I just flew in from the Rocky Mountain Star Stare in Gardner, CO, and boy are my arms tired. Ba-dum-bum. It was great! Well, except for the absolutely lousy stinking cloud-covered skies. It was sort of like, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” Yeah, it was cloudy – all four days, um, nights. But still, a good time was had by all.
I thought RMSS was going to be a prolonged observing session with some camping thrown in. It turned out to be the reverse – it was a nice camping trip with a little bit of observing. Here’s my review of my time there.
The site and facilities
RMSS is held on a sprawling 35-acre site a few miles north of Gardner, Colorado. If you want to camp out next to someone, and in the thick of things, you can. I think that’s more fun: to walk from campsite to campsite, visiting with people, being neighborly, and checking out their scopes and views.
But, if you want to camp out away from everyone, off from the main group, you can do that, too. There are more isolated fields to camp in. The organizers announced that just over 300 people had signed up, but there were about 40 or so no-shows.
At the center of it all is the Town Hall – a large, long metal shed, essentially, with concrete flooring and big roll-up garage doors. This is where you go to register, to pick up your RMSS t-shirts and hats and whatnot. Speakers give their talks here, and various activities are held and announcements are made here. By closing up some of the roll-up doors, it’s dark enough inside so that speakers can give Powerpoint presentations on a white wall built especially for that purpose.
The vendors, both astro and food, are set up right next to the Town Hall. There was an excellent food vendor there, a local restauranteur, selling large portions for meals for about $13 a pop. Explore Scientific was present as well, with their scopes and eyepieces out on display. They’ll let you borrow a scope or a mount or an eyepiece to try out, which is amazing. There was also a meteorite vendor, as well as astro-clothing vendors, which were set up inside the building.
What isn’t present is a bit disappointing – electricity. Now, I knew this going in, and this is the reason I probably won’t be going to the Nebraska Star Party. No electricity makes it difficult for someone like me, who doesn’t have some sort of camper or RV, to have enough battery power to get them through the party. Notably, there were only about 10-15% “someone like mes” there – camping out in a tent as opposed to camping with a source of power. I have the Celestron Lithium Powertank. It’s fine for doing an entire night’s observing, as it will power my rig for about 6 to 7 hours, depending on how much slewing I’m doing. Fortunately, fellow DASers Ed and Megan were kind enough to recharge my battery off of their RV every morning, so that worked out well for me.
Port-a-potties are sprinkled (heh) throughout the site. It might just be me, but I think port-a-potty technology has improved over the decades. I stupidly camped out only about 40-50 feet from one, without considering the inevitable smell factor. Well, there wasn’t any smell factor. There wasn’t even any smell inside them, either, which I found to be remarkable. What wondrous times we live in!
The Colorado Springs Astronomical Association (CSAS) will be spending $22,000 this fall to have electrical lines extended out to the site. This is going to make for some significant improvements to RMSS. While they won’t have electricity extended out to the fields for each person to plug into, they will have it at the Town Hall. This means that they can have activities there at night when it’s completely cloudy, or at the very least, just have a place to go and play when that happens. Unfortunately, that really is a when and not an if – more than one person told me that June is not the best time to hold a star party around these parts due to all the inevitable cloud cover.
They’ll also be able to electrify the vendors so that perhaps an ice freezer could be brought in. This, again, is important to me, camping out in a tent, as the temperatures were far warmer here at RMSS than they were back at Moab in March. The dozen frozen water bottles I put in my cooler Wednesday morning were nothing but cool water by Friday night, just two days after arriving. Important safety tip, Egon – don’t eat mayonnaise-based foods (particularly potato salad and cole slaw) after that happens. Let’s just say it turned out to be a really good thing I was close to that port-a-potty.
They are also considering setting up a bank of outlets to permit people to plug in and recharge their batteries as well, and perhaps looking into getting wi-fi around the Town Hall. However, this would create logistical problems galore – would they have to assign someone to watch the batteries and unplug them when they’re done? If not, would people just unplug someone else’s battery willy-nilly? However, these electrical improvements would definitely make things better for camperless me and those like me.
