Sunday, August 21, 2016


Issue 506: On the Road Part II: The Northwoods Starfest

I’ve covered many a mile in the course of my restless travels back and forth across the country to bring you my brand of astronomical wisdom (ahem). However, while I’ve visited state after state in the lower 48, there are still a few I haven’t been able to cross off my “been there” list, mostly in the Midwest. Wisconsin, for example.

Since I was missing Wisconsin, when I was invited to give a presentation for the North Woods Starfest, which takes place not far from Eau Claire, I was intrigued. Not only would I be able to visit a part of the country I’d never been to before, the North Country, but judging from the event’s website the NWSF would be a fun event.

So it was that I found myself back in the air barely a week after returning home from my previous engagement, the Maine Astronomy Retreat (see last week’s article). Was I tired? Maybe a little, but I was nevertheless looking forward, at least, to escaping the dreadful heat, humidity, and rain that had settled in on the Gulf Coast in August.

Since I’d only be gone for three days, Friday – Sunday, I was able to pack minimally in a smaller suitcase.  It was good not to have to wrestle with a large, heavy bag, but that also meant that for the second time I didn’t take my orange tube Celestron C90 with me. I’ve thought it might be fun to take a small telescope on my star party engagements, but I decided to put that off one more time until my next gig, the Almost Heaven Star Party.

I made it from Mobile to Atlanta without a problem and was soon winging my way to Minneapolis - St. Paul, an airport I’d never flown into before. Lindbergh Terminal sure is nice and modern, with every group of three-four gates featuring a modernistic bar/grill where you do your ordering with an iPad. I loved the big sculpture of Snoopy and Woodstock in WWI flying gear (where was the statue of Mary Richards, though?).

My contact and ride, all around nice guy and expert observer Bill Childs, was waiting for me in baggage claim, and it was the task of but a few minutes to grab my small suitcase and get on the road to Eau Claire, Wisconsin and my hotel, which was about an hour and a half away.

While I liked staying in a cabin in the Maine woods well enough, I had to admit the brand new Fairfield Inn and Suites where Bill had booked my room was more to my liking. When I can stay in a beautiful motel for a star party rather than in a chickie-cabin, I will; that’s just how roll these days.

After unpacking  and spending a few relaxing hours in my room watching the LG big screen TV, surfing Facebook and Cloudy Nights,  and enjoying a small amount of shuteye (the flight out of Mobile had been one of my customary early ones), Bill arrived back at the Fairfield. We were shortly on our way out to the site of the star party the Beaver Creek Reserve, which was maybe ten miles from the motel.

There, I gotta say I was mightily impressed. In addition to being the site of a lovely nature-center/museum, Beaver Creek is the site of Hobbs Observatory, an impressive installation that is used jointly by the star party sponsor, the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS), the Beaver Creek Reserve, and by the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The observatory consists of two domes and a spacious workshop/laboratory building. What’s in those two classic Ash Domes? One houses a 24-inch Newtonian and the other a Meade 14-inch SCT. To say I was looking forward to looking at and through the two instruments would be an understatement.

Also prominent adjacent to the observatory building was the CVAS’ large radio telescope dish. The group has a prominent and active radio-astronomy contingent (affiliated with SARA). I was very interested to look at the gear in their control room in the observatory building and shoot the breeze with these amateur radio astronomers, most of whom were also radio amateurs.

Time for supper in the dining hall, which was just a short walk from the observatory. Planning a star party? Looking for a venue? Do yourself a favor and seek out one with a place where people can take their meals in comfort, and one which has a sufficient kitchen to prepare said meals. The NWSF had both. What was on the menu? Something called “brats.” I vaguely recalled hearing the word, maybe in a TV commercial, but wasn’t sure what a brat actually was. Turned out to be a hotdog sized sausage (bratwurst?) served on a hotdog bun. I loved it.

Following supper, I walked the observing field visiting with my fellow partiers. Soon enough, however, it was time for a presentation in Beaver Creek’s nature center (which reminded me a lot of our own Environmental Studies Center here, but with more elaborate exhibits).

