The 2012 Texas Star Party – Part 2, 18th-21st April

Click here for Part 1

Wednesday 18th April: Wednesday was notable mainly for a feral donkey, on US 166 the other side of Fort Davis, trying to trash the KIA Sorento rental car and almost succeeding, as it managed to inflict some large and deep scratches into the metal down the right-hand side with its teeth; but at least it didn’t resort to kicking the car and causing even more serious damage. This donkey, nicknamed “Pancho”, seems to be well-known in Jeff Davis County – the Prude Ranch staff’s reaction was ‘Oh, that donkey!’, said in a knowing manner, so its reputation obviously precedes it. Anyway, reputation or not, it is a little bastard and I think I am probably lucky I didn’t get bitten or kicked when I got out to try and chase it away.

That evening I had dinner at Indian Lodge with Bob Reeves, Dave Tosteson and Perry and Patricia Remaklus of Willmann-Bell, and  then Bob did a talk about observing the Moon, trying to convince us hardcore deep sky hounds that we would be doing ourselves a favour if we turned our scopes to nature’s light pollution machine every so often – and I think he did a great job. It was an excellent, entertaining, talk and got a lot of us thinking more about the Moon*. He then presented the Omega Centauri Award to Perry and Patricia Remaklus and well-deserved too. Their publishing house produces some of the best books in astronomy available.
Al Nagler arrived during the evening session and announced that five new Delos eyepieces – 14mm, 12mm, 8mm, 4.5mm and 3.5mm – were scheduled to be released in the Fall, thus completing the line-up. He said that he would be around over the coming nights with the prototypes and demonstrating them through his telescope, as well as any other telescopes people wished to try them in. Later in the week, I had to break the bad news to Larry that, yes, the view of the Coma Galaxy Cluster was better and more contrasty in the prototype 8mm Delos than it was in his 8mm Ethos with more of the fainter galaxies standing out better.

I spent the night mostly at Larry Mitchell’s scope, observing and chatting with Larry, his friend Judy, Alvin and some other people who stopped by. Larry is a great guy, very generous with his scope and his time and always happy to have observing suggestions put his way. And, of course, having such a huge instrument at your disposal does no harm either!


The business end of the 36 inch


I did some observing and sketching with Larry’s scope, including Abell 21 (aka the Medusa Nebula) in Gemini and Arp 300 (sketches will follow once scanned). I also wandered among the scopes of the Upper Field chatting with people and looked through their telescopes. I didn’t do much observing on Wednesday, but I did do a lot of socialising, the other main reason for coming to a star party. Just chillin’ as Americans would say.

Thursday, April 19th: I caved in and spent some money. I always buy eyepieces and other small bits and pieces of equipment at TSP and this one was no exception, although I forgot a Lumicon 2″ OIII filter I’d intended to get. I was hoping to buy a couple of Delos eyepieces – 6mm and 10mm – but CCTS had sold out, so I ended up buying a couple of second-hand Naglers instead; Jimi Lowrey’s old 9mm Type 1 and a 12mm Type 4, both are great eyepieces and I got to use them extensively at TSP. Apart from a couple of t-shirts (of which more in a bit) the only other item I purchased was a 2 inch Howie Glatter laser collimator with Barlow attachment. I’d been promising myself a decent laser collimator for a while and, as Howie himself was there, I bought it directly from him. I think I’ll treat myself to the TuBlug adaptor at some point as I know removing the shroud each time will get old quickly!

Thursday night was a lot more productive. After visiting some friends with their scopes, I spent the latter half of the night with the 10″ Orion SkyQuest dob I had borrowed from SAAA. I did a lot of observing in and around the Milky Way once it had risen with this great little scope (I’d like a 10″ dob, which would be a bit easier to use than my 8″ Newtonian and with a tad more light-gathering power, as it would be ideal for putting in the car and also for those sessions when getting the big one out isn’t worth the effort). and, with it, bagged a lot of globular clusters which I can’t see from my home site – plus ones that are visible from here but don’t get very high. The objects observed included globulars in Corona Australis, Hydra, Lupus, Norma, Sagittarius and Scorpius over two nights. I did very little sketching, apart from an ambitious M42 sketch, preferring instead to concentrate on just writing a few notes down for each one.

