Well, the title sure speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Yuck! While I enjoy camping, camping in a downpour sure ain’t fun. And camping in an almost freezing downpour, even less so.
We got to Okie-Tex in Kenton, Oklahoma (at the extreme western end of the Oklahoma panhandle) after a slight detour to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival. Okay, so yeah, the detour was completely out of the way; what of it? 🙂 The Festival was a good six hours down from Denver, so we set out starting at 11:45pm Saturday night to get there by dawn on Sunday, when they launch the balloons.
They didn’t actually launch the balloons, because they can’t launch when the winds aloft are 12mph or more. Regardless, it sure was fun. A field filled with absolutely hundreds of giant balloons of all colors and shapes – absolutely magical.
After another five-and-a-half hour drive from Albuquerque, we made it into Kenton on Sunday afternoon, set up our tents, and just completely crashed out for a good three-hour nap. The weather was not our friend. That first night the rain and wind howled so hard it collapsed my tent onto me at 2am. Ugh. Getting up and out in the middle of the night during a downpour to fix the fly so the rain doesn’t drench you is no one’s idea of fun. At least most of my stuff inside the tent was still dry – and I wasn’t stupid enough to set up my scope. Left it safe and dry in the car.
Okie-Tex layout and amenities
I heard from others who had arrived on the first day, Saturday, that it rained all day then, too. After Sunday’s rain, Monday’s weather was hardly any better – gray and drizzly all day long. I thought when you’re home, home on the range, that the result is that the skies are NOT cloudy all day?
To break up the monotony, there’d be downpours for a good hour or two at a time. The forecast from the weekend (Saturday’s forecast, just before we left) had predicted that it would be like this, but that come Wednesday night, the skies would finally cooperate and clear. Clear, but cold, in the mid-30s. Oh, and did I mention that even with all that, it would still be 100% humidity?
Regardless of the bad weather, Okie-Tex was still pretty full up with people. For many, this is their vacation, so there isn’t much point in leaving even if the weather isn’t cooperating.
Well, at least there was electricity. And evening movies on the huge projector screen inside the “town hall tent”. On Sunday night, we saw a Nova documentary on the Voyager missions, and then the movie Contact on Monday. And there was even wi-fi! Intermittent wifi, but still. So there was more than enough to keep yourself entertained for a while. While the rain came down, I even pitched in to keep people entertained; I gave the lecture that I give to the general public at the Chamberlin Observatory on public nights on the sun and how it works.
What’s great about Okie-Tex is that it really is fully functioning, covering all of the camping/technological bases: in addition to the above, there’s a full meal plan, cooked onsite; the food service stays open very late to serve hungry astronomers, and is even fully-equipped with red lights to preserve your dark adaptation; there are astrovendors galore, including Mile High Astronomy; there’s a bunkhouse to stay in, for people who were flying in without RVs or tents; there’s electricity strung out into the fields for operating telescopes and recharging batteries; there are even a couple of internet computers for public use if you are not in the era of bringing wi-fi connected computers/phones with you. Because the weather here just buh-lows right now, I’m typing this on Okie-Tex electricity and saving it to the clouds, er, cloud, with Okie-Tex wifi.
Not only are there port-a-potties scattered throughout the fields, but they’ve also got those foot-pump operated handwashing stations placed right next to them. How convenient!! RMSS, are you listening? Heck, you can even take a hot shower and buy a bag of ice. The only thing missing is the addition of a dryer to dry out sopping wet clothes before they develop mildew. That sure would be nice, Okie-Tex organizers (hint, hint). And yes, I’m kidding. Mostly.
Just about the only disadvantage of Okie-Tex is that it’s in its own little valley, surrounded all around by high mesas. This cuts off most of the lower part of the sky, up to about 20 to 25 degrees in some parts of the sky, depending on where you are in the observing field, and how close you are to the mesas. There are a few different fields, but overall, the combined area of the fields is significantly smaller than the area at Rocky Mountain Star Stare, so you can’t really get away from them, either. Definitely not a good place to do a Messier Marathon. However, depending on which of the fields you set up in, you can put the cut-off sky in the direction you want to observe least.
It’s true that things that low down to the horizon are generally in the murk because the light is passing through far more atmospheres of air than objects that are higher up, and are thus susceptible to bad seeing. An object at 30 degrees above the horizon passes through twice as much atmosphere as an object overhead. Obviously, objects at lower altitudes are passing through even more of the atmosphere. However, I would at least like to be able to choose for myself whether or not to observe these objects, rather than have the opportunity taken from me. Especially for those southerly objects just above the southern horizon that I don’t get to see from Denver’s latitude.