NWSF’s first big talk was by my fellow Sky & Telescope writer Bob King. His presentation was on the Chelyabinsk Meteor, a subject about which I thought I’d heard everything there was to hear. How wrong I was. Bob’s talk was one of the best I’ve heard at a star party in a long time, and he easily kept me and the rest of the audience interested and excited. I was thankful my recent back problems had alleviated enough to allow me to sit still and listen to his presentation. Heck, I feel so much better that I am hoping I can soon go back to carrying around my beloved 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda.

With darkness slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to creep in, and the scattered clouds that had been haunting the sky all afternoon beginning to disperse, it was time to check out the Meade SCT. And I do mean “check out.” Bill and other CVAS folks wanted me to give the telescope a once-over, since, they said, it rarely, if ever, produced truly acceptable images. They were not sure whether the problem was the concrete pier the scope was mounted on, the dome’s seeing characteristics, scope cooldown, or scope collimation.

As soon as I walked out onto the observing floor (on the second floor of the facility), I became pretty sure about at least a large part of their problem. It was easily 10-degrees above ambient temperature in the dome. Not surprising. There was no ventilation other than the open slit of the (pretty) Ash Dome. The dome itself didn’t help, either; it was unpainted aluminum, and even in the moderate Wisconsin Sun it was soaking up heat like crazy.

It was clear to me what was happening. The dome sat in the Sun all day long. When night finally came, an observer opened the slit to begin a run. Then, all the hot air in the dome would rush out the slit and all the cold air outside would rush in. That would create terrible “artificial” seeing; especially for a long focal length telescope like a 14-inch SCT. Look, folks, yes, domes are beautiful, but there’s a reason it’s been decades since professional observatories have been built with traditional observatory domes, and that reason is their invariably punk seeing characteristics.

Then there was the telescope itself. A look through it at Antares revealed something that looked like an amoeba. The star was so misshapen that I had a hard time deciding whether the SCT was in collimation or not (I finally decided it was). Not only would the air in the dome heat up during the day, so would the telescope, for hours, and would, I thought, probably not cool-down to the point where it could produce good images till the wee hours of the morning (when I did a star test, I could see a heat-plume emanating from the baffle tube).

Finally, there was the pier. A two story concrete pier, no matter how solid it looks, is not a recipe for stability. One tends to ring like a bell. At least the observing floor appeared to be sufficiently isolated from the pier, and I judged the situation at least acceptable.

So, my prescription? I told the CVAS folks that the first thing to do was deal with the temperature inside the dome. That might be done very simply by taking care to open the slit at least an hour before beginning a run and by running a big fan inside the dome. More elaborate improvements might consist of a forced air ventilation system and applying some light colored paint to the dome exterior.

As for the telescope, that could be helped by an SCT cooler, built or bought. That’s essentially a fan that blows air into the tube through the rear port. Several members expressed reservations about that, worrying about dust entering the OTA, but I pointed out that a filter would help in that regard, and that, anyway, the telescope seemed next to useless as things stood—after an hour I could finally almost make out Cassini’s Division on Saturn.

The pier? I didn’t find the problem too serious. As long as no one was walking around at the base of the pier, the telescope was fairly steady—as steady as a large SCT on a wedge ever can be. I suggested a simple fix would be just to remind observers to make use of this scope’s (an LX200 GPS) built in Crayford focuser. Using motorized focus where possible would banish any wiggles generated by using the main focuser.

The LX200 duly diagnosed, it was time to look at and through some of the wonderful telescopes the NWSF partiers had set up on the field by the time darkness fell. What was most popular scope design-wise? There was a wider variety of telescopes at NWSF than I’ve seen on many observing fields lately. Yes, there were plenty of refractors, plenty, but there was also a goodly number of Newtonians (including a positively enormous solid-tube Discovery Dob). SCTs too. There were even classics like Caves and Starliners pointed at the increasingly pretty sky.

And how was that sky? Good. Very good. There was a bit of a light-dome in the northwest, but it was not bad. The Milky Way was bright and prominent. If the Great Rift wasn’t quite as stark and detailed as it had been for me in the backwoods of Maine, it was at least comparable. In other words, a very superior site and one capable of allowing plenty of serious deep sky work.

