Perseid Meteor shower

The Perseid Meteor shower is usually one of the best every year, and this year, the predictions were for up to 100 meteors per hour. So my amateur astronomy club, The Howard Astronomical League, hosted a special Perseid Meteor star party at Alpha Ridge Park on Saturday, August 11th.

About nine or ten club members showed up by dusk, and we setup several canopies and lawn chairs. Chris M and I had brought cameras, hoping to do some time lapse/star trails, and a few people brought scopes, but mostly we just hung out for several hours under completely to mostly cloudy skies.

We got rained on shortly after Bob left, but by about 11:30, some gaps in the clouds started appearing, so we pulled our chairs out from under the canopies and started looking for meteors. Gary saw one, but with roughly 80% cloud cover, I don’t think anyone else did.

Most people left about 1 or 1:30 am, although someone from the general public showed up about the same time. There were just three of us then, but around 3 am the clouds started clearing a good bit more, and another member of the general public showed up. That was when we started seeing meteors. Between 3 am and roughly 5 am, I logged about 20, including several nice bolides.

By 5:15, the sky was starting to brighten, so I broke down the canopy and packed up. Venus, the moon, and Jupiter were beautiful and lined up, and Orion was easily visible over the eastern horizon (it was both weird and cool to see Orion in August!). All in all, I had a good time despite the weather, and eventually saw quite a few cool meteors.

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Traveling to TSP

Last year, my wife and I packed up my Prius with all our gear and drove to the Texas Star Party. It took us two and a half days, and while we had some fun on the way, I decided I would fly this year.

But how to bring my scope? Answer: don’t bring my scope, rent someone else’s! So I placed an ad on Astromart, and got a response from a really nice gentlemen in Abilene.

So I packed all my eyepieces, camera gear, and AstroTrac in a carryon and flew into Abilene yesterday. After meeting Joe and seeing his awesome observatory and other projects (he is currently restoring a 14″ classical Cassegtain he got from a local university), I drove six hours to Fort Davis.

Last night, I stayed at the Limpia Hotel, a charming building that has been around more than a hundred years. If you like historical buildings, you’ll like this. In addition to the charm, the bed was comfortable, the shower was hot, and the food in their new bistro was good. You can’t ask for much better.

I had breakfast this morning at the Drug Store, which isn’t a drug store any more, but a great restaurant with an art gallery upstairs.

After breakfast, I got in line at Prude Ranch to get in for setup. The line was nowhere near as bad as at the Winter Star Party, and I was probably tenth in line. I got a great spot at the North end of the upper field and had most of my stuff setup in less than an hour.

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New Nepenthes terrarium

Amy had a brilliant idea about what to do with the empty 65g fish tank in the kitchen – move all our Nepenthes into it!

We’ve been keeping our Nepenthes in a 75g terrarium in our laundry room, but to see them meant you were doing laundry, LOL. Now they are in our kitchen and that’s much nicer.


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Longwood Gardens Orchid Extravaganza and SEPOS Orchid Show

Amy and I spent a lovely day (despite the rainy weather) at Longwood Gardens on Saturday. We had never been to Longwood before, but this will not be the last time; it’s a really beautiful facility.

The main reason we went, though, was for the orchid show and the orchid vendors. :-) There were quite a few of our favorite vendors there, including Black Jungle, Woodstream, Parkside, and others, and they earned our cash by bringing beautiful and desirable plants. We bought:

Paphiopedilum Shin-Yi William (William Ambler #3 x rothschildianum “New Horizon” AM/AOS) from Parkside Orchids in bud:
Paphiopedilum Shin-Yi William
Paph. Shin-Yi William flower closeup

Paph. sukhakulii from Andy’s Orchids:
Paph. sukhakulii

From Woodstream, we bought:
Paph. venustum:
Paph. venustum (you can't have too many of these!)