They had some very good speakers present at Town Hall. First up, on Thursday night, was Bob Morrow, of Bob’s Knobs, talking about starting a specialty astro-business.
On Friday, Roger Kennedy gave a talk about the upcoming Parker Solar Probe, which is going to touch the sun, or at least the corona. Fran Bagenal is an investigator working on the Juno mission, and she gave a talk that I had already seen her give at Fiske Observatory in Boulder a couple of months ago. Town Hall was packed, because it’s a very good talk, discussing the latest findings of the mission.
Saturday had RJ Smith from Software Bisque giving a very entertaining talk about his adventures travelling around the world to observe stellar occultations by MU 69, the next target of New Horizons. This is necessary to give some idea of the shape of the object and whether there’s any dust around it to make sure New Horizons doesn’t get whacked.
The final talk was by Amanda Hendrix, an investigator on the Cassini mission, giving a final summation of its findings. She had some terrific insights into the final data received from Cassini before it was sent crashing into Saturn. There are sand dunes on Titan that shouldn’t exist!
The Observing Conditions
At least Mr. Tesla had a defense that there wasn’t much to observe, even if we were valiantly trying to do so anyway. Wednesday night was the “best” night, and even then, it wasn’t so hot. RMSS is located downwind from what’s called the Durango 416 wildfire, which was about 25,000 acres in size when we were there. Depending on which way the wind blew, it would effect the clarity of the sky. There was also a high haze that lessened the lowest magnitude you could see, both with your eyes and your scope.
Look at the pictures in this post. There’s one common theme that runs through them. Come on, you can figure it out.
CLOUDS. Lots and lots of clouds. And not just clouds with sharply defined edges, but the clouds that are sort of like high haze – impossible to see at night until you point the scope there and you notice that your limiting magnitude is much brighter than you thought it would be.
On most of the nights, we were sucker holing away. Here’s where having a knowledge of what’s in which constellation is especially helpful. In other words, yes, goto is a wonderful thing, but when the conditions are bad, like they were all four nights of RMSS, you also gotta know where stuff is. What’s where, what’s not covered by clouds at that moment, especially when observing, or at least trying to observe.
Now, yes, I’ve said repeatedly that when you’ve got a goto scope, you don’t have to know where anything is – and that remains true. Instead of knowing that I couldn’t see the Leo Triplet, I just could have told the scope to go there and found out the hard way. You don’t have to know what’s where. But it’s easier when you know the skies well enough to know what’s visible and what’s not.
However, that being said, it was dark. REALLY DARK. When you could see through the clouds, the Milky Way was shining brightly. Not enough to cast a shadow, mind you, but very bright indeed. The sky was definitely, noticeably darker than at the DAS dark site. The organizers would post sky quality meter data each day, and it got down to 21.9, which I understand is pretty dang dark.
It was so dark, you could see Cassiopeia absolutely hugging the horizon, which I found to be pretty neat. Now, yes, Cassiopeia is a very bright constellation, but my point is that there was just no light pollution at all. Normally even bright stars like those in Cassiopeia would be lost in the murk and haze at such low altitudes above the ground.
Now, if only we could do something about these stinking clouds.
Collimating the SCT
Before I could actually observe, however, my fellow DASer, Ed, came by to my rig on Wednesday night to help me collimate my C9.25. I had previously done a head-to-head of the C9.25 against my Mak, and the C9.25 came up waaaay short, which was disappointing. It could have been a lot of factors, but between myself and Ed, we figured them all out.
