Texas Star Party 2008 – Part 2

Here’s the second – and final – part of my trip to the 2008 Texas Star Party.

Day 5 – Friday 6th June 2008:

I had put my name down for the Friday trip to McDonald Observatory but ended up not going and crossed myself off the list because I was too tired and didn’t fancy a 12 mile trip in an old non-air conditioned school bus in 100 degree heat. I wasn’t that bothered because I had been before in 2006.

In addition to the Globular program, I have also finished a binocular program so there’s another pin to add to my collection. Cool! Talking of observing pins, I have seen several people including Ben Jones, Barbara Wilson, Larry Mitchell, Steve Goldberg, Amelia Goldberg and Matt Delavoryas wearing dozens of TSP and Astronomical League observing pins on hats, scarves and jackets. That’s pretty inspiring and I am going to aim for some AL pins – one reason I joined the AL was to do their observing programs. I have just about completed my binocular Messier project – and I’ll send the observations off to the AL soon. Observing programs and their associated pins are a great way of doing a structured observing program.

I have what seems to be a cold, but it could be just an adverse reaction to the dust and smoke.

Visited the ‘swap-meet’ at the vendors hall and somehow came away with a 4 inch Meade SCT and a 2-inch diagonal to fit it, for the bargain sum of $160 (the scope was $110). I also went into the vendors again and bought some decent-looking software ‘Deepsky’ from Bob Kepple’s (he of ‘The Night Sky Observer’s Guide’ and ‘Astro Cards’ fame) stand.

Visited Jimi Lowrey’s 48 inch scope for an observing session – wow, what a beauty and a thoroughly enviable set up; Jimi is living the dream. I was there at the invitation of Larry Mitchell, who was invited and was asked to invite a few people of his choice. I was really pleased to be asked as opportunities for observing with such a big scope are few and far between.

I didn’t do any sketching, not enough time as we had a big list of objects we wanted to see. I also didn’t write down what we saw, but as we all saw the same things another member of our group, Jose, did and is going to send me the list.

The 48 inch makes the unobservable observable, the faint, dim and fuzzy bright and detailed and the bright and spectacular simply awesome. M51 filled the field of view – it looked like the size of a saucer – and was better than a photograph. The arms were full of detail, HII regions shone and the whole thing was akin to a ‘religious experience’. The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009) (bright blue-green and showing lobes and ‘layers’), Hickson 88, Stephan’s Quintet and the Ring Nebula (M57) were also incredible. The Ring showed massive amounts of detail and, for the first time ever, I actually saw a colour other than blue or green in a deep sky object. The Ring was blue-green, but the outer portion of the ring was pink. The pink was subtle but it was obvious. The central hole was filled in, giving a gauzy effect and the central star was visible.

As for the globular M13, this was more detailed than I have ever seen before. The propeller feature was very obvious, looking exactly like a ship or aircraft propeller, a black mark on a bright background.

Another first for me was seeing Neptune as a disk and its moons. The planet was a lovely blue. Jupiter’s moons were also disks (these firsts keep on coming!) and as for Jupiter itself, wow! It was tack sharp in moments of good seeing and the detail was – at the risk of being cliched – photographic, with the Great Red Spot (more pale pink than red) and other spots seen, as well as belts, bands and festoons.

Jimi kept saying how the night wasn’t very good and the seeing was soft – actually it was a little soft – but to someone from the UK used to really shit observing conditions it was an awesome night. It’s all relative.

At the end of the night we all agreed that it was one of the most magical nights of astronomy any of us had ever had. The ‘feeling’ of the occasion was also helped by the native American music (‘Sacred Spirit Vol II’ and ‘Wolves’) that Jimi – who is of Cherokee descent – put on his stereo.

We eventually got back to the Prude Ranch at 0600.

Day 6 – Saturday 7th June 2008:

The last day of the 2008 Texas Star Party, sadly. It may be hot, but I wish it could go on forever. There are some ominous-looking clouds to the north of us but hopefully they will move away and we can have a final night of observing at TSP 2008.

Later: the clouds have filled the sky, it’s not looking good for any observing.

The evening’s talk was ‘The Mysteries of the Universe’ by Bob Berman of Astronomy Magazine, which was a fun and entertaining talk. The questions were almost hijacked by a guy who wanted to take Bob on on some issue until Barbara Wilson (the MC) shot him down in flames. It was the same guy who tried to bore Robert Reeves and myself to death earlier in the evening at dinner by talking about mathematics. Won nothing in the ‘Great Texas Giveaway’ this time, but I never do anything in raffles anyway. The grand prize this evening was a 13mm Televue Ethos. Faux prayers were offered but sadly, it was not to be.

By the time we left the meeting a spectacular lightning storm was underway, so it was time for chat and farewells before going to bed before 1am.

Lightning over the Davis Mountains – best shot I got.

Sunday 8th June 2008:

Long drive back to San Antonio via Fort Stockton for breakfast and Ozona. Heat exhaustion, tiredness and a chest problem due to dust and smoke caught up with me and, combined with plain old car sickness, necessitated a stop alongside Interstate 10 near Junction for me to get out and part with seven dollars’ worth of breakfast, but this was a small price to pay for the amazing Texas Star Party we all had.

I flew home on Tuesday evening on an overnight Delta flight to Gatwick via Atlanta, arriving back on the Isle of Wight late Wednesday morning.

All-in-all this, my second, was a fabulous TSP and people were saying it was the best, observationally, for years due to the wonderfully clear skies and warm night-time conditions. The smoke on Wednesday night and the cloud-out on Saturday were minor irritations.

All that’s left now is to say a MASSIVE thank you to – first and foremost – Robert and Mary Reeves (and the cats!) of San Antonio for hospitality and lifts to and from the airport and the Prude Ranch, Larry Mitchell, Amelia and Steve Goldberg, Bob Summerfield, Mike Planchon, David Moody, Richard and Connie Brown, Becky Ramatowski, Tracey Knauss, Barbara and Buster Wilson, Ben Jones, Jim and Ana Chandler, Todd Hargis, Jose Sancho, Jimi Lowrey, David Nagler, Matt Delavoryas, Bill Christian, Keith and Jan Venables (fellow ‘Brits’) and many others for help, telescope use and hospitality over the week.