Paph. phillipinense var album:
Paph. phillipinense var album

And three orchids in flask, Paph. callosum forma thailandense, Paph. venustum var pradhanii, and Paph. dayanum:
Three Paphs in flasks

Amy could not resist buying a Vanda ‘Sansai Blue’ in the gift shop (previously bloomed from one of their shows, so it was half price):
Vanda 'Sansai Blue'

And finally, from Black Jungle, we got a nice sized Nepenthes spectabilis ‘Pangulobau’:
Nepenthes spectabilis 'Pangulobau'
N. spectabilis Pangulobau pitchers
N. spectabilis pitcher closeup

I took tons of pictures of the SEPOS Orchid Show and the Longwood Gardens facilities:

Posted in 54g corner bowfront, 75g terraria, Nepenthes spectabilis 'Pangulobau', Orchids, Paphiopedilum dayanum, Paphiopedilum phillipinense var album, Paphiopedilum Shin-Yi William, Paphiopedilum sukhakulii, Paphiopedilum venustum, Paphiopedilum venustum var pradhanii, Vanda 'Sansai Blue' | Comments Off

WSP 2102 Recap with pics and time lapse

Well, I’ve had a chance now to completely process all the pictures I took at the Winter Star Party, and reflect on the event. It was definitely one of the best star parties I’ve ever attended, in part because I got to share so much of it with my family, but also because the weather was incredible, the observing was fantastic most nights, and pretty decent the others.

On Monday and Tuesday nights, I took time lapses that I’ve posted to Vimeo (for some reason, the video embedding is not working with WordPress right now). Definitely watch it in HD:

I spent the whole week trying to get decent deep-sky wide field astrophotography, and finally it all paid off, and I captured this shot of part of the constellation of Orion using a 200mm lens:
The Great Orion Nebula, the Running Man nebula, the Flame Nebula, and the Horsehead Nebula.

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WSP 2012 Thursday night

I guess the astronomy gods wanted to exact some revenge. Whereas Wednesday night was one of the best observing experiences of my life, this was one of the most frustrating. It was very humid with no wind, and dew attacked everything for the first time this week. My primary and secondary mirror were soaked in less than an hour, so I had no chance to observe through the 18 because I was trying do some photography with the AstroTrac using the 24mm lens, framing Orion and the winter milky way. By the time I got everything polar aligned, framed, and focused, and started taking two minute exposures, the lens was dewing up despite having a few strap around it.

So I switched to the 72mm AstroTech because it has a dew shield, and tried to do the Orion nebula. Something must have changed when I put that scope on, however, because the polar alignment was off, and I had trailing stars in exposures as short as 10 seconds.

So before 11 pm, I packed up all the AP stuff, and contemplated uncovering Amy’s Orion to do some observing, but decided instead to roam the field and see if I could mooch views through other people’s scopes. Everyone else was affected by the dew, however, and few scopes were actually in operation. One that was running was a 32″ f/3.6 Webster that was here last year, and who I had also seen at Cherry Springs two years ago. He had it on Mars, and it was the most amazing view I’ve ever seen. It was way better than any photograph done by anyone in HAL. It was simply astonishing.

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WSP 2012 Wednesday night

What a freakin awesome night! The seeing conditions rocked, and views of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were the best I’ve ever seen. Saturn had a definite 3D quality to it. Jupiter had a nice Europa shadow transit in progress as darkness fell.

We had great views of all the winter treats; the Orion nebula was fantastic, and we even saw the Horsehead nebula with the H-beta filter. Later in the evening, I had my first ever view of the Antennae galaxies, which were fascinating, though we could not see the streamers of stars for which they are named.

But the stars of the evening were Eta Carina and Omega Centauri. Era Carina was simply spectacular, particularly when I used the OIII filter. Nebulosity was everywhere, and spectacular dust lanes and structure was obvious. Tonight’s views were way better than anything I had last year, and despite how awesome the Orion nebula had looked earlier, Eta Carina made it look like a puny upstart. Omega Centauri was amazing and sharp, owing to its greater altitude, and it almost completely filled the FOV of the 21mm Ethos.

My sister Andrea hung out with me all night, and about 2 am, we were able to find Matt’s star in the Orion 10″ scope. It was a very satisfying moment, in part because it was special to Andrea, but also because I had been concerned it would be difficult to find, being a roughly mag 12 star.

We started packing up about 4 am and we were back at the house at about 5:30, having had one of the best observing nights ever.

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WSP 2012 begins!

