Sunday, March 04, 2012


My Favorite Star Parties: Mid South Star Gaze 1995

Dang these fricking-fracking clouds, muchachos. I’d hoped to bring you something about observing or imaging this morning, but ‘twas not to be. Clouds. Rain. Tornados. Dang near spoiled the annual chili cookoff in Bienville Square. So…yet another trip down that dadgummed memory lane...

In a recent article, I mentioned years ago the members of The Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (as always, the name has been changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike) used to get together and attend star parties en masse. We had a lot of fun doing that, starting with the nearby Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and decided we wanted “more.” But where to go?

The Texas Star Party was killer, but, man, what a drive. The Winter Star Party was great, too, but wasn’t exactly a hop, skip and a jump, either. The Mid Atlantic Star Party was one of the more talked about gazes in our part of the country in the 1990s, but it wouldn’t hold its first event till the fall of 1995, and when me and D. and our buddies got itchy for more star party fun, it was not quite the spring of that year.

Then somebody at a PSAS meeting mentioned a new one they’d heard of, the Mid South Star Gaze. How they’d heard about it, I don’t know. In ’95, amateur astronomy was still in the electronic dark ages. The time of Fidonet was passing, and the time of the Internet and sci.astro.amateur was at hand, but just barely. If you heard about a star party, you heard about it from one of your fellow astronomers in non-virtual fashion or you read about it in Sky & Telescope’s events section.

Anyhoo, this worthy told the assembled PSASers that this “MSSG” was relatively new—it would be in its third edition in 1995—but seemed to be going strong. It was not as close as the DSRSG, being held about 90 miles north of Jackson, Mississippi in the little town of French Camp, but there were pluses that made up for that. Including a beautiful astronomy facility, Rainwater Observatory, cabins, and a lodge - dining hall. Both observatory and lodge were part of a private religious school, French Camp Academy, and the driving force behind the MSSG and Rainwater was an enthusiastic teacher who’d had a lifelong passion for astronomy, Jim Hill.

We got hold of an address, and me and D. wrote to Mr. Hill for information, which we received in an amazingly short time (no star party registration on the Web in them days, squirts). Looking over the brochure, Dorothy and I saw Mid South 1995 would begin on Wednesday 26 April, and were impressed by the reasonable amount of money that would be involved, especially if we chose “cabins” as our accommodations. We figured the MSSG cabins just couldn’t be much worse than the clean, centrally heated and air-conditioned ones of DSRSG, and exercised that option. We were younger and dumber in them days, I reckon.

Star party crazy then as now, we would have liked to have set out Wednesday, but Miss Dorothy was doing her professor thing back then, teaching in the classroom, and couldn’t get away till Thursday afternoon, fairly late Thursday afternoon. With a six-hour drive ahead of us, it would be dark before we got to French Camp. In 1995 there was no GPS in cars, and when we got off the Interstate, which you had to do to get to French Camp, we’d be faced with navigating Mississippi’s poorly marked state and county roads after dark. Instead, we stopped at a nice, big motel, a multi-story Holiday Inn in Meridian, Mississippi, got supper and drinks at a nearby chain eatery, and had a lovely evening.

We headed out early Friday morning and found French Camp Academy without undue difficulty. We did get turned around once on a narrow and twisting two-laner, but we recovered with aplomb. When we arrived in the tiny town of French Camp, we headed to the lodge building on campus to register, and were impressed both by the beauty of the dining room-cum-small motel facility and the friendliness of the ebullient Jim Hill. The lodge was part of a school complex called “The Camp of the Rising Son.” While French Camp Academy was very much a church-affiliated school, the religion angle wasn’t quite overbearing in those days. Next stop was our quarters, which were about a mile from FCA’s main campus.

Our cabin was clean enough, but drafty did not even begin to describe it. It had screen windows. Large screen windows. No plastic over ‘em. No shutters. The thing was about as weather-proof as that poor little pig’s house of sticks. Didn’t seem too bad with the Sun riding high, but the temps were predicted to fall into the low 30s or below come morning. Rut-roh. At least it was peaceful and isolated—including from the bathrooms. Not another soul did we see. Our buddies and the other star partiers had obviously decided the town’s bed and breakfast, the Rising Son Lodge, or a tent on the observing field was a better bet. Double rut-roh.

After surveying our cabin, it was time to get down to business at the observing site, Rainwater Observatory, which was about four miles from the campus along the main drag, if you could call it a main drag, Highway 413. Dorothy and I were astounded at what we found there. This wasn’t just an observatory; Mr. Hill had built an observatory complex, including a large warm-room/planetarium building, a dome for an LX-200 12-inch SCT, a roll-off roof observatory for a good old Meade DS-16 Newtonian, and observing pads for a 20-inch Dobsonian and a towering Tectron 32-inch Dobbie hand-crafted by Tom Clark.

