Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The Oven and The Icebox (SSP 2003)

I am still groggy from my late night return from the Shingletown Star Party.

I began driving home just after 10 last night. I missed observing the final night of the star party. It was difficult to leave my friends, and see the twilight fading into another great, and probably best night of the star party. In four hours I would be home, back in the overlit south bay, where the skies of Shingletown seem more myth than reality.

But, they are real, and the total star party experience will be with those who attended until we meet again a year from now. Next year's star party will begin either June 16, or July 14. My preference is June, for the cooler weather and less chance of smoke from forest fires.

This year we again had hot temps.... up in the mid to upper nineties most days, with very comfortable nights. Compared to last year's heat wave, things were downright comfortable. Attendees brought plenty of shade - some "store bought" high end canopies, others contraptions that would qualify for the Rube Goldberg awards. But they all worked, and made for a comfortable stay at the airport, for those who stayed during the daytime.

Many folks got out to the other sights in the area during the day, which is what we (organizers) had hoped would occur. Businesses in town were nearly overwhelmed by our presence - the restaurants and grocery stores did great business. Others headed down into Redding for breakfasts or specialty cuisine not available in Shingletown. Still others headed uphill, to Burney Falls or into Lassen Park. The soft-serve ice cream at Manzanita Lake Store in the park is still a great treat, and the showers there are excellent - refreshing and worth the 17 mile drive.

My observing sessions were progressively more rewarding as the days wore on. I began searching galaxies in Virgo, hoping to log more of the H-2500 before all the springtime stuff dropped. When that was too low to the horizon, I teamed up with Dean Linebarger and we hunted Galaxy Trios on the Miles Paul atlas. It was great fun picking out some of these very challenging targets. I wish I were able to stay the final night, as the seeing improved nightly, starting out pretty soft the first night, and being quite good by Saturday.

Saturday was the best - nearly everyone was present that had signed up (a few attendees had to return home after Friday) - the sight of all those telescopes and canopies along the runway was astonishing. What a turnout! Back at the hospitality tents people were enjoying the free ice, beer and soft drinks under the shade of the big canopies. The public would arrive beginning at 5 p.m., and setup was taking place - the stage for the band was in place, the big BBQ where the tri-tips would spread the aroma of "good times" over the area - local beauties selling pieces of home-baked pies as part of the local fund raisers... this is, no exaggeration here... always the best day of the star party. I had astronomy vendors who travel to many large star parties each year comment that this was wonderful - and unique among star parties. There is nothing better than being part of such a wonderful community - even if for just an evening.

But let me back up a few hours.

The temps were again in the 90's on Saturday. While comfortable enough in the shade, by this fourth day my daughter and I were beginning to feel a bit like camp baked potatoes and decided to get out of the oven and trek up to Lassen for showers and ice cream. As we drove east up highway 44 the temperature dropped noticeably. By the time we were in the park, the oven was behind us, and temps were in the comfortable 80's. By the time we were at Summit Lakes, snow was melting into thousands of small rivulets and streams with wildflowers packing the meadows. Kings Creek was buried in snow, and by the time we reached the summit, we had the truck windows down and the feeling was like standing in front of an open icebox on a hot summer day, letting the cold air pour over you. Someone told me it was 54 degrees up top. Lassen Peak parking lot was ringed by walls of snow 20 feet deep. Lake Helen was frozen over, mostly covered in snow, with the beautiful turquoise color just peeking through. What a place!

When we arrived back at the camp store for our showers, lots of SSP attendees were there, sitting at picnic tables in the shade, eating ice cream. We had a few cones then used the showers. Life couldn't get much better at this point.

By the time we got back to the airport, music was playing, food was cooking, people were pouring in. By the height of the public observing session, lines of 20 to 30 people at the scopes were not unusual. This year's star party received television, radio and newspaper (front page pictures) throughout northern California.

A few notables from the event - we had attendees from Washington, Arizona, Oregon and as far as Wisconsin. Vendors on site included Equatorial Platforms, Tele Vue, Coronado, e2 scopes, Earth and Sky, Tony & Daphne Hallas, Sun River Nature Centers (Mt. Bachelor Star Party), Plettstone Custom Telescopes, Cases & Covers, and Compact Precision Telescopes. There was also a tongue-in-cheek award given out again this year - the second such award - to Jeff Crilly - the Farmer John Award - for bursting out of his sun-baked tent the first morning in a dead sweat - he gets "Best Camp Bacon" (won last year by Steve Gottlieb at Mt. Lassen).

We finished the star party with a dinner at the Big Wheels - about 30 SSP attendees and folks from the town who were instrumental in making it all happen. Great dinner, great fun, great people, great dark skies. Who could ask for more?

I'm glad these memories will tide me over until this time next year. Make your plans now!

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Turley's sacrifice worked!

About Coe last night.

I knew the conditions were likely poor even before leaving home. A steady breeze was blowing from the west, and the sky looked rather milky with some cloud puffs here and there. The Clear Sky Clock for Coe was awful... white in both cloudiness and transparency. But off I headed, down 85 to 101, all the while looking at the stuff hanging over the eastern mountains. The drive down 101 is a snap now, with the additional 2 lanes each way. 15 minutes and I was at East Dunne... shoot, I was trying to keep up with traffic, which means driving like a maniac (for me), and I was still getting passed on the left like I was standing still. We had some conversation about this at Coe... I think average speed on 101 is 85 mph.

At the end of the flatlands on East Dunne, just where the hills start, I looked in my rear view mirror at the orange sun setting over the hills. Very picturesque, but not encouraging from an astro standpoint. I took my Mercedes with the 10" CPT in the trunk, instead of the Suburban, and it was a blast to drive up the road past Anderson Reservoir, winding up to the overflow lot. Whoever commented that the A17 from highway 5 to 44 near Shingletown is as windy as the road to Coe, wrong. Coe is *much* windier.

I pulled into the lot to find Navarette setting up, wearing a sweater, wind blowing.

It was cold out there. On went my polartec. By the time I left at 12:45 a.m., I had on several other layers. The breeze was what chilled us.

Soon after I arrived, James Turley showed up, then Bob Jardine, followed by Nick an Mei Fong, and finally Andrew Pierce.

7 against the wind.

Views were giggly. I think Richard's C11 held up best.

We stood around talking for quite a while, wind to our backs. In the west you could see the cloud layer above us. Someone commented that it was clear overhead, and it did look that way, but I said we were just looking through the thin stuff we were seeing to the west. I agreed with the CSC this time, the thin stuff would kill the transparency.

We looked at mostly bright stuff, when the wind would settle momentarily.

Finally, Turley said he'd had enough. Packed up and left, and the wind settled down. Thanks James!

We looked at big globulars, several H400 open clusters and planetary nebulae. I tried B86 in my 10", but the background was so gray, I could see the cluster but not the ink spot. I knew where it was, since there were no stars, but it was not black... just a hazy shade of gray. Most notable was the Cat's Eye, showing elongation, nice color, and a faint outer halo (7mm Nagler), The Blue Flash, NGC 6781, and 5 Serpentis in the same field as M5.

By 12:30 the moon climbed over the hill, deep orange, throwing light onto the fog that had spilled over the mountains to our south. It was not the best night, but it was good to get out, see some friends, talk astronomy, and poke around a bit with the scope.

My hands and feet were cold. I turned on the heater in the car and enjoyed the stiff suspension of the Benz around the turns on the ride down. I was home before I knew it.... and realized.... the next stop is SSP.