Well I got up at 5 am, got some breakfast at the Stuffed Pig, and got in line at 6:20 am only to find I was about 40th in line. Apparently they don’t enforce the rule about not lining up before 6 am, LOL.

The nice family I stayed next to last year (who volunteer and help run the YACkers) saw my name on the registrars list and saw I was bringing my girls, and so they saved me a spot for my scope. Sweet!

Weather is nice; mid-70s with a breeze and partly to mostly cloudy but it should clear out by afternoon and we should have a decent night of observing.

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Dinner in Memphis

We started the day (which happened to be our 17th wedding anniversary) in Sulphur Springs, Texas, and we arrived in Memphis about 4 pm. We really wanted to get some authentic Memphis BBQ, so we went a little out if our way to go to Marlowe’s, which is just down the street from Graceland (which was closed, alas).

Amy got a half rack of ribs and I got the pulled pork. Amy also indulged the Southern girl in her, and got turnip greens and fried okra as sides for her ribs. She raved about the turnip greens, but that must be a Southern thing.

Both the ribs and the pork were good, with a nice smoky flavor, and the meat was very tender. But I’m not sure it was the best BBQ I’ve ever had, merely quite good.

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Going home

We got everything packed up Saturday morning and hit the road at noon exactly. The trip meter read exactly 2000 miles.

We stopped in Balmorhea for lunch at the Cave of the Bear (La Cueva de Oso) Mexican restaurant. The service was extremely slow as there was just one waitress and about 8-9 tables, but the food was really good, and worth the wait.

From there, we took 17 North and picked up I-20 towards Dallas. We’re going to get East of Dallas at least, and possibly all the way to Little Rock tonight.

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Thursday night and Friday

Thursday night was a complete washout, but at least Friday night I won a $25 gift certificate for ScopeStuff.

The observing Friday night was just as frustrating as last night, though at least there was about an hour when it was clear enough in a few areas of sky to be able to observe. Most everything looked crappy because of the haze and smoke from the nearby fire, but I did get a chance to visually observe the supernova in M51, so that was cool. It was a lot fainter than I expected, and if it had not been for an image of it on the Sky and Telescope website, I would have thought I had observed it when I hadn’t.

Otherwise, the night was a complete washout, so I broke everything down and put it under a tarp for packing in the car tomorrow. I was back in my bunk by 1 am, feeling quite depressed that I drove two and a half days to get decent observing two nights out of six.

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The scopes at TSP 2011

One of the cool things about big regional star parties is that you get to see lots of cool scopes. TSP is known, in particular, for the big dobs that show up. The largest is Larry Mitchell’s 36″ Obsession (apparently one of only four ever made), but there’s at least one 30″, and several 25″ Obsessions, a 22″ Obsession Ultracompact, and a whole slew of 20 inchers. In fact, it’s quite nice to be at a star party where my 18″ is quite ho-hum – it means no one is interested in looking through my scope, and I can spend the whole time concentrating on what I want to observe. Don’t get me wrong, I like doing outreach and sharing views, but sometimes, when you’re under pristine skies, I just want to observe.

By far, however, the coolest scope on the field has to be the 24″ binocular Newtonian designed and built by Derek Newton. I have owned a matched pair of 12.5″ mirrors for several years and have wanted to build a bi-newt, so I have a great deal of interest in this scope. I’ll have to upload pics after I get a better Internet connection, but to say this scope is impressive is an understatement. With the lousy observing conditions last night, by the time I got over to his scope to take a peek, it was already covered up. The weather forecast for tonight is looking much better, so maybe I’ll have a chance tonight.

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Observing Wednesday night

A very frustrating night! Transparency was poor, with clouds hovering around the horizon in almost all directions. Anything below about 15 degrees was in muck. Omega Centauri was disappointing as a result, and it was almost 1 am before the Saggitarius-scorpius region was high enough to look good.

On the flip side, seeing was awesome early in the evening, so Saturn was as steady as I’ve ever seen it. I had a hard time putting enough power on it – every eyepiece I have kept looking great. The 10mm Pentax looked like a photo, then the 7mm Nagler, then the 10mm with a 2x barlow I finally borrowed someone’s 3.7mm Ethos (that’s 561x in my scope!), and still the image was clear and crisp. I was almost tempted to try a powermate with the 3.7 Ethos, seeing was that good.