The observatory was super, but how about the star party field? Not so much. Oh, it was OK, but had a couple of problems. One being that it was on a semi-slope. Yeah, it’s easy to level a scope or tripod, but it is not overly comfortable to have to observe on non-flat land. Problem two? This area was nominally a cow pasture. It had been temporarily fenced to keep the bovines at bay, but the star party organizers had not been overly scrupulous about removing the herd’s leavings, if’n you know what I mean.

Neither drafty cabin nor messy field could dampen Unk’s enthusiasm. The greatest thing was being able to hang out with a crowd of my fellow amateur astronomers, close to 150 of them by the time the star party was done. The Internet side of amateur astronomy was aborning, but just aborning, and it was a treat for us to talk astronomy outside our little PSAS group’s monthly meetings.

Got my new telescope, my brand new Celestron Ultima C8, set up as quickly as I could mount her and her outsized fork on the wedge, and stood back and admired her for a while. This was first light for the SCT who would eventually become known far and wide as “Celeste.” Well, not exactly first light; I’d tried her out in the backyard, but this was her REAL first light under dark skies.

I loved Celeste so much I was reluctant to leave her on the field by herself when we headed back to the Lodge for supper. I covered her with a plastic garbage bag to keep her dry if the scudding clouds we’d been seeing all afternoon did their worst, and bungee-corded an aluminized space blanket over the garbage bag to keep her cool. This combination can make an almost zero-cost scope cover if you find yourself at a star party without one, and the makings are as close as the nearest Wal-Mart.

How was the food at French Camp? I’ll put it this way: Jim Hill announced at check-in that his goal was that nobody go away mad or hungry. I didn’t see anybody get mad, and I can testify nobody went hungry. The food served in the dining hall Friday evening wasn’t five-star by any means, but it was OK and there dang sure was plenty of (overboiled) spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad.

Toward the end of supper, I noticed lots of head-turning and neck-craning by my fellow diners. I turned around to see what the fuss was about and saw The Star Hustler walk into the dining hall. Yep, the late, great master of midnight astronomy TV programming, Jack Horkheimer, the MSSG’s keynote speaker.

I’m sure it was all every one of us could do to stop ourselves from jumping up from the table and running over to shake Jack’s hand and thank him for the years of enjoyment his PBS program, Star Hustler (later Star Gazer) had given us. Commendably, everybody settled back down and allowed Jack to rest up from his trip from Miami and enjoy his meal.

Supper had been held fairly early so the first speaker of the star party could be squeezed in before observing began. Talks were held in the school’s Tabernacle (chapel), which was equipped with an excellent A/V system, and the first presentation, by Dr. Geritt Verschuur, a rather famous radio astronomer, was a goodie. At the time, he was actually most famous for his research into Near Earth Objects and the possibility of one of ‘em making a too-big bang on our poor planet.

In the years since, most astronomers have come to believe the dangers aren’t quite as dire as we thought at the time, but Dr. Verschuur deserves credit for being one of the folks who helped spread the word about what are very real dangers. His talk was both fascinating and a little scary: “If a one-kilometer object hits, I’m dead, you’re dead, we’re all dead.”

After letting Dr. Verschuur escape our enthusiastic and relentless questioning, it was time for us to head for the observing field and get ready for the main show, the night sky. By this time, the field was beginning to fill up with amateur astrnomers, including five of our fellow PSASers.

Before it was even completely dark, I had Celeste pointed at the Hunter’s M42. As real darkness fell, my reaction went from “Cool!” to “Oh. My. God.” The skies of French Camp, Mississippi were not perfect. It tended to be hazy and humid if not stormy in the spring, but when it was not any of those things, the views were incredible. It was a long way to any real streetlight concentrations, and the sky, at least in the mid-1990s, was dark, muchachos, real dark.

It was so wonderful to be back to cruising the skies with my very own C8. I’ve used a lot of scopes over the years, including many larger ones, but when it comes right down to it I still love and use the Celestron C8 the most.

It’s easy to think of spring as an intermission in the great sky show. The marvels of winter are taking a final bow and the curtain has yet to rise on the summer Milky Way, but spring has its own charms, and not just the hordes of galaxies of Coma-Virgo. Yeah, I sure as heck turned Celeste to M104 and M84 and M86 and M87 and all the other extragalactic treats. Over in Ursa Major, M108 was as good as I have ever seen it in a C8, looking for all the world like a miniature M82. But it wasn’t just galaxies; I also marveled at globulars M3 and M53 and, as the evening was growing old, summer’s herald, M13.

