zone” of suburban light pollution, but on a clear, dry(ish) night it was surprising what we could see. There was even a small roll-off roof observatory, our “Pine Lake Observatory” in place that we’d built in the 80s before the streetlights had well and truly closed-in. For some members who had nowhere else to view from, not even a backyard, it was a godsend. Hell, I even took some OK CCD shots from there. AC power was available, and the secure and friendly nature of the location helped me to at least begin learning the delicate and difficult art of CCDing with a Meade DSI.

Slowly, ever so slowly, old members began to trickle back, and new ones began to hang around for more than a few months. I knew better than to believe we should rest on our laurels, though. We still needed a good and dark observing field. There was plenty of agreement on that, and shortly we began the search for a piece of deep sky heaven to call our own.

Where do you look? What are the options? In some areas there may be a science museum or school or similar outfit that’s willing to let you use a parking lot. The drawback is that most of these facilities are either located in light polluted areas or have every square inch covered by sodium vapor streetlights and/or humongous floodlights. One may, however, as in our case, serve as a decent stopgap. A sodium pink parking lot is not a long-term solution, however. Where else, then? It purty much boils down to public parks and private land.

When I say “public park,” I’m mostly talking about state and national parks in the club’s immediate area. You can usually forget city parks and the like. Even if they are fairly clear of the light dome—and they rarely are—almost invariably you’ll find they close at sundown. Our city, fer example, has a nice suburban municipal park, and, while the skies are not that hot, it would be great for public outreach/sidewalk astronomy and occasional informal group observing. That has been impossible since the 1970s, though, since the Possum Swamp city fathers became alarmed at “What them dadgummed HIPPIES are doing in our BEAUTIFUL PARK after dark.” Maybe it’s just as well, though. Parks in proximity to urban areas are often frequented by the homeless, most of whom will not be a problem, but some of whom will, and the lawless, who will definitely be a problem.

That leaves state and national parks. There are a couple of considerations there. First and foremost is location. In this old boy’s experience, you want your primary club observing site to be no more than about one hour’s drive for the majority of your members. I guarantee that if you exceed that, you will have dismal turnouts. Even if you have to sacrifice some sky quality for proximity, I urge you to do so. Which don’t mean you can’t use a darker location at times. At least one club in the Tri-State Area down here (you know, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida) has a darker and more remote site they use on an occasional basis.

If you do have a state/national park that’s close enough to be practical, the first step is a scouting mission during the daytime. Drive out with some of your bubbas and bubbettes and see what's what. Primary consideration is an open area, and that’s where many parks fail. Often, there just ain’t a spot with a decent view of the sky in which to set up even a few telescopes. If you luck out and find there’s a football/soccer field or sumpin’ similar, you’ll usually also find that—even way out in the boondocks—it’s ringed by, if not festooned with, yep, cotton pickin’ streetlights. For that reason,  you need to follow-up with a night time visit, to see both what the streetlight sitchy-ation is and how the sky itself stacks up.

Speaking of which, you can get a damned good idea of any location's darkness (sky darkness, not ambient light in the immediate area) without even visiting it. Google Earth can be easily configured to show light pollution contours (yellow, green, etc.). Even better and easier is a wonderful page called "Dark Sky Finder." Just don't let that sea of yellow scare you too much. You'd think the yellow areas would be bad, but you can see one heck of a lot from 'em. Be that as it may be, it's purty much assured that any locale within one hour of a metropolitan area will be "at least" yellow.

Let’s say the park in question don’t just have a field of sufficient size for your purposes, but said field is also streetlight free or at least shielded from the worst offenders. That’s when the real fun starts: dealing with the Park Rangers/administration. The problem is figuring-out a way to be allowed to stay onsite and observe at night. In many cases, that will require the purchase of an overnight camping pass. Sometimes that's not so bad. Three or four dollars is a bargain for an evening's observing enjoyment. 

