Sunday, September 12, 2010


West Virginia is Still Heaven

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong,
West Virginia, mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads.

Almost heaven? Uh-huh. As a matter of fact, maybe there ain’t no “almost” to it.

Did y’all know there is good sky—great sky—east of the Mississip? When us hardcore deep sky hounds think “real good,” we generally think “Texas and points west.” But there are some sites in the eastern half of the U.S. of A. that, while they can’t compete with the western deserts for dryness, can go neck and neck for darkness and beauty. You just have to get off the beaten path: northern Louisiana…central Florida…the lonely parts of the Midwest…and West Virginia.

If you’ve been reading this little epistle for a while, you know Unk Rod, like most astronomy writers, spends a fair part of the star party seasons, spring and fall, in the air flying-in to distant gatherings to speak to my fellow amateurs on whatever strikes my somewhat odd fancy. Yeah, I’ve been a lot of places, from Cherry Springs in the east to the Idaho Star Party in the west, and I have had a great time everywhere I’ve been and love all of y’all dearly, but for years my heart has been in the mountains of West Virginia.

Maybe you don’t associate WV with a big amateur gathering. It’s still rustic, with its little towns mostly untouched by the hand of time. Yes, the state is blessed with a rather cosmopolitan city and some excellent colleges and universities, but much of it still looks about the way it does in Unk’s fave film October Sky. West Virginia, the eastern part of the state anyway, does have the advantage of being in proximity to the cultural mecca of the Washington DC metro area, while remaining out of the congestion and the light domes.

One of the premier resources of DC as far as I am concerned is that well-known group of amateurs, NOVAC, the Northern Viriginia Astronomy Club. They are an outstanding bunch, well-known for everything from their observing skill, to their untiring efforts at public outreach, to their talent for putting on a bang-up star party. Amazingly for such a distinguished group, they seem to have taken a liking to your old Uncle.

Some years ago, the NOVAC gang began hosting a star party at a facility belonging to The Mountain Institute, their Spruce Knob site. This location being well over the border in West Virginia, the obvious name for the new event was the Almost Heaven Star Party, which must be just about the best name of any star party in the world. Where did I come in? A few years back, the good NOVAC folk asked me up to AHSP as a speaker, they did that again not long after, and (you’d think they’d learn their lesson) they had me back for another bow this year.

I was sitting around the old manse, minding my own bidness when Microsoft Outlook made the weird sound that means “YOU’VE GOT MAIL!” I set down my tumbler of Rebel Yell and moseyed over to the kitchen workstation. Hmmm…from NOVAC’s Kathryn Scott. Seemed to be about the coming edition of the AHSP, to be held over Labor Day weekend. She was asking if I’d be interested in doing a presentation…

Would I? I’d be nuts not to. Great site, great skies, great people. What was the downside? None. Well, aside from having to once again experience first-hand the current sorry state of the U.S. air transportation system.

Getting to Spruce Knob involves a near-four hour drive from Dulles International Airport in addition to the air miles, so to arrive before dark my day had to start early, real early, with the first leg, to Atlanta, departing at six fracking a.m. That meant I had to drag my carcass outa bed at 3:30. I consoled myself with the idea that in return for the suffering, I might be able to avoid crowds and any problems caused by the stressing-out of the airlines by all the Labor Day travel. Hah!

I made it to Possum Swamp International in due time and plunked myself down in the gate area as close to the podium as I could get; I have learned to keep at least half an ear open for any weirdness. Just as I was beginning to think my trip would be trouble-free, the young woman at the desk answered the telephone and, after listening for a moment, turned to her compadre and said, “TSA says they have a problem!” Rut-roh.

You can dang well bet that got Unk’s attention. What got his attention even more was when the Agent picked up her P.A. mike and announced: “TSA says they missed screening a couple of people. The airport is closed and they are trying to decide what to do.” I had over an hour’s layover in Atlanta, but I was not sure that would provide enough of a cushion to allow me make my connection to Washington-Dulles if the security folks spent much time deciding.

