Sunday, April 29, 2012


My Favorite Star Parties: Deep South ‘95

Yeah, I promised y’all a report on The Herschel Project Night 33 for this Sunday, but that ain’t gonna happen, muchachos. Unremitting clouds were the order of the day—and night—last Saturday. So, what you-all do get is yet another trip down memory lane. A companion piece, sorta, for “My Best Girl,” which ran a couple of weeks back.

Like I said a while ago, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. In the three years I’d been attending the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, I’d got used to being Mr. Bear’s lunch. By which I mean I’d got used to the weather not fully cooperating for our down-home deep sky shindig. 1994 was especially bad. Heck, a tornado or one’s first cousin at least brushed the observing field Saturday afternoon.

Despite that tarnished record, I was looking forward to the 1995 edition of DSRSG. I’d had a great time in 1993 no matter what the sky did. 1994 had been even better, mainly because it was my new wife’s, Miss Dorothy’s, first star party. Other than her presence, I thought the ’94 event was on the ho-hum side, but that was not the way D. remembered it. She pronounced it “wonderful.”

As was par for the course in those days when Dorothy was still teaching, we got a kinda late start on Thursday on 19 October, the first day of DSRSG. But that was OK. The site of the do back then, Mississippi’s Perch Quin State Park, was only three hours away. After a stop for munchies at a Hardee's hamburger joint not far from McComb, we hit the little town at 3:15 and were rolling onto the observing field in the “group camp” area of the park not long after 3:30 p.m.

Then as now, me and D. were pretty hard core. We always saw to field set up before even thinking about checking out the accommodations. So, first order of bidness was getting the scope ready. Which scope? My Ultima C8, Celeste, which I’d bit the bullet and bought the previous spring.

Today, I laugh at how Me and D. thought field setup was “a lot of work” back then. Campers, it was nothing compared to what we—and most of you—put on the observing field at star parties now. No computers and cables, no multiple batteries, no DVD recorders, no CCD cameras. Just a simple wedge-mounted SCT, a rope-and-tarp picnic canopy, an ice chest, a lawn chair or two, and an observing (card) table  on which we placed a copy of Sky Atlas 2000 and a box of eyepieces.

We were happy to share our shade with everybody.
Set up done, I took time to catch my breath and turn a critical eye on sky and field. The sky was, frankly, looking not-so-hotsky. It was not socked in, mind you, but there were plenty of drifting clouds and more than a little haze.  It felt humid and it felt as if the humidity were spiking-up, never a good sign. I didn't think it would be raining anytime soon, but we'd passed through some showers on our way in, including a pretty good one at the Hardee's. We had hopes for DSRSG ’95 nevertheless. A cold front was due to move through on Friday, and I was hoping that would cleanse the skies. Alas, the remnants of Tropical Storm Roxanne were hanging-on in and around the Gulf and complicating the weather picture.

I didn’t worry: what would be, would be. As I have often said, I have never had a bad time at DSRSG or any star party rain or shine. While we were cooling off from field set up, I trotted around a bit, renewing my acquaintance with folks I didn’t see except once a year at Deep South, mostly members of New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Astronomical Society. There was good representation from the Auburn Astronomical Society, Mississippi’s Jackson club, and Pensacola’s EAAA, too. We even drew a few folks from the big cities of Birmingham and Atlanta. Local bunch? Our friends Ginny and Tony were already on the field and rarin’ to go, and we expected several other PSASers before all was said and done.

The field? 51 weeks a year, the DSRSG observing field was the group camp’s football field. There was a set of goalposts, anyway. The whole area, ringed by ever-growing pines, wasn’t much larger than a football field, but it was big enough to accommodate the <150 observers we usually hosted. It had been a wet summer, and the grass was green and verdant,  There’d also been enough rain of late to make the short dirt road at the entrance to the field soft and rutted.

We negotiated that without incident in the Camry and headed for the cabins. Ah, the PQ cabins! How I miss them. The Percy Quin cabins were as far from chickies as you can get, modern looking on the outside, and, if not quite as appealing on the inside (G.I. bunks), they were a dang sight better than what most of us were used to at star parties. Central air. Central heat. A large tiled bathroom. Yeah, they always stank of years of heavy applications of bug spray, but if we had to rough it, this was the way to rough it.