Most of the time, though, you’ll be paying as much as twenty bucks (or more) to observe for a few hours, meaning the site prob'ly won’t garner much long-term popularity with the membership. Especially if its skies ain’t “perfect,” whatever the hell that means. And sometimes park management may actually balk at selling you camping passes if you aren’t “real campers”—if you aren’t sleeping overnight onsite with tents and stuff. Annnd in some areas the gates will be closed and locked at night and you won't be able to leave until morning.

It may be possible to strike a deal of some kind with park management, however. If you sit down with them, explaining who you are and what you do, you may be able to convince them to allow y’all to observe for free or for a radically reduced price a time or two a month. But you may be able to do even better by bartering.

A surprising number of parks give “constellation talks” as part of their nature lecture programs. Quite a few more would like to. If you offer your services either in support of a program of this type, or agree to give the programs yourselves, you might score the right to observe from the park any time you like gratis. One caution: it’s been my experience that these arrangements often don’t last over the long run. You and your membership may get tired of holdin’ up your end of the bargain or, more commonly, park administration may change and the new broom may decide to sweep all that “astrology foolishness” out.

If no public option seems workable, that leaves private land, the land of a club member or the ubiquitous “friend of a friend.” In some ways, this is the best choice. Private land usually has the benefits of being reasonably secure and reasonably streetlight free. Oh, the owner may have a yard light up at the house, but the north 40 is usually not sodium infested. The former benefit is especially important. I don’t know about your club, but our dark site sessions usually have an attendance of <10 folks, often just one or two. If you’ve got a large group, that’s one thing, but a mere person or three may feel skittish out in the boonies. That used to be more nerves than anything else, but in these days when the meth trade has infested the countryside, security at dark country sites is a real concern.

One other factor to ruminate upon before deciding you’ve found dark site nirvana is to ask yourselves whether you’ll feel comfortable using the place. I‘m not talking about security, but about issues having to do with the land owner. We, the PSAS, tried a seemingly perfect site we’d found right off the bat, one with more than acceptable skies that was close to home. After a time or two we scratched it off our list. Accessing it required us to turn up the owner’s driveway, open a locked gate, and drive alongside his home on our way to the field. He said he was perfectly OK with us doing so, but given a couple of his comments over the couple of months we visited the site (“Weren’t y’all just out here?”) we became convinced our comings and goings in the middle of the night would become a nuisance for him in a real quick hurry. We kept looking.

A private airfield that is shut down at night is pretty perfect.
Our salvation came when one of our members hooked us up with some truly nice folks who own a small private airfield. There is a light dome from the ‘Swamp to the east, but if you wisely keep within the 1-hour-no-more driving limit, you will have to expect that. The location’s benefits in addition to its relative closeness are many, and tend to outweigh us givin’ up 40 degrees of the east side of the sky. There’s plenty of flat open space, the horizons are excellent, and we feel secure observing there any time of the night. To top it all off, we can arrive and depart as we wish without disturbing the people who own the land and live adjacent to it.

The good old PSAS lucked out bigtime, but what if you-all don’t know and can’t find somebody with a similarly good country venue willing to let you use it as an observing site? If your club is large enough and well-fixed enough, you might consider buying or leasing a sweet little piece of land of your own. The problem usually is not finding or even buying a chunk of real-estate; it’s the upkeep that’s the killer. In addition to the cost of the property, taxes will have to be paid. You’ll no doubt have to do some improvements, too; things like installing security gates, filling potholes in the access road (repeatedly) and similar, arranging for portapotties, etc., etc., etc. You may find that even apparently small things, like keeping the observing field mowed in the summer, become real back-breakers over the course of a few years.

Before you even contemplate buying land as a club, make derned sure ground-rules are in place and understood. The members who use the site will have to pitch in and maintain it—no letting all the work fall on one or two club officers. The general membership will also have to understand and agree to a portion of their dues being used for site purchase and upkeep, even if they have no interest in actually observing from the land.

Hokay. You’ve got a dark site of some kind, how do you keep it? Firstly, you keep those of your members who use the field regularly happy. One important thing to do toward that is develop a set of rules regarding group “star parties” and stick to them. These need not be elaborate and involved. A good place to begin (and maybe end) is with Light Rules. You know: “Please arrive before Sundown, red lights only on the field, if you want to leave before dawn/end of the run, your vehicle must be positioned so your lights don’t bother folks still observing.” Strive to accommodate your club’s serious observers. They will be the ones using the site most.

