Category Archives: Star Parties

OzSky 2014

From 29th March to 5th April I was at OzSky 2014, a star party aimed at amateur astronomers from the northern hemisphere who normally do not get to see the full splendours of the southern sky. For those of us at (the obnoxious, astronomically-speaking, latitude of) 50° North, this is 50° of the sky denied to us – and the most spectacular 50° at that – unless we get on an airliner and head south.

I arrived in Sydney on 20th March, nine days ahead of the event, and spent the time doing non-astronomy things although I did visit the old Sydney Observatory, located on a low hill above The Rocks. I’ll put this in a separate post sometime this week as I will also put the visits to Siding Spring and the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri in separate posts. On 29th March, I met some of the other participants at Sydney Central Station where we boarded the train to Dubbo. At Dubbo we collected our rental cars and drove to Coonabarabran, where the star party is held at a motel, the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, in the beautiful Warrumbungles a few miles outside the town.

There was some consternation among the other members of the OzSky email list about potential bad forecasts for the week but, in the end, we had mostly clear skies, only totally losing one night to cloud and fog, a couple of other nights were half clear while the rest were completely clear. This enabled everyone to get their fill of observing in the fabulous southern skies.

I made it a personal rule to observe only those objects with a negative declination and to observe nothing north of -30° as it seemed to me, with only a week, a waste of observing time to look at objects which I can see from home. I have my observations already typed up, as I transcribed these from my notebook to my iPad, then emailed them to myself as I went, and will post these at some point although some need verification with The Night Sky Observers Guide Volume 3: The Southern Skies, particularly the stuff I looked at in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a rich area with a lot of small objects close together. I didn’t take the book with me, because of airline weight restrictions and I also didn’t want to lug it about during the nine days prior to travelling to Coonabarabran.
I spent a lot of time in the LMC on the first night. Apart from the LMC and SMC, I observed mostly far-southern globular clusters and galaxies – both very far south and those in Fornax and Eridanus which, while theoretically visible from here (thus breaking my self-imposed rule!), don’t rise high enough to see properly – with a few open clusters.

I also had a go at some wide-field astrophotography, using my Canon 6D and 24-105mm lens mounted on an iOptron sky tracking mount I borrowed from Andrew Murrell. The camera was set to ISO 1000 and f/4 with exposure times of 3 minutes each. I am really pleased with these and they’re a lot better than my woeful attempts at photographing the Australian night sky in 1997!

Milky Way rising over OzSky The Emu rises over OzSky The Southern Milky way and the Large Magellanic Cloud

Below are some of the telescopes we used during the week, ranging from 14″ to 30″ Dobsonians (plus 16″, two 18″ and two 25″ ones) and a pair of giant binoculars mounted on a motorised chair. There was also a 12″ binocular Dobsonian, which was interesting and not quite the sod to collimate as I imagined it might be. I used an 18″ Obsession for a couple of nights but then found myself in sole charge of an SDM 30″ for long periods of time during the rest of the week! I also got to use a binocular chair (below) with a pair of 25×150 Fujinon binoculars attached. The chair is fully motorised, powered by a marine or car battery, and can be moved using a joystick. This was great for cruising through the Milky Way, looking at things like the Coalsack and the Eta Carina Nebula but, unfortunately, the objectives dewed up pretty quickly.

Binocular chair 14" and 18" dobsonians The observing field 14" and 18" dobsonians 14" dob 14" dob ozsky2014_8 30" dob Observing field 25" 18" 18" Observing field Observing field

If anyone reading this has never gone south of the equator, do it. It’s well worth it if you can swing the costs (and even if you can’t! I could only do this trip thanks to a bit of a windfall last summer) and are happy to spend 20+ hours on an A380 or Boeing 747. Visually, the southern Milky Way completely blows ours out of the water. There’s no comparison. OzSky 2015 is open for registration…
Thanks go to the Three Rivers Foundation of Australia whose volunteers – Lachlan, Tony, Andrew, John, Petra, et al – make it all possible.

Visits to observatories – Sydney Observatory, the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri and Siding Spring Observatory – and the observations, will follow in later posts.

