Banner photo credit: Greg Riverdiau
A couple of weeks ago, I went with friends to what’s looking to become an annual trip to Moab and Canyonlands National Park. This time we biked the White Rim Trail – about 100 miles around Island in the Sky (that is what we are . . . ).
Well, more like “we” biked. I drove the jeep and my friends did the riding. Mostly. I did bike, ahem, several miles <cough>. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. But bombing down the rough dirt trails at 30 mph or more in the four-wheel-drive jeep was a helluva lotta fun, lemme tell ya.
Like last year, of course I brought the scope. However, last year we stayed in a motel and made daytrips to different places each day. This year we were camping out along the White Rim Trail as we moved around it. With that little jeep, we had to squeeze 10 pounds of sausage into a 5 pound bag – everything we needed for 5 days had to fit in. Realizing ahead of time that space would be at a premium, I brought just the Mak and ‘frac, of course, not the C9.25. Oh, well. (I also realized that I would be driving like a crazy person on those dirt trails, and I was concerned about the C9.25’s ability to hold collimation under those conditions.)
The skies were ridiculously pristine and dark. Last year we observed less than a quarter mile from a well-trafficked highway, and about 20-odd miles from Moab itself. Although the skies were really nice there, all the cars driving by (indeed, some driving on the road just 50 feet from us) didn’t let us really dark adapt completely.
This year, deep deeeeep inside the park like we were, that was all different. There were no cars and zero light pollution. We were able to become fully dark-adapted. Orion had more stars than I could count. These were the darkest skies I had EVER SEEN.
The weird thing was that after sunset each night, there was something going on, coming up from the horizon, a little bit north of west. Not having brushed up on my Utah geography recently, I thought it was probably the light dome from Salt Lake City. But that was impossible, as SLC was in a different direction – much more northerly – and well over 200 miles away. Plus, even I was skeptical of my own pronouncement. It wasn’t so much of a light dome as a light cylinder – this bright shaft of light, above where the sun had set. However, it persisted for well over an hour even after dusk. I couldn’t figure it out.
It turns out I was looking at the zodiacal light. This is a phenomenon that I’d barely heard of before, and knew nothing about. The zodiacal light is light coming from sunlight reflecting off billions of tiny dust particles that move in the same plane as Earth and the other planets orbiting our sun, called the ecliptic. These dust particles, the zodiacal cloud, are apparently the same ones shed in comet tails as they get closer to the sun, stretching from the sun all the way out to Jupiter. Notably, one of my very favorite guitarists wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the subject, which you can google and download and read.
The zodiacal light is only visible under the very darkest of skies. One website describes the zodiacal light as being “annoyingly bright” under skies that are Bortle 2 or even better. Boy, I’ll say! From what I’ve read, it is most easily visible under very dark, moonless skies in the northern hemisphere from February through April, around the spring equinox, because the plane of the ecliptic is most nearly vertical at that time.
One of the guys I was with was something of an amateur astrophotographer. He does the widefield astrophotography that I think is pretty neat that I might just try out myself one day. He took the banner photo on top of this post, and the photo below with just his iPhone and a tripod. And some very high ISO settings. I think he told me that the banner photo was taken at ISO 3200 or 6400.
Of course, there were some lovely photos of the landscape taken during the day as well:
With the Mak-and-‘frac, I showed the guys pretty much the same things I showed them last year – the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, the Double Cluster, the Leo Triplet – of which only two members could be seen, again. I found that last part especially interesting, given that the sky seemed to be insanely dark, and definitely darker than last year.
This trip left me longing for the additional aperture of the C9.25. Man, to get that much aperture under skies those dark! Which is a natural segue into my next topic: Star Parties!!! I’ve never been to one. One of the many reasons why I moved out west in the first place was to get myself under dark skies. Star parties are the ideal way to do that, while surrounded by scores of others with the same idea, most of whom have much larger telescopes than you do.
So what is a star party, anyway? It’s a big gathering of dozens or even hundreds of amateur astronomers – and their scopes, natch – at a remote dark sky location for a weekend, a long weekend, or even a full week. The level of amenities – electricity, food service, potable water, porta-potties, showers, etc. – varies depending on the particular site. There are also daytime activities, including speakers, swap meets, and off-site activities in the area of the party. And, of course, plenty of fellowship with your fellow astronomers.
The star party season runs mainly with the warmer weather. The main ones are held from May through October all over the country, but there are a couple of additional ones outside of these months as well. Cloudy Nights has a great list each year here.
