JOURNAL OF THE 2003 TEXAS STAR PARTY!!
2003 Ted Saker, Jr. All Rights Reserved.
Country of First Publication: The United States of America
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Table of Contents
Body Cavity Search, Anyone? (Saturday April 26)
Dash to Ft. Davis (Sunday April 27)
First Day on the Ranch (Monday April 28)
Odds and Ends (Tuesday April 29)
Pop's Texas Burger (Wednesday April 30)
Trailer Envy (Thursday May 1)
My Kind of McDonald's (Friday May 2)
Dodging Funnels (Saturday May 3)
Saturday April 26, 2003
Body Cavity Search, Anyone?
This year’s trip to the Texas Star Party posed some challenges separate and apart from the usual ones that I face just getting away for a week. Phil Kuebler, my normal traveling companion, was confronted with his own problem. The weekend we were scheduled to travel to Ft. Davis was the same weekend that he was scheduled to attend his youngest son’s college freshman orientation. I briefly flirted with the idea of tackling the 1500 miles to the Prude Ranch myself. My long-suffering spouse nixed that idea quickly. She knew that plan meant that she would be without her SUV for a week and she had no intention of driving my car.
Our travel plans came together in the couple of weeks prior to our departure. I bought a one-way ticket to Nashville where Phil and I would rendezvous on Saturday evening. We would then make a mad dash across Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas in the hope that we could arrive at the Prude Ranch prior to dark out. My flight to Nashville was to be my first encounter with the Transportation Safety Administration and post-September 11 security procedures.
The first stage of security went well. My checked bag passed through security without a problem. However, my carryon bag with a bunch of electronic gear triggered a close inspection. When the metal detector chimed, I had to take off my shoes, stand on a mat, and watch the agents dig through everything in the bag. The lone casualty was my pipe lighter of the pocket torch variety. Apparently, it was on the list of banned items. I had no one to give it to, so I had to relinquish it.
The airline flight was otherwise enjoyable. Upon landing in Nashville, I called Phil and found out he was on his way. I arranged to meet him at the Radisson airport hotel. While waiting for Phil, I had a nice dinner and read the newspapers. As the evening lengthened with no sign of Phil, I began to worry. Finally, he called to tell me he was at the airport and could I give him directions to the hotel. The desk clerk told me that we were one exit beyond the airport exit. A few minutes later, Phil called again and told me he had taken the exit but could not find the Radisson. He asked me for the exit number and that told him that he was going east instead of west. I had assumed Phil would have approached Nashville from the west, but that was not the case. This proved that I should not have assumed which direction Phil intended to approach Nashville and to get better information on the location. At any rate, Phil picked me up at 9:00 and we were off.
Circumstances this year dictated that we take a different route this year. Instead of the northern route through St. Louis and Oklahoma City, we took the southern route through Memphis and Dallas. Phil had already been driving four hours and to my surprise, he continued behind the wheel for another hour. Once we changed seats, I knew the struggle to get to Ft. Davis had begun in earnest.
Phil was certain that we had to make it to Dallas by nine the next morning in order to stand a chance of arriving at the Prude Ranch before they close the gate and dark-out began. Therefore, we would have to minimize the number of stops, keep our speed up, and hope to avoid accident or delay. I rubbed my St. Christopher medal frequently as the hours and miles unwound. We passed through Memphis at about midnight or so. Just before we passed over the Father of Waters, I noticed a well lit, pyramid-shaped building on the banks of the river.
Sunday April 27, 2003
Dash to Ft. Davis
Entering into Arkansas, I continued rubbing the St. Chris medal and grimly drove on. It had been a long day and the fatigue was palpable. When my shift was over, I gratefully handed the wheel over to Phil and got some sleep. Phil woke me up after his four hours were up and I discovered we were somewhere in east Texas. I drove about an hour before we stopped at an IHOP for breakfast. Skies were clear, the sun was rising, and we appeared to be well on schedule.
We passed through Dallas at 8:00 AM and continued west to Abilene. Phil needed to pick up a pair of shoes. I had noticed that the windshield wiper blades needed attention and informed Phil of the situation. We got off I-20 and hit both a local auto parts and a department store. We switched seats and proceeded ever westward through Big Spring. As we approached Midland, Phil’s phone rang. It was Kevin Walsh, a member of our group, calling to let us know that he and Vic Stover, another member of our group, were an hour west of us. Kevin was surprised to learn how close we were to him. At Midland, Phil stopped for gas. I found a replacement torch lighter much to my satisfaction.