Unfortunately that was the highlight of the evening. The poor transparency made observing faint fuzzies very difficult even in large scopes, and clouds started to really encroach around 1:30, and we were completely socked in by 2 am. I have to admit I was extremely grumpy at the time, because we’ve only had two decent nights out of four, which is typical for Mid-Atlantic star parties, but TSP supposed to be this always clear Mecca of amateur astronomy. I kinda felt like I didn’t need to drive 1,800 miles for this level of frustration, I can get this at home! :-)

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Visiting Fort Davis

We woke up fairly early Wednesday morning, having gone to bed around 10:30 Tuesday night due to the storms. Amy and I had breakfast at the drug store in town, a wonderful establishment (be sure to get a milkshake!) with good food, friendly service and a lot of charm. The gallery upstairs had a number of photos of the Rock House fire of April 2011, which were both beautiful and scary at the same time.

Later that afternoon, we went to the Fort Davis State Bank to get quarters for doing laundry. This bank is one hundred years old this month, and like many of the buildings in Fort Davis, has a lot of charm.

At the laundromat at the RV campground we met a wonderful couple from midland Texas who are retired and travel around in their RV. The woman was a retired grade school science teacher and right now she is volunteering at the McDonald observatory at the star parties there, and they do birdwatching during the day.

Everyone in Texas is so friendly!

For the afternoon talks, Mike Simonsen gave an excellent talk on citizen science and a second talk on variable stars. The two talks together made we want to try variable star photometry with my new DSLR. The other afternoon talk was by Dr. Tillman Kinnon about a high altitude balloon projects he runs that involves students to perform science. These balloons reach up to 90,000 feet! Neat talk about a neat project.

After dinner, the evening talk was by Jimi Lowrey (Fort Davis, TX) and Stephen Odenwahn (McDonald Observatory) titled “The Sweet Pea: Harvesting the Edges of the Sloan Survey”. Jimi is a visual astronomer with a 48″ dob installed at his observatory in Fort Davis.

In looking for interesting stuff to observe using his monster scope he noticed that the automated software that classifies Sloan images doesn’t work well at the edges. He found one object that looks like a pea – a green star. He thought it might be a planetary nebula, and when he observed it for the first time at the TSP last year, they could tell it was an extended object.

Working with a grad student at McDonald observatory, they determined the spectra was weird and the redshift was zero so it’s in our galaxy.

Steve Odewahn then used the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) to get a spectrum from the low resolution spectrograph. It is 7 arc seconds in diameter and about 18th magnitude. That spectrum revealed doubly ionized oxygen, hydrogen alpha, and others that are all typical of different gases present in a nebula that are excited. But there are some curiosities about it because there are some overlapping lines (Nitrogen and Hydrogen), and it is 25 degrees galactic latitude, which is quite high for a planetary nebula.

When they calculated the radial velocity of the sweet pea, it was around 228 km/s, which makes it similar to many globular clusters.

Adam Block took an image of the sweet pea, and it is red! Turns out the Sloan guys used a filter set where they mapped a 6500 angstrom filter to green. So in the Sloan survey, something with a strong H-alpha component may show up green.

All in all, it was an interesting talk about pro-am collaboration to investigate a potentially interesting object.

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Tuesday night – thunderstorms without rain

No observing last night, except observing the clouds. A line of potentially severe thunderstorms rolled through in the late afternoon, causing some concern about the safety of people and telescopes. It got very windy, and there was lightning and thunder, but unfortunately (yes, I mean that) it did not rain. I say unfortunately because (according to local residents) it has not rained since September of last year. That’s part of the reason the entire Big Bend region of Texas is under severe wildfire threat, and was a contributing factor to the Rock House fire back in April of this year. The landscape all around the area has large swaths charred black by the fire.

After dinner, as the clouds were rolling in and thunder was booming, we secured and covered our scopes as best we could and threw everything small in our car. My scope was knocked off it’s rocker but did not tip over, and most of the scopes on the field were also fine. Several canopies, tarps, and tents were not so fortunate.