From what I understand (and I’m just learning, so cut me some slack), the big ones on the east coast are Cherry Springs and Stellafane. Cherry Springs has some of the darkest skies that are easily accessible from the heavily populated areas in the northeast. Stellafane is a more of a daytime competition with some nighttime observing attached. The competition is for the best homemade telescopes in various categories, along with plenty of information/talks on how to get started in the amateur telescope makers’ field, if that’s how you wanna roll. I saw one of these homemade beauties, a stunning silver Mak, at NEAF a couple of years ago.
One of the key star parties in the east that for some reason isn’t listed in the Cloudy Nights post is the Winter Star Party held at Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida. This is held during wintry February, because, well, it’s Florida, and it’s warm. While not the darkest site, I understand that it’s got incredibly great, steady seeing to make up for it. Florida is known for its great seeing because the entire state is flat as a pancake, and the wind has this laminar flow that goes over it without any interruption.
This is all well and good, but I left the east. What goes on out here in the west? Well, it seems that there are four big star parties that are relatively in easy reach for me: the Texas Star Party (TSP) in May; the Rocky Mountain Star Stare (RMSS) in June; the Nebraska Star Party (NSP) in August; and the Okie-Tex Star Party (Okie-Tex) in October. All four of these are supposed to have very, very good dark sky conditions. But a couple seem to be a little better than others. (I’ve also heard good things about the Oregon Star Party, with insanely dark skies and good seeing. However, it has two strikes against it for me – it’s an 18-hour drive, which is ridiculously long, and it’s at 44 degrees north latitude, which cuts off what I can see to the south.)
The NSP and Okie-Tex are supposed to have Bortle 1 skies. We’re talking about no light pollution whatsoever – basically, about as dark as it gets. Clear Dark Sky has an explanation of the Bortle scale here; and, of course, there is the Wikipedia article on it. Under Bortle 1, 7th magnitude stars are easily seen with the naked eye. RMSS and TSP are supposed to be a smidge less dark at Bortle 2, but that’s still plenty dark.
However, the one real attraction for me of TSP is its location – at 30 degrees north latitude. People have told me that that means that Omega Centauri is visible: homina-homina-homina!
And Centaurus A, the Hamburger Galaxy, gets to be about 16 degrees above the horizon. Seeing southern hemisphere stuff that is otherwise impossible for me to see from my current latitiude is like bacon to a dog for me!
So why are you reading about star parties from someone who obviously knows next to nothing about them? Because, because . . .
I just registered for my first one!
AND I AM PSYCHED!!!
I’m going to the Rocky Mountain Star Stare in two months, June 13-17. It’s a perfect introduction to star partying for me. It’s close, it’s dark, it’s got lots of people from the DAS that are going who I know. (I am already fortunate enough to be bumming the use of a fellow DASer’s electricity to be able to recharge my scope batteries – RMSS doesn’t have electricity for general use at the site. Thanks, Ed!) It’s got stuff to do during the day: speakers, a swap meet, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park is about another hour and a half down the road – which I have been meaning to go to anyway.
I am considering whether or not to go to the NSP. The reason for my hesitation is that it’s being held from August 5 – 10, only 7 weeks after RMSS – which means that the sky is going to be roughly the same. Yes, everything will rise about 3 1/2 hours earlier, but I’ll be seeing pretty much the same summer stuff at both. And worse, NSP is at 42 1/2 degrees, while RMSS is at just short of 38. That means that stuff will be rising almost 5 degrees lower at NSP than at RMSS.
Plus, it’s kinda expensive in comparison to other star parties. There’s the regular registration fee for the party itself, sure. But because it’s held in a Nebraska state park, you have to buy a state park pass, and it looks like you have to buy a separate camping pass on top of that as well. And, well, I’m cheap, y’know.
However, I don’t have to decide now. Registration for the NSP is still open even after I get back from RMSS. And the late summer sky is just about my favorite, so there is that. I can decide after I’ve had my first star party experience.
As for Okie-Tex, the late summer sky – particularly, my favorite area to look, what I call Greater Sagittarius – will just be setting by the time its held, October 6-14. I would be able to have a last quick look at most of them before they set into the late dusk. But all the great fall objects will be there, and if I don’t go to sleep, I’ll see the winter ones, too. And for something like this, nah, I won’t be going to sleep. So that one seems like a lock for me.
Then there’s the TSP. It’s being held from May 6-13 this year. If I had been more alert, I could have registered for it a couple of months ago. But when I heard about it “coming up”, all I could think about was the long drive – about 11 1/2 hours without stopping. I also didn’t quite realize that I’d be able to see two southern hemisphere showpiece objects: Omega Centauri and Centaurus A.
I’ll dip my feet into the star party pool for the first time a lot closer to home, thanks. Maybe next year, though!