I am aiming to get some more pins from the Astronomical League and, with the observations from TSP, I can now claim the Globular Cluster one. I like the idea of earning pins for completing observing programs, not only is there the satisfaction of being disciplined enough to complete a ‘study’ of something but there’s the added incentive of getting a nice shiny pin as well. This seems to be very popular among the US amateur community, judging by the amount of people I see with various AL and TSP pins on their clothing or hats – I wish there was similar in the UK, but Americans seem to be more active and serious than the UK community; I don’t think that weather and light pollution has anything to do with this, as many of them have as much light pollution as the rest of us and, in a lot of cases, equally iffy climates. That’s the main difference between American and UK observers, the American scene is a lot more vibrant than ours but, in fairness, we are catching up at last.
I didn’t do any TSP pins this year, not even the binocular pin as I already have three and they are the same design, but I did claim an Advanced Observing Pin (Arp Peculiar Galaxies) from Larry for doing that program at TSP some years ago. I observed a load of Arps in 2006 and, on going through my notes from that TSP I found I qualified for the pin. So, I have two TSP Advanced Pins (the other is Super Thin Galaxies, from 2010).

Friday, April 20th: This was a very quiet day as the all-night sessions were beginning to catch up. We arrived back on the ranch late afternoon (Bob had already been back and taken the group photo before returning for me, as I didn’t want to get up as ‘early’ as 11am!) after stopping at a pizza place on the edge of town. The pizzas weren’t too bad but the noisy kids belonging to a member of staff were a pain in the arse.
The staff member the kids belonged to was an Australian so I asked what brought him to Ft. Davis. He’d moved to the States to become a baseball player, got married instead, had kids and found himself in Ft. Davis. Lucky bloke. Not for the marriage and kids (I don’t envy that) but for living in beautiful West Texas. He said he was always being mistaken for an Englishman which amused me, as I often get asked if I am Australian (no kidding, I wish I was!) as Americans seemingly can’t easily distinguish the two accents. In fairness, a lot of British people can’t tell the difference between US and Canadian accents or Australian and New Zealand accents either and, judging by my experiences in Australia, Aussies have problems distinguishing English, US American, South African and Canadian as I have ‘been’ all of these things at some point while there!

The evening speaker was Al Nagler, whose talk was biographical, about his life and work, including work on the simulators for the Apollo missions. It was a great talk, hilarious in places, and when you consider that Al worked with – and pulled the odd prank on – the likes of Neil Armstrong, awesome. I didn’t win anything in the Great Texas Giveaway Part 1, still there is always the next night…

Al Nagler speaks to the assembled throng

Some Aussie humour! This cartoon originally appeared in a cartoon in an Australian astronomy mag.

Another all-night session followed, with mooching views through telescopes before spending the morning hours cruising through southern globular clusters again. Al Nagler wanted his annual ‘Omega Centauri fix’ – something I can relate to as I too always have to look at the great southern globular every time I am far enough south to do so – so I popped the 12mm Nagler into the 10″ and let him have a look…wow, Al Nagler looking through MY Nagler eyepiece!
I got to look at Saturn through Al’s scope with the prototype 3.5mm Delos eyepiece – it was one of the best views I have had of Saturn, very sharp.

Bed…sleep..what are these strange concepts?

Saturday, April 21st: The final day of TSP 2012. I was scheduled to do a talk, about ‘Astronomy Adventures’ (my observing ups and downs over the past 20 years) during the afternoon and, despite briefly entertaining thoughts of doing a runner into the hills before it began, it actually went very well indeed with a lot of positive comments coming my way afterwards. I didn’t know how compos mentis any of us would be, so I opened by saying that everyone is likely to be a bit spaced out following such a superb week therefore I wouldn’t be offended by nodding heads or the sounds of snoring gently drifting across the room! I am pleased to say that, during the talk, I couldn’t see anyone nodding off or hear snores!
It was the final ‘Happy Hour’ of the 2012 TSP, at the Goldberg-Venables cabin. Somehow I ended up with a Margarita cocktail and a beer. I managed to spill about a third of the beer by doing my usual clumsy thing of putting it down while I drank the Margarita, forgetting about it and kicking it over.