Ed taught me how to collimate the C9.25 – and it was pretty darn easy, too, just as I thought from the SCT collimation videos I had watched. Not scary at all. (Thanks, Ed!) We started to collimate at first with the focal reducer in the light path, but quickly decided to take it off. We put the scope on Vega, used high magnification (a 10mm Plossl to get to 235x), and donuted it – defocused the star so that we could see not only a donut in the middle, caused by the shadow of the secondary, but also the turbulence in the air, causing rings in the airy disk.
The collimation was definitely off – there were two rings on one side of the donut, and one on the other side. A few 1/16th turns of the collimation screws, moving one screw one way and backing off the other two screws the other way, and we merged those two airy disk rings into one. We got the collimation practically perfect in every way.
We turned the scope on Jupiter and with my 12.5mm ortho, got one of the best views of it I’ve ever seen through any telescope. The Great Red Spot was not out, but you coulda fooled us – there was a barge on the surface that was easily viewable. Not only did we see plenty of belts, but the surface actually had texture. It was like viewing it in 3D – without binoviewers. The additional aperture of the C9.25 allowed it to beat the Mak in a head-to-head test. Success! This scope’s a keeper, all right.
Because the clouds were pretty much covering everything else on Wednesday, I continued doing compare and contrasts on Jupiter. I’m pretty sure that the focal reducer was screwing up the views. It seems like something that’s supposed to help – it’s both a focal reducer and a field flattener, not to mention a floorwax and a dessert topping – shouldn’t be able to make things worse. But it sure did. My hypothesis – based on virtually no facts, natch – is that the FR/FF is slightly misthreaded. Instead of being square to the focal plane, it’s off by a couple a degrees (I think), and this causes the image to not line up with the diagonal perfectly, causing poor views.
There wasn’t much else to see that first night, but I did tool around with my binocs and check a few things out, especially the Coma Berenices cluster, which was magnificent. The second night seemed to be much darker than the first for some reason. Clouds were here, there, and everywhere, but I got to see some stuff through the sucker holes that second night. Now, there was a lot I wanted to observe and I did get to see some stuff, including some new stuff. But that 5-page observing list I posted last week? Yeah, right. That list was about as useful as toilet paper.
I got M97, the Owl Nebula, and M108, an edge-on galaxy, both of which can be seen in the same view. M108 was incredibly faint, even in a C9.25 under truly dark skies. Ed, using his M8 nearby, couldn’t see it. I’m very surprised that Messier was even able to see this in what we would now consider to be a junky 4-inch scope. Then again, M108 is one of the “discoveries” that was later credited to Messier in the 20th century by going through his notes. I think they got this one wrong.
I tried for M51, the Whirlpool, but the clouds were covering it by the time I got there. I went for M81 and 82, and I could make out mottling in M82’s dust lane. Pretty neat stuff! I really wanted to see the Leo Triplet and Markarian’s Chain, but the clouds were not cooperating.
At least I was able to see “northern Sagittarius”. I got the M24 Dust Cloud through the ST-80, and that was something. M22 was a giant ball of stars through the C9.25 – not just a fuzz ball, but actually resolved into individual stars. One of my all-time favorites, M11, the Wild Duck Cluster – it’s a glob! it’s an open cluster! it’s a bird! it’s a plane! – was also glorious. The C9.25 split Saturn’s Cassini Division without using the Moon & SkyGlow filter (which I had lent to Ed and Megan to try out), and I definitely saw a coupla other moons besides Titan.
So, it really is true – greater aperture under steady skies will show you more detail/resolution. Of course I knew that intellectually, but it’s nice to see it proven before your very own eyes.
EDIT – Whoops! I forgot to mention! I also was able to get open cluster M23 in the Sagittarius area as well. It’s a nice open cluster and all, but the real reason I was intent on looking at it was because of VESTA! Vesta is the brightest of all the asteroids, at about magnitude 5.4 or so, so it is actually a naked eye object, especially under skies as dark as this. (Uranus is about the same brightness, slightly dimmer. Except that to see Uranus, you’ll need a mirror. Or a friend. Heh heh! Never gets old!)
