Sunday, July 25, 2021


Issue 575: My Favorite Star Parties, Deep South Regional Star Gaze 2000


M15, star of Unk's DSRSG 2000 (Edge 800 on Advanced VX mount)...
Well, muchachos, I tried. Yes, I was anxious to get my Celestron Advanced VX telescope mount under the stars to see if she was really OK, but it was hopeless... 

“What h-a-i-l is Unk goin’ on about now? 

If you read the last installment of the AstroBlog, you know a five-year-old, deteriorated Telegizmos scope cover resulted in my beloved AVX taking a bath thanks to an early morning thunderstorm.  I opened the mount up, dried her out, and tested her indoors. Seemed OK…but. The only true test would be an evening in the backyard. That will come. But obviously wouldn’t come before July ran out. The clouds. The Thunderstorms. The bugs. The heat. Uh-uh. No sir buddy.

And yet, I didn’t want to let another month elapse without a ‘blog entry. Now, last time, I said I was reluctant to take another trip to the nostalgia well. I thought that sucka was dry. But then I recalled I’ve never said a word about the 20th Century's final edition of one of my favorite star parties, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

Then as now, star parties can iffy things weather-wise no matter the time of year. Especially in this part of the county, the Southeast. But Miss D. and I had high hopes for 2000’s DSRSG, the 18th edition of the nearby event.  After two years of so-so observing, and 1999’s complete and utter rain-out, surely the weather gods would throw us a bone. Wouldn’t they?

And, indeed, it looked as if conditions might be—I was almost afraid to think it and jinx it—fantastic for the long star party weekend. October 2000 began with unseasonably cool and dry weather. But, wouldn’t you know it? As the date for DSRSG approached (October 25- 29), the cotton-pickin' weather pattern returned to the more familiar clouds and humidity. The result being I definitely broke a sweat on star party Thursday morning as I was loading up the good, ol’ Toyota Camry.

What did I load? I was after photons, visual photons, this time, not astrophotos. So, in the vehicle went my time-honored 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I brought along a second scope too, my little Celestron (Synta) Short Tube 80 f/5 refractor ("Woodstock") on his EQ-1 mount. If the sky cooperated, I thought he might give me some of the wide-field deep sky vistas I craved. “If.” 

There were also all the things I took along during my go-go days of star partying: EZ-up tent canopy, camp table, ice chest, eyepiece box, etc., etc. What? No laptop. Nope. At this time Luddite Unk was still using printed atlases, namely Sky Atlas 2000 and Herald-Bobroff.

Yeah, it was a hot and humid and not atypical Gulf Coast morning when I set out for the site of the star party, which in them days was held at McComb, Mississippi’s Percy Quin State Park (in the sparsely populated Pine Belt).  “Wait a minute, Unk! When you set out?! What about Miss Dorothy?” At this time, Dorothy was at the height of her distinguished career at the university, and business there kept her from motoring to the park with me for that first day of DSRSG. Instead, she planned to drive up with my friend and observing companion, Pat Rochford, on day two, Friday.

The old but well-remembered DSRSG field...
Anyhoo, when I hit Highway 98 for Percy Quin it was warmer than I’d have liked, but there were only a few clouds scudding across the sky on a morning that suggested Spring rather than Winter was on the way. After a reasonably pleasant 3-hour journey despite being all by my lonesome, I arrived at the Park’s "group camp,” site of DSRSG 18, unloaded the gear, and set up Old Betsy as quickly as I could. Despite the warm weather, October was dying, and sunset wouldn’t be long in coming.

By the time I finished, I hadn’t just broken a sweat; I was drenched, but the sky was holding. My next stop, the cabins, was a prime attraction of the Percy Quin site. Actually, “cabins,” a word conjuring drafty, decrepit boy scout chickies, is not an apt description. These cabins were modern, usually clean, comparatively comfortable, and featured central air-conditioning and heating. Best of all, perhaps, they were within easy walking distance of the observing field, a football field-sized expanse of grass ringed by pine trees.

