Texas Star Party 2010

I arrived in San Antonio, TX, late on Friday night, May 7th 2010, after delays caused by mechanical problems with the Continental Airlines Boeing 767-400 made us miss our take off slot from London Heathrow. That and then a big detour due to the volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland meant the flight took 11 hours instead of the usual 8.5, and fighting 100mph headwinds over Canada and the northern US didn’t help either. Because of this I was four hours late into Houston, and missed my connection to San Antonio so, once I’d cleared US Immigration and Customs  – the queuing took an hour, the actual process about three minutes – I had to go to Continental Airlines’ check in desk, fully expecting to be told there were no more flights to San Antonio that evening and already forming my contingency plan  which was to find a hotel and try to get Continental to pay for it! At least find a hotel. Fortunately, that proved not to be the case as I got the last remaining seat on the last departure of the evening and made it to San Antonio just after 10 pm, where I was met by my friend Robert Reeves.

I spent a couple of days not doing much and, on Sunday evening, we checked the weather forecast for Ft. Davis. It was a mixed bag and wasn’t looking too good. However, the forecast was almost changing hourly, the Davis Mountains have their own microclimate, just like the Isle of Wight does, and the weather is hard to predict – it could be clear in the mountains but raining and cloudy outside the mountains.

After a six-hour drive from San Antonio, Robert and I arrived at the Prude Ranch on Monday afternoon. Two things were apparent when we stepped out the truck – very high winds and heat. The high winds were particularly unwelcome as they’d make observing difficult, if not impossible although we were told by ranch staff that they’d die down by dusk – and they were right, the winds did die down as dark fell. It’s always nice to meet friends from previous TSPs and before long I’d run into Alvin Huey, Barbara Wilson, David Moody, Amelia Goldberg, Steve Goldberg, Keith and Jan Venables, Matt Delavoryas and many others.


The Upper Field


Despite unpromising conditions (lots of high clouds and high winds) at first, the observing was pretty good on Monday night and Alvin, Dennis Beckley and I knocked off Larry Mitchells 2010 Advanced Observing list – which, this year, was Flat and Super Thin Galaxies – with Dennis’s 18 inch Dob. We observed UGC 5267, UGC 5270, MCG+2-25-42, UGC 5341, CGCG 63-37, UGC 5164, UGC 5495, MCG 3-26-39, UGC 5509, NGC 3579, NGC 3501, NGC 2820, NGC 2805, UGC 6378, UGC 6667, UGC 8040, UGC 8146, UGC 7321, NGC 4183, NGC 4222, NGC 4244, NGC 5907, UGC 10043, NGC 3245A, NGC 3432 and UGC 4719. We then claimed our pins from Larry who was pretty impressed that we’d done this in one night.

After a chat with Larry, and a peek at M17 through the 36″ we went our separate ways, as it was now 0430 and some of us, including me, had been up since 0600 the previous morning.

While observing on Monday night, Jimi Lowrey who is a friend of Alvin’s and who I visited (along with some of the Houston gang) back in 2008 stopped by and invited me to join him and Alvin for a night on the 48″. Obviously this was something not to be missed, especially as there were only going to be three of us – me, Jimi and Alvin – so just after 4pm Tuesday Alvin collected me and we headed up to Jimi’s place at Limpia Crossing.

Just before dinner, Jimi and me headed over to fellow amateur Carl Swicky’s place to see his 32″. In the area, there are other observatories set up and there’s a community of amateur astronomers. With the climate, dark skies, gorgeous birdlife and beautiful scenery I can’t think of a better life, so if ever I win the UK lottery and get the chance to get out of that murky light-polluted place here is where I will come. We looked, admired and took plenty of pics (including a prime focus capture of me in the 32″ mirror, below).


On reflection...



32" piece of gorgeousness


After dinner, we headed up to Jimi’s observatory, just up the hill from his house and set up ‘Barbarella’, his giant scope, for the night. The scope is collimated with huge bolts which need a torque wrench to turn and the laser collimator in the eyepiece can only be seen properly with a pair of binoculars! Once the scope was set up and the mirror fans left to do their work (they suck air in and blow it out of the back of the mirror cell) we went back to the house to get our stuff and some supplies before returning to the observatory.


Jimi and Alvin collimating the Big One



Jimi checking the primary mirror with binoculars



Me pretending to observe at the eyepiece of the 48"


This was an awesome night of observing; we observed quite a few objects, including NGC 3242 (aka the Ghost of Jupiter), UGC 9492, Arp 84, Arp 105 and Ambartsumian’s Knot – including the Knot itself, the bridge between the galaxies and the streamer that comes away from the bottom galaxy. This latter component is on the famous Aintno List compiled by Barbara Wilson and Larry Mitchell but, sadly, Barbara didn’t believe us when we told her about it! I think Larry did believe us, but he needed to see it for himself, he said.

