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OzSky Star Safari: the Stars

James and I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 2014 OzSky Star Safari a few weeks ago. Originally designated the Deepest South Texas Star Party, OzSky aims to show northern hemisphere astronomers just what they’re missing out on by living on the wrong side of the equator.

A good star party has two nearly-equal aspects: the star part, and the party part. So I’ve split the recap into two, to match.

The party part

The star part

Saturday night: cloudy when we went to bed… then clear by 1.30am. There was thumping on doors at 2am with the announcement that “Sky’s clear!!” – so we observed until 5am.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: clear as clear, only forced to bed by that stupidly bright Venus rising pre-dawn. (Alex piked early on Wednesday.)

Thursday: cloudy. Alex was sad but not too sad.

Friday: cloudy… until 10.30pm. When it came clear and some of those crazy northerners announced that hell yes, it was their last night observing in Australia so they absolutely wanted the telescopes uncovered, thanks. It fogged out at 12.30am, but over those two hours more and more L1000535people emerged from their rooms to have one last look at southern glories and faint fuzzies. It was a near perfect end to the week.
Part of the attraction of OzSky as an event is that the organisation behind it owns a bunch of big Dobsonian telescopes which get brought along, set up, and collimated by the volunteers. We decided to take along our own telescopes as well, figuring that there wouldn’t be any other refractors so ours would enable people to see things a bit differently – especially with its very wide field, plus Jupiter was going to be primo early in the evening – and that another Dob wouldn’t go astray.

 

We had quite different observing experiences.

 

Alex

I spent most nights at my own telescope. Of the southern stuff, I particularly enjoyed showing off the Eta Carina nebula in the widest eyepiece I could. It’s all very well and good to go zooming in on the Homunculus (which is awesome and we managed to see lobes just resolving in my 4.7mm), but the entire nebula really is incredible. Additionally, there was the Jewel Box and Gem Cluster (best at lower power where the colours really came out), and Omega Centauri and 47 Tuc (I hadn’t realised our globular clusters were another thing the south does better). The Tarantula Nebula and LMC in general were also winners in the wide field.

Of the non-southern stuff, I did indulge my weakness for planetary observing and forced anybody wandering past to blast their eyeballs, despite occasional protestations. And I don’t think anyone complained… well, not much. Early on, Jupiter: I didn’t think they were the absolute best views ever, but still seriously awesome. Several cloud bands evident, plus the Red Spot, and on one night the end of a moon’s shadow transit, which is always exciting. Later in the evening, Saturn was looking very fine: the Cassini division very obvious, striations on the surface, etc. And then there’s Mars. I have never, ever seen Mars that well. To my lasting joy, we saw ice on Mars – Hellas Basin and a polar cap. We saw markings on the surface of Mars. We saw clouds on Mars. I felt like I was living in a science fiction novel.

I did go off and look through other telescopes occasionally, when someone wanted to play on my telescope or someone else convinced me that there are other things worth looking at. I risked my neck climbing a ladder at midnight to see the Eight-Burst Nebula through the 25 inch, and I saw some galaxy through the 30 inch (when it wasn’t pointing straight up because that ladder was a frightening prospect for me). I got to be a guinea pig on the star chair with its 25×150 binoculars attached; using the joystick to move around was like being in a 1980s-SF-movie VR game. And when I got to the point that my feet left the ground and I felt like I was lying on my back… well. Someone likened the experience to being Luke in the gun turret of the Falcon. And I also got to play with the ground-mounted 12″ binos, whose view of Omega Centauri blows every other view out of the water. And, of course, I got to look at a few things through James’ scope – including Pluto! Which means I’ve bagged every planet (Mercury only naked eye).

Also, the Milky Way in general. It was dark enough that the Emu (Coal Sack + dark lane through the Milky Way) stood out beautifully, and the LMC and SMC were visible even when I wasn’t wearing glasses (that’s my litmus test).