Soon, I was settled in our room—star party organizer Barry Simon always assigned me and Miss D. the “counselor’s room” in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s cabin.  Afterward, back to the field where I hung out for a while renewing old acquaintances and talking shop about what passed for the latest technological innovations in amateur astronomy nearly a quarter century ago. The big gossip? There were murmurings Celestron was going to release a new goto telescope, an 11-inch NexStar(!).

With sunset still an hour away, the Auburn Astronomical Society’s Russell Whigham and I joined Barry Simon and the rest of the Ponchartrain Astronomical Society contingent for the traditional Thursday evening meal at Mr. Whiskers' Catfish Cabin, home of all you can eat catfish, just outside the park gate. Was the catfish good? Oh, it was very good. Good enough to eclipse the fact it was awful slow in coming and they were purty stingy with the "all-you-can-eat" thing.

After my repast ("pigout" is more like it), as evening came on, the sky just got better and better, really opening up with that velvety black appearance we crave. Using both the 12.5” Dobsonian, Betsy, and my faithful 80mm f/5 refractor, “Woodstock,”  I toured the autumn deep sky until the wee hours.  I visited many marvels, both old and new, but my favorites on this night were these:

Good catfish and lots of it...
NGC 7000, the North America Nebula. Many newer observers long for a glimpse of this great swath of glowing hydrogen.  Alas, being huge, its faint red light is spread out, making it quite a challenge for larger telescopes. My 12-inch was able to pick out vague patches of nebulosity here and there, but it wasn’t very impressive. What a difference wide-field made. In Woodstock, the 3” f/5 refractor, the whole, huge  thing fitted perfectly into the field of a 26mm Plössl. Since the entire nebula was visible framed with a dark sky background, the North America shape was amazingly well defined.

M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, is always a treat, and from a dark site with a moderate aperture scope it becomes a revelation. I alternated between using an OIII filter and looking at the nebula unfiltered. With the filter, the true extent of M27's nebulosity was obvious, with the cloud beginning to look more like a football than a dumbbell. Without the OIII, this planetary nebula’s central star was easily visible.

M31 and NGC 206. The Great Andromeda Nebula (Galaxy) can be disappointing, but on this evening it was awesome. In Betsy, a pair of dark lanes was easily visible defining the hard to see spiral arms as I scanned across the great disk. The galactic nucleus appeared as a tiny star-like point, and, most wonderful of all, perhaps, the great cloud of stars in one of the arms, NGC 206, was easy (this thing is tough if the sky ain't right). The two companion galaxies, M32 and M110 (NGC 205) were marvelous, with M110 looking as large as I’d ever seen it. I dare say the view was even better in the 80mm, since with Woodstock all these things were in a single eyepiece field. 

But the prize beauty Thursday night? The Horse’s Nose (globular) Star Cluster, M15. This pretty glob, located not far from the bright star Enif, The Horse’s Nose, in Pegasus, was flat-out amazing. You’ve probably heard about M15’s curious, bright core (at one time it was thought to contain a black hole), but if you’ve never seen it from a good, dark site, you really have no idea how striking it is. In the 12-inch, the core simply blazed away, looking like a brightly glowing ember surrounded by countless sparks of light.

And so it went, object after object, until around 3am. I wasn’t ready to turn-in even at that hour, but there was no doubt weariness was beginning to assail me in those primitive days before there were dadgum Monster Energy Drinks. I’d awakened at 6 am that morning to pack, and the long day and night were beginning to take their toll.

I pulled the big switch, tired but happy. I covered the scopes with a tarp, though I probably didn’t need to. This had been one of the few DSRSG evenings in memory when dew hadn’t been heavy. As the day had worn on, the humid, sticky air had seemingly blown away, yielding an amazingly comfortable and bug-free evening.

Friday was a busy day. I was scheduled to give a talk in the meeting hall at 3pm about my forthcoming book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. I’m talking about the original, not Choosing and Using a New CAT (now in its second edition). Long time back it feels like, campers.

I sure wanted the presentation go smoothly, so I spent quite some time getting my 35mm slides sorted out (no laptops and PowerPoint projectors just yet). Shortly before noon, Pat Rochford and Dorothy arrived. Dorothy was excited to finally be at “our” star party and was showing off a new red light she’d bought for the trip.  