I looked through many a beautiful scope at many a beautiful object Friday night, but as mid-evening came and went, I had to admit I was t-i-r-e-d. It hadn’t been a bad trip by any means, but any airline trip these days tend to be exhausting. I hated to tear Bill away from the observing field, but he’d mentioned that he, like me, isn’t an all-nighter kinda guy anyway. Back at the Fairfield, I watched a little TV, but just a little, before my eyes closed and I knew nothing more for some hours.

And so came the dawn, if a little late for me. Finally stirring myself at 9 am, I scurried down to breakfast which was a just-fine free motel one: decent scrambled eggs, good bacon, but sausage that had the consistency of hockey pucks. All in all it left me ready to face a big day and a big night. Beginning with a journey to downtown Eau Claire and a visit to historic Carson (ball) Park.

Bill had mentioned that he thought I’d be interested in visiting the park due to its connection with one of my hometown heroes, Mobile’s Hank Aaron. Turned out he’d played a season long, long ago with the Eau Claire team at their beautiful and seemingly mostly unchanged ballpark. There, I was very pleased to pose with the bust of Hammerin’ Hank, one of the truly good guys in the game. Before returning me to my hotel, we also had a look at the CVAS “Planet Walk.”

You’ve seen these Solar System scale models before. Solar Systems at a scale that allows a nice walking tour from the Sun to Neptune (and sometimes Pluto), but you’ve never seen one in more beautiful surroundings than the CVAS version, nor with more attractive and informative plaques for each planet. After the Planet Walk experience, I requested Bill drop me back at the motel so I could spend a few hours resting and preparing for my after-supper presentation.

Back at Beaver Creek in time for supper, I was pleased to see a well-known item on the menu, jambalaya. How was it? Wisconsin is many a weary mile removed from Cajun country, but the CVAS did a good job with the meal. Almost felt like I was back home. Couple that with a door-prize giveaway that featured many goodies, and the whole group left the hall in good spirits and ready for a long night of observing.

Prior to that observing, however, it was time for my presentation, The Astronomer Looks at 60, which is the story of amateur astronomy from the 1960s to today as told by our changing tastes in telescopes. Specifically, it is a PowerPoint presentation that features over 100 slides of historic (and not so historic) telescope advertisements. I got a tremendous response to this one both in Maine and Wisconsin, and it looks like I’ve got a hit on my hands. Everybody, well, everybody in my generational cohort anyway, sure likes looking at Unitrons and Caves and Criterions.

Thence to the field. I once again looked through many a beautiful telescope that night, including, especially, an absolutely wonderful f/3.3 24-inch Dobsonian. Thanks to the kindness of its owner, I observed numerous objects and was simply blown away by the scope’s mechanical and optical quality. I also had a look through Hobbs’ 24-inch Newtonian in the facility’s western dome.

This is a surplus military tracking telescope on a massive alt-azimuth mount and has a lot of potential. I know the CVAS has done much outstanding public outreach with it, and if its dome’s thermal/seeing characteristics, like those of the Meade’s dome, could be improved, I can scarcely imagine the work that might be accomplished with this instrument.

Then, alas, came midnight, the witching hour for me, since it would be a long day on the ground and in the air on the morrow. I also had to admit I was getting a little chilled, I had a hoodie, but temperatures were beginning to dip into the lower 50s, and for me that is indeed a cold night in August.

The next morning Bill and his charming wife, Beth, arrived to haul me back to Minneapolis. It had been a wonderful trip, and for once was not spoiled by the airlines, though it almost was. I got out of Atlanta just before Delta’s computer network (such as it is) crashed, stranding fliers all over the country.

Summing up, if you can make your way to the North Country for the Wisconsin Starfest, just do it. A nicer bunch of people and a better facility for a star party you will not find. Good skies, too, and even the jambalaya is good. My thanks to Bill Childs, the CVAS, and the Starfest rank and file for making me feel welcome, sharing their telescope with me, and for making my first visit to Wisconsin a great one.

You can see many more photos from the Northwoods Starfest in an album on my Facebook page…

Glad you had a great trip to Wisconsin! Yes, a "brat" is a bratwurst--a very common food in the Upper Midwest, the Germanic/Nordic heartland of America. As for skies, they only get better as you go north and northwest...
Wisconsin is nice.

In the summer.
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