The Percy Quin Cabins...
Looking at the list of names on the door of the nominal Possum Swamp Astronomical Society cabin (the organizers tried to keep us all in the same place year after year), I found that star party Director extraordinaire Barry Simon had once again given me and Miss Dorothy the tiny but cozy “Counselors’ Room.” Unpacked, it was getting on to five and time to scare up some grub.

In all the years we were at Percy Quin, one thing remained constant: we dined at Mr. Whiskers (the home of all-you-can-eat catfish) on Thursday nights. Mr. Whiskers, which was only about a mile from the front gate of the park, gave us a source of hot food, since meal plans did not kick-in until supper Friday. This rustic but squeaky-clean restaurant served excellent catfish, hushpuppies, coleslaw and a few other sides. Alas, service was so slow I sometimes wondered if they had to go fishing before cooking, but that didn’t matter. Seated at big, long tables, gabbing with our fellow amateur astronomers, it always seemed like the food came out too soon.

When supper finally wrapped up, Sol was well into his descent and it was time to hit the field. I’d been watching the skies all afternoon, and by the time we left Mr. Whiskers I liked what I was seeing. Strangely, given Unk’s usual luck, the clouds that had hung-in all afternoon had packed up and left. There was still considerable haze, but it was not a showstopper. When darkness fell, the Summer Milky Way began glowing its heart out. Was the sky a perfect 10? Nope. The haze prevented that. As did the fairly prominent light-dome from McComb. That little burg was growing, no denying it, and that alone would henceforth prevent “perfect,” even in perfect weather.

Mr. Whiskers...
Like lots of my buddies, the first thing I looked for was the recently discovered Comet Hale-Bopp. We hoped it would eventually be good, real good, but of course had no idea just how good it would get. Comet pessimist Unk wondered whether “Hale-Bopp” would be spelled “K-A-H-O-U-T-E-K” before all was said and done.

I went straight to the place marked on my finder chart (generated with my fave program of the time, Deep Space 3D). And saw—absolutely nothing. Which was what I expected; in October ’95 our visitor was hanging low in the southwest, just above the spout of Sagittarius’ teapot. Not only was the comet low-down, he was glowing faintly at magnitude 11.

I reckon I wasn’t too surprised when our neighbor on the field, Russell Whigham, hollered that he’d “GOT IT!” Russell was and is an expert observer and was equipped with a C11, which I for sure considered a big gun in them days. My C8 didn’t have that kind of horsepower, but it did have fresh new StarBright optics, so I redoubled my squinting through the finder.

In almost no time, it seemed, I had the unmistakable faint fuzzy that was Bopp centered in my beloved 26mm Plössl. What was it like? Just, yeah, a faint fuzz-ball. I thought I detected elongation, and I noticed a slight greenish tint and occasional hints of a stellar-size nucleus, but no tail at all. I didn’t care; I was thrilled to get an early glimpse at the comet that maybe, just maybe, might become a Great Comet, the last of the Twentieth Century, I reckoned.

The Boppster wasn’t the only source of excitement on this fall night in 1995. The first confirmed extra-solar planet around a main sequence star had just been discovered circling the star 51 Pegasi. While we couldn’t dream of seeing the planet with our modest instruments—it is invisible even to the HST and the mighty Keck—everybody wanted a look at 51 Pegasi, an otherwise nondescript  magnitude six star on the western edge of the Great Square. 

The field Thursday afternoon...
What else did me and my buddies look at Thursday night? Lots of stuff. My favorite came right after The Boppster. M17, the Swan/Omega Nebula, was low, too, but something about the conditions early in the evening really made it stand out. The sky background seemed darker than it should have been, and the “neck” area was as prominent as I had ever seen it in an 8-inch scope.

Unk continued on till about midnight, but well before then it was obvious conditions were degrading. No M42—my traditional “last object" of the night at DSRSG.  By midnight, the clouds that were supposedly in advance of the cold front moved in and shut us down. That was OK, or as OK as getting partially skunked ever is. After the day’s bustle and excitement, I was ready for some shut-eye, anyway. Especially since the radio weather reports we were hearing hinted it might be possible to pull an all-nighter Friday. Specifically, the forecasts were predicting COLD AND CLEAR.