Percy Quin Group Camp cabins...
We soon repaired to the park cafeteria (located adjacent to the cabins) for the first on-site meal of DSRSG 2000. More than a few folks complained about the food over the years we were at the old site, and it was simple at best, but it was at least edible. I was never sure why the park (which operated the cafeteria) couldn’t do a little better with the food. We were not far from the middle-sized town of McComb, not out in the freaking sticks, and they didn't exactly give the meals away, but, again, edible.

I was happy to have a large and responsive audience for my presentation on the new book, and thought the presentation went well despite some fumbling. I was new to all this, but I would soon be doing star party after star party as a speaker, would discover PowerPoint and laptops, and would figure things out (to the extent old Unk ever figures anything out).

There was no doubt as twilight deepened that Friday night was going to be another goodun. And it was, though conditions were not quite as good as they had been Thursday. Why? That stinking humidity that had departed on Thursday was back with a vengeance. The dew was heavier, and the light dome from McComb was natcherly more evident, but the sky was still OK. Which deep sky object struck my fancy on this evening? One I’d seen before, but did not remember well, NGC 6905, the Blue Flash planetary nebula in Delphinus.

This 12th magnitude nebula was large and well defined in 12-inch Betsy, and, in addition to its amazing blue color, showed some “blinking” like the nearby Blinking Planetary. That is, look straight at it and the nebula would fade away, use averted vision and it would spring back into view.

NGC 7331 and nearby Stephan’s Quintet also looked good on Friday. It didn’t take any imagination to pick out all the little galaxies in Stephan's with Miss Betsy. That galaxy cluster was one of my most-wanted objects back in the days when I observed mostly with 6 and 8-inch telescopes from the suburbs. I was just thrilled with the views Bets delivered of this legendary object.

Was I close to deep sky overdose when I shut down at 4am? Not quite…the spirit was still willing. The body was weak, though.   I called it quits after a good, long tour of M42, the Great Orion Nebula. In the 12-inch, the nebula seemed to tower above me in the 12mm Nagler eyepiece’s field. Cold, starkly beautiful, and almost threatening in aspect. After that, I sat in a lawn chair for a little while, watching the fading stars as dawn came in, and toasted them with a little of the Rebel Yell, natch.  Some things have changed over the long years, and some ain’t.

Saturday was a long day at DSRSG. Everybody was starting to feel like zombies thanks to two beautiful nights, and, even in October, sunset seemed to take forever to arrive. Luckily, Rex’s Astrostuff, an astronomy vendor who was a regular feature of southern star parties all through the 1990s, was on site, so I amused myself—how else?—by buying some of that “astro-stuff.”

Those old, low-tech Astro Cards could guide you to countless wonders...
My purchases this year were fairly modest, but were things I’d wanted for a while:  A Thousand Oaks glass solar filter for Woodstock, a Celestron variable-brightness LED flashlight, and a deck of George Kepple’s Astro Cards—index card finder charts for locating deep sky objects. These Astro Cards were a staple of vendors at star parties in those days, and I’d been meaning to try a set for years. They were perfect for nights when you’d exhausted your observing list and didn’t know what else to look at.

Saturday night started out great, with the heavens again opening up as night descended. But it was not to be. The sky gods had no doubt decided Deep South’s observers had had enough for one year. By 9pm, heavy haze had moved in. It cleared somewhat just after midnight, but only a little, and only for a little while.

It was just as well, I suppose, since the milky sky encouraged me to shut down much earlier than I had on the other nights. There was that Sunday morning packing and the drive home to contend with, after all. Before the haze moved in, though, Pat Rochford and I had a great time playing with a little Meade ETX60 he’d brought with him—I was skeptical a cheap (comparatively speakin') little scope like that could find anything, but it could. Man, oh man, could it. It was one of the things that encouraged Unk to embrace laptops and goto telescopes not long thereafter.

2000 was a great DSRSG.  Maybe one of the last truly outstanding years at the location. The new century would bring changes, including several moves for the event. It’s still in business, but now on its fourth home. Be that as it may, the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze where I voyaged the deep, deep sky with a simple Dobsonian, Herald-Bobroff, and a Telrad is yet green in memory and always shall be.

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