Also seen were the ring galaxy VII Zwicky 466, the Double Quasar Q0957+561 A/B (nine billion light years distant, and I saw the very faint galaxy that is the gravitational lens – another Aintno, but we still couldn’t weedle a certificate out of Larry and Barbara!), the Jet in M87 (a long-standing observing ambition of mine that I hadn’t to date fulfilled, never got round to it. It was surprisingly easy but, then, I was using a 48″ scope), the planetary nebula DHW 1-2, NGC 6304, the compact galaxy group Rose 13, very small and quite tough to separate the components (I saw 3 members), NGC 5907 and NGC 6543, the Cat’s Eye Nebula. We also saw the lensed quasars around NGC 3842 (QSO 1141+202), which are number 66 on the (in)famous AINTNO list.

NGC 5394/5395 (Arp 84)


NGC 5394/5395 (Arp 84)


The transparency was very good although the seeing was mediocre, but we did get those moments of clarity which allowed quasars, etc, to pop into view. We packed up at 0500 and went back to the house where we all had a few hours’ sleep before Alvin gave me a ride back to the Prude Ranch.

It was an awesome night and to see stuff that’s totally impossible at home with a 12 inch is an opportunity you just can’t refuse. Jimi, I doubt you read this, but if you do – thank you very much indeed for a wonderful night’s observing!

Wednesday was a lazy day, spent doing not very much at all, although I did bother to go to afternoon talks, as I wanted to hear Larry Mitchell’s talk on Super Thin Galaxies and Alvin’s talk about observing galaxy groups, clusters and trios. They were both excellent talks and very interesting, certainly to me as I particularly like observing galaxies.

For the night’s observing, I joined Larry and his 36″. Larry was working on next year’s Advanced Observing List and we looked at some of the possible candidates for that list. We also looked at a mixture of eye candy and dim stuff, too, including M108 and some of the very faint galaxies around it, IC 4616 which is near M13, Hickson 82 and NGCs 4038 and 4039.
Unfortunately, by 0230, I couldn’t stay awake any longer as I’d had the sum total of 10 hours’ sleep since Sunday night so I had to call it quits and go to bed. I didn’t like having to do that but, as the sky was beginning to deteriorate anyway, it wasn’t the sacrifice it could have been and, as Larry pointed out, ten hours’ sleep in three days is overdoing things a bit.
I have to mention the quote of the 2010 TSP, which came from Amelia Goldberg: “Larry, all this faint shit you’re making me observe means I don’t want to look at the bright stuff anymore!”. It certainly gave all of us a good laugh.

Thursday night was spent with Alvin and Dennis and Dennis’ 18″ f/4.5 Obsession, trying to observe enough objects for another of Larry’s Challenges, this time Rings Over Texas, a program from 2000. We got quite a few done but failed to complete the list due to interference from drifting clouds and, at one point, an inquisitive skunk who materialised on the Upper Field right next to Dennis’ tent. Skunks are notorious for spraying a noxious and evil-smelling substance when they consider themselves threatened, so we backed away from the scope with Dennis praying it wouldn’t spray the scope and me and Alvin hoping it wouldn’t spray our bags. The skunk was just minding its own business and was on the look out for tasty morsels, such as dropped pieces of hot dogs or unattended sandwiches, and eventually went on its way.
Something was strange on that Thursday night. Not the skunk visit but the fact that the north western corner of the Upper Field was like the Marie Celeste. “Where are the Houston gang?” asked a passer-by “Have they all wimped out and gone to bed?”. Which would have been unlike the Houston crowd. No, they’d gone up to Jimi’s for a night on the 48″. Their unused scopes looked rather spectral in their white shrouds and ‘Desert Storm’ covers under the dim glow from the Milky Way. It was a little eerie.

It was a quiet day spent around and about on Friday. I went to Indian Lodge State Park and did some birding (and, I hope, I got some decent photos; I’d brought my 400mm Canon telephoto to the US as it’s my birding lens and produces excellent results) and in the afternoon, I visited fellow Brit’s Keith and Jan Venables for their 4.30pm Happy Hour which is now a TSP institution. Up to 15 people gather at their bunkhouse for beer or wine, pretzels and chat. I can’t always make it, so much to do, so many people to chat to, but it’s a very civilised way to spend an hour on a TSP afternoon, chatting, drinking and talking astronomy.