As we approached the Davis Mountains, our concerns for the weather grew. We started the day with clear skies, but the farther west we went, the more overcast the sky became. The good news was that Phil and I arrived at the Prude Ranch at 5:00, just in time for dinner. Kevin, Vic and Tom Beck from Columbus arrived ahead of us, as did Larry Beatty, Dave Higgins, Steve Lekind and Jim Edlin. A happy reunion ensued. It was great to meet up with the other guys whom I hadn’t seen since TSP 2002. After dinning, we set up our equipment and waited for nightfall.
I had every confidence that the skies would clear at sunset, and I was not disappointed. I spent my first TSP night taking images of M83, a beautiful barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Hydra. In Columbus, it barely clears the trees, making it difficult to get a decent image. The lower latitude at the Prude Ranch elevated the object 10 degrees making conditions much more favorable for imaging it. All the equipment functioned perfectly, in stark contrast to my two previous TSPs.
This year, my imaging rig consisted of the C 9.25 Schmidt-Cassegrain optical tube assembly, a Losmandy G-11 German equatorial mount with the Gemini go-to upgrade installed, an ETX 90 mm Maksutov-Cassegrain optical tube assembly I used as a guidescope, and a SBIG ST-5C as my autoguiding camera, and my Genesis 1600 as my imaging camera. I also brought along a light box to make flat frames, two computers for taking the images, controlling the mount, and autoguiding.
Monday April 28, 2003
First Day on the Ranch
At the risk of becoming boring and predictable, the first thing I did on opening my eyes was to head off in search of the elusive morning cup of coffee. The Prude Ranch kitchen does not open for breakfast and I did not want to wait until lunch for that much needed hit of caffeine. My friend Rex from Arkansas was there with an eclectic collection of wares for sale. Another friend, Judy from Colorado, brought her jewelry collection. It has become customary for me to bring my spouse a star party trinket. Last year, I bought her a pair of earrings that had pieces of the Odessa meteorite set in sterling silver stars. This year, I wanted to buy her a matching bracelet.
I looked at several likely pieces, but decided to wait before I made a decision. Returning to the bunkhouse, I found everyone up and ready for lunch. After eating, we went back to the bunk house where I tried my hand at some image processing from the previous evening. A nap was an indulgence I allowed myself. After dinner, we went to the field where the skies were clear and waiting for us.
I experienced my first and only equipment problem when the computer and mount stopped talking to each other. I could have operated the mount with the hand controller alone, but having the sky on the computer screen and controlling the mount with a point and click was a convenience I did not want to give up easily. I immediately suspected the communications cable as the culprit. I went to my equipment tent to get my soldering iron, only to realize that I didn’t pack any solder. I decided I would have to make do with whatever amount was already on the pins of the plug. I took the cable and the soldering iron back to the bunkhouse and resoldered the wires to the plug pins. After that, I reassembled the plug and took the cable back to the field. The mount and computer had no problem talking to each other that night and the rest of the week.
I finished up the 2003 observing list and turned to imaging. My two targets were the spiral galaxy M101 and the great globular cluster Omega Centauri.
Tuesday April 29, 2003
Odds & Ends
Tuesday began the same as Monday. After a shower and shave, I went to the vendor’s lodge for coffee and an inspection of the wares on sale. After lunch, I turned in my observing list and received the 2003 pin I added to my collection. I decided to try some more image processing. I tried to install some software on one of my computers but for some odd reason, the computer could not read the files.
All of the gang decided that the menu did not appear appetizing. Owing to the number of people, it was decided that two cars would be needed. Phil, Larry, Dave, Steve and Jim left in Larry’s truck. I ran back to the tent a few feet away to shut down my computers. I emerged from the tent only to see Kevin, Vic and Tom slowly driving away down the road. That left me with no choice except to eat in. I dined with a couple who had lived in Columbus during the sixties. We had an enjoyable chat about Columbus past and present.
Returning to the observing field, the rest of the gang returned. Kevin said he thought I was with Larry, and Larry thought I was with Kevin. It seemed a likely story, but I could take the hint.
Observing conditions looked good, but not long after sundown, a large bank of clouds rose from the southwest. Phil said that he’d seen cloudbursts develop in conditions like that, so I immediately put away all the equipment I could. Not long after that, rain began to fall. Everyone else scrambled to cover any exposed gear. Since conditions took a turn for the worst, movie night was declared. Back at the bunkhouse, Kevin set up his very nice flat screen monitor and plugged in his computer. Jim supplied the entertainment, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I kept awake through the scene at Rivendell but then I conked out. When I got up at 5:00 AM, I went out to the field to find that the skies had cleared, and that Jim and Kevin were the only ones of the group who had taken advantage of the opportunity.
