2001 Table Mountain Star Party

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Last touched 2001 December 7

Originally published in the the Newsletter of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, November/December 2001

Table Mountain Star Party 2001

Robert Bunge

My wife Cathy and I have learned to time our annual visit to her parents in eastern Washington State with the Table Mountain Star Party, held just north of Ellensburg, in central Washington State.

This year, after flying out, we borrowed the in-law's big Dodge farm pickup truck, complete with truck camper and headed out of Pasco, WA towards Ellensburg on Wednesday, two days before TMSP officially started. It is a nice four-hour drive through the desert of the eastern and central part of the state with the highlight being a scenic drive along the red and orange colored rocks of the Columbia River gorge.

After lunch in Ellensburg, we pointed the truck north and traveled the country roads to Table Mountain. The mountain is US Forest Service land and is a 6,500-foot ridge on the Southeast edge of the Cascade Mountains. The drive up the mountain is always fun - a narrow one lane paved road. I put the big diesel in low gear and pressed the accelerator until the rpms reached 2000 and we ground up the steep road at 8 mph. It's about 10 miles from the base of the mountain to the party site, so it's a nice slow drive. As I watched the steep drop off on my side of the road, Cathy was watching the temperature steadily dropping towards the low 50's as we climbed. It was going to be cold star party.

You know you are almost to the observing site when the mixed forest changes to evergreens/pines and the paved road becomes gravel. A stop at the registration desk was next, followed by a parking volunteer who was clearly worried about fitting in a possible record number of attendees. By chance, we ended up on pretty level ground right at the end of "Vendor Row." This was about the last level RV spot left on the site, yet the party didn't start for another two days!

There were at least a hundred other campers there and dozens of scopes set up in the middle of the very large meadow. The most level part of the field is always roped off as the observing field. If you arrive earlier in the week, you can set up in a circle around the observing field. Around the observing field, the ground drops off to a slope that's fine for tent camping.

I leveled the camper by detaching camper and using its built in jacks, instead of the more conventional putting boards under the truck tires. This attracted the attention of Rick Singmaster of Starmaster Telescopes who was set up cattycorner to us in Vendor Row.

It didn't take long for Rick and I to start talking about everything from dobsonian design, to running a small business to the different tastes of local NOVAC Starmaster customers.

Next, I setup Ellie, a 12.25-inch f/5.4 "suitcase" dobsonian that I built for the trip and had only completed a few days before. If it stayed clear, tonight would be first "dark light" for Ellie.

After setup, Cathy and I wandered the telescope field with our 22-month-old daughter, Maggie. With hopes of using the truck's battery to power a laptop computer, I had set up Ellie beside our camper and not on the main field. The field was starting to fill up. There were a number of dobs in the 30-inch class, including a Starmaster produced 29-inch scope that uses one of the original Coulter 29-inch mirrors (there were only five made). More impressive was a 30-inch f/4 scope on an equatorial platform. This scope had eight different finders attached to it, a CCD camera, and even a weather station! It must take three hours to set that scope up!

TMSP is, by far, the most organized star party I've attended. Everyone is parked in an orderly manner; the workers all carry radios and get assistance quickly when needed. Camping spots are taped out before hand, so the maximum number of people can be fit into the available space. Four wheel ATV's are used to carry equipment around. There was much joking this year because one of the staff had left red lights that are normally installed in the port-o-johns at home. Port-o-johns are cleaned twice a day and never want for paper. A caterer from Ellensburg provides prepaid meals. A vendor from Ellensburg runs an all-night burger/hot dog stand, and this year, there were two fancy coffee stands on the mountain set up by Thursday. These are wonderful additions to a star party - mochas at 1am really help you get through those last hours of darkness.

After dinner, it was apparent it was going to be a good night, but very cold. I attached my Sky Commander Digital Setting Circles (DSCs) to Ellie and did a final collimation. As I did this, I realized the temperature was dropping really fast and dew was forming on the lid to Ellie's mirror box. I turned on my homemade dew heaters for the secondary mirror, which is completely exposed on Ellie. A quick look at Mars showed about what I expected; the planet encircling dust storm was obscuring most detail, but the South Polar Cap had a nice dark ring around it. Next, it was off to do a two star alignment and see if the DSCs worked. I punched in M-13 and moved the scope. Yep, there was the globular in the eyepiece. Punched in M-51 and moved. Yep, there was the galaxy. It felt good to know the DSCs were operating properly and Ellie's design was going to work! This was very important because in order to save weight, I had not brought a finder for Ellie; I would depend on the DSCs to find all objects once the initial two star alignment was done.

