Texas Star Party 2008 – Part 1

I am back from the Texas Star Party, although I am not back in the UK until Wednesday. I’m staying in San Antonio until my flight home tomorrow night.
The TSP was excellent and, from what I’ve heard and read about previous ones, one of the best ever. We had five nights (six for those who were there on the first Sunday) of outstanding observing – ok, four and a half nights as the first half of Wednesday night was affected by smoke from a massive grass fire 20 miles away to the south west of us. The days were the hottest temperatures I have ever been in, and the thermometer regularly topped 104 degrees – I have to admit that, as a British Isles resident, I found it a bit hard to live with but fortunately the air conditioning in the Prude Ranch buildings worked very well. As I overheard someone say to another person: “The heat’ll kick your ass”, and it did several people’s, including mine.

Ok, here’s a day-by-day account of the TSP (I have photos but I’ll add these when I get home on Wednesday):

Day 1 – Monday 2nd June 2008:

We – that is Robert Reeves and I – arrived at the Prude Ranch in the early afternoon. The weather is hot, scorchingly so – it must be at least a hundred degrees on the Upper Field. I helped Robert set up but the most we could really do was sit on top of his cooler and drink – a lot of – beer. The sky is clear and things look promising for the night to come.
We registered and renewed friendships from before. I met Larry Mitchell again and he invited me to share his 36-inch Obsession for observing.
I observed until 0215 – I hate giving up on a superb night so quickly but I was tired because I’d been up since 5am the previous morning and we’d left San Antonio at 6.
I began the ‘Globular Glory’ observing program with my 8x42s to pick off the brighter and easier ones and also Larry’s gigantic 6 inch Japanese binoculars (these are of World War 2 vintage and previously belonged to a Japanese battleship). I also observed with Larry’s 36 inch but not do much sketching due to being tired.

Day 2 – Tuesday 3rd June 2008:

Another blisteringly hot day in the low 100’s.
I visited the vendors’ (always a dangerous time for my wallet) and came away with a 35mm Televue Panoptic (I have always wanted one but they are way too expensive in the UK, at least twice the price you pay in the US), a copy of Kanipe and Webb’s ‘The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies’ (again much cheaper than at home) and an auto-collimator.

Observed until 5am with Larry’s scope, the Yard Scope (another 36-incher) which I used to knock off most of my Globular Glory observing program, and Mike Planchon’s 20x125mm binoculars. Did quite a few sketches of galaxies.

Day 3 – Wednesday 4th June 2008:

Again, incredibly hot. Late in the afternoon we noticed a huge plume of smoke coming from the south west and rumours spread just as quickly as the fire did. It turned out to be a massive bush fire covering some 50,000 acres. There was concern as the fire at one point was coming closer to us and the possibility of having to evacuate the Prude Ranch did cross a few people’s minds, but fortunately this was not necessary. The TSP and Prude staff kept in contact with the relevant authorities by radio and phone just in case evacuation of the Prude Ranch became necessary and to keep up with the progress of the fire.
The smoke made life uncomfortable for all of us, causing eye and lung irritations. I thought I’d forgotten to bring my asthma inhalers and, although my asthma is mild and not at all serious it was beginning to make its presence felt. Luckily I found the inhalers in my jacket pocket but because of the smoke, I felt like I was getting a severe cold and chest infection.

Because of the smoke no-one did any really serious observing but I did manage to finish my Globular Glory program, courtesy of Mike Planchon’s giant binoculars. I also spent time chatting with Barbara Wilson, Ben Jones, Larry Mitchell, Steve Goldberg, Jimi Lowrey (who owns a newly completed 48-inch Dobsonian in an observatory at Limpia Crossing, near the ranch) and David Nagler (he of Televue fame). We got to try out a new prototype Denkmeier binocular image intensifier through Barbara’s 20-inch Dobsonian and it was pretty impressive. Is this the future of visual observing? Probably not if they aren’t allowed to export it (something to do with US technology having to stay in the States – boo). The worst of the smoke cleared up at around 2 am and although people were saying how crap the seeing was it was still better than the shitty skies we get at home.

Day 4 – Thursday 5th June 2008:

The fires are still burning and from what I have heard, 50,000 acres were destroyed, including a ranch (killing the cattle). As someone noted at lunch it sounds as if half of south-west Texas is on fire.

I did my talk this afternoon and it was well-received. I was given a ‘Texas Star Party Certificate of Merit’ for it which was a nice touch. I also picked up my globular cluster observing pin from John Wagoner.

Another all-nighter until 0530. I spent most of it with Larry’s 36 inch and did a lot of sketches. I also observed with Jim Chandler’s 30 inch and Barbara Wilson’s 20 inch. The most interesting object of the night was the ring galaxy Hoag’s Object (PGC 54559) in Serpens Caput, seen though the 30 inch. The core was seen easily enough but the ring was tougher. Some people saw it, others didn’t. I eventually saw it, but only after a lot of staring with averted vision. Part of it popped into view, then another part and eventually the whole ring appeared for a second before disappearing again.

Also observed Sharpless 2-71, a faint planetary. On Barbara’s MegaStar image it looked as if it had a huge ? stamped on it but only part of this was visible through any of the large Dobs.

I managed to drop my Nikon D80 into the Prude dust but before I went to bed at 0600 I cleaned it up with no damage done – that dust is evil stuff and you don’t want it anywhere near optics of any sort. I just hope none has found its way inside but as I have not changed lenses it should be ok – I hope.

Part 2 – plus photos – to follow…