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2012 Night Under the Stars at Alamo Lake State Park

The 2012 'Night Under the Stars' at Alamo Lake State Park was an official Arizona Centennial Event, organized by JD & Karen Maddy of the Verde Valley astronomical society. I attended as an event astronomer. During the day, there was solar observing, which was well attended despite the sky clouding over as the day progressed. However, there were talks held under an arbor to compensate for that. One of them was about the history of Lowell observatory by a machinist who works there, followed by a raffle. A Century Plant (Agave Americana) was planted at the Park to mark the event.

My trip to Alamo Lake at the start of Veteran's Day weekend was long & windy.  The ride to the lake on the 30 mile long Alamo Lake Road took me a long time, as it was already quite dark - because it had taken me much longer to get to the access road from Laughlin despite the lake being quite close "as the crow flies."  After my arrival at the group campsite, and wondering where to set up camp, Club Member JD Maddy got me oriented. He had decided that the event astronomers should set up their scopes & camps in the Lower Area next to the parking lot where the arbor & his RV were. This, he thought, might help with abating headlight intrusion, and it did a bit. I didn't set up my scope immediately, as it was too windy. It wasn't until about 4 a.m. that the wind subsided. Rising just before sunrise to get set up, the morning was windless, but cold - from which plight I was extricated by a cup of hot chocolate from JD's wife Karen, before they set up, next to their hydrogen alpha scope, the Verde Valley group's tents, under which were many brochures, maps & a few discs of astronomical information, mostly concerning the sun, e.g. one on NASA's solar observation satellites. The park rangers soon arrived afterwards to start closing in the arbor for the presentations later in the day. It was nearly 11 a.m. before they had everything ready to go. Karen had set up the Kids' Zone in the arbor, for which I used what was left of their breakfast as an example of a suitable exhibit to demonstrate the semi-coherence of sunlight: milk coating a spoon that is placed in direct sunlight will cause speckles to be seen in the milk, similar to speckles from laser light, except that they move around, and are of more than one color. With the club's tents & tables set up, they had just enough room for everything they had to display. The wind tried to kick up a bit, but it seemed to be merciful, and didn't cause any problems other than an occasional panic moment when they would grab a tent pole, and hang on, or when I would have to grab a lose rope, and retie it.

One event astronomer, Morgan from a Boy Scout troupe working on a merit badge, had come in Saturday morning, whereas the others started to arrive in the afternoon on Saturday. Morgan set up his 4.5" reflecting telescope in the viewing area to the east of me. JD suggested that we make him a solar filter. I pointed out that cutting down the aperture as used by the method that he initially suggested would reduce resolution appreciably. After a few minutes of cutting cardboard, along with a little duct tape against light trespass, we had an instant solar scope using both elements from a pair of eclipse sunglasses.  JD's use of a 2nd cut-out on Morgan's reflector was a very good idea, since that adds back some of the resolution that was lost by reducing the aperture down from 4.5". JD was also able to position it so that neither aperture was directly over any of the three spider vanes. Morgan thought that the improvised solar filter was pretty cool. So did his dad, who's also a machinist, and has plans to turn it into a more finished filter.

Club members Jan & Craig had their 8" CPC set up with Baader solar film to view the several sun spot groups visible. I had a mylar SolarSkreen on my C8 that was set up on its wedge, but only approximately aligned to the pole. The night before, I drove my car towards Polaris such that it left a long straight track in the gravel pointing north, so that I would have an accurate idea of the proper azimuth. The next day, JD used a bubble level to adjust the wedge plate to the proper altitude. As the SolarSkreen gives a B&W image, I used a green Wratten filter to liven things up.

The solar observers streamed through that morning & afternoon with counts just over 100 having a look at solar flares, sun spots & even Venus through the various telescopes. In the afternoon, the clouds decided to move through and play hide & seek with the sun & Venus. The observers were patient, and would run up to the scopes when the Sun would appear though a gap. In between the clouds, JD would keep the small crowd that was there entertained with solar & lunar trivia.