 

James

8x10 Print Scan4

 

So the first thing to note about all the observing was the unseasonably damp nights we had.  It’s pretty unusual in Oz to end up with water pouring off dew shrouds on big scopes etc.  In Victoria I hardly bother even putting mine on most of the time. In a curious reversal from normal Coona conditions, then, we had exceptional seeing and only ok transparency – it was still a dark site, but not the ink blackness which it can have.  The views of objects which need high power, though, were among the best I’ve seen… Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all gave up all their visually discernible secrets; the Homunculus was nothing short of breath taking – a true treat for our international friends to enjoy.

I split my time helping folks with the various scopes, aligning Argos and giving little sky tours with my 16″. I spent one evening setting up the 30 inch solo; that’s enough to make me glad I only have a baby telescope. Puffing at the top of a 15ft ladder after hauling the scope around to yet another object! The 12inch binocular scope is spectacular to look through, but suffered badly without dew heaters etc.  The 25×150 Fujis on the star chair is likewise an exciting way to explore the broad subject which is our Milky Way view.

Some folks were chasing down long lists of southern objects, others were making photos and enjoying the eye candy.  One of the more enjoyable evenings was spent with fellow SDM owner Robert Werkman as we worked through a huge range of objects culminating in a tour of the Centaurus Galaxy cluster before kicking back and enjoying some of the best Mars views any of us had seen in our lives.

The combination of lots of big scopes, friends and guests to share with is pretty unbeatable – that and a motel room 100m from the field. We look forward already to next year.

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OzSky Star Safari: the Party

James and I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 2014 OzSky Star Safari a few weeks ago. Originally designated the Deepest South Texas Star Party, OzSky aims to show northern hemisphere astronomers just what they’re missing out on by living on the wrong side of the equator.

A good star party has two nearly-equal aspects: the star part, and the party part. So I’ve split my recap into two, to match.

The star part

The party part

Despite the fact that most of the observers are staying up until ridiculous times, OzSky very sensibly still organises daytime events. Partly this is to make sure the non-observing partners (not just wives!) don’t go stir-crazy; partly it’s a fall-back in case the nights are all clouded out; partly it’s
because for many people, this will be their first visit to Australia, so it’s good to show off. On top of all of that, the location of the Safari meant that going to astronomy-related things is entirely feasible. So off-campus, there were bush walks, and visits to the radio array at Narrabri (picture below).

L1000512

 

L1000551 And then there was the  Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring (inside, at left) which was AWESOME because they made the dome move while we were inside it which was FREAKY. (James loved the control panels, below.)L1000546

 

 

Back at the ranch, attendant experts gave talks in the afternoon – on photography and polar alignment and Charles Messier. We made a massive Aussie-style BBQ on the second night that introduced the foreigners to kangaroo meat, cabbage and noodle salad, and pavlova. (I say we, but the organisation was done by one person working all day – the rest of us helped with a bit of grunt work in the evening.) Probably the best thing for the party aspect was that dinner was available each night at the motel, so we got to sit at big tables and compare cultures. We discussed drop bears and education; politics and triathlons; guns and history; accents and the singularity. It was intriguing to spend a week with people brought together by one consuming passion, and then find all the ways in which we diverged.

 

 

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The view from the railing on the outside of the Anglo-Australian Telescope

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ASV Star-b-cue 2013

Last weekend we travelled to the ASV dark site for the annual star-b-cue, and it was awesome.

We went up on the Friday night. We set up in the early evening and then had to wait around for hours as the sun slowly went down. I did manage to get a good look at the moon, in a lovely crescent – I haven’t made the effort to see the moon in a long time, and it was glorious. That night involved a lot of reminding ourselves of the sky and also introducing some friends to our telescopes. One of them is an exceptional astronomer but from the northern hemisphere, so it was amusing to hear him talk about which bits he can’t see at all from home (like 47 Tuc!). And complain that Orion is upside-down. I didn’t have a viewing plan for the evening so I went with whims. Amongst the best things I saw was two moons around Uranus (Oberon and Titania, apparently) and I split Sirius! Unbelievable! I piked earlier than I had hoped – around 1am I think – I had hoped to see Jupiter but we were in spot such that it was still behind the trees when I was flagging.