Maggie had gone to bed, so we spent the next two hours bouncing up the Milky-way, looking at all of the summer time favorites; Messier's 8, 21,17,16,12, 11, 14, 10, 27, 71 and a dozen other objects passed through the eyepiece. The Veil nebula looked great through the 28mm Pretoria eyepiece and a Lumicon OIII filter. Ellie was clearly going to work - in fact, its pointing performance with the DSCs was better then TJ, my 20-inch dobsonian. By now the temperature was well into the upper 30's. Cathy called it a night and retreated to the heated camper with Maggie.

Because of space limitations, we hadn't brought our normal cold weather gear, so we were using whatever clothes we could borrow from Cathy's parents. I was also freezing. I decided to warm up by walking around. The short trip to main telescope showed that it was mostly deserted! Why? The dew! The fast forming dew had caught most by surprise and after they dewed up, they gave up. Only a few people were still observing under the clear skies and the blazing Milky Way. I stopped to look carefully. It was darker tonight then any of the clear nights we experienced at TMSP in 2000. There wasn't as much haze in the air. I had also been convinced that aurora activity last year had brightened the sky. I walked the field some more and ended up back at Ellie. I sat down with a copy of Bright Star Atlas - and started to shiver uncontrollably. I looked around and realized that one of the coffee stands was set up, but they weren't open for business. Remember, the star party really didn't start for another two days! I closed up Ellie and retreated to the warm camper.

As I climbed under the covers, Cathy commented: "We went to WSP (Winter Star Party) in February and wore shorts and t-shirts. We come to TMSP in July and freeze."

Thursday daytime was split between hiking up to Lion Rock, an overlook near the observing field with a wonderful view of the Stewart Mountains, working on Ellie and meeting new friends. From the Rock, the snow pack on Mt. Stewart (12,500 ft) was much less then last year, a clear sign of the drought region is working through. Even though some clouds had rolled in, observers rolled in on a regular basis. More telescopes appeared on the field. The coffee stands set up and a couple more vendors arrived.

By dinnertime, it was time to get ready to observe. I uncovered Ellie, tweaked the collimation and pulled out my laptop computer and the RS232 interface for the Sky Commander. The early evening was spent looking more Milky Way showpieces. It was clearer and darker than Tuesday night.

About 12, Cathy went for coffee and I booted up the laptop and tested the RS232 interface to Megastar. It didn't work and I soon localized it the cable between the DSCs and the laptop. By now clouds started to roll in.

Cathy called it a night, so I wandered across the road to the observing field. The sound of unfolding Mylar telescope covers was deafening as people closed shop. After walking around the field some, I ended up taking again with Rick Singmaster. He introduced me to his partner-in-crime and one of the best mirror makers of our day, Carl Zambuto. Before we knew it, the clouds had moved off. Rick pointed his big 24-inch scope at M-101 and we chased down HII star forming regions in the distant galaxy. In the 24, with an UHC filter and 600x, it was possible to see dark lanes extending across NGC 5462, one of the extra-galactic HII regions. After looking at some other objects, at my request, Rick punched in NGC 891. I manually star hopped about a degree away to an old favorite of mine, Abell Cluster 347 - a collection of about 30 14-18 magnitude galaxies in a single field of view. We could easily see a couple of dozen of the galaxies at 300x. Carl spent a long time looking in the eyepiece - it apparently was the first galaxy cluster he had seen.

I looked up to see Jupiter and Venus rising, so I crossed the road back to Ellie and started to look for some of the Arp galaxy groups that were my primary observing goal this trip. On the second group, I had to rush my drawing of the object as twilight was very quickly interfering with the dark sky. Afterwards, I grabbed a chair and watched the growing twilight until I started to nod off and then climbed into the camper.