Whether your location is a public one, private land of member or a friend of the club, or club-purchased land, you’ll also want to enforce reasonable housekeeping rules. No trash left on the field; leave your spot in the same (or better) condition than it was in when you arrived. This is super-critical if you are using someone’s private land. In addition to keeping the site clean, strive to avoid anything that might annoy the owner if she/he lives on site. No loud music (no one wants that on an observing field anyhow), no screaming and hollering in the middle of the night (even if you did finally see the Twin Quasar). No green laser Jedi sword fights (even if it is cloudy)—you get the picture.

In the case of borrowed land, it’s often a good idea to go an extra mile. The owner has lots of land to mow? Get a crew out and mow your “area” for him. The access road has always had some potholes? Get them filled. Keep in touch with the owner, too, inviting her/him out for a look through the telescopes regularly.

One last caveat? Be very wary of what Uncle Rod calls the “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better” syndrome. I’ve seen this happen more than a time or two, especially with larger clubs. There’s a nice dark site. Everybody is doing good work and is happy with the location. Then, some member, new or old, but often new, takes it into his/her head that the sky just “ain’t dark enough,” gets all het up about a new location, and the old one is abandoned by all and sundry.

Only to find the new spot has big problems. Too far. Too insecure. Too damp. Too many tall trees. Sometimes it’s easy enough to move back to the old field. Sometimes not, though. Be exceedingly sure the new site is suitable before decamping. Go through all the steps outlined above when vetting the new one, and consider doing what, as was mentioned, some clubs do: maintain two sites, a regular site and a more distant one for use on special occasions or by the most serious deep sky observers.

Sounds like a lot of work, don’t it? It is, but most good things require some blood, sweat, and tears. Again, in this old boy’s opinion, a working dark site is the one sure way to keep your club healthy these days. Interesting speakers and punch and cookies after meetings only go so far. Most of us are in clubs for the meat: observing under good skies with our friends. Provide that experience on a regular basis, and I guar-ron-tee you will never, ever have to worry about your group fading away.

What’s going down at good, old Chaos Manor South? As I hunt-and-peck these words, we are bein’ hit with one intense cold front after another. I often joke about how we suffer when the mercury gets down to the 30s, but that ain’t really a joke. With the high humidity down here, I’ve sometimes felt colder in Possum Swamp than I have in Maine. Imagine, then, how we are doin’ with the temperatures currently dipping to the teens. Nevertheless, I have every intention of heading out to the PSAS dark site this Saturday night. The Herschel Project calls—there are a couple of stray objects I’ve gotta catch before they are gone.

Otherwise? I’ve got a truckload of good stuff lined up for y’all over the coming weeks, including a review of a program that’s becoming a lot of folks freeware fave, Stellarium. More observing articles too. And maybe e’en a few surprises, you never know. All in all, I think this new year is gonna be “WHAT A RIDE! WHAT A RIDE!” when it comes to this here blog and amateur astronomy in general at the old manse.

The dark site situation is different in other parts of the country. In the desert Southwest, there are some of the darkest places anywhere in the US. There's lots of public land, and there aren't many trees or dwellings. The Albuquerque astronomy club owns a patch of land well away from the nearest town, and built a dome and a concrete block storage building. No problems so far. Another club I was in simply used a parking lot for a mountain bike trail area.
When I lived in Indiana, there were almost no dark places to set up telescopes. Minnesota was similar, but two members arranged to have star parties on private land out in the country.
Hey, y'all...

I accidentally rejected a comment I shouldn't have (so many spam comments have to be rejected, that I am too quick on the trigger). Somebody askin' about the image at the top of the blog. It's a screenshot from Google Earth, with the light pollution overlay turned on via: "gallery," "NASA," "earth lights," which I think are all standard equipment for Google Earth.
I once imaged Uranus with the 16 inch Meade LX200 at Mt. Wilson Observatory. The seeing was not that good, so all I got was a fuzzy blue disk.
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