Friday morning, reasonably early Friday morning, but not too early Friday morning, we were up and out, and after lunch at, of all places, McComb, Mississippi’s Chinese buffet (not bad), we were back on the field. Doing what? Doing the usual things you do at any star party when you are staying onsite: strolling around the field counting covered-up scopes, chatting with old buddies about the state of amateur astronomy and the price of a good cigar, and speculating on what the evening’s weather would do.

That wasn’t all. Barry had scheduled a couple of talks this year, and they were good talks. Unk particularly enjoyed Arlo Niederer’s presentation. He’d had a temporary job posting to Melbourne, Australia, and filled us in on what it was like to observe and image those exotic far southern skies. 

Hubble Cat's Eye...
Director Barry Simon and company (which included deep sky guru Len Philpot) had added a new wrinkle to the star party. Inspired by John Wagoner’s famous observing programs at the Texas Star Party, they’d put together a “challenge list” of deep sky objects. Actually, two lists. One for scopes of 8-inch aperture and below, and one for big dogs—err, “Dobs.” I spent the remainder of the afternoon under the picnic canopy plotting/checking the locations of the list’s many fuzzies in Sky Atlas 2000.

After a supper in the park cafeteria (adjacent to the cabins and staffed with real cafeteria ladies), which was neither as bad nor as good as it would be some years, and which was edible if slightly challenging for even Unk’s cast iron stomach, it was time to see what Urania’s sky would offer. Which was a lot. The darkening sky had taken on that faintly purple hue that spells “good observing and plenty of it.”

What to do? No leisurely contemplation of comets on this night, I had a list to work. The DSRSG ’95 challenge objects were arranged in order of right ascension starting in Sagittarius and Ophiuchus. Those particular DSOs were already getting low as the Sun finished setting, so there was no time to lose. After a couple of frustrating minutes when I couldn’t seem to find a derned thing, the sky darkened enough to help me out; I got into that blessed groove and started knocking them off. Picking out small magnitude 10 and 11 globulars didn’t seem a challenge at all.

Hour after hour, I continued the list, and in the process ran across some goodies I either hadn’t seen in a while, or had meant to hunt up “some day.” One of the best was The Cat’s Eye Nebula, which had achieved fame recently due to a Hubble Space Telescope image. At 80x with the Celestron 26mm, its non-stellar character was unmistakable, and doubling that brought out the Cat’s strong blue color, elongated shape, and subtle hints of the weird detail that made the HST shot so fascinating.

Headed to the cabins...
And so it went in the fashion of the day. I’d look at my list, squint at the atlas, go to the finder, move the scope where I thought it should go, check the eyepiece, and, if my quarry wasn’t in sight, go back to SA2000 or a DS3D printout for another look. That wasn’t very productive, even by the standards of the time--more and more folks were at least using digital setting circles for finding--but I didn’t mind. I had used former PSAS President Dave’s go-to LX200 a few times and had been impressed, but it would be another six years before I decided to give up star-hopping for computers. I still liked hopping/hunting, even if I was slowly becoming more interested in looking at than looking for.

By 2 a.m., M42 was finally high enough to be above the trees to the east. The PSAS contingent always set up on the eastern side of the field; we had to wait longer for Orion, but we got a good look at the sinking summer wonders. After half an hour gazing at The Great One, I was ready to pull the big switch. No shame in that. It was (very) damp and (very) cold, and I was one of the few folks left standing on the field. Back down the quarter mile or so of road—which included one dark and spooky stretch—to the cabin area. Ahead of me, Orion pointed the way, looking even better rising above dark tree branches than he had in the clear on the field. In the room it was a little Yell and a lot of Zs.

Saturday morning brought a breakfast composed of ersatz eggs (that’s how they tasted, anyhow), cellophane-wrapped pastries, and lots of talk about the wonders we’d seen Friday night. It was the last day of DSRSG ’95, but we still had one more full night of observing to look forward to and plan for. Which is what I spent the afternoon doing. Mostly, my planning consisted of trying to decide “to list or not to list.” I was well past the halfway point, but wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue it to the end. I hadn’t had any trouble finding anything once I got going, but I was thinking I really wanted to spend the last night in more leisurely contemplation of the heavens than a Challenge List allows.