Australia, here I come

I came into a little money (legally!) recently and it’s enough for a trip to Texas next year and a trip to Australia just before that, so I decided that, as I have Unfinished Business from last time, I am making a return trip to the Big Island Down Under and going to OzSky 2014.
Last time I was there I ran into some people I know from Texas – well I logged onto the net and found a message along the lines of ‘We know you’re here, come and join us for a meal’, so I did and I then got invited along to what was then called the ‘Deepest South Texas Star Safari’, so named because it began as an offshoot of the Texas Star Party.

Unfortunately I had a prior engagement in the coastal town of Wollongong a few days later, which was already booked, so I could only stay one night – and it was raining and rained all that night! – before having to return to Sydney and then on to Wollongong. Even more unfortunately the event I was supposed to go to at Wollongong was cancelled due to high winds and rain and I regretted not staying in Coonabarabran instead, as the weather there cleared for the rest of the week. Anyway, conditions permitting, I have now got a chance to rectify that.

I’ve booked my flights, got my visa for next year and have sent off my deposit and registration form for the star party. I am going to Australia for three weeks, setting out from Heathrow on March 18th and returning on April 9th, so hopefully I can meet up with other observers and get some observing in even before I get to Coonabarabran.

Kangaroos, from my last trip to the Warrumbungles:


And the mountains in the grey weather 🙁


And one of the domes of Siding Spring from Timor Road:

Siding Spring

SSO sign

Despite all the rain, the danger of fire was very high. In January 2013 the area around Coonabarabran was extensively damaged by bush fires which also came close to burning down Siding Spring Observatory itself – the observatory was damaged but fortunately survived, thanks mostly to precautions put into place in case of such an event after the disastrous bush fires which destroyed Mt. Stromlo Observatory near Canberra in 2003. The fires destroyed 80% of the Warrumbungles National Park, burning down dozens of homes.

Fire danger notice

This will be a much better visit than last time and, unlike the 2009 trip, it will be mostly for observing but with a bit of birding thrown in. I just hope the weather is a lot better! It should be, it’s nearly two months earlier, at the tail end of summer and into early autumn.


Just a quick post to say a few short things, simply because they’re really too small to warrant a post to themselves.

1. Solar observing…I have decided to have a go at solar observing. You can see The Sun Spot (witty title!) page by going to the link above.  At the moment, I am using my old 90mm refractor and projecting the Sun onto paper until I can get a proper Ha telescope.

2. Had a small observing session last Sunday but because the Moon was a waning gibbous, a day after full, I just took the 8″ Celeston Newtonian out to look at bright objects. I managed to look at a few bright galaxies and globulars before I got a bad attack of vertigo and had to pack up (our family have fallen victim to a particularly nasty cold virus that’s doing the rounds – mine gave me a sore throat and attacked my inner ear).

3. Australia! I am planning to go to OzSky 2014. I just hope it’s clear and starry during the first week of next April. It’s not booked yet, but watch this space.

Australia, here I come…? Maybe

If things work out as well as I hope they might, I may be going to OzSky 2013. This depends on work over the winter, though, my current job is fine during the summer, when it is at its busiest, but will go right down to only a few hours a week in winter. That, at least, will help pay my share of the bills, but if I can get something else (instead of or along with this job) then it looks do-able.
I have been to OzSky before, in 2009. It was known as the Deepest South Texas Star Safari then and I could only stay one night as I had to get to Wollongong for a pelagic birdwatching trip I was booked on. It was a disaster, that one night was clouded out, with heavy rain and the same storm system responsible for that also ensured the pelagic didn’t go ahead. I couldn’t make it back to Coonabarabran, due to lack of funds and I was also heading off to Bangkok a few days later. To say this was annoying is an understatement and it could be said that I have Unfinished Business there.

Failing that, as it is in March, there’s always Queensland AstroFest later in the year, usually held in July or August. That is very do-able.

TSP 2012 photos, part 2

Here are some more of the photos I took at the TSP this year

TSP 2012 photos, part 1

Here are some of the photos I took last week. I’ve included some photos of the general area, as well as the TSP itself.

More to follow.

IoW Star Party

We got some reasonable observing in at the star party, despite poor transparency on Thursday and Friday nights. Sunday night was pretty transparent but hampered by a stiff breeze, which forced Owen Brazell to call it a night at 3am because his 22″ was moving around so much that it was impossible to observe and also becoming dangerous, both to observer and scope. I ended up dismantling mine totally and stowing it beside the chalets, out of the wind. Others, in more sheltered locations, continued for a while longer before also giving up for what was left of the night.