When the hapless TSA finally figured out what they wanted to do, it got worse. What they wanted to do, it turned out, was rescreen everybody in the dadgum airport. That meant patting down everybody and doing a detailed hand-search of everybody’s carry-on bag. I do not blame the rank and file; they managed to have us on our way “only” about an hour after our scheduled departure time. What I do blame is the concept. All too much effort is utterly wasted, as with some foolishness I witnessed on this morning, TSA agents trying to get a wheelchair-bound grandmother to stand up so they could search her by the book. Ah well.

Y’all know about the Atlanta airport I am guessing. If’n you don’t, it is big, it is busy, and the airlines have a system in place that ensures your connecting flight’s gate will be just as far from your arrival gate as possible. There is a subway/tramway system, but given the time it takes to get to that, you are usually best off just hoofing it with the aid of the airport “slidewalks,” which is what I did. I actually made it to my airplane with a couple of minutes to spare, but no more than that. The stewardesses had given my seat away, but they found a spot for me in the back of the plane, and I was off on the last leg of my journey to heaven.

The rest of the trip was, mercifully, smooth. Well, almost smooth. I was flying north in the wake of Hurricane Earl, which had just brushed the east coast. There was some turbulence, but what I was more worried about was clouds. There seemed to be plenty of ‘em beneath us, and I just hoped they were not extending west into the Appalachians. I was reassured by the thought that not only had Earl stayed out at sea, Spruce Knob Mountain is the highest point in West Virginia, nearly 5,000 feet above the coastal muck.

On the ground at Dulles, I hustled. I had eschewed, as I usually do, checked baggage, so I was able to get to the rent-a-car shuttle without baggage-carousel delay. One of the best parts of the trip was that I would not have to find my way up to Spruce Knob by myself. Sky & Telescope Editor Bob Naeye would also be speaking, and wonder-worker Kathryn was able to arrange things so Bob’s flight from Boston and mine from Possum Swamp would arrive in Dulles at the nearly the same time. That meant we could share a car. Theoretically, anyway. Given the vagaries of today’s airline “service,” I had my doubts.

Just as I was setting down in the rent-a-car shuttle bus and beginning to wonder where the heck Bob might be, a dude got onboard. I glanced that way and caught a flash of a Sky & Telescope logo on his shirt. “Howdy Bob!” said I. Dang, everything was working out—finally.

Neither Bob nor I was overly confident about getting up into the mountains without help, even with GPS, so a kind member of the NOVAC, Alice McDonnell, would meet up with us and navigate. In just a few minutes we were off in search of those fabled Country Roads.

Given Alice’s patience and kindness, I hope we didn’t disappoint her with our conversation. Bob—a cool dude I’ve known for some years now—and I talked a little astronomy and cosmology and telescopes, but mostly about one of our other common interests: the outlook for the upcoming NFL season. Sorry Alice! After four hours of driving through plenty of this country’s most beautiful scenery (and Alice putting up with plenty of our foolishness), we found AHSP/Spruce Knob without a problem.

Kathryn soon had me and Bob oriented, settled in the site’s clean and comfortable dorm, and reacquainted with the field and the place where everything other than observing happens, the Big Yurt.

Yurt? Yep, “yurt.” The buildings of the Mountain Institute Spruce Knob facility are almost all done after one “theme,” the Mongolian Yurt. Not only is this a striking trope architecture-wise, it is very efficient. I believe the Big yurt is one of the largest structures of this type in the western hemisphere. The AHSP makes full use of this yurt, or, actually, “yurts.” There are two big ones, one serving as a lecture hall for presentations, and the other containing the kitchen, a little library, and a “meditation room” at the top beneath a Perspex dome that yields an impressive view of the night sky.

I walked around the site, getting reacquainted with old friends like Allan Mayer, marveling at all the work NOVAC had done to get the site ready for us, and taking in the beautiful surroundings and the beautiful telescopes arrayed across the expansive observing fields. Ever’thing from 25-inch Obesssions to a Questar 3.5 or two. The only slight downer was the weather. After all, a hurricane had passed not far to the east in the Atlantic.