So, yes, the Okie-Tex weather just suuuuucked. However, ’twas not ever thus. According to everyone I spoke with (urging me not to let this experience sour for me for returning), this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad weather really is highly unusual for the area. As you can see from the photos, it is a semi-arid climate here, with sandy soil, scrub brush, cacti, mesas, and such. A veritable continuation of the New Mexico terrain, just a few miles west. I’m told that in the 8 nights of Okie-Tex, you can generally count on 4 clear nights at a minimum, and usually more.
Just after dinner on Tuesday, we heard someone reading a weather forecast off of his phone – it wouldn’t get down to 33 degrees on Wednesday night after all. Phew! No, it would get down to 33 degrees on Tuesday night – in a few hours. Oh, and the forecast was not going to improve later in the week. How absolutely lovely.
(Watching the news upon coming home, on Tuesday, the governor of Oklahoma declared the entire state in a state of emergency due in part to the flooding and straight line winds that had not only already occured, but were forecast to continue. The actual weather followed the forecast. So much so that the Okie-Tex organizers “cancelled” the final night, Saturday night, because RVs were getting stuck in the mud trying to pull out.)
Yeah, no thanks. Our tents had developed leaks, and a lot of stuff inside had gotten wet. Including what we were sleeping on. Well, “leaks” is a bit broad. My tent, for example, just had a very small drip – maybe a coupla drops every 10 minutes. Normally, this would not be a big deal – a couple of drops would just evaporate in that amount of time. But in the almost 100% humidity, low-temperature, no-sun environment, whatever water got into the tent just stayed there and made everything wet.
So, with near-freezing temperatures on their way, and no improvement in the forecast, we decided to cut our losses and cut out. We packed in the dark – with white light, natch – but wouldncha know it, as we were packing the skies cleared! Celebratory shouts could be heard all over the camp. Along with some shouts of, “White light!”
Meh, there’s clear and then there’s “clear”. This was “clear”. In the sense that it actually wasn’t. The clouds were flowing through quickly and the sucker holes were only present for about a minute or so at a time in any one area of the sky. As we drove out of Camp Billy Joe around 9pm, the thermometer in my car read the dreaded “33°F”. Like I said, no, thank you. No, thank you, very much indeed.
We drove from Kenton back to Albuquerque overnight to see if we could catch a bit more of the balloon festival. They decided not to even blow up the balloons on the ground on Wednesday morning, so we took the opportunity to buy some seam seal and Scotchguard to waterproof our tents a bit better. As we set up our tents in a local Albuquerque city park to dry out and be sealed, at least half a dozen people came by within an hour to tell us that it was illegal to camp there. As did the police. When I explained to the kindly officer that we were merely waterproofing our tents, and not camping, he responded, “That’s the most reasonable thing I ever heard.”
Yurting it up in Datil, NM
However, all was not lost. We had a line on a yurt – yes, a yurt – in western New Mexico, in a tiny little burg called Datil, about 60 miles west of Socorro on US 60. And I do mean tiny. As the dark sky map shows, Datil is just into the very darkest Bortle 1 zone. (The yurt’s location, a good 6 miles further down the road, was even deeper into the darkest zone.) It’s also at 7500 feet, which is nice in terms of getting above a lot of the atmosphere.
As you can see from the interior panorama, the yurt is terrifically well-equipped. Starting off at the left, there’s a nice wood-burning fireplace that you can cook on, then a lounge area, the full-sized bed, a kitchen with sink (no running water, though), a table to eat, and a place for storage. The walls and ceiling are insulated, so it stays pretty warm inside. There’s even a composting outhouse outside. Staying in a homey large round room like this is simply wonderful, and I highly recommend it. If you’re interested in staying in this yurt, please contact the owners.
I set up the scope as twilight was becoming night, but then the clouds rolled in.
I was thoroughly exhausted from both the lack of sleep in the tent as well as the long drive over from Kenton. With clouds all around, I went in for a quick little lie down around 8:30. Unfortunately, the bed was so comfortable that I woke up 7 hours later at 3:30. Oops.
Double unfortunately, I had left the scope on before lying down. By the time I woke up, the Celestron Powertank battery had completely drained. Double oops. It was in the mid- to low-40s, and I had forgotten that lithium-based batteries do not give off as much charge in the cold. (Actually, I think this failing is common among all batteries). Plus, even just running the computer in the handset and having the orangey-red light in it be left on for hours draws some power over all that time, even if you aren’t actively tracking or slewing. (Don’t slew and sleep, kids.) When I went to turn it back on, the battery would defiantly shut itself off a second later, in effect saying, “I’m done. Leave me alone.”
Visual observing would have to do. The Datil skies were ridiculously dark. I was seeing Messier objects with my naked eyes – obviously, M31, M45, M42, and the Double Cluster, sure; and later in the night, M44, as well. These are always naked eye objects under pretty much any dark skies. At 7500 feet elevation, they certainly do shine.