The big event of the afternoon? My frequent observing companion, Pat Rochford, arrived toting his brand new 24-inch Dobsonian. Due to work, Pat couldn’t always do the whole DSRSG, but in those days he was always able to make at least one day and sometimes two. One thing's sure; all of us who got to look through his scope Saturday night were glad for that. There was another talk scheduled for the afternoon, which Miss Dorothy went to but which I skipped in favor of helping Pat unload and assemble his monstrous telescope.

This DSRSG featured the largest number of big Dobsonians we’d ever had onsite. In addition to Pat’s 24, there was a 22-incher and a couple in the “18” range. Right across the field from the PSAS area was a humongous Obsession 25. 

Supper done—it tasted like chicken—only one thing was left before observing began: the raffle.  DSRSG has always featured outstanding prizes, but it’s been rare for Unk to win anything. 1995 was no different. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since none of the PSAS gang made out well. Even Miss Dorothy didn’t win a blessed thing. One of our mates did get something, but that was just a couple of mugs with pictures of deep sky objects on ‘em, not THE NAGLER.

Really big Dob...
Out on the field, darkness was coming on in a hurry, and I had to make a decision as to how to spend the last hours. I decided I’d had enough list-chasing Friday night. Saturday, I’d pursue my own agenda. I’d go wherever my eyes and heart led me. I’d leave-off jumping from object to object and try to spend the time on ‘em the night sky marvels deserved. I was especially looking forward to getting a look through Pat’s 24-inch. After ironing out a few glitches on what was the scope’s first light night, he had it aimed at M13 in the west and was suddenly hollering that I HAD to get up the ladder and LOOK.

After I climbed the short and manageable ladder for this big but fast scope, I was rewarded with a view of M13 in one of Pat’s Nagler eyepieces (the ne plus ultra of eyepieces in them days) the likes of which I’d only seen before in long exposure images. You sometimes hear folks going on and on about a glob being “resolved to the core,” and that’s usually just talk, but on this night M13 really looked that way. I saw stars all the way to the center of the cluster, which looked “3D” at times.

With difficulty, I pulled myself away from Pat’s eyepiece. I knew plenty of other folks wanted a peek, and I wanted to get on with my own doings with Celeste. Which was nothing more involved than making a slow tour of the best of the best of the late summer-fall-early winter sky over the course of a long, clear night.

Best object in the C8? That came in the night’s darkest, quietest reaches on a near-deserted field after almost everybody had toddled off to bed. What now? Turning south, I noticed the little southern constellation Sculptor was well placed. Over there I went, to that star picture’s treasure, galaxy NGC 253.

NGC 253.
On this evening, the galaxy, which is low at best, even for us, was as pretty as I’d ever seen it. A huge thing, its shallowly inclined disk was peppered with countless dark and light patches. It looked so good that Pat and I couldn’t resist pointing the 24 that-a-way. I can’t begin to describe the beauty we saw. All I will say is that the feeling I got was a lot like the one I have when I watch the scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, the one where Luke, Leia, and the droids look wistfully back at their galaxy. It was an awesome sight that left me feeling a little melancholy.

My melancholy really didn’t have much to do with NGC 253. It was more because we were in our last hours of DSRSG 1995, and it had been a memorable one. No, I hadn’t won anything. No, I hadn’t got the view of a lifetime, though I saw some awfully cool things. But everything had for once gone just right. Well, almost everything.

Just as I was taking a peep at the night’s last target, M42, natch, with Celeste. Her R.A. drive went crazy, cranked itself up to full slewing speed, and ran away till I killed the power. I knew she’d have to go back to California, and I felt a little blue about that as Pat and I walked to the cabin.

Next morning I felt good again. On the way home to Possum Swamp, I was able to forget about my telescope’s faux pas and just remember the wonders I’d seen and the friends I’d seen them with. We were sad to leave McComb for another 12 months, but me and Miss Dorothy and our buddies would be back next year, sure as the swallows return to Capistrano, muchachos.

Next Time: Unk and Miss Dorothy Visit Space City…

Always enjoy reading your posts. Learn a lot and am always entertained. "Unk" was a favorite character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Do you know which one?

Wow. I'm a guru! :-) I've been so busy lately I've been remiss in reading, but hopefully I'll have time for more soon. Already looking forward to November.
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