Sunday, June 12, 2011


Shutting Down

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


It is time to call it a night, to throw the  accursed Big Switch. Perhaps I'm weary because of the long drive to the Chiefland Astronomy Village that morning. Or the sky has decided it doesn’t want to cooperate any more. Maybe Unk’s old bones are cold.  There comes the time when, for whatever reasons, I'm just not enjoying observing or I can't enjoy observing anymore.

We've discussed more than a few observing techniques over the years the old AstroBlog has been around, but one thing we haven't talked about? What do you do when you have had enough. When you are at a multi-night star party do you put your telescope away? Take it apart and put in in your vehicle? How do you protect it if you don't?

Newbies often ask the above, whether they should pack their telescope up. I might do that if the instrument in question were small or light or particularly valuable, like a Questar 3.5 or an AP Traveler. But probably not even then—not that Unk would ever be found toting such high-falutin’ gear in the first place. I’ve been to a couple of large star parties where somebody’s eyepiece or other small accessory has gone missing, but that is unusual in the extreme, and I don’t ever recall hearing of a telescope disappearing.

Well, then, how about somebody playing around with your scope in your absence? Almost without exception, your fellow attendees know not to mess with somebody’s gear without permission. Even if there are a few newbies or other worthies at an event who might be tempted to twiddle your focuser or something, properly covering the scope for the night will ensure they are not tempted.

Even if you are only a few feet away in a tent, you want to cover the telescope. Why? Unless you are in the middle of a western desert, there is always a chance of rain, slim though that chance may be. Do you want your computer-everything Mead-o-Tron doused while you are dozing? ‘Course not. And even if you are in the middle of a desert, you want to protect the telescope from dust like that special blend of horse manure and plutonium blowing in from the Nevada Test Site you get at the Texas Star Party. It would also be nice to keep the Sun off the scope during the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else to you need to do to Miss Telescope? If you have cables running from the scope to a computer or other electronic device, disconnect them. If you are running the telescope off local AC power via extension cords, unplug the scope from them. You don’t want some bleary-eyed astronomer tripping over ‘em and causing damage to telescope or self or both. Believe me, that can and will happen. I have had people--those folks who never seem to use their own scopes and wander the star party field aimlessly during the early hours--trip over a cable and spoil my goto alignment.

If you use an EZ-up or some other sort of picnic canopy I salute you. One will keep the dew off you and your accessories at night, rain off your stuff if that should happen during the course of the star party, and the Sun off your punkin if you hang out on the field in the daytime. You need to tie it down, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, batteries on charge or ready to be rolled to a place where they can be charged, and all the field gear is secure. How do you secure yourself? Where do you sleep? Where do you spend the hours till the next dark cycle?

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

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

By “rougher,” I mean tent camping. Oh, I used to do it at the drop of a hat. I even tented on the old star party ground at the 1999 Texas Star Party. But even back then, tents were getting old for Unk.

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

Hah! That year, the Spring Picnic was held in May. Do you have any idea how hot it gets in Chiefland, Florida in May?  When we arrived at the CAV it was well into the 90s on the (natch) treeless Club Field. By the time I’d got my tent up and had helped Pat pitch his, I was drenched in sweat. Went into the tent to change clothes, and, by the time I was done, my fresh ones were soaked as well. I learned my lesson: never again.

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

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

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

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

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

2019 Update

What has changed in the (can it be?) eight years since this article was uploaded? Surprisingly little. Oh, I've completely given up on the idea of staying in any sort of bunkhouse/open dorm at star parties. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson a lot sooner after so many years of star partying; there are people at star parties who always get up early and who always make noise.

I'm also not at all inclined to stay in any sort of chickie cabins, even if it is a single-occupant deal. If a motel is anywhere within reasonable range, that's for me.

Alas, the Desert Storm Cover I used for a decade had finally had it. I replaced it several years ago with a Telegizmos cover. It looked nice, but three years down the line it has become tattered, with its aluminized layer peeling away. Such is life.

Gear on the field? I don't normally have as much as I did during the pedal to the metal Herschel Project days, but my setup is still the same--EZ Up, camp table, etc., etc. One thing I do not do now unless I can't avoid it is use batteries for power. Most star parties have AC on the field these days, and that is what I use. The exception? If I'm using my Mallincam, I run it with a battery. It's much happier with that (noise-wise) than it is with a wall-wart supply. Anyhow, it sure is nice not to be continually worried about whether the dew heaters will suck down the batteries.

The big question for me, though is not where I'll stay at my next star party, but when my next star party will be.  I'm still recovering from the accident I suffered in January. When will I feel like heading for dark skies again? From where I sit now, in May, my answer feels like it should be, "It will be a long time still." I'm better, much better, but not that much better. Not yet. By the time autumn comes in, and their air--even down here--gains a hint of crispness, it may be a completely different story, of course.

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

Mike Morrone
Hi Mike:

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