Oregon Star Party 2013

The plan is simple, a vacation combining a visit to my family and a run to Oregon Star Party. I miss doing the larger regional star parties, six telescopes is a big star party on the island. OSP would feature hundreds of telescopes, speakers, and hopefully dark skies. I also volunteered as a speaker, may as well bring and share little Keck experience.

Andrew and the Galaxy
The author taking astrophotos under the Milky Way Galaxy
Heading to a major star party takes some planning. Worse, I would be doing this with what could be packed for airline travel. The answer would be to implement my usual star party plan… Set up for astrophotography, this would allow vising other telescopes while my camera ran under computer control. Good astrophotography can also be done with relatively small equipment.

The site is quite remote, no nearby hardware store to replace a missing bolt, no internet connection to allow download of a missing driver. The setup would have to work with what was packed to start with. Several iterations of packing showed that two cases would be required to carry the setup. An ancient hard suitcase I have had since my Air Force days, and a hard equipment case purchased years ago for a portable telescope I have yet to build. At least both had wheels and could be hauled by one person through an airport terminal.

After a few very nice days visiting with my parents I steal away in the camper for the drive to OSP. Four hours sees me over the Cascades, into the Ochoco Mountains east of Prineville. It is a very pleasant drive, a beautiful day, open roads, Mt. Hood soaring over the trees that line the highway. The sort of driving you just can not do on the island, the sort of vacation I grew up with.

The OSP site is quite good, a high ridge with a broad open field on top, set in typical Eastern Oregon dry pine forest. The view is expansive, you can see fourty miles in every direction. There is ample room for the hundreds of campers and motor homes that arrive. Only the last couple miles is gravel road, good gravel road passable to any vehicle including full sized motor homes. Much of the area is fairly level, easy to park and set up telescopes. The ground is rocky, with small sage plants scattered about, just right to stumble over in the dark. The site is also quite dark, no visible lights. A small light dome from Prineville and Bend is visible in my photographs, but not notable to the eye.

The sheer size of the star party is surprising, the crowd of motor homes and campers a bit overwhelming. The organizers report somewhere around 600 people attended OSP this year. Walking the entire event would take half an hour. Not that you could actually do it in that short of time… There is too much to see, unique handmade telescopes, the vendors selling all manner of astro gear, solar scopes offering beautiful views of the Sun. I walk the star party several times, each time finding more, stopping to talk with so many interesting folks.

Telescopes at OSP
Looking down the observing line at Oregon Star Party 2013
One of the first tasks was re-configuring the mount for a northerly latitude. It was packed in Hawai’i at 20° north, the OSP site is at 45° north. The changeover involved removing the locking levers and replacing the bottle-screw that adjusts the elevation with a longer screw. The locking levers are then threaded into different holes. The result just looks wrong to me. After decades of observing from 32° or 20°, setting a mount up for this far north is quite odd.

By some miracle there seems to be nothing critical missing from the setup. No missing bolt or needed cable. Not even a frantic search through the suitcases for a misplaced adapter. It is all here, everything I could bring. The photo rig assembles smoothly, the computer recognizes all of the hardware plugged in. My planning and worry had paid off.

I did have a second telescope available to supplement what fit in the luggage, a little dobson telescope I had made for my parents many years ago. Regallo de Estrellas is a 6″ f/5.4 telescope that is just fun to use. After a tune up, mostly re-collimation, the little ‘scope is used for visual observing while the camera shoots.

Clouds threatened to overtake the first night, a layer of cirrus approaching from the west. While the clouds made for a beautiful sunset they were not welcome. The threat was not realized, the skies clearing not long after dark, leaving a very nice sky for much of the night. Observers who are familiar with the site caution me that the best skies are usually in the dawn hours. Do not give up if the evening conditions are poor.