I was also seeing M46, 47, and 48, which were actually trivially easy to see. This is actually pretty impressive, because even though these three objects are magnitudes 6.1, 4.4, and 5.8, respectively, those are their integrated magnitudes – as if all the light from the clusters had been shrunk down to point sources – like a star. Dark skies, indeed! I was too tired to figure out what Bortle it was, but these could be about the darkest I’ve ever seen.
The Very Large Array
On the way to the yurt, we passed by a nice little surprise. Well, actually, a very large surprise:
Why, yes, that’s the Very Large Array, as prominently seen in the movie Contact, adapted from Carl Sagan’s book, starring Jodie Foster. Which I had just seen at Okie-Tex. (And as also seen in Sagan’s original 1980 series Cosmos, and in the movie 2010, among a number of others.) The VLA is part of the NRAO, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The 27 dishes are on three sets of double-tracked railroad tracks, which make a Y formation. They can be brought together or spread out as needed, all the way out to as much as 13 miles from the junction point.
Together, the 27 dishes act as an interferometer. Interferometry is a process where light is obtained by multiple smaller telescopes and then combined to reconstruct images of what they observed. This means that with some powerful computing, the observations that each dish makes individually can be combined so that the effect is having the resolution of one ridiculously huge radio dish, about 23 miles in diameter. (It’s not 2 x 13 = 26 miles across because only one of the three arms of the “Y” goes out to 13 miles.)
Obviously, having 27 82-foot dishes spread out over 23 miles does not have quite the same collecting power as one ridiculously huge radio dish that’s actually 23 miles wide. In other words, there’s almost no coverage of that 23-mile wide area, so there isn’t a whole heckuva lotta light being collected. But, and this is critical, it does have the same resolving power, the same resolution, the same ability to see detail, as a “real” 23-mile dish does. It’s just that the VLA can’t go as deep as a “real” 23-mile dish would be able to go – the VLA can only see brighter, more powerful objects. Or, put another way, it would take the VLA a supremely long time to collect the same amount of “light” as the real 23-mile dish.
Or, at least, it used to. About a decade or so ago, they started replacing and upgrading the original electronics from the 1970s to more sensitive modern equipment, to go from the VLA to the EVLA – the Enhanced VLA. How much more sensitive? The upgrade made the dishes at least twenty-five to over THREE THOUSAND TIMES as sensitive as before, depending on the wavelength, and gave it the ability to monitor over EIGHT THOUSAND TIMES as many wavelengths simultaneously as it had previously been able to. Pretty amazing.
The upgrade was completed in 2012, and at that time they renamed the VLA to become the Karl Jansky Very Large Array. This is in honor of the father of radio astronomy, the first person to discover radio signals coming to us from extraterrestrial sources, in 1931. He discovered that the radio sources were coming from the center of the Milky Way, located in the constellation Sagittarius. Just like Penzias and Wilson, who discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang, Jansky was also working at Bell Labs, and he was also trying to reduce the background noise in telephone calls. History repeats itself.
Seeing the VLA raised a number of questions in my mind. Why was it built there, and not somewhere else? Well, the site is pretty ideal for radio astronomy. It is located on the San Agustin plains, literally in the middle of nowhere (there’s nothing for over 20 miles in any direction, and I really mean nothing). It’s ringed by mountains all around, which serve to block out many terrestrial radio signals. It’s also at about 7000 feet elevation, which puts it above a lot of the earth’s atmosphere, and especially, the water vapor, which tends to degrade radio signals. In addition to this, the plains are very dry, so that there is a lot of observing time.
Another question I had is, what’s with the moving of the dishes in and out – why not just leave them out at 23 miles all the time, and get the maximum resolution? I’ll let the VLA folks answer that one themselves with some of the many placards they have spread out across the very nice walking tour of the site, but it has to do with field of view:
Not only is there the VLA at the VLA, they also have the LWA, the Long Wavelength Array. This is a series of 256 omni-directional antennas that operates just below the FM spectrum on your car radio, from 10 to 88 Megahertz.
This is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has been poorly explored. Until now, that is. It’s yet another tool in the astronomical arsenal of exploring the sky.
Enchanted Skies Star Party
In stopping into the store in Datil (yes, the store), we saw a placard for the Enchanted Skies Star Party (ESSP), located in the Cibola National Forest a couple of miles outside Magdalena, NM, which was literally just 35 miles down the road from Datil, and being held simultaneously with Okie-Tex. Wouldncha know it, checking out their website, they were having an Open House for the public to drop by on Saturday night and do a little observing. So, there I was, a refugee from Soakie-Tex.
