James and I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 2014 OzSky Star Safari a few weeks ago. Originally designated the Deepest South Texas Star Party, OzSky aims to show northern hemisphere astronomers just what they’re missing out on by living on the wrong side of the equator.
A good star party has two nearly-equal aspects: the star part, and the party part. So I’ve split the recap into two, to match.
The star part
Saturday night: cloudy when we went to bed… then clear by 1.30am. There was thumping on doors at 2am with the announcement that “Sky’s clear!!” – so we observed until 5am.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: clear as clear, only forced to bed by that stupidly bright Venus rising pre-dawn. (Alex piked early on Wednesday.)
Thursday: cloudy. Alex was sad but not too sad.
Friday: cloudy… until 10.30pm. When it came clear and some of those crazy northerners announced that hell yes, it was their last night observing in Australia so they absolutely wanted the telescopes uncovered, thanks. It fogged out at 12.30am, but over those two hours more and more people emerged from their rooms to have one last look at southern glories and faint fuzzies. It was a near perfect end to the week.
Part of the attraction of OzSky as an event is that the organisation behind it owns a bunch of big Dobsonian telescopes which get brought along, set up, and collimated by the volunteers. We decided to take along our own telescopes as well, figuring that there wouldn’t be any other refractors so ours would enable people to see things a bit differently – especially with its very wide field, plus Jupiter was going to be primo early in the evening – and that another Dob wouldn’t go astray.
We had quite different observing experiences.
I spent most nights at my own telescope. Of the southern stuff, I particularly enjoyed showing off the Eta Carina nebula in the widest eyepiece I could. It’s all very well and good to go zooming in on the Homunculus (which is awesome and we managed to see lobes just resolving in my 4.7mm), but the entire nebula really is incredible. Additionally, there was the Jewel Box and Gem Cluster (best at lower power where the colours really came out), and Omega Centauri and 47 Tuc (I hadn’t realised our globular clusters were another thing the south does better). The Tarantula Nebula and LMC in general were also winners in the wide field.
Of the non-southern stuff, I did indulge my weakness for planetary observing and forced anybody wandering past to blast their eyeballs, despite occasional protestations. And I don’t think anyone complained… well, not much. Early on, Jupiter: I didn’t think they were the absolute best views ever, but still seriously awesome. Several cloud bands evident, plus the Red Spot, and on one night the end of a moon’s shadow transit, which is always exciting. Later in the evening, Saturn was looking very fine: the Cassini division very obvious, striations on the surface, etc. And then there’s Mars. I have never, ever seen Mars that well. To my lasting joy, we saw ice on Mars – Hellas Basin and a polar cap. We saw markings on the surface of Mars. We saw clouds on Mars. I felt like I was living in a science fiction novel.
I did go off and look through other telescopes occasionally, when someone wanted to play on my telescope or someone else convinced me that there are other things worth looking at. I risked my neck climbing a ladder at midnight to see the Eight-Burst Nebula through the 25 inch, and I saw some galaxy through the 30 inch (when it wasn’t pointing straight up because that ladder was a frightening prospect for me). I got to be a guinea pig on the star chair with its 25×150 binoculars attached; using the joystick to move around was like being in a 1980s-SF-movie VR game. And when I got to the point that my feet left the ground and I felt like I was lying on my back… well. Someone likened the experience to being Luke in the gun turret of the Falcon. And I also got to play with the ground-mounted 12″ binos, whose view of Omega Centauri blows every other view out of the water. And, of course, I got to look at a few things through James’ scope – including Pluto! Which means I’ve bagged every planet (Mercury only naked eye).
Also, the Milky Way in general. It was dark enough that the Emu (Coal Sack + dark lane through the Milky Way) stood out beautifully, and the LMC and SMC were visible even when I wasn’t wearing glasses (that’s my litmus test).
So the first thing to note about all the observing was the unseasonably damp nights we had. It’s pretty unusual in Oz to end up with water pouring off dew shrouds on big scopes etc. In Victoria I hardly bother even putting mine on most of the time. In a curious reversal from normal Coona conditions, then, we had exceptional seeing and only ok transparency – it was still a dark site, but not the ink blackness which it can have. The views of objects which need high power, though, were among the best I’ve seen… Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all gave up all their visually discernible secrets; the Homunculus was nothing short of breath taking – a true treat for our international friends to enjoy.
I split my time helping folks with the various scopes, aligning Argos and giving little sky tours with my 16″. I spent one evening setting up the 30 inch solo; that’s enough to make me glad I only have a baby telescope. Puffing at the top of a 15ft ladder after hauling the scope around to yet another object! The 12inch binocular scope is spectacular to look through, but suffered badly without dew heaters etc. The 25×150 Fujis on the star chair is likewise an exciting way to explore the broad subject which is our Milky Way view.
Some folks were chasing down long lists of southern objects, others were making photos and enjoying the eye candy. One of the more enjoyable evenings was spent with fellow SDM owner Robert Werkman as we worked through a huge range of objects culminating in a tour of the Centaurus Galaxy cluster before kicking back and enjoying some of the best Mars views any of us had seen in our lives.
The combination of lots of big scopes, friends and guests to share with is pretty unbeatable – that and a motel room 100m from the field. We look forward already to next year.