You’ve got to expect some effects from a big, rip-roaring storm, and when I left the terminal in DC it was obvious something nasty had brushed by. The wind was gusting, and bands of dark clouds were flooding across the sky. There were clouds at Spruce Knob, too. At least they were moving, but, unfortunately, more kept coming in to take their place. Just as disturbing, the wind pushing them along was gusting with enough force to shake telescopes.

I tried not to think about the weather, and just enjoyed the afternoon, including Bob’s talk on Saturn. In the first of two parts, he edumacated us about Saturn’s disk and ring system. Mr. Naeye is passionate about the sixth planet, and it showed. His audience was large and enthusiastic, as it should have been.

After Bob was done, I peeked out at the sky: clouds still coming and going, but plenty of blue now in evidence, which made it easier to enjoy supper when 5 p.m. came. The food is cooked onsite by The Mountain Institute people, and they take their job very seriously. While choices tend to the healthy/vegetarian, there’s something for everybody. On Saturday night it was good, old hamburgers, with the option of “cow” or “veggie” patties. Both the burgers and the sides were excellent; I started out hungry after a day in the air and finished more than satisfied.

What’s a star party without ASTRO STUFF to buy? The AHSP was lucky to have two good vendors onsite for 2010. My old buddy Gary Hand from Hands On Optics had a table set up with a bunch of cool goodies on display. It was difficult, but I restrained myself from buying things I don’t really need. Yeah, I don’t need a big honkin’ Celestron Axiom eyepiece, but by the time I got home I was right sorry I hadn’t handed my credit card over to Gary, anyhow.

The other astro-merchant onsite was Astrogizmos, which complemented Hands On Optics perfectly. ‘Gizmos’ products are mostly the small things: red lights, telescope covers batteries, etc., etc. Which was a lifesaver when my camera’s AA cells gave up the ghost. One other thing should be mentioned, for sure: Astrogizmos provided the star party with free wi-fi Internet. No, it wasn’t fast given the size of the site and the bandwidth available, but it was darned sure better than nothing and allowed me to publish last week’s blog on time. Thanks, ‘Gizmos!

Despite all the good times to be had at a star party in the daytime or under clouds, we all wanna see cool stuff away from city lights, don’t we? Initially, the scent of skunk was in the air, but that didn’t last. As the sky darkened, it began to clear, and the few remaining clouds couldn’t obscure the majesty of Sagittarius and the southern Milky Way, which began to burn in earnest. Soon, the last of the clouds fled, and I could trace the Great Rift for most of its extent. It was telescope time.

I ain’t gonna lie to y’all: I was weary and didn’t make it long. I spent most of my time with Allan Mayer and his friends on the end of the field nearest to the road back to the dormitory. A nearby Obsession 25 beckoned, but I felt too tired and shaky to be comfortable on top of an orchard ladder.

I did hold out long enough to see some cool stuff, including some Messier spectacles, which included a mind-blowing M22 in Allan’s C11. This evening probably wasn’t the best I’ve seen at Spruce Knob, as the humidity was a little higher than normal and the seeing was not that hot, but this site is so superior that even an off night is better than what I’ve got at home by far, and usually tops even storied Chiefland, Florida.

One of the more pleasant surprises Saturday night was how well Orion’s new go-to Dobsonian works. After I’d given the enthusiastic new owner of the 8-inch model, Chris Lee, a few tips on dealing with the SynScan hand control (the rig is sold by Orion, but made by Celestron’s parent, Synta), it placed anything we asked for in the field of a low power eyepiece. And what was in the eyepiece looked sweet, real sweet, muchachos. Whether you’re a novice or old timer, at $849.00 this is a good deal if you’re seeking an 8-inch class go-to rig.

The best view I had Saturday night, though? It wasn’t through a telescope of any kind, but through star party organizer Phil Wherry’s 15x50 Canon IS binoculars. M31 was great in these glasses the second I got it in the field, but pushing the “image stabilize” button turned it from great to “a thing of wonder.” It looked as much “like a galaxy” as I’ve ever seen it in scopes big or small, with one dark lane easy to see and those added attractions, M32 and M110, brilliantly on display. You wouldn’t think just steadying down the image would make so much difference, but it does. In my opinion, the view of M31 was superior to that to be had in a pair of hand-held 70 or 80mm binocs.

