Texas Star Party 2008

‘Warm winds blowing
Heating blue sky
And a road that goes forever
I’m going to Texas’

Chris Rea, Texas

I had such a good time at the 2006 Texas Star Party, that I wanted to go again. I couldn’t make it in 2007 and, as it turned out, that was just as well because the 2007 TSP was a wash out with only one decent night for observing. The 2008 TSP, however, was a different story…
I flew to San Antonio via Atlanta, from Gatwick, and the only hassle was the insane check in queue at Gatwick. I queued for an hour and three quarters because the queue was for New York (JFK) and Cincinnati as well as Atlanta – not good planning Delta Airways…! The flight itself was ok and I got through US Immigration and Customs with no hassles, with plenty of time between flights. I arrived in San Antonio just after 8pm Central Time where I was met by my friend Robert Reeves, who I was travelling out to Fort Davis and back with, just as in 2006.
The TSP was excellent and, from what I’ve heard and read about previous ones, one of the best ever. We had five nights, or 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 and higher – 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 later in the week. So, here’s a day-by-day account of the TSP, I have kept it as I wrote at the time, in blog form:

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 have been 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, just outside the door, and he invited me to share his 36-inch Obsession for observing. Such generosity is one of hallmarks of star parties, indeed the amateur community as a whole: as someone coming from overseas I am only ever armed with a pair of 8×42 binoculars yet I am never short of invites to use the biggest instruments on the field, it’s wonderful. I also ran into Buster Wilson in the registration area: ‘Faith Jordan! Well I’m damned!’ as he shook my hand in a crushing grip. It was also great to see Becky Ramatowski, Amelia and Steve Goldberg, Matt Delevoryas and Barbara Wilson among others, too.

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 did not do much sketching due to being tired.

TSP Upper Field - very dusty

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.

The Milky Way rising over the TSP

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.

The glow from the fire

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; Mike was in ‘Pirate’s Corner’ with David Moody and Bob Summerfield and they were tracking down faint objects with the Yard Scope, another 36 incher Dob, for one of Larry’s fiendish Observing Challenges and some cries of frustration and some rather sailorish language (well it is Pirates’ Cove after all, but they weren’t saying ‘Arrrr’ or ‘Jim Lad’!) rose from the vicinity of the Yard Scope at times! I got voluntarily press-ganged to help verify some sightings for them – or not, if it was a negative observation. Mike, David and Bob are a great bunch to observe with as they are very funny and the banter is hilarious.
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 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, bringing out the details of deep sky objects and practically turning a 20 inch scope into a 40 inch, albeit through a sorcerous green glow. 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, which is rather a shame. 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 rubbish skies we get at home.

Day 4 – Thursday 5th June 2008:
The fires were still burning and from what I heard, 50,000 acres were destroyed, including a ranch, unfortunately killing the cattle. As someone noted at lunch it sounds as if half of south-west Texas was 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 cool trophy to go on my hat!
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.
The Prude Ranch is a somewhat eerie place at night, away from the observing fields. I went to the snack shop at about 0300 and on my way back my red torch illuminated the rear lights of a sports car parked near the Buzzard’s Roost and Crow’s Nest accommodations. These lights were round and, lit up by my red beam, looked just like an evil pair of glowing red eyes. I jumped and it took a lot of effort of will not to run for it back to the Upper Field; luckily I didn’t drop the coffees and snacks I was carrying but it was a close thing despite telling myself ‘You prat, it’s only a car’s lights!’. We astronomers are not afraid of the dark and not usually easily spooked, but when you get what looks like evil eyes suddenly looking at you, coupled with the howling of the coyotes in the hills, it ‘does things’ to the imagination!
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.

Another TSP Milky way shot

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 had 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.

Jimi Lowrey's 48"

I 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 but to be honest I was happy just to look and enjoy. I also didn’t write down what we saw, but as we all saw the same things another member of our group, Jose Sancho, did and here’s the list, with the times of the observations:
11:00 Moon
11:30 Saturn
11:43 M 104
12:00 M 13
12:40 M 57
1:15 M 51
1:40 NGC 4485
1:51 NGC 4111
2:07 NGC 6543
2:32 M 17
2:49 M 16
3:06 NGC 3306
3:23 NGC 7026
3:35 NGC 7027
3:54 NGC 2065
4:00 IC 1731
4:21 Hickson 87
4:36 NGC 7009
4:45 Hickson 88
4:53 Abell 70
5:03 NGC 7331
5:11 Stephan’s Quintet
5:20 Neptune
5:34 Jupiter

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’; well as close to a ‘religious experience’ as I, an atheist, am likely to be! 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. We also had good views of the difficult ‘Pillars of Creation’ features within the Eagle Nebula, M16. These were black fingers against the bright nebulosity. 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 crappy observing conditions it was an awesome night. It’s all relative, I suppose – one man (or woman’s) crap is another’s treasure. Myself and Larry had a running joke going throughout the TSP, we’d also had the same gag going in the 2006 TSP as well. There is an expression ‘That’ll knock your socks off’ as in something is an amazing sight. Proportional to the awesomeness of the celestial object on view in the eyepiece, socks would upgrade to another, larger, piece of clothing. Through the 48 inch, Larry and I agreed that not only would socks be knocked off one’s feet, nor even all the clothes one was wearing at the time, but the whole wardrobe! ‘Maybe’, we said, ‘a future TSP t-shirt design could feature clothes flying along, against a backdrop of galaxies!’.
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. I am not usually one for music while I observe (although sometimes I do take my iPod out with me to the scope and then my choice of listening is hard rock, punk and heavy metal) but I do have to say that, on this occasion, it was not only appropriate but really enhanced the feel of the observing session as it was such a magical and one-off session.
We eventually got back to the Prude Ranch at 0600.

Lightning to the north-east

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 and 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 hardly ever 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. Next time…? 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.
Day 7 – 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.

'On a Texas Sunday morning'

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. Like last time, I found myself hurrying for my London flight due to stupid scheduling (no matter what anyone says, 45 minutes is NOT adequate for connections in big airports – any delays and you’ve had it) but I made it okay – just.
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. As the Chris Rea song, Texas, goes ‘And that’s the only place to be’ … he could have written that about the Prude Ranch when TSP is on.
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, Jose Sancho, Todd Hargis, Jimi Lowrey, David Nagler, Matt Delavoryas, Bill Christian, Keith and Jan Venables (fellow ‘Brits’), Patty and Alicia Tristan and many others for help, telescope use, being welcoming and hospitality over the week. I hope that I have not inadvertently left anyone off this list and if I have I am sorry.