Bob and I weren’t returning to Nancy-Jean’s place as we were heading back to San Antonio the next morning so we found some spare beds in Walnut cabin, which is the speakers’ accommodation. Bob was an evening speaker and I was his guest, so we were entitled to crash there for the night.

The Saturday evening speaker was Ray Villard, from the Space Telescope Science Institute. His talk was superb and very funny. This year all the evening speakers have been entertaining and interesting. Sometimes they can be a bit hit-and-miss (depending on your interests and the their capabilities as a speaker) but Barbara had excelled herself this year. Following on from my 100% runaway non-success in the Great Texas Giveaway Part 1, I didn’t win a damned thing in the Great Texas Giveaway Part 2 either but I never win anything in raffles anyway – I suppose that there is a version of me in a parallel universe somewhere who is rich, successful, not on the autistic spectrum and who wins lots of raffles! That or there’s some git in this universe who wins all my share of the prizes as well as their own…
On the subject of raffles and the GTG I see they were doing a kids’ version this year, on the Friday evening which is quite a nice idea, but why do they then say that any kid who hasn’t won a prize will still get something? It seems to be a feature of modern culture, that children aren’t allowed to be disappointed or be seen to lose out in any way. That doesn’t do the kids – or society – any good in the long run, as it helps fuel the obnoxious ‘entitlement’ culture we’re seeing more and more of, on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere (and it is this culture which was a direct cause of the riots seen across England last August. The riots weren’t a protest, they were ‘guerilla consumerism’ i.e. ransacking and looting). There WILL be disappointments and let downs in life, kids, you’d better get used to it and fast.

It was a very short observing session as most people, including me, had packed away telescopes ready for a swift departure the next morning. I had intended to do a TSP binocular pin but was too tired to lift the binoculars to my eyes after a long week of observing. Everyone else was in exactly the same situation so, after sitting around and chatting (with the occasional views through a nearby 28″) we called it quits at 1230 am.

I don’t like that inevitable moment that comes when it’s time to drive off the ranch through that famous gate with its ‘Adios. Vaya con Dios‘ sign, but I daresay I will be back in two years’ time for my fifth glorious Texas Star Party! We arrived back in San Antonio later in the afternoon, entertained and kept awake by the audio book version of the novel Robopocalypse.

* Robert’s excellent talk didn’t stop me buying this t-shirt though. I’d been after one for years, ever since I saw Owen Brazell wearing one at the 1993 Webb Society AGM. This came from Bob Summerfield and was in his $5 ‘bargain basement’. Funnily enough, I’d actually given up on being able to ever find one as they seemed to be rarer than hens’ teeth, when I was looking through the contents of Bob’s cardboard bargain-bin and this appeared among all the too-small blemished and remaindered items…

And that was it for TSP 2012. It always goes way too fast but this year the time went faster than usual. In fact it is almost a blur. Apart from observing notes, I didn’t keep a journal or anything like that, so this was pieced together from memory.
After a couple of days in San Antonio, including an entertaining visit to a law office(!) with a fabulous meteorite and mineral collection, courtesy of a lawyer friend of the Reeves’, I headed home, via Washington DC where I saw a redundant Space Shuttle across the airfield (either Discovery having arrived a few days previously, or the prototype Enterprise waiting to be shifted to New York, having been displaced from the Smithsonian by the arrival of Discovery – whichever it was, I was pleased to finally see one having only ever seen a shuttle as a moving dot in the night sky!) atop its modified NASA Boeing 747. It was smaller than I expected, no larger than one of the fast catamaran ferries that operate between Southampton and the Isle of Wight.
At Heathrow I saw one of the retired Concordes, G-BOAB/Concorde 206, alongside the runway – I still miss seeing those aircraft flying low over the island on final approach; along with the liner QE2 they are lost icons of Britishness (although, unlike that ship, the most of the planes are still in the UK and not sold to a foreign country and left to rot in harsh desert surroundings).

On arrival at Heathrow on Thursday morning, I was not pleased to discover that my checked bag had somehow missed this flight and was on the next flight to London. That said, it was liberating not to have to drag it with me back to the island and it arrived via courier at home the next day. The jet lag has also been the worst I have ever had, taking a week to wear off completely but it was worth it.