Anyway, Vesta was supposed to pass right below M23 during the RMSS dates, about 1/2 to 3/4 of a degree away, depending on the day, so that they could easily be seen in the same field of view. Vesta is quite a bit brighter than the 7th and 8th magnitude stars that make up the open cluster, so it was very easy to distinguish. I’ve seen Vesta before under similar circumstances (when it was passing next to some other object), but never so easily as this. Hooray for bright asteroids!
There was one person present who had to ruin it for everyone: Mr. Tesla. Proud of his new $85,000 all-electric vehicle, he drove it down from Boulder to the star party. That’s all well and good, but this was the type of guy who did not plan ahead, in any sense of the word. The last Tesla supercharger along the way (down I-25) was in Colorado Springs, and he didn’t have enough charge to get himself back there from the party. Oy.
Worse, he couldn’t keep his high-tech car under control, or more to the point, simply had no consideration for others. Every time he (and his key fob) would get within 10 feet of the car, it would light up, with bright, white LEDs everywhere, ruining everyone’s dark adaptation. And by every time, I certainly do mean more than once.
Even worse were his willful white light violations. While the observing conditions admittedly blew on Thursday night, he would just “assume” that no one was observing and go into his car to get stuff – which would cause the car to light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He did this FIVE TIMES. The guy was a flat-out menace to society. I spoke with him personally a couple of times about all this – as you can see from the pic, he was only a few yards from me – and he just wouldn’t or couldn’t “get it”.
Fortunately, because of this guy, the planning committee for next year’s RMSS will be enacting and posting a rule where, if you cannot keep your high-tech car under light control, you will be asked to move it to the “early-departure” parking lot, far away from observing eyes. That will hopefully keep the white-light violations down to a minimum.
As I mentioned, Roger Kennedy was present, and he had his H-alpha rig and a spectroscope out, doing outreach at RMSS. Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I don’t really care for white light solar observing. Especially with how blank the sun’s been for a couple of years now, you see a few sunspots, and meh, so what? It just doesn’t do anything for me. And yes, I know that they’re gigantic magnetic storms, most of them larger than the entire earth. That and $2.75 will get you a ride on the subway. It’s like a Rorschach test to me. I can only look at sunspots for about 30 seconds, max, before I’m booooooored.
But H-alpha? Whoa, nelly! The sun is alive! It’s seething. The surface has all sorts of intersting detail going on. And forget the surface; how about all those prominences shooting off the side? WOW! The proms move and evolve over the course of a half hour, an hour; I could set up an H-alpha and come back to it all day to see how it’s changed. I loooove H-alpha.
What was interesting was a little compare/contrast action I got to do with the H-alpha rig of another DASer, Dale, who had set up his as well. Dale had a single stack 60mm Lunt, while Roger had an 80mm double stack. Both scopes allow you to tune the filtering so as to get the greatest possible view through them.
There was quite a difference in detail between the two. The surface of the sun showed an incredible amount of detail in the 80mm double stack as opposed to the 60mm single. Not that you couldn’t see the detail in the 60mm, but it was much more apparent, vivid, sharper, through the 80mm. Dale thought that the extra 20mm of aperture from the one scope to the other allowed for that extra level of detail, but I thought (again, with virtually no facts) that it was the double stacking that really brought that extra detail out.
As you know, however, H-alpha is expensive. Really, really expensive. That 80mm double stack is something like FOUR GRAND. I’d have to win a ton of money on a game show to ever be able to afford an H-alpha scope. Oh, wait, I’ve already done that. (Heh, heh!)
Roger also had an expensive, fancy-schmancy spectroscope pointed at the sun. When I looked through it, he had the lines of sodium showing, but you can move up and down the spectrum and see the absorption lines of plenty of elements in the sun. Something like 60 elements have been observed in the sun’s spectrum. Cool stuff!