I didn’t get through as much of my lists as I would have liked, due mainly to the poor transparency and to Sunday night/Monday morning’s stiff breeze. I spent a lot of time in Leo, Virgo and even down in Crater and Corvus. I’m not going to post all the observations I made but, suffice to say, it was nearly all galaxies apart from NGC 4361, a planetary nebula in Corvus (and this was a second visit, I’d previously observed this in May 2008, with my 12″ Dob), NGC 5634, a globular cluster in Virgo, plus some eye candy in the form of the best views I have ever had of M42 (come on, it’d be rude not to!), Saturn, Mars and NGC 869/884 (the Double Cluster).

Thursday, 22nd March, was the day of arrival. I arrived late morning, and set up my scope once I’d stowed my other stuff in the chalet and parked the car. Other people were also arriving through the afternoon and the ‘serious visual observers’ area (as designated) soon began to fill with large Dobsonians plus some smaller fry, in the shape of a couple of SCTs and a few refractors.

The visual area, with large Dobs. Mine, minus shroud, is in the foreground.

Thursday night was fairly cloudy, with a lot of high stuff, mist and generally poor transparency so I messed about for a while, looked at one of my favourite galaxies NGC 4565 and its neighbour NGC 4562, as well as NGC 4494 and some bright eye candy. I packed up at 2330 GMT and went to bed. Apparently it cleared a while later but as I was tired I wasn’t that unhappy about missing it. We did see an iridium flare earlier in the evening.

Friday was clearer but, as chairman, I had to go to the VAS meeting in Newport first but I managed to escape at half time because the sky looked promising. I got back to the observing field at around 9.45pm and set up. The transparency still wasn’t the greatest but I got my observing lists out and started hunting for galaxies in Leo before moving on to Virgo.
A lot of the session was spent in and around the Realm of the Galaxies in Virgo, as soon as it was high enough out of the crap in the atmosphere. Here, the 18″ really showed what it can do, especially given the fact it had more than 24 hours to cool down to ambient temperature, something it doesn’t always get to do at home. Galaxies were simply everywhere. Find one and you have found dozens, maybe even hundreds, including some faint little sprites not on my charts (these were evident on the Sunday night when the transparency had improved and the naked eye limiting magnitude was 6.4) and, what’s more, the brighter NGCs and the Messiers showed detail – this is what I bought the 18″ for! Simply put, I got totally blown away by these galaxies!

Saturday evening started off with an ‘eye-candy’ session. The eye candy included M42, which was simply stunning in the 18″, and several people commented on how good my telescope and mirror are which pleased me no end, of course, as it is nice to know your ‘investment’ is as good as the money it cost. It does need a few modifications and what I want to do is get a decent focuser for it (I’d originally ordered it with a bog-standard rack-and-pinion focuser, on grounds of cost, which does the job of course, but could be better) such as a Moonlite Crayford or a Starlite FeatherTouch, adjust my crappy shroud* (easily the one poor thing about the scope is that the shroud is rubbish) so it doesn’t blow about all over the place, plus waterproof it to prevent dew soaking through and dripping onto the mirror, and finally get round to adjusting the position of the Telrad base, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages** (I had a brain-fade when putting it on the scope and put it in the wrong place – it still worked, of course, but meant I needed to walk round the scope to look in the eyepiece). I’d also like to put some sort of light-absorbing material on the truss poles to reduce light scatter and improve contrast.

Most of the session was, again, looking for galaxies. I spent a good amount of time in Corvus and Crater, which meant bending down or kneeling on the ground to look through the eyepiece – it therefore wasn’t surprising when I had severe knee pains and back ache for three days afterwards, but at least I managed to cross a few of the objects off my observing lists.

Sunday was much clearer. After a very interesting visit to St Catherine’s Lighthouse in the afternoon, we spent the evening in the Crown pub at Shorwell, before returning to BHC and a stunning sunset.