It took a couple hours of fiddling with the setup to get everything working well, into the dawn the camera was working constantly without any issues. First target of the night was the Iris Nebula, nicely sized for the wide field of view of the TV-76 and 60D setup. I shot the nebula for a couple hours until the camera was about to hit the tripod. Not enough I think, I will need to shoot it a bit more, no worry, there are four more nights. For a second target I setup on the Pleiades for another sequence. This is the plan, one tough target and one easy for each night. The plan is to take advantage of the northerly latitude and shoot targets with high declinations.

Camping Under the Stars
The camper and telescope set up under a starry sky
Having use of the camper makes life very comfortable. A very comfy bed, a toilet and shower, even a refrigerator. Showers are short, there is only 40 gallons of water to last five days. Navy showers are the order, a squirt to get wet, turn off the water while soaping down, then rinse. One shot of the propane water heater each morning for the shower and to wash the accumulated dishes. The campers gets quite warm there is no shelter from the August Sun on top of the hill where we set up.

Disaster! I forgot the cheese! Two packages of Tillamook cheddar left in my parents refrigerator. I had the sandwich meats, I had to make due with sliced onion, tomato and avocado. There was more than enough food, starvation not an issue. The opposite was closer to the truth, I ate quite well. Meals were simple, sandwiches, chicken breasts cooked in a small fry pan and served in tortillas. Just things I could make up in a few minutes.

One system worked very well indeed. The solar panel on the camper roof was enough to provide all my energy needs. Charging the various computer and camera batteries, as well as charging the large house battery that ran the telescope after dark. Under light cloud the panel can supply several amps, with full sunlight this jumps to over seven amps. My setup takes about one amp to run while taking photos through the night.

Borrowing the camper was not entirely free. The vehicle came with a to-do list. First up was installing an auxiliary input jack for the stereo, my mother wanted to be able to jack in her iPod… Done. I enjoy my own tunes while working on the next chores. Some new DC power jacks are wired directly from the fuse panel. Next was getting the new level meters for the fresh, grey and black water holding tanks working… Done!

Ken Jones at the 18"
Ken Jones observes with his 18″ dobsonian
Around me are several large dobsonians in the same class as my Violet, I missed not having my big dob available. The scope is just not designed for airline travel. Not that there was any lack of big… Just over from me was a 40″ dob, a real monster. Chris Fuld uses the scope to track down objects just out of reach of lesser optics. I enjoyed lovely views of the Bubble Nebula and M74 with supernova 2013ej. During the day we talked, while he strummed bars of classical guitar. He works in aerospace, a field strikingly similar to working on a big telescope. We swapped tales, stories of various boosters and space missions he has had a chance to participate in. I have my own store of tales from working at an observatory.

Camped in the same row, Mark Folkerts deployed a 17.5″ dob and a photographic rig. On the other side of me were Ken and Ann Jones, a nice couple with another 18″ dob. Beyond them is Bill Holtzinger, a catholic priest from Grants Pass, using a 14.5″ dob. Through the night I take advantage of their hospitality and enjoy many nice views.

The thunderstorms moved in at sunset on the second evening. Most observers, including me, broke down and covered gear. The rising winds an ominous signal that had many worried about a bad night. All I left out was the mount, not wanting to disturb the polar alignment. It did rain in the night, but the worst did not find us. A couple times through the night I stuck my head out the camper door to a sky of clouds.

A little after three AM it was different, there were stars! No time for photography, the 6″ dob was just the thing for a quick observing session. I hit a few Messier objects, the Veil, and the Pleiades. With dawn arriving, I took a look at Jupiter, watched a few Perseid meteors, just enjoying the quiet morning. The field around me was populated by the ghosts of telescopes, snug under white and silver covers. No other observers stirred to disturb the peaceful scene.