Wednesday April 30, 2003
Pop’s Texas Burger
Wednesday actually began with my waking up to find Kevin and Jim on the fields. I went back to bed and got up in time to get my morning java at the vendor’s lodge. I closed the deal on the bracelet for Desiree, and bought my daughter a pair of earrings. My boys were proving to be difficult to buy for. They are getting too old for a lot of the trinkets on sale at TSP. I decided to buy things for the boys at McDonald Observatory where I had some good luck the previous year.
The lunch menu did not excite the gang, so we went into Fort Davis and ate at Pop’s restaurant. It had moved into a new building, which enhanced its appearance and ambiance far above the “fast food” type facility it used to occupy. Tom held up the honor of the CAS by ordering and polishing off the Texas-sized double burger. Upon our return to the Prude Ranch, everyone converged on the vendor’s lodge for more shopping. I eventually ended up back at the bunkhouse for a much needed nap before dinner.
After dinner, Vic indicated that according to his calculations, an Iridium flare would appear in the sky over the Prude Ranch. (The Iridium flares are caused by sunlight reflecting off the solar panels of the Iridium satellite telephone communications satellites). Vic, Tom and I stood in the courtyard in front of the Prude Ranch offices waiting for the appointed time. It came and went without anything happening.
That evening, I took images of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51), the Irregular Galaxy known as Centaurus A, and Hickson’s Box (four interacting galaxies). I also figured out how to get the best focus I could with the software I had.
I began to envy Kevin, Larry and Dave who had their support gear in trailers. When they were done, they would put the cover on their scopes and close up their trailers. I, on the other hand, had to disconnect the computers and move them, and the cameras’ power supplies into the tent. I can’t afford a trailer, or a new vehicle to haul it around. Finally, the tent that Kevin and I bought at TSP 2001 was failing fast. The poles didn’t like to stick together despite the fact that I replaced the elastic. The zippers didn’t zip anymore, either. The most cost effective and logical solution is buying a Kendrick observing tent. I decided to look into that option.
Thursday May 1, 2003
Having stayed out very late in the evening, I woke just in time to go to lunch. After eating, I went to the vendor’s lodge (where else?) and checked whether anything new was on the table. On the way back to the bunkhouse, I took a peek at a Kendrick observing tent. I liked what I saw. There was plenty of room to house a telescope in one room. The other room was spacious enough for computers and a bed. All in all, it appeared admirably suited for the task and priced a great deal more affordably than a trailer.
Between lunch and dinner, I hung out at the bunkhouse and watched Jim and Steve process images. Jim is a real wizard at image processing, and Steve takes great pictures. Between them, they have real first class talent in astrophotography.
That evening, conditions were good once again. I did a Sombrero Galaxy (M 104), I redid Centaurus A as I was dissatisfied with the focus on the previous attempt, and a pair of interacting galaxies known as the “Siamese Twins”. The equipment functioned perfectly. It was a great night under the beautiful Prude Ranch skies.
The most magical place on the ranch is a part of the driveway between the bunkhouses and the red light café. It’s the only place on the ranch where the trees on either side of the driveway are fairly substantial. Their limbs do not quite meet overhead, but looking through the branches at the stars stirs my soul.
Friday May 2, 2003
My Kind of McDonald’s
As it turned out, Friday became the day for our annual pilgrimage to McDonald Observatory. After lunch, we piled into two cars and headed north to Mt. Locke. On the way there, I noticed that the Hobby-Eberly dome was now silver instead of white. Changing the dome’s color was one of the modifications to the structure in order for it to be more thermally stable.
Arriving at the visitor’s center, it occurred to me that the observatory was my kind of McDonald’s. I scrounged the gift shop in an effort to find things for my two sons that they would like. Last year, I found some things they liked and some things they paid no attention to. I found a couple of internally-lit super balls, a magnetic Saturn on a hand-held rail system, and a couple of other gadgets I thought would appeal to the boys.
Although we did not take the official tour, we were able to take a look inside the Hobby-Eberly dome. We weren’t able to get inside the dome itself as the design of the building included a glass enclosed galleria off of the main lobby. The HET is the largest instrument in the world dedicated to spectroscopy, the study of the light of stars. I always enjoy the views of Jeff Davis County from Mt. Locke’s summit.
After dinner, a notice posted on the bulletin board caught our attention. A high wind warning had been issued for the Ft. Davis area and we were advised to expect gusts in excess of 60 MPH. That threw the group into a discussion about whether to tear down and leave on Saturday, or wait until Sunday.