Friday, there was a continuous stream of cars coming up the mountain. I got a good afternoon nap, but the skies didn't look all that promising. Next, I took apart the DSC RS232 interface to discover a broken wire. One of our neighboring observers had mentioned he was a ham radio operatorů a clue that might lead to a fix. Sure enough, he had a soldering iron. The camper's generator provided the AC power for the iron, and fifteen minutes later, the interface was fixed.

But by evening the weather was only getting more threatening; as I took a walk around the field just about sunset time, many tent campers were packing up and starting to leave. I looked forward to a solid night's sleep.

Saturday morning came with warming air, a threat of rain, a swap meet and the telescope contest. The threat of rain forced most of the swap meeting into a very large, but very crowed tent. Of the many things for sale, one item that really impressed me was a guy selling a set of 1.5-inch OD x 8 feet long truss tubes, perfect for a 20-inch f/5 or so dobsonian. Great price at $150! But even more impressive was that they weren't aluminum, but titanium! They were from the Boeing Aircraft scrap pile, were thinner wall than aluminum tubing and very, very light. The guy said they could be cut with a standard pipe cutter. It was very tempting to ship them back to Maryland. They were too short for my 20-inch, but might have had higher resell value on the East coast. Only in the Northwest would you see this; last year a guy showed up with a beautiful 6-inch f/15 refractor made completely from titanium.

I moved Ellie to the telescope contest area before lunch. I had debated if I should enter the ultra-lightweight 40lb 12-inch scope in the contest, as there where parts of the scope I didn't consider complete and a few issues were still being worked out. Also, like many of my scopes, Ellie is a little unorthodox and I wasn't sure some of my concepts would be accepted, or even understood, by the judges. Oh, what the heck. In hindsight, I don't think the judges did understand some of more detailed design points about the scope; or perhaps they were just overwhelmed from the 15 scopes they had looked at before Ellie.

I didn't win anything, but lots of people had good things to say about Ellie and many pictures were taken of it and I picked up some good ideas. Suitcase scopes were quite the fad - there were three others entered. An 8-inch was a real piece of craftsmanship, another, 10-inch, a true wonder in complex design. But no other suitcase scope there had actually traveled 5,000 miles in an airliner and survived the suitcase monkeys to get there!

Saturday daytime it had actually warmed up to the point that many were walking around in short sleeves. Late afternoon brought scattered rain showers. Maggie and Cathy were napping in the camper; so I took a chair to the speaker's tent part listened and part slept through a talk about Planetary nebula. I learned the nebula we see in our scopes normally only lasts about 10-20,000 years, a mere blink in the life span of a star, let alone the galaxy. Door prizes were after dinner, but they failed to call any of our numbers. They announced that 1211 people had attended, 11 more than their target number. I suspect better weather on Friday would have increased the total by a couple of hundred.

During Saturday, the clouds had threatened enough that many people had decided to leave. There were lots of clouds at sunset, but they looked to me to be thinning. During the telescope contest, I had taken Ellie's primary mirror out to show someone the mirror cell. I had forgotten this and only realized after darkness was upon us that the scope was completely out of collimation. I did a crude nighttime collimation job with the help of a laser borrowed from Rick Singmaster. The laptop and DSCs were fired off, the laptop was wired to the truck battery and everything fell into place. Arp galaxy after galaxy feel victim to the telescope, DSC, laptop, Megastar and was recorded on paper by my pencil. Hot Mocha's helped to keep me warm and I only stopped observing well after Jupiter was up and the sky was brightening again.

After it was too bright to look at faint fuzzies, I walked over to main telescope field and stole a look at Jupiter and Venus through an 8-inch f/15 achromatic refractor with a D&G lens. Nice views considering the seeing conditions and how low the planets were to the horizon.

After a brief nap, it only took a half hour to pack up the camper and get it ready for the road. After saying goodbye to our friends, we headed down the mountain.

TMSP is a very good party. While the skies aren't the darkest and there isn't that many dark hours at 47 degrees north in July, I greatly appreciate the party's organization. The people are friendly (as most amateur astronomers are) and always willing to befriend visitors from the East coast.

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