Much later in the day after it had clouded over, were the presentations, starting at 3 p.m. with one for about 60 Cub Scouts & their leaders. There were a few Girl Scouts mixed in as well. Later, club VP Richard Bohner conducted a Lowell Observatory presentation in the arbor. Although the Clear Sky Clock said it would be clear in the evening, the clouds were looking ominous in the late afternoon. When Richard had finished his presentation, it was time for the evening presentation & the raffles. Karen & Richard conducted the drawings with over a dozen items donated by the Meteor Crater Museum, Lowell Observatory, & others. Everyone seemed to be very excited during the drawings. Or, was it just that they were out of the wind?  The crowd had grown to over 100 as JD finished up his presentation at about 6:30 p.m. The skies had grown dark, and, sure enough, the Clear Sky Clock was right: the clouds disappeared. With 16 astronomers & 19 scopes, the crowd moved slowly down to the lower viewing area.

The Arizona Science Center had brought out their new Celestron 11" HD. That is a nice scope also. Dennis brought out the now famous Ladder Master. He was a bit concerned early on about the wind, but it fortunately wasn't an issue.  Dennis did complain a bit later about sore muscles from climbing up & down over 100 times. That's why they call it the Ladder Master!  Other scopes dotted the area with plenty of room for everyone to move around. By now the crowd had grown to just over 200, maybe 220 at last count. JD thought Karen might come down with aperture fever as one of the scopes Eric brought was a Meade 16" Light Bridge. The weight & size of the unit was the cure for her aperture fever. She's still happy with her 12.5". Club member Ted had his personally crafted telescope as well. With the wind dying down, the clouds gone, the skies were clear, clean & very dark. (SQM readings of 21.5) The Milky Way's dark dust lanes were easily seen going across the sky. Open clusters dotted the path up through Cassiopeia seen with the naked eye. The Andromeda Galaxy could also be easily seen with the naked eye.

It seems that my C8 was as old as the Questar 7 that was set up to my west by a snowbird from North Dakota spending the winter in Arizona. He also had with him the 3.5" that he normally used instead, perhaps explaining why he had problems setting up the larger Maksutov that afternoon when I had to help him with it, despite never having seen a Questar before. Him not using the 7" much may also explain why its images were still diffraction limited, such that it seemed that I was looking at planets rather than the Airy discs of stars. At medium power (~100x), it was able to resolve one of the double stars of Epsilon Lyrae.  Questar's rock-solid mount helped matters, as that kind of power would have easily magnified the vibrations of viewers fumbling over my C8 as they tried to find the eyepiece in the dark, so I limited myself to low power. But it seemed odd to me that it made stars look like planets, rather than diamonds no matter how imperfectly shaped, and people who looked at Epsilon Lyrae through the C8 seemed more impressed, even though each double wasn't as well-defined as in the Q7 where it was possible to resolve one of the doubles. The Q7 was very good at seeing the bands on Jupiter, even better than my C8. The equatorial belts were easily seen, and I counted up to 5 belts seen through it. Ganymede was hiding behind Jupiter until after 10 p.m. so only three Galilean Moons were visible for most of the viewers. JD had suspected seeing Amalthea near the planet in his C11, and after checking Starry Nights, it indeed was the smaller moon. As Jupiter rose above the horizon, most scopes slewed over to have a look at the large, almost blinding planet.

JD had the ephemeris for Comet Hergenrother, and so was able to show it off.  Although it's very faint, the dark skies revealed its somewhat fan-shaped tail.  M27, NGC253, M13 & M31 were some of the eye candy he & others were able to show off in their larger scopes. After our visitors looked through each scope in turn, many decided to go warm up at their camp sites, as the air was getting quite cool. There were a few that stuck it out to the end. The star party officially ended at 10 p.m., but as usual, there still were a few die-hards hanging around for extended viewing & chat. I was out until midnight, when the air had chilled into the 40's, maybe even the 30's. The low for the night, or morning was 35 degrees. Burr!  A couple of the astronomers were going to stay Sunday night, but I packed up early in the morning, and was off to Prescott Valley before returning to Laughlin.

Next year's event is on November 2nd, and shouldn't be anywhere near as cold.

 

Category: Other Members