A Little Outreach, Some Raffling, and Packing Up
Meanwhile, Ed met a nice family and decided to do a little outreach with them, showing them around the sky, showing them some stuff through the scope. Since the conditions were pretty awful, I got involved . . . “an’ I hepped.” It’s always fun to introduce the sky to someone.
After a little sprinkle of rain in the afternoon, Friday was completely socked in, and then Saturday morning arrived and the rains came. It’s normally fairly windy at RMSS (so I’m told, anyway), but the combination of wind and rain, that got a little scary. You’ve got a big tarp thrown over your scope, giving it more surface area for the wind to try to push it over. That, and the fact that my tent was actually blowing over, made a lot of people, including myself, pack up.
Some of these people left. Not me! I was sticking around for both the final lecture on Cassini and for the door prize raffle. And I won! Wouldncha know it, I won a planetary camera from Orion. Kinda like a webcam that fits into your focuser. I probably would have eventually tried it out, but it requires a PC to run it – a laptop that you take out observing with you. My PC laptop just died. (I’m typing this on a Chromebook, which is much, much better for me than a PC, but can’t run software.) I don’t like “gifts” that end up costing you money. About $400 for a new PC just to use this? No thanks.
The raffle was pretty great; there were prizes of all kinds, from t-shirts and books to filter sets and eyepieces, all the way up to a Coronado PST H-alpha solar scope (noooooice!) and an Explore Scientific triplet refractor! Definitely worth staying for.
Unfortunately, the raffle and the Cassini lecture both ran long. By the time I left Town Hall and said my goodbyes to everyone, it was just past 9:30. There were clouds everywhere, but people were still out and about, trying to observe. Even though we were in the middle of astronomical twilight in the west, I became the Tesla guy. As I started my car, my parking lights came on, and I was using those to get out. But damn if those parking lights ain’t bright! I blinded a buncha people on my way out. Sorry!
While I may not have gotten to see very much in the sky, I did get to see the incredible, mouth-wateringly sexy Elvira on the ground.
Elvira is getting to be a justifiably famous and insanely automated dobsonian on the star party circuit. This Cloudy Nights thread is all about this telescope, and this video of the 2017 Okie-Tex star party shows you Elvira in action. I heartily recommend you click on both and spend some time getting to know this scope.
So, what’s the big deal? Elvira’s just yet another big dob, right?
Nope. Not even close. Elvira’s a 24″ dob, and sure, there were other dobs approaching that size on the field. But Elvira is a 24″ f/2.75 dob with a Lockwood mirror with Zambuto coatings. If you don’t know what that means, that’s one damned sweet mirror, capable of 16th magnitude visually. The incredibly fast focal ratio means a focal length of only 1683mm, resulting in a field of view of up to about 1.6 degrees – not too shabby for a 24″ scope. More importantly, no ladder or stand is needed to view through her. Obviously, a scope as fast as this must have wicked bad coma. But even with the coma corrector, it’s still a very fast f/3.
Everything, and I mean everything, is motorized. Motors to collimate; motors to focus; motors to move it off of her trailer and onto the field; motors to go to any object in the sky and track it (which is controlled by an iPad mounted on the control board on the left, running SkySafari). The builder/owner, Ed, has a system where the motorized clutches lock into place if no one is touching the scope – it is essentially windproof. But, if you go to grab the handle to move it manually, an infrared beam is broken and the clutches release. Wow!
She runs off of a lithium battery in her rocker box. Then, when that runs down, the carrier has a number of lithium batteries in it so that the one that’s onboard the scope can be recharged. There are cooling fans that work while the mirror cover – that gray thing in the photo two photos up – is on. The mirror cover is equipped with HEPA filters so that no dust gets into the optics. The secondary mirror alone is 5 1/2 inches!!!
Elvira is incredible. If it were possible to get sexually aroused by a telescope . . .
Anyway, RMSS was a darned good time anyway. Good people, good speakers, decent camping (that wind!). Hopefully, with better weather, it’ll be an incredible time next year. I’ll be back!