The lantern at St Catherine's Lighthouse

Although Sunday night into Monday morning was very transparent, a stiff breeze had arrived, which made observing difficult. I gave up by 3am, fearing my scope would blow over, so I dismantled it and moved it to a more sheltered location, with other people packing up shortly afterwards. As Monday was the day we all went our separate ways, I stowed a few things I didn’t need, such as the truss poles and a few other bits and pieces, in my car. I did, however, manage to observe some more galaxies in and around Virgo, as well as the globular cluster NGC 5634.

It was an excellent star party and I had a good time. This was the 5th IOWSP and the 4th I have attended (I missed 2011); in 2008 and 2009 I could only come for one evening and went home afterwards while in 2010 I came for two nights, camped and nearly died of hypothermia – I have never been so cold in all my life! This year, I was at the star party for all four nights, staying in a chalet, and it was so much nicer and I also felt more part of things.

Next year’s star party is in early March. Unfortunately I think it coincides with OzSky 2013 which I would like to go to, depending on finances.

* I have altered the shroud, using some velcro and I have attempted to waterproof it with some tent waterproofer I bought in Mountain Warehouse – this failed but I’ll get some better stuff from Goodyears in Sandown.
** I have now altered the Telrad position. Much better.

For all the photos from the star party, please click here.


Isle of Wight Star Party 2012

The 5th annual Isle of Wight Star Party was held between 22nd and 26th March 2012. I went to the 2008 and 2009 IOWSPs but drove to and from the event each of the couple of nights (not fun), I camped for two nights in 2010 and nearly froze to death (even less fun) and I missed 2011 due to having the flu (the real McCoy, not the poncy severe-cold-type) so, this time, I decided to go for the duration and do it properly, staying in the relative comfort of a chalet and also taking my 18″ Dob with me.

I’ll write about the observing in a separate post but, in the meantime, I’ll say it was a success. The only downside was the poor transparency on three nights and a stiff breeze on the fourth night, although we still got a lot of observing in. Here are a few photos to be going on with.

Everything fit into my big Renault MPV, with room to spare.


My scope, just after arrival.

My friend Owen assembling his 22″ Obsession UC

My 18″ scope fully assembled in the ‘Valley of the Dobs’, shroud billowing in the stiff breeze

Another, older, 18″ David Lukehurst Dob.

The ‘Valley of the Dobs’: From left to right – a 17.5″ home-made Dob, an 18″ Lukehurst Dob, an 18″ Obsession (in the process of being uncovered), a 22″ Obsession UC and my 18″ Dob (still under its cover).


Just after sunset on the Sunday

Canis Major and Orion, getting low in the west (a bit of light pollution, from Bournemouth, is evident in the west)

More to follow…

Some photos ‘from the archives’

My posts just recently have been a bit light on the visuals so, in the absence of any recent trips or new sketches, I have dug out some old star party photos, from my TSP visits, and here they are. I don’t think I’ve posted them on the blog before (I don’t want to become like one of the cable tv channels that only shows repeats!) but they are, or some are, on my website.
Click on each photo for sharper and, in some cases, larger ones.

Upper field 2008
Upper field 2008
Upper field 2008
L-R: Larry Mitchell, Stephen O’Meara, Alvin Huey, ‘yours truly’ and Robert Reeves, TSP 2006. I have since dyed my hair!!
Lower field 2008
Middle field 2008
82 inch dome at McDonald Observatory
Barbara Wilson’s 20″ Spacewalk dob
Alvin Huey’s 30″ Starmaster dob
Me at the eyepiece of Jimi Lowrey’s 48″. That ladder isn’t as scary as it looks…it’s scarier.
Upper field, dusk 2008
Dusk falls
And keeps falling
Larry Mitchell’s 36″ Obsession dob
12″ dob, upper field 2006
Gateway to the TSP
Gate made famous in many astronomy magazine articles, books and web sites
Fire! The ‘Great TSP Fire of 2008’
Valley of the Dobs, TSP 2006
Upper field
Upper field, another view
And another view
Yet another view
Upper field 2010 – no dust! It’s green!
Bob Summerfield at the eyepiece of the 36″ ‘Yard Scope’ (originally built by Tectron Telescopes)

I love the TSP, it’s definitely my favourite vacation, and I want to go back one year, hopefully in 2012. We’ll see what the rest of 2011 brings…