The evening’s keynote speaker presented a wonderful program about his time in Australia, but it seemed to run on way too long. The Great Texas Giveaway got a late start as a result. I decided I didn’t need any more gear, so I went out to the observing field. Most of the group was already there. When the GTG ended, a flood of cars with headlights on moved slowly past our observing field. That tended to spoil dark adaption and posed a potential risk to imaging already underway. Despite the fact that it was fully dark, the rules allowed 30 minutes after the end of the GTG before TSP officials began enforcement of dark-out rules.
I thought that Friday evening would be the last night of imaging for TSP 2003. I wanted to get two groups of interacting galaxies: Copeland’s Septet and Keenan’s System.
Last year, my light box disintegrated under the hot Texas sun. The light box is a device for making flat frames. A flat frame is an image the camera takes to map imperfections in the optical system so that the defects may be removed during image processing. This year, the light box survived the desert environment, and I was able to capture an essential element for good imaging.
While the rig was taking images (and essentially running on autopilot), I decided to take a walk to the upper field to see that was going on. In all my previous TSPs, I had not made the rounds of the upper field during the evening. I ended up with Larry Mitchell, a TSP officer, and his 36" behemoth. Larry had his monster scope pointed at the Swan Nebula (aka M17), an object I imaged last year. My image brought out a lot of nebulosity not otherwise visible in my 9 ¼” telescope, but the 36” displayed all of the wispy structure of the nebula’s outlying gaseous complexes. I also met a guy who identified himself as “Herbert”, who worked at the National Observatory at Kitt Peak, Arizona, and claimed to have discovered three comets.
Saturday May 3, 2003
The great debate commenced as soon as everyone regained consciousness: should we stay or should we go? The problem was that even if the high winds did not materialize, any substantial breeze would make good imaging impossible. As sturdy as our telescope mounts are, a good, stiff wind would nudge the telescope. Even the slightest movement would spoil the image by making the stars look oval shaped or the object fuzzy.
Larry and Dave made up their minds quickly to leave on Saturday as did Kevin, Vic and Tom. I wanted to leave on Saturday, too, but Phil was reluctant. He was inclined to stay and listen to David Levy’s presentation and leave Sunday morning. We debated the pros and cons of staying. Phil did not think it mattered whether or not we could image or observe that evening since we could always walk around the ranch and look at other observers’ gear. I thought it would be a good idea to get a jump on things since the drive home would be arduous. We spent the morning packing our gear. After lunch, Phil came around to the decision to leave the ranch that afternoon.
One by one, members of our group said their good-byes and headed out. Steve was one of the first, and he had a long haul to Minneapolis ahead of him. Kevin, Vic and Tom left, then Larry and Dave. Phil and I left at about 3:00 PM, leaving Jim as the last remaining member. Jim intended to drive to El Paso and catch his plane to Boise. Before we left, Jim burned a CD of his candid shots for each one of us.
Phil and I finally departed the Prude Ranch at 3:00 PM. We caught up to Larry and Dave at the I-20 on-ramp, where we headed east. We said our final goodbyes to Larry and Dave at a gas station on the road to Abilene.
The trip got very interesting north of Abilene. We got a call from Kevin warning us of tornado activity in the area. I was behind the wheel, so Phil turned on the radio. The announcer alerted us to tornados being spotted east of Rte. 277 near Stanford Lake just as we passed the turn-off for that town. As we drove through heavy rain, Kevin, Vic and Tom told us that they had taken cover under an overpass that Phil and I drove over. As we passed through the county seat, the rain turned into pea-sized hail. Not long after that, the rain stopped, and we continued north to Burkbannon, the last town in Texas before the Red River crossing.
We met up with Kevin, Vic and Tom in Burkbannon and ate dinner together. Kevin was not sure when or where they were going to stop for the evening. Phil and I intended to push on as far as we could before we stopped for some shut-eye. Kevin, Vic and Tom rested in Oklahoma City, while Phil and I pressed on. Phil and I finally arrived in Columbus at 9:00 Sunday evening.
I later learned that killer tornadoes struck southwestern Missouri. I’m pretty sure that if we had waited another day, Phil and I would have been in the middle of some very bad weather. As it was, we arrived home tired, but in good spirits.
This TSP was by far the best in terms of telescope time. Every night was clear, except for half of Tuesday. I got more work with my equipment in that week than I had in the previous six months. Since my return from TSP, Columbus has experienced rain virtually on a daily basis. It's a dull existence compared to the rarified air of the Prude Ranch and TSP.
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