Scope at Sunset
Bright sunset colors silhouette a telescope at Oregon Star Party 2013

M27 Easy to find off γSge, 2° or the outer telrad ring on the star, bright, large, the eponymous dumbbell shape is quite clear 10′ high by 5′ wide, an outer halo forms a more circular shape around the north-south aligned central region, no color noted, no central star seen

NGC6960 Very easy to find, simply center 52Cyg, quite dim, invisible without the filter, just there with a UHC, a glowing arc straddling the bright 52Cyg, the star interferes with visibility

NGC6992 Easy to locate sweeping from NGC6960, more difficult to see, barely visible without a filter, much better with the UHC in place, quite pretty, a large glowing arc that nearly crosses the field a full degree long, a smooth outer edge is in contrast to the ragged inner edge of the arc

M45 beautiful!! the field is filled with brilliant stars, ten brighter pale blue members punctuate a field dozens, a mottling of nebula is visible around several of the brighter stars

Those who had not awakened at 3am to see stars were somewhat upset with those of us who had enjoyed a few moments of clear skies. Chris enjoined me to throw something at his trailer if I saw stars again while he was sleeping, something heavy and loud. Mark, was a bit more reserved, requested that I tap at his window, he was not renting his trailer.

The remote site has drawbacks, or advantages depending on point of view. There is no 3G signal, no cell, no SMS. The signal could be seen sometimes, flirting at the edge of usefulness. This was not a major issue, I had warned folks I would be out of touch. Eventually I learned that if I set the phone on just the right counter top in the camper kitchen, with the door open, I could get SMS messages through, once in a while. With struggle I managed to get a message or two to my wife, just to say all is good and that I miss her.

Telescopes at OSP
A trio of telescopes awaiting darkness at Oregon Star Party
The organizers had arranged some great speakers. One talk I did not want to miss was by award wining photographer Ben Canales. Specializing in landscape astrophotography, Ben travels the northwest composing photos using the dramatic landscape under a starry sky. His photo of himself and a glowing tent with Crater Lake under the Milky Way won a National Geographic contest. Along with an array of beautiful photos he explained his techniques along with a great deal of enthusiasm for photography of the night sky. His talk must have struck a chord, any number of folks were attempting to put his lessons into practice later that night.

Clouds and lightning again started the third night. Nothing directly upon us, just a few drops of rain and lightning on the horizon. No stars either, just a slight brightening to the west that held a tantalizing hope of clear skies. Most observers checked the covers on their gear and settled in to wait. A wait that was to be rewarded with the sound of steady rain. The next morning I learn that a hole had appeared in the clouds that lasted a couple hours. Chris had knocked at my door. To no avail, I was sound asleep.

One of the great features of Oregon Star Party is the telescope walkabout. Anyone who wishes to attend has a chance to see some great telescopes as the owner demonstrates and discusses the features of the ‘scope. The telescopes on the walkabout are all handmade, many with innovative features. First up, Bob Clements demonstrated a nicely executed 10″ dobsonian with an integral equatorial platform. Chris Tribe dramatically demonstrated the very low weight of his 20″ f/4.5 by lifting the large telescope over his head with ease. Brett Schaerer showed us his WikiKea travel scope, a 6″ that has some ingenious features. The ‘scope gets its name from the Hawaiian word for quick and Ikea, where many of the parts came from. The expanding strut focusing mechanism was particularly innovative. The crowd had plenty of questions and we run well over the allotted time. (More photos of the walkabout can be seen on Mel Bartels website.)

Friday night started with my talk. A mix of a general “about Keck” talk and my adaptive optics talk to throw in something a little more technical. Judging by the compliments I received afterwards it went quite well. Lots of questions, good audience involvement, all things a speaker likes. The common misconception that we use the primary mirror to do adaptive optics showed up again, need to do another blog post on that.

Lightning over OSP
Lightning lights the sky over the Oregon Star Party encampment
The fourth night started much like the preceding two. Thunderstorms at sunset created a spectacular display of lightning across the eastern and northern horizons. Ben and I shot lightning from the roof of the camper across the RV’s and telescopes of the star party. Some rain arrived, but the storm cells did not deliver a direct hit, storms passing on either side of the site.