What was the best thing I saw on that dark night? It was a tie, Omega Centauri was in the clear, and looked marvelous both in the C8 and in her finder. In fact, I told Miss Dorothy it looked about as good in the 9x50 as M53 did in the main scope. I will say that despite the darkness of the skies Omega had lost a little snap due to French Camp’s more northerly latitude. Still wonderful, though—of course.

I was having an absolute ball with Celeste, who was certainly proving herself on her first serious run, but I looked through a couple of other telescopes over the course of the evening, too. Including Rainwater’s 20-inch f/6 Dob. In mid-late evening I saw that scope was sitting on its pad deserted. The observers who’d pulled it out and had been using it had drifted away. It wasn’t that late, but it was getting progressively colder and damper. I was still rarin’ to go, and I hated to see a large aperture scope idle on a good night, so naturally I moseyed over that-a-way.

First target was Omega. It really wasn’t any better than it had been in the C8. At f/6, the 20-inch’s field was way too constricted for the Mother of All Globs, and The Big O was lower now. What else could I look at with this big eye? I went to Centaurus A, NGC 5128, which, with Omega near out of sight now, was sinking but still doable if I depressed the Dobbie’s tube in altitude near-about as far as it would go.

Dorothy and good, old George.
Even down on the horizon, the sky background in the 20-inch was pretty dark due both to its longer than average focal length and the dark skies of northern Mississippi. Centaurus A stood out well. Both lobes were visible, and there was considerable detail in the galaxy’s odd dark lane, detail just barely on the verge of perception, swimming in and out of view as the seeing changed.

I was done with the 20-inch, but not quite ready to return to Celeste. I noticed a group of observers around the big 32-inch Tectron (one of Tom Clark's scopes), observers with the expression on their faces that spells “What do we look at now?” I suggested we try for the Ring Nebula’s central star. Shortly, we had the big puppy pointed that way, a short focal length eyepiece in the focuser, and I was negotiating the ladder.

It was a trip, as it always is, to see the Ring so big and so bright. How about its infamously difficult central star? I saw it but it was not easy. Far from it. Despite reasonably high magnification, the interior of the donut was still filled with bright haze. The tiny pinprick of a central star would wink into view occasionally, but quickly wink out. I could catch it, but could not hold it. Otherwise, the ring looked as close to a photograph as I have ever seen.

The Ring’s star captured, it was back to the C8 for some early summer marvels on the rise. The darkness of the sky all the way down to the horizon allowed me to get decent looks at objects I’d normally have considered too low to bother with. There was no denying, however, that conditions were not quite what they had been. A veil of haze seemed to be dropping over the formerly crystal heavens, and the seeing was getting noticeably worse.

Time to pull the Big Switch. Which wasn’t so big in them days. Turn off the C8’s clock drive, remove her dew shield, put the aperture cap in place, cover her up, grab the eyepiece box and Sky Atlas 2000, and head for the vee-hickle.

When Miss D. and I made it back to our cabin, several things were immediately evident: over the last hour or so the temperature had fallen rather precipitously, the interior of the cabin was like an icebox, the army surplus blankets we brought with us seemed laughably thin, and the bathrooms that were mere yards away in the daytime now seemed miles from the cabin. It was also a little spooky. Nobody else around. And suddenly I heard footsteps walking ‘round and ‘round the cabin.

Playing Sir Galahad for my new wife, I grabbed a big flashlight and headed outside, “WHO’S THERE?!” My light did not reveal Jason Voorhees, but an albino possum the size of a bushel basket. He looked awful put out that his tour of the area had been interrupted by my foolishness.

After that, things settled down until the wee-est hours of the a.m. I was awake and I was real cold, “Honey, are you awake?”

“Sure am,” said Miss Dorothy, “I’m afraid if I fall asleep I’ll freeze to death.”

“What say we jump in the car and find a motel RIGHT NOW?”

Which is just what we did. We gathered our suitcases, tossed ‘em in the Toyota, and headed down the Natchez Trace to the nearest large(r) town, Kosciusko. That was about twenty miles away, but we didn’t mind a bit. With the heater blasting in the Camry, it was heaven.

I was so cold and tired that I didn’t even notice the chain of the motel we pulled into. Probably a Best Western. The clerk seemed surprised but happy to get some business at 4:45 in the freaking morning. Me and D. fell into bed and slept until the sun was well up. We’ve stayed in chickie-style cabins at star parties since, but it was a long time after MSSG ’95 before we did so again.