Saturday was the actual star party. During the day I set up the solar telescope and various people looked through it; there were, I think, maybe six solar scopes set up – more than I’ve seen at any other time. And the sun was looking pretty fine; not incredibly active but some beautiful prominences and a set of sun spots in a cluster. I also took a wander around the site and checked out the new radio shack they’ve set up, recording the sun, meteors and Jupiter. The guy in charge was very pleased to play us the recording of a solar flare from October.

The evening progressed as these things do. The Lions Club provided a great BBQ dinner; there was a quiz – entirely music based this time, so I did ok; and there were heaps of people. There were dozens of scopes set up on the observing field; I didn’t bother going down to the photographers to check out their set ups. It makes me too sad to see Takahashis being used solely for imaging. Anyway eventually the sun went down, again; I looked at the moon, again, and had to make sure I stopped doing that early enough that I could get light-adapted, given how very bright it was. Again, I had no plan… so I looked at some globular clusters, and some planetaries; I saw some galaxies through the Dob. And I stayed up late enough to see Jupiter. Not a great view, to be sure, but when the seeing snapped in it was definitely worth staying up until *mumble230mumble*. Galilean moons all in a row.

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VicSouth Desert Spring Star Party

Pretty much exactly what the name says, the VicSouth star party happens every year at the Little Desert Nature Lodge just outside of Nhill. It’s usually held over the Melbourne Cup not-actually-a-long-weekend, and this year I was fortunate enough to be able to go for most of the weekend. I was very excited.

The event itself

… was very well organised. The location itself is excellent for astronomy – James checked the sky each night and got readings to indicate it’s the darkest skies we’ve ever observed under. There’s a big field that’s perfect for setting up many telescopes; there were lots of cables running to power but that’s always going to be the case. The field’s flat, it’s grassed, and it’s near the dining room which meant that the urn wasn’t too far away when it got to midnight and we were cold but still keen.

The location also works well during the day. We splurged and got a cabin – nice to collapse into a good bed – and we also went with the food package, which meant lunch and dinner. The dining room comes with big round tables that seat 8-10, which meant that we were forced to talk to people (the horror!) at each meal – we had some great conversations about astronomy and even other things. And the food was pretty good too. The organisers planned things for during the day, and I even got to some of it despite needing to nap each afternoon to prepare for the night’s viewing. A number of people volunteered to give talks, on everything from the geology of the local area, to ways the universe is trying to kill you; from astrophotography to organising your observing lists. It was a pretty good mix. And apparently each night there was a movie on the screen (including On the Beach), but I didn’t get to those.

The observing

I went without any preparation, except for the vague desire to get up and see Comet ISON. Since that’s the only thing that could be called a goal, as of the Friday afternoon, you could say that I failed, since 5am did not see me awake on any morning. Given that a small group of people did get up and then reported that it was a fizzer, I’m not too fussed.

We only got in a couple of hours on my first night before the clouds rolled in. Had a great view of Venus… because for a while it was pretty much the only thing to look at, given its insane magnitude and height in the sky. Also 47 Tuc, which rather started a theme for the weekend… I do love me a globular cluster.

The next night more than made up for the first, though, and we stayed up until about 2.30. I had made a List, and got through a number of doubles before I got distracted. I looked at some globular clusters, including some in the Large Magellanic, which I didn’t realise you could do. I also looked at Uranus and Neptune – to my everlasting delight we bagged Triton, Neptune’s main moon, too. James contributed to my distraction by convincing me that Andromeda through my ‘scope was the best idea, given its wider view; and we managed to see the two other galaxies around it, too, which did indeed look spectacular. He was concentrating on some faint fuzzies, and called me over to test my eyesight on some mag 13-14 galaxies… most of which I managed to see, or at least could convince myself that I did. And of course I greedily admired the Orion Nebula; I will never ever get bored by it. I was sad by how late Jupiter was rising – I saw it through the trees, and the Galilean moons were all in a row, but the view was utter mush.