We hoped for clearing in the early morning, much as we had seen on preceding nights. Much to everyone’s surprise it cleared much earlier. By 11pm the entire sky was clear and the telescopes emerged from their cocoons to gaze upon the night. This time it was me who woke Chris up, interrupting his nap to let him know that the clear skies had arrived sooner than expected. One look at the sky and he forgave me the disturbance.

Astrophoto Acquisition
A small netbook computer busy running an astrophoto setup
The photo rig was soon in action. Amazingly the polar alignment was still good, despite multiple occasions of attaching then stripping cables and telescope from the mount, having the rain cover placed and removed over two days. I choose to shoot an easy target, M31, I have not shot it in a while and my gear and technique is better. The second target of the night is NGC752, a large open cluster in Andromeda. Dawn arrives all too soon, amazingly the clouds roll back in just as the sky brightens. This time the clouds are no problem, the telescope covers appear again and observers disappear into campers and tents. At least we got in most of the night, hope runs high for the last night of the star party.

Classic Orange
An observer with a classic orange tube C-8 waits for darkness at Oregon Star Party 2013
The shift in latitude often left me lost. With a sky 25° off from what I have become used to I found myself looking too high or too low for familiar stars and constellations. The big dipper never set, reaching lower culmination in the night. I prioritized observing objects in the far north, objects that are often low from Hawai’i. No point in observing the southern sky, the objects there are much better from home.

All week we enjoyed a nice display of meteors. With the peak on the 12th the Perseids were expected to be good, and they were, bright fast meteors that often left short lived trains glowing across the sky. We also saw quite a few Delta Aquarids, sometimes challenging the Perseids and producing good fireballs.

With the level meters working I had a much better idea of how much water remains… Almost all of it. Four days of showers and dishes had only consumed a quarter of the supply. My shower that morning is a bit more extravagant, no point hauling the water back over the Cascades. Between the solar panel and the large water tank, I could have camped out twice as long.

The last evening starts much the same. The afternoon sees thunderstorms rolling through. A large storm brushes past the ridge we are camped on, again sparing the telescopes and tents a direct hit. I join a few others in filming the storm, recording impressive lightning and thunder. After the storm is past we spot a fire started in the valley below, a plume of smoke rising five miles away. The Forest Service has noted it too, a spotter aircraft circles the area. We wonder how long it will take for a fire fighting crew to arrive, how thin are the crews spread?

Lightning Started Fire
A fire started by lightning burning just below the Oregon Star Party site
While thunderstorms and fires threatened during the afternoon, the threats evaporated with the dimming light, the sky clearing after sunset. The sky was gorgeous, with the bright Milky Way visible from horizon to horizon. We were to have the rest of the night to observe with little trouble. A few clouds drifted through, at one point right through the field I was photographing, but the problems were minor. All around me telescopes were in operation, red lights moved about and snippets of conversations drifted on the night air.

M35 Large, bright, a coarse cluster over 20′ in diameter filling the eyepiece field with stars, fully resolved

NGC1023 Small, faint, a patch of haze about 5′ in diameter, round, brighter to the center

NGC1245 A faint glow betrays a subtle cluster, inspection reveals more stars as the cluster begins to resolve into stars, with the 6″ a nebular glow resists with just a handful of stars visible at the center, about 10′ across and roughly triangular in shape

The last night was to be the best night of the star party. I had a camera in operation from sunset ’til dawn. I gathered more material on the Iris Nebula, shot a few more clusters and star fields. In the morning I dismounted the camera and telescope. In their place I secured the little Canon EOS-M on the mount with a 50mm f1.8 lens to shoot wider starfields.

While cloudy nights in the middle of the week may have hampered the event, a couple good nights to finish made everyone a bit happier. The 2013 Oregon Star Party was over and can be called a success. For me, attending involved a fair amount of effort, packing and hauling a telescope across an ocean. Despite this I was glad to have come. I have cards full of images to process, and memories of dark nights and pretty skies.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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