University Lowbrow Astronomers

Just Smurfy!

by Doug Scobel
Printed in Reflections:  September, 1997.

On August 6th and 7th, I attended the Southern Michigan Unorganized Regional Festival of Stargazers, otherwise known as SMURFS.  SMURFS is an annual star party, sponsored by the Genesee Astronomical Society (GAS), at a remote site near Hillman in northeastern lower Michigan.  The event is held at a former landing strip (owned by the family of a GAS member) located north of Mio and west of Alpena.  It is advertised to provide the darkest skies available in the lower peninsula.

The event was attended by I would guess well over a hundred people.  Lots of people from the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club (FAAC), Warren Astronomical Society (WAS), GAS, and others, but very few Lowbrows.  Only myself and Doug Bock (who was there with his family, and this was just a pit stop on their way to the Nebraska Star Party).  It was held August 6 through 10, Wednesday through Sunday morning, but I had to leave Friday due to other commitments.

The event is very informal.  No talks.  No flea market.  No vendors.  No accommodations.  Just a large field on which to camp and set up your telescope, a single 40 amp circuit feeding a spaghetti maze of extension cords, and a single faucet providing water you can draw and carry to your campsite.  For showers, they set up an old, rusty shower stall just inside the woods, with a couple of old shower curtains hung in strategic locations for privacy.  They ran a water hose into a thirty (or so) gallon steel tank that was painted flat black, and then another hose from the tank to the shower stall.  The shower head was a hand held garden sprayer propped up in the corner of the shower stall.  After sitting in the sun for a couple of hours, the water in the black tank warmed up enough to provide a nice, warm shower.

The sky was clear as a bell Wednesday morning and throughout the three and a half hour drive, and I was anxiously hoping it would remain so that night as well.  After popping up the camper and setting up the telescope, I wandered around looking for anyone I might know.  Nope, no one familiar, but I introduced myself to some very nice people from the Ford club who were set up nearby.  We just sort of hung out, waiting for nightfall, which seemed to take forever to arrive.  But when it did, we were not disappointed.

In a word, the skies there are indeed DARK.  Certainly darker than any I have seen down here.  The Milky Way looks like someone took a can of white paint and splashed it up across the starry dome.  The Great Rift isn’t just a suggestion, it is a distinct, black, chasm, dividing the galaxy in two.  Numerous bright and dark knots are obvious along its entire length.  Elsewhere in the sky, so many more faint stars are visible that it makes it a little difficult to make out some of the constellations.  I often found myself simply looking up at the sky naked eye, just to take in all the beauty.

With optical aid, things get even better.  Through 10 x 50 binoculars, the North American nebula was easily seen, and so was the low surface brightness galaxy M33 in Triangulum.  I even saw the Veil nebula in binoculars and in my 8 x 50 finderscope.

But the views through the 13 inch were what really blew me away.  Everything looked better.  Just as more fainter stars were visible naked eye, so were more visible through the telescope.  Sweeps through the Milky Way were much richer in the number of visible stars.  Even globulars looked better, such as M13 and M92, since more faint stars were visible, particularly in the outlying regions.

Low surface brightness objects showed the most improvement.  M51, also known as the Whirlpool galaxy, showed its spiral arms WITHOUT AVERTED VISION!  You could just look right at them and there they were, staring right back.  M101 and M33 also plainly revealed their spiral patterns.  M31, the great galaxy in Andromeda, showed two dust lanes, where I have only seen one previously.  I was also able to see some other very low surface brightness galaxies in the Caldwell list (such as NGC 6822, or Barnard’s galaxy) that had eluded me up to then.

While looking low in the northwest at M100, another face on galaxy, the sky background looked brighter and the contrast was poor.  I looked away from the eyepiece expecting to see some hazy clouds, but was surprised to see an aurora instead.  It only extended about 30 degrees above the northern horizon, and wasn’t particularly bright, but enough so to hinder deep sky views in that area.

Bright diffuse nebulae, such as M17 (the Omega nebula), M8 (the Lagoon), and M20 (the Trifid) looked almost as good without a filter as they do down here with one.  And with an OIII filter, the view was incredible!  For instance, the dark lanes in the Trifid looked like someone had drawn them in with black ink, the contrast was so high.  The nebulous part of the Eagle nebula (M16) was seen without a filter, where it has always been invisible without one down here.

But it was the Veil nebula in Cygnus that was the star of the show.  (Actually, it’s the show of the star, after it blew up a few tens of thousands of years ago.)  With an OIII filter it has always looked great, but this defied description.  The filaments and striations throughout this supernova remnant looked exactly like the photographs you have seen (excepting maybe those from Hubble - but just maybe).  All the fainter wisps throughout the area that have been hinted at previously were now obvious.  The bright, narrow portion of the nebula that passes through fifth magnitude 52 Cygni looked just like the nebula’s namesake.  I could have spent the whole night just looking at this one object.

I spent the rest of the night reviewing low surface brightness favorites, and picking off a few Caldwell objects that had previously eluded me due to the poorer skies I’ve been observing under.  I had fully intended to stay up all night, but the Mountain Dew didn’t seem to be doing the trick and I ended up turning in around 3:00.  Tomorrow would be another night I mumbled to myself as I stumbled to the camper.  To my horror and disgust, the next morning I found out I had been drinking CAFFEINE FREE Mountain Dew.  No wonder!  You IDIOT!!  AAARRRGGHH!!!

Thursday morning it was still crystal clear, but as the day went on the clouds rolled in.  There would be no observing tonight.  Unfortunately, I had to leave Friday morning, so I never got another chance.  In speaking later with others who stayed, there was some clearing Friday night and Saturday night was clear again.

If you are interested in doing some deep sky observing under really dark skies, I urge you to consider SMURFS next year.  I should warn you though, you might get spoiled.  Deep sky observing in southeast Michigan will never be the same.


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