Somehow, we managed to make it back to French Camp by noon Saturday and were glad we did. Lunch was enormous sandwiches on home-made bread served at the facility’s “Council House Café,” which was an ancient and historic log cabin situated on a corner of a pretty field. While waiting in line for our sandwiches, we struck up a conversation with Jack Horkheimer, who was a nice guy, if not quite as outgoing as his Star Hustler character suggested. Seating at the tables outside the Café was limited, so our little PSAS group gathered up our food and turned lunch into a picnic at a shady and cool spot down by the Academy’s lake.

After a couple of interesting talks, including one by NASA’s Jim McMurtray on the (recently and finally) fully operational Hubble Space Telescope, it was time for MORE eats. Supper that evening had a thrown together, catch-as-catch-can feel; instead of food prepared onsite, Saturday’s big meal consisted of catfish served by and in support of the local volunteer fire department. Was it the tastiest catfish I’ve ever eaten? Nope, but it was fairly good compared to some of the star party fare I’ve consumed over the years.

The big happening this evening was Jack Horkheimer, and we were eager to be entertained by the famous Star Hustler. You know, “GREETINGS, GREETINGS FELLOW STAR GAZERS!” But that was not the person onstage; that was Jack Horkheimer, who spoke to us on “The Comet that Killed Cleopatra,” which presentation touched on comets, ancient Egypt, and the coinage of ancient Egypt.

How was it? Oh, it was good enough. As good as most of the presentations you hear at star parties year in and year out. Alas, we had expected the electrifying Star Hustler of the PBS show. Jack also went on a little long, continuing to talk till after nine o’clock. That was OK at first. There’d been a few scudding clouds in the morning, more at noon, and near full overcast at sunset. But as Mr. Horkheimer continued on his merry way, Jim Hill quietly announced, “I’m serious; I can see Sirius.”

I liked Jack’s presentation fine, but I’d come to Rainwater to learn about and view the sky and not to hear about Egyptian coins. Me, Miss D., and a few others tried to discretely move toward the lobby as Jack finally turned to the task of winding down his epic lecture. Outside, I could see stars. We jumped in the Camry and headed for the field.

We got in an hour or so of observing Saturday night, but it was mostly sucker-hole city. When it became clear we wouldn’t be seeing much more, we packed Celeste in her case and loaded her in the car. We had a substantial drive ahead of us the next morning and wanted to leave straight from the motel. In other words, it was barely 11 p.m. when we threw in the towel on our first Mid-South adventure.

Despite, or maybe because of travails like that refrigerator of a cabin—that dang sure made it a memorable expedition—we’d had a great time. Jim Hill did a good job with his star party, and we were to return to Mid-South the following year. The story of which I tell rat-cheer. After that, we never did make it back to Rainwater Observatory. Work schedules, the tendency for the French Camp weather to be stormy in the spring, and the coming of the Chiefland Spring Picnic deterred us from going back post 1996.

Sure is nice country up around Rainwater Observatory, though. Haven’t I ever wanted to give MSSG another try? The idea has crossed my mind a time or three, but given what I’ve heard about the star party lately, the answer is a flat-out N-O.

Things, I’ve been told, had not been rosy up at Rainwater for the last several years. French Camp Academy’s penchant for an ever more fundamentalist brand of religion apparently came into conflict with the school’s science curriculum, and especially with the astronomy program and its creator, Jim Hill. The result, I was sad to read in an email from him, was that Jim was abruptly terminated last year after twenty-six years of service to his school and community.

It seems there will be a Mid-South Star Gaze in 2012; there’s a website for it (which doesn’t even mention its Founder), anyhow. The current direction is pretty clear to me. In addition to Rainwater Observatory being prominently referred to as a “ministry,” on its web page, the MSSG registration form states in big letters that “Rainwater Observatory and the Camp of the Rising Son do not allow drugs, alcohol, or smoking on campus or in its buildings.”

Which is fine. They should run their event exactly the way they want to (though as we increasingly see, folks like this are not content to run their lives the way they want to; they want to run everybody's the same way). Some folks will like it, some won’t. The rules are not what bothers me the most, anyway. It’s the dismissal of the man who was the heart and soul of the place that has stuck in my craw. MSSG can go on, and good luck to it, but it can sure go on without me, muchachos.

Next Time: Nebulosity

Amen, brother, especially to that last.
Wow, great to come upon this article about the Edmund Scientific reflectors. I had one! It was the 3" Space Conqueror and it was just as Uncle Rod describes it. I used mine under the dark skies of early 1960's northern Wyoming (wish I had those skies now)but could never find much except the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. I also looked at bugs flying around distant streetlights. Eventually the cardboard tube ended up in use as a wind tunnel for some crackpot experiment of mine, but I remember the scope very fondly.

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