And that was cool. But I was also cool. Actually, I was cold. The wind was still whipping up occasionally, and with the temperature somewhere in the 40s, my light leather jacket wasn’t doing much good. Even the Jim Beam kindly dispensed by bro Allan didn’t help for long. Next time I travel to Spruce Knob, I’ll check a bag with a real coat in it. At 11:30, I’d had enough and walked back to the dorm, occasionally looking up to marvel at the ever more lovely heavens.

Sunday morning, which felt more like Saturday, since the star party would continue on through Monday, Labor Day, I awoke earlier than I should have, before dawn. But that was cool. I peeped out the window and was rewarded with a vista of the western sky that featured Pegasus galloping into the west pursued by old Jupiter. If only I could awake to such scenery every morning.

Breakfast was a little on the unusual side—for luddite ol’ me, anyway—make your own breakfast burritos. As I announced to all and sundry, I am not able to enjoy a burrito without a margarita to go with it, so I settled for just scrambled eggs and a little sausage and some of the good salsa on the side. Thus refueled, I went on walk-about, looking for interesting scopes and talking to old and new friends.

I am always alert for “telescope trends” at the star parties I visit; what were my findings at AHSP? Celestron’s fork mount CPC scopes were everywhere. I’ve been impressed by these SCTs, and I am apparently not alone; they seem to almost be the LX200 Classics of the 21st century. I also noted several of Celestron’s pretty CGEMs bearing various and sundry types of scopes.

Rest of the day? I walked around, had a nice lunch, and sat in on Part 2 of Bob’s Saturn presentation. I was less interested in his focus this time, the planet’s moons, but he kept my attention nevertheless, and definitely that of the rest of the audience, who kept peppering him with questions long after he was supposedly done.

Supper was next, and, after that, that star party staple, the raffle. As is always the case when I don’t have my good luck charm, Miss Dorothy, at my side, I didn’t win a blessed thing. A lot of folks did win lots of cool stuff, of course. The NOVAC has an interesting slant on raffles. Rather than just putting all the tickets in a hat and drawing for one prize after another, they have a jar for each prize, allowing entrants to put their tickets in the jar of the prize/prizes they are most interested in.

Raffle done and happy winners dispersed, it was my turn. My presentation for this year’s AHSP was “In the Footsteps of William and Caroline.” In addition to telling the folks all about The Herschel Project, I provided a short bio of William and Lina, and encouraged my audience to take out after the Herschels themselves. With dark coming on, I knew folks would be getting antsy to get out on the field, so I did my best to wrap-up in an hour, not easy for me, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been to one of my long-winded talks. I was happy with my performance, and based on the comments I received afterwards and am still receiving, the AHSPers seemed to be so as well.

Then darkness came rushing up the mountainside. The skies were darker and clearer on this night, and the wind was mostly absent. What did I want to see? More than anything I wanted to see what a long-time pal of mine, Lyle Mars, could do with his new Mallincam VSS deep sky color video camera and a C14. This is a configuration I think about a lot lately, and while I’m somewhat doubtful I want to wrestle with a “portable” C14, I am not ruling that out. If nothing else, what the camera could do with Lyle’s C14 would give me a clue as to what I could expect with one and my C11.

To be brief, the VSS was incredible. Lyle showed me quite a few cool things, but what’s stuck in my mind is how M101 and M51 looked. The first thing that blew me away was the color. It was strong and it was true. The cores of these two face-on spirals were golden yellow and their arms sapphire blue, just as they should be. Then there was the detail the camera delivered in 53-second integrations. It was delicious. It wasn’t a question of seeing dark dust lanes in M51, but of seeing how far you could trace them toward the nucleus. I still love my Stellacam II, but there is no doubt the Mallincam VSS represents the next step in deep sky video.

I finally dragged myself away from Lyle’s setup. I wanted to allow him to pursue his work without me constantly bugging him with questions and object requests, and I also wanted to get a sampling of what the rest of the folks on the field were doing with their scopes big and small. I saw plenty of beautiful things thanks to the kindness of the owners of the many telescopes I visited. Beautiful as these views were, though, they were not quite diverting enough to allow me to ignore the cold seeping into my old bones. I made it to midnight, and that was the best I could do.