ESSP is a bare-bones affair, but a star party is a star party. I got there as dusk fell, so I don’t have any pictures, but allow me to set the scene: It’s located on BLM land, and it’s just wide open land – no trees, no bushes, no brush, no mesas, no nuthin’. Unlike Okie-Tex, the horizon is pretty dang flat in every direction, except for a smallish hill to the southeast. There are far fewer people at ESSP – they limit attendance to 130 – so it felt much more roomy.
Incredibly, even in a tiny town of only 1000 population like Magdalena, there is the Magdalena Astronomical Society, which puts the sky party on. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as astronomy is the big industry there, between both the VLA and the nearby Magdalena Ridge Observatory. With just 18 members, about half of them active, they’re still able to put on a nice star party every year. Not to be critical of my own astroclub, but it kinda makes ya think about what the DAS oughta be able to accomplish with 500 members.
As for services, there are porta-potties (and the ever-important hand-washing stations!) scattered throughout. There are no structures, and just two tents. One is for the lectures – which are only on Friday and Saturday, not for most of the week like at Okie-Tex. The other is for the food – which is only served on Saturday. Other than that, you gotta bring in everything – not only your own water and food, of course; but also your own power source or a large supply of batteries.
However, they do organize field trips over to the VLA and to the 2.4 meter optical telescope at Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) on South Baldy Mountain. The VLA trip includes a behind-the-scenes tour conducted by someone who works there that the public does not get. The trip to the mountain also includes the ability to set up and observe there from 10,600 feet, while being protected from winds by the structure itself.
The folks were friendly. I introduced myself around and learned of the conditions. They were pretty meh here, as well – clouded out for most of the week, with some after-midnight clearing on a night or two, depending on who I was talking with. It also was pretty cold getting down to the thirties on a couple of nights. At least it wasn’t raining, though.
The nice thing about ESSP is that since it’s BLM land, you can come and go as you please, both before and after the star party. However, the porta-potties are only present for the duration of the star party, so you might not be able to go as you please. Better bring a shovel if you plan on staying.
The location is only about 4 miles outside of Magdalena itself, a town of about 1000 people. So the dark sky map says that it’s not as dark as it otherwise might be if it were further out from town – like Datil is. And there is the light dome in the east from Socorro and the northeast from Albuquerque. I really can’t comment on how dark the sky was or wasn’t because of two things: clouds covering most of the sky, leaving sucker holes here and there; and a five-day-old moon, brightening everything and casting a dark shadow. So Enchanted Skies became Enchanted Clouds instead.
Magdalena Ridge Observatory
The MRO looks very interesting, even though I didn’t get to go. The 2.4m telescope was part of the competition for the Hubble mirror that eventually ended up in Magdalena. It is on a fast-slewing mount that is used for tracking near-earth objects, such as satellites and rocket booster launches, as well as near-earth asteroids.
Otherwise, they’re in the middle of recreating the VLA in optical form up there, in the form of the Magdalena Ridge Optical Interferometer. When it’s completed, it will have ten 1.4-meter telescopes spread across three 340-meter arms. Each arm will have nine stations where the telescopes can be positioned, with the tenth one in the center. A “single” telescope with the resolution of one that’s 340 meters across – WOW!
Unlike the VLA, however, the combining of the light won’t be done by computer. The light will be physically combined; the light from each of the primary mirrors will be sent down pipes back down the arms to the Beam Combining Facility (BCF). Wikipedia describes it thusly:
“These pipes will be evacuated of all air in order to reduce distortions. Inside the BCF, the light will first travel through extensions of the pipes in the Delay Line Area, which will bring the light beams into phase. Then light will exit the vacuum pipes in the Beam Combining Area (BCA), where the light will be directed into one of three permanent sensors, or to a temporary instrument on a fourth table. The light will strike a total of eleven mirrors before entering a sensor.” I have no idea how this actually works in terms of the focal lengths of the mirrors and all the resulting magnification and limited field of view that all this enormous focal length will create. They’re still in the process of building this.
So, another pair of star parties, effectively without stars. I’m oh-for-three now.
All-in-all, for next year, it looks like it’s back to Okie-Tex for me. Distance matters. The drive to Magdalena is about 8 hours (well, actually 7, the way I drive), and that’s really quite the exhausting haul. Especially when Raton Pass gets socked in by a snowstorm in the middle of the day. It’s only 5 hours to Kenton (and again, less the way I drive). Next year’s Okie-Tex will move up about two weeks to late September, which will hopefully help with the weather and cold problems.
Moreover, the dark sky map puts Kenton right in that large, ultra-dark Bortle 1 area that extends east of Trinidad, CO down to Santa Fe, NM. Magdalena is, at best, in the second-darkest zone, or probably, in the third-darkest, as it is held only about four miles from the town itself. Plus, the cutting off of the lower parts of the sky notwithstanding, the many Okie-Tex amenities just make spending the week there camping out much more pleasant and appealing. Well, more pleasant when it’s not constantly raining and drizzling, that is.