Summer means star parties, and star parties mean fun. Read about my adventures at the annual Cherry Springs and Table Mountain gatherings.
After a slog through this spring's wet and cloudy weather, it was a relief to hit the clear skies of summer. Most of my observing happens from my backyard, of course, but I always have one eye on my calendar, counting down the days to when I can start packing for my first summer star party.
Time to Hit the Road
In late June, I loaded a 10-inch reflector, a 90-mm refractor, four pairs of binoculars (yes, really), a pair of solar binoculars, and every piece of camping equipment I own into my too-small-for-astronomy car. I was off to Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, to attend the annual star party hosted by the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg PA (ASH).
If you haven't observed under the night skies of the certified Dark Sky Park at Cherry Springs, you should make plans to do so soon. For a small fee, anyone with a scope can set up and camp on the field, which is wired for electricity. Twice a year, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (PA DCNR) closes the observing field to the public so two different astronomy clubs can use it for star parties: the Cherry Springs Star Party, hosted by ASH in the spring, and the Black Forest Star Party, hosted by the Central Pennsylvania Observers in the fall.
The Cherry Springs Star Party officially opened under cloudy skies on Thursday, June 22nd. Unfortunately, the clouds and rain stayed with us until Saturday night. But no one ever gets bored at star party, even in bad weather. During the day, we gathered in a log pavilion to listen to a slate of diverse presentations: Steve Conard of IOTA brought us up to date on observing occultations; former S&T Editor in Chief, Bob Naeye, talked about the upcoming total solar eclipse; Steven Fry spoke on galaxy formation; Larry McHenry inspired us to observe a few lesser-known star clusters; Stephen C. Spears shared some of his low-resolution spectroscopic observations; Roxanne Kanin held an astronomy Q&A; and Ben Stone and Scott Morgan talked about on-going work by ASH and PA DCNR to preserve the dark sky at Cherry Springs State Park.
And for the first two nights, we did something amateur astronomers seldom do at new Moon: sleep.
Saturday night was amazing in so many ways. To begin with, it was fantastic to finally see an observing window open, and I made the best use of it by chasing down Comet Johnson (C2015 / V2) with the 10-inch. But even more fantastic was the display of dedication and passion for amateur astronomy I saw demonstrated that night.
The Cherry Springs observing field sits across a road from a space used by the PA DCNR for public astronomy presentations on summer weekends. Each year during the Cherry Springs Star Party, ASH and the PA DCNR collaborate to bring the attendees of the public program in contact with the amateur astronomy community across the way. In the space of a few hours, some 1,200 members of the public, some of whom had driven five hours to be there, came through the observing field to look through volunteered telescopes.
I don't know if you've witnessed 1,200 people getting their first look at Saturn, but it's almost indescribable. The excitement of everyone involved was invigorating. Congratulations to both ASH and the PA DCNR for bringing the public to the stars. It was a stunning example of outreach, and I can hardly wait to see where this program goes from here. (As an aside, even a young bear came to check out the observing field, proving that every body, even the most ursine amongst us, loves a good star party.)
Way Out West, Way Up North
A few weeks after the long drive home from Cherry Springs State Park, I headed west again, this time by plane and rental car. I was happily making a return trip to the Table Mountain Star Party (TMSP) outside Oroville, Washington, at the (U.S.) head of the Okanogan valley. Don't let the name fool you: thanks to a forest fire some years back, this gathering no longer takes place on Table Mountain, but on the Eden Valley Guest Ranch. As I was driving up the valley, I worried about the observing; a lot of smoke was coming our way from forest fires burning to the north in British Columbia. Luckily, the smoke began drifting in a different direction soon after I reached Oroville.
As had been the case at Cherry Springs, the speakers for the 2017 TMSP offered something for everyone. Mark Simonson led a workshop on sketching nebulae, Cliff Mygatt showed us all how to clean our optics, Bob Yoesle offered advice on solar imaging, and Bob Scott made us see how rewarding urban observing can be. Michelle Larson, President of Adler Planetarium, talked about using Twitter for outreach (#AstroEverywhere), and Shane Larson of Northwestern University gave two presentations about scale (of the solar system and the universe). And fortunately for everyone, historian Arnie Marchand returned to the speakers' tent in 2017, where he shared his deep knowledge about the local Okanogan Indians (past and present).
This year, TMSP attendees enjoyed an unprecedented five nights of clear observing — dark, transparent skies with steady seeing. This is a well-protected, red-light only site (even the neighbors on the hill agreed to shield their security lights for the duration of the star party); it's been awhile since I've seen such good skies for so many nights in a row. I ran through my observing list and some over the first few nights. It's not often I have to sit down and write up an extra observing plan during a star party, but I'm certainly not complaining. Even my 90-mm Maksutov-Cassegrain travel scope was pulling down deep looks.
Those skies made it difficult to get up in the morning, but I'm glad I did. This year's telescope-making project wasn't a scope at all, but a solar projection unit designed by Jack Day. Fashioned from custom-length arrow shafts, embroidery hoops, and movie screen fabric, the projection unit worked perfectly with my travel scope. Just in time for the total solar eclipse on August 21st!
Different Strokes, Different Folks
Every time I attend a new star party, I learn something new or discover a different way to do something. Every party has its own culture. Most are held at relatively remote locations, but some are really remote (leave a comment and let me know your pick for most remote). Some have a large outreach component, others feel like a gathering of old friends that just happened to arrive at the same clearing in the forest at the same time. Some star parties are closely associated with local clubs, others are run by boards with members from different clubs in the region. Pretty much all have a chuckwagon for that cup of coffee you really, really need at midnight, though, so there's no need to worry about that.
Clear skies, and I hope to see you at a star party soon!