I had made a promise to myself not to spend much money this year but, entirely predictably, I broke that promise and exceeded my self-imposed budget by at least $200. But, as I told myself, that prevents me being royally ripped off when I come to change US dollars back into Her Britannic Maj’s British Pounds. If I spent my tourist $s on things I want in the States, then I am not going to be ripped off at the airport or the travel agent back home.
I did buy an Arcturus Telrad dew shield from Camera Concepts – I’d been looking for one for ages in the UK and not found a decent one at a non-scandalous price until TSP, plus I bagged an Antares 2-inch to 1.25 inch eyepiece adapter which, instead of having a screw to hold the eyepiece securely, twists closed. It’s much more secure and there’s no annoying little screw to fall out and get lost, so it will be an improvement on the one I currently use.
I also bought The Night Sky Observers’ Guide Volume Three – The Southern Skies from Bob Kepple, one of the authors, plus the Digitised Sky Survey on CD Rom for $45. Both were bargains and the book was $34 which is much better than the outrageous prices charged in the UK – Amazon UK wanted a ridiculous 70 quid for a copy when I looked earlier in the year! I obviously won’t get much of an opportunity to use it in back in the UK, but I wanted it to join my Volumes 1 and 2 and I will be taking it on my next trip to the Southern Hemisphere, whenever that will be. As for the DSS, I nearly bought a copy for a hundred quid from someone at the IW Star Party earlier this year but decided against it due to the price. I also bought a Lumicon 2-inch UHC filter – I already have 1.25 inch filters but now I also have 2-inch eyepieces in my collection and using 1.25 filters with these is a pain and the filters inevitably get dropped, with the risk of loss or damage. I can also screw the 2-inch filter into the Antares adapter, which means I don’t have to swap the filter between eyepieces when viewing nebulae.

I also bought Turn Left At Orion – I don’t need it, it’s a beginner’s book and I am not a beginner and haven’t been a beginner since the early 1990’s, but I wanted it for my collection and, besides, Dan Davis and Brother Guy Consolmagno were signing copies. I also bought Brother Guy’s autobiography Brother Astronomer to read on the plane home. I am interested to see how he reconciles his Catholic beliefs with science, especially as I am an ex-Roman Catholic myself. I say ‘ex’ as I was brought up in the Church but I am a non-believer but I didn’t tell Brother Guy that though, it was neither the time nor the place.

Friday night, I was invited back up to Jimi’s 48 inch for some more deepest of deep sky observing so, once the talk (a hilarious account of the making of Turn Left At Orion by Brother Guy and Dan Davis; Brother Guy, especially, would have been a great stand up comedian) and the Great Texas Giveaway were done – as usual I didn’t win a thing! – Alvin and I headed up the hill to Jimi’s place.
By the time we arrived, it was dark and the skies looked very promising indeed but, unfortunately, this state of affairs did not last long as fog and clouds built up. The humidity was already up to 63% and by the end of the session it had got up to 78%, just like observing from home!
We didn’t do much, but we did see Hickson 50, an optical jet in IC1182 (the jet has a designation in Larry Mitchell’s MAC catalogue, MAC 1605-1747B, as it does look like a tiny galaxy) and an uncharted lensed quasar in Lynx. As the clouds and fog were becoming a nuisance, we called it a night and headed back to the house for a sandwich, beer and astronomy talk. I again crashed on Jimi’s sofa and later in the morning, Alvin and I headed back to the Ranch.

I hate the last day of TSP. That Saturday is always a sad occasion, as the party is done for another year – or another two, at least, in my case – and we all have to go our separate ways.
After lunch, I packed my bag and then went birding. I did, at last, find Vermilion Flycatchers and I got what I hope are good pictures of one, a lovely bright red and black male bird.


Vermilion Flycatcher


The final meal of the 2010 TSP was steak and, unlike the rest of the meals during the week, it was pretty good, with baked potatoes and corn on the cob. After that there was a talk on meteorites, then observing awards and then the Great Texas Giveaway Part 2 – and I still didn’t win a thing. There was a 17mm Televue Ethos up for grabs as the grand prize but, as usual, I didn’t win. You’d have thought that, with a lot of people having packed up and gone home the odds would have shortened on winning stuff. Uh uh, no. Oh well, never mind, next time maybe.

Once the meeting was over, we all left the meeting hall, and some people headed home straight away, while those of us staying the night went to the observing fields, which were almost entirely deserted and largely empty of scopes, especially the Middle and Lower Fields with most people having packed their scopes away ready for an early departure next morning.
After farewells to various people and chatting it was time for bed, as the sky had completely clouded over so observing clearly wasn’t going to happen. I finished packing and went to bed before a 6am departure back to San Antonio with Robert.

On Sunday morning we headed out under the Adios, Vaya Con Dios sign on the ranch gate, always a sad moment, and, after a six hour drive which I mostly missed as I was asleep, we arrived back in San Antonio just after lunch.

It had been a good TSP and the weather co-operated – most of the time – and I got some good observing in with 18, 36 and 48 inch scopes. Thanks to all those who let me share their scopes: Dennis Beckley, Larry Mitchell and Jimi Lowrey – thanks guys, it is much appreciated. Also, Alvin for the invites and laughs. I got a binocular pin and a coveted Larry Mitchell Advanced Observing Pin and I got a lot of good observations and some good drawings.
Finally, the biggest thank you goes to Robert and Mary Reeves for their hospitality in San Antonio and the ride to and from the Prude Ranch. It’s this sort of thing that makes trips like this possible.