The last night of viewing was also spectacular, but we sensibly didn’t stay up as late since we had to drive home the next day; so we pulled out at about 1.15. Again, I bagged a number of double stars – to my delight I discovered that I could split down to a 4″ separation! I didn’t think that was possible through the 120mm. I looked a few open clusters, but mostly they bore me; the Ink Spot and cluster of NGC 6520 were pretty cool, though, as the dark nebula of the Spot was quite noticeable with it being so dark. Again I got distracted by globulars, doing so a bit more systematically by dialling up all the globs in Sagittarius (there are so many Messier objects there!) on the Argo and working through most of them.

And there was observing during  the day, too. I had taken my solar scope, but someone else had their much-bigger, double-stacked one rigged up next to a white-light solar scope, so… yeh. Mine didn’t come out. I was mighty impressed with his set up: he’d got a piece of core flute, and attached to the scopes, so that they acted as a sun shield. BRILLIANCE. But, um… maybe a little bit TOO attractive….

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Astronomical Society of Victoria – Annual Messier Star Party

Last year we became members of the Astronomical Society of Victoria and one of the perks is access to the club’s dark site. Each year they run a few public access events to promote the club and astronomy, so we took it as a good chance to head up – check out the dark site and share our scopes and love of the night sky with some new folks.

We headed up under perfect clear blue skies and set up on the main field – I picked a spot between three big Dob brothers, an 18″, 20″ and 25″. Secretly I hoped they might act as a bit of a decoy for my baby 16″, to keep away most of the crowds, but once again the magic of observing with both feet on the ground seemed to draw people in. Alex set up our 5″ APO next door; she drew a bigger crowd than me!

It was fabulous to see so many people having their first experience of astronomy under a proper dark sky (SQM 21.5 last night). The local Lions Club put on food, the club put on a range of short and interesting talks as well as tours of the site, and after dark one of the night sky.

The evening started off pretty quietly with most of the visitors engaged with the night sky tour but that soon ended and for the next few hours the observing field was awash with the curious, interested and far too many far too-bright red lights. But hey, we’ve all gotta start somewhere.

In keeping with the Charles Messier theme of the evening I made a point to try and show people a few interesting Messier catalog objects as well as a number of the usual showpiece objects. I also always like to show people one or two of the more impressive galaxies that are up too; regularly seeing these objects which put everything else in the sky into context is one of the privileges of owning a big scope.

Over the evening I observed and shared these and more:

M46 OC + NGC2438 PN
NGC 3115 Gal – Spindle Galaxy
NGC 5128 Gal – Centaurus A (saw the bright strip through the dust lane)
M104 Gal – Sombrero Galaxy
NGC 2392 PN – Eskimo Nebula
NGC 3242 PN – Ghost of Jupiter
M42 and M43 Neb – Great Nebula in Orion
NGC 1365 Gal – Zorro is sadly chasing the sunset at this time of year.
NGC 2024 Neb – Flame Nebulae.
B33 Dark Neb – Horsehead (Hb Filter) – With Orion high in the sky it was the easiest view I’ve had of the normally elusive Horsehead, I managed to show Alex and 2 or 3 others who all saw it. Normally I struggle to see it myself, let alone help anyone else see it.
NGC 2070 Neb – Tarantula and region in the LMC
NGC 3372 Neb – Eta Carinae
47 Tuc GC
NGC 5139 GC – Omega Centarus
NGC 4755 OC – Jewel Box
NGC 3293 OC – Gem Cluster

While I wouldn’t want all my observing sessions to be like this it feels good to go and be part of an event like this a few times a year.

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