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Great night

An excellent evening. Well, after midnight when the clouds cleared out. Transparency was quite good and seeing was decent though not spectacular.

I’ll have to think tomorrow about what I observed, but I had a lot of fun trying my hand at time lapse night time photography. My camera battery finally failed around 4:30 am, so I couldn’t get the sunrise sequence I wanted, though I did get Jupiter rising.

I was all packed up by about 5:30, but I stayed on the field to watch the sunrise. Or at least try to catch the 28.1 day old moon.

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First night of observing

After dinner, we went back to our bunks and rested for an hour or two. I still needed to setup our scopes, but it was so hot, I decided to wait until just before sunset to start.

I helped Amy get her Intelliscope aligned after sundown, and then finally got all my observing gear setup by the end of astronomical twilight. Between the driving and the setting up, I knew I would be tired, and I didn’t expect to last long observing.

So most of the targets were showcases. I started with Omega Centauri (NGC5139) because it was already at its highest, and would be setting behind the mountains in just two hours or so. In Amy’s 10″, it was very impressive and nearly completely filled the field of view at 120x (10 mm Pentax XW). The seeing conditions were not great, but they were good enough to resolve stars in the core in her 10″. In my 18″ with my new 21 mm Ethos it was awesome. What I like about Omega Centauri is that it is kind of like a gigantic M3 – it is fairly consistent in the brightness and density of stars across the face of the glob. As near as I’ve been able to tell the two times I’ve viewed it (WSP 2011 and here), it does not have interesting dark lanes like M13, or a really dense core like M92, it’s just a nice even smattering of diamonds on velvet. Oh, except it’s like three times bigger in the eyepiece than any other glob you’ve ever seen! So even when conditions are lousy, it’s still impressive.

We hit several other highlights, but M51 and M101 really stuck in my mind, particularly the view of M51 through Alin’s 20 inch scope. We saw knotty detail in the spiral arms that I’ve only ever seen at the Winter Star Party. In fact, I might try to sketch it tonight, because it was so stunning it’s hard to believe.

We hit a few other highlights (Amy was working her way through the Year Long Messier Marathon book and was having a great time) but the transparency started dropping off sometime around midnight. The Milky Way started to look like it does on a really good night at Carr’s Mill, which is positively terrible for TSP. Everything seemed washed out and not as crisp, at both the naked eye and through the eyepiece. Amy, Alin, and I all packed it in around 1 am.

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We’re here!

Got to Prude Ranch about 5:30 pm, just in time for the dinner service. Gawd almighty it is hot!!! We tossed our stuff in our bunkhouses (which have window unit air conditioners that were struggling against the heat even while going full blast), then we went down to the dining hall for some grub

Cool dining hall! Very homey western feel, and the food was really good, considering the how many people they were serving. The beef tips were delicious and dessert was yummy. But the really nice thing about the dining hall is the socializing; sitting down at a table with complete strangers to enjoy a meal is something most people these days think only happens in Agatha Christie stories about Hercule Poirot.

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Driving, driving, driving, rawhide!

Yesterday (Friday) we only made it to Bristol Tennessee instead of Knoxville, because we got started late and hit traffic in Frederick. We stayed at a not so nice (but at least it was clean) Super 8 for $63.

Yesterday, however, we got back on track by driving from 8 am to 1 am, and we made it to Weatherford, Texas, which is a couple of miles west of Fort Worth. Long day, but fun. Stayed in a very nice Hampton Inn for only $80 ($94 after tax).

This morning, we were on the road by 8:30 or so, and we should have something like 7 hours to get to Prude Ranch. Odometer reads 29571, and so far on this trip, we’ve gone 1444 miles.

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We’re off!

Well, we’re off to the Texas Star Party! We’ll be there in about 1,850 miles or so. We’re going to try to make Knoxville, TN tonight, then Fort Worth, TX tomorrow night, and arrive at the Prude Ranch in Fort Davis, TX sometime on Sunday afternoon.

My wife and I have crammed my 18″ dob, an Orion 10″ XTi that we borrowed from a fellow HAL member, and our other gear into my Prius. It’s not quite as large on the inside as the Tardis, but it really is astonishing how much stuff you can fit in a Prius!




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