Monday morning brought that saddest experience in amateur astronomy: the end of a star party. The rank-and-file AHSPers had yet another clear evening to look forward to, but Bob and I had flights to catch. There was time for one last bit of astronomy, Solar astronomy, that is, which consisted of a look through the amazing 152mm hydrogen alpha telescope from Lunt. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to convince myself to make the cash outlay this bigdog requires—I haven’t even ponied-up for a PST yet—but, man, were the views of the prominences cool. Best I’ve ever seen. The disk detail? Even better. Astounding.

Only one more thing remained on my agenda, my field collimation workshop. It being the daytime, I had to restrict myself to Newtonian collimation—adjusting a CAT generally requires a star, or at least an artificial star, neither of which I had. That was OK, since teaching Newtonian collimation has become a personal crusade for me. Too many people, and not only novices, believe adjusting the mirrors of a Newt is a long, complex, and scary process, when it is really as easy as 1-2-3. I believe I was successful in getting that across to the sizeable group that followed me from scope to scope across the field.

And that was it for AHSP and me. Bob and I managed to make it down the mountains and into Virginia without much trouble. We did sit nearly motionless in a traffic jam for about an hour, but we were expecting traffic-trouble at the end of the Labor Day holiday and had built-in plenty of time to make our flights. Mine was a long ride, but without surprises this time, and I was back in the comforting halls of Chaos Manor South by midnight.

I always tell folks the Almost Heaven Star Party must sure be a real good one, since I never fail to have a wonderful time, even though I never get to bring a telescope with me. This year was without doubt the best time I’ve had at an AHSP yet.

Next Time: That depends on the weather, muchachos. If it should cooperate, I intend to be out Herscheling (is that a verb?) this weekend…

Tell us what tips you gave the owner of the SynScan hand control to improve the dob's locating and tracking.
About the only think I said in that regard is..."the two alignment stars should be at least 90 degrees apart."
He's being nice! The key for me was a level surface and making sure I had the time zone and DST right. To be honest the first time I took it out I had issues but it was just my own fault. At AHSP it was spot on all three nights. I love my new scope!

Chris Lee
I've driven to the top of Spruce Knob several times, with the latest trip about 10 years ago. That almost-mile high view from the top is impressive, as is the dark sky. I've hiked a bit up there, and as a long time caver, have explored several caves in the area. Unfortunately I didn't have my scope with me when I last visited "West By God Virginia."

I haven't been to the yurts, though they appeared to be completely operational the last time I was in the area.
Dear Uncle Rod,

On the Sunday you describe here, I came home in the afternoon with the intention to pack and drive to Spruce Knob, because the forecast had been so stable and promising. Quickly checked your blog and learned that there would be a star party there, and you, apparently, would be speaking! This is the kind of news flash you get if you work on a Labor Day Sunday... Upon checking the star party website and learning that it was a) sold out and b) not on the summit or anywhere near the same access road, the only thing I could say was “Oh well, apparently not this time.” At sunset I was on the top and could see signs of the star party activity two miles down the slope. Finished with the nap around midnight, I got very “productive” till twilight with my 7” Mak on star associations and globulars in M31. This was indeed one of the better nights on Spruce Knob. Not as transparent as it can be, but the seeing was pretty good, and it was dry and calm. And still very warm. Which is to say I was not troubled at all in my stuffed coverall over two sweaters and a gore-tex parka... and you say “leather jacket,” really, Uncle! Spruce Knob is terrific as far as darkness and just the optimal altitude (the summit and the spots near it) to drive up and feel fine without adaptation. It is, however, relatively unpredictable weather-wise, and is generally beset by the same problems as the site of the old 6-meter telescope in my distant homeland: wind and humidity. When this combination on Spruce Knob turns wicked without any warning in the conventional forecast, then mist is blown into the corrector, which no heater or shield can dissipate, even if the mount withstands the wind as such. The Labor Day Sunday night was indeed extremely benign, and I am very glad that you got to enjoy Spruce Knob again on such a night.

Ivan Maly
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