University Lowbrow Astronomers

Deep Sky Observing - Texas Style.

by Doug Scobel
Printed in Reflections:  May, 1998.

“Wooooowwwwwww!”  The cry rang out another time in the predawn darkness as another bright meteor streaked across the star-filled sky.  Those that were lucky enough to be looking at the right area of the sky were treated to a bright, quickly moving meteor that appeared to come from the constellation Lyra.  The annual Lyrid meteor shower was just the icing on the cake during the 20th annual Texas Star Party, held at the Prude Ranch in Fort Davis, Texas from April 19-25.  As a first time TSP attendee, I can attest that it was definitely worth the 1700 mile drive (one way!) to get there.  I attended with Doug Bock, Clayton Kessler, Greg Burnett, and David Lee, all of the Ford club (Doug Bock is also a Lowbrow).

The obvious question is, “Is the sky at the Texas Star Party dark”?  Is a frog waterproof?  Of course it’s dark - certainly darker than anything you’ll see here in the lower half of Michigan.  M13, the “great” globular cluster in Hercules, was an easy naked eye object, even when it was only 20 degrees or so above the horizon.  When the summer Milky Way rose, it looked like clouds moving in; when it was more overhead, the dark dust lanes stood out in bold relief against the bright star clouds around them.  It was actually bright enough to cast a shadow!  Low surface brightness face-on spiral galaxies such as M101 and M83 showed their spiral arms even without using averted vision.  And M51 not only showed its spiral arms, but the fainter regions between the arms were easily seen as well.  The dark skies also made galaxy-hopping possible and fun.  Just pick a page from Uranometria 2000 and hop from faint galaxy to faint galaxy.  I spent one entire night logging more than fifty galaxies in the Coma galaxy cluster, some as faint as 14th magnitude per square arc-minute.  Doug Bock also did some galaxy-hopping in the Coma cluster and in Centaurus with his 20 inch Obsession.

There is one drawback to having such dark skies, though.  After sunset, some of us wanted to observe some deep sky objects in the west before they sank below the hills.  But that dang Zodiacal Light was brightening the sky too much!  I have seen hints of it here in SE Michigan, but never like this.  The huge wedge of light reflecting off dust in the plane of our solar system ran right up through Gemini and partly obscured Auriga, Orion, and Monoceros.  It was almost enough to make us pack up and go back to Michigan (just kidding!).

Another plus for the TSP is its southerly location.  At about thirty and a half degrees latitude, about twelve more degrees worth of southern deep sky targets are available.  The naked eye view is enhanced, too.  Scorpius is a glorious sight when you can see it in its entirety, tail included, suspended above the bright Sagittarius star clouds.  It really does look like a scorpion!  Objects that are low in the southern sky from up here, such as M83, are much better placed for observing.  But the high point had to be seeing the incredible globular cluster Omega Centauri.  M13 literally pales in comparison, as it is roughly half the size and more than two magnitudes fainter.  At about 200x, the view through my 7mm Nagler (82 degree apparent field) was filled edge to edge with bright stars against the milky background of countless more unresolved stars.  It was truly an awe-inspiring sight!  Another treat was Centaurus A, the famous X-ray emitting galaxy.  Its dark, broad dust lane was very easily seen against its round glow.  (Interestingly enough, at declination -43 degrees, Centaurus A should rise almost five degrees above the horizon from here in SE Michigan, although I’ve never heard of anyone looking for it from up here).  I spent the first few nights completing the TSP’s “Great Southern Skies Challenge”, which challenged the visual observer with forty deep sky objects south of minus thirty degrees declination (but of course I observed them all!).

We were able to observe and/or do photography seven out of seven nights.  We arrived Sunday morning around 1:00 am local time.  Not enough time to set up scopes.  Besides, we were pretty much wiped out after almost thirty hours straight on the road.  But still we “forced” ourselves to stroll around the grounds, looking up at the pitch black skies through binoculars, or one of the few scopes that other attendees had already set up, or just with the naked eye.  Sunday night was clear and dark - although lacking in steadiness.  Heavy duty observing and photography started in earnest, as Michigan weather patterns train you to go for the gusto when you get the opportunity.  Monday night started out with a good old-fashioned western dust storm, as a front blew through during evening twilight.  Everyone scrambled to cover up scopes and equipment, as it was impossible to observe in the wind and dust.  Retiring early, we set the alarm for 2:00 am, and awoke to find that the wind had diminished considerably.  So on went the warm clothes, down went the hot chocolate, and observe we did until moonrise.  Tuesday through Thursday nights were clear, too.  After Tuesday night, morning twilight started before the moon rose, so all nighters were in order.  Sleep?  We don’t need no stinkin’ sleep!  That’s what daylight is for.  Friday night we finally got some haze and clouds, but there was still enough holes through which to observe some brighter showpieces.  But, we actually welcomed the opportunity to go to bed early, since we were bugging out the next day.

About the only drawback to the Prude Ranch site is that it is dusty!  Fine, gritty, windblown dust is everywhere, and it gets into virtually everything.  Simply walking stirs it up.  There are signs all over stating “5 mph - no dust”, but even idling along your vehicle raises a cloud of it.  It gets into focusers, camera lenses, charts, scopes, clothing, virtually anything that’s left outside for any length of time.  Plus, there’s always some wind blowing during the day, so you had to keep your scope covered with a tarp when not in use.  TSP veterans even stake their scopes to the ground, in case one of those Texas-sized dust devils came roaring by.  It was kinda fun watching all the 20 and 25 inch Obsession weathervanes twisting around, always keeping their tail ends pointing into the wind.  By the end of the week, the bearing surface of the teflon pads on my dob were solid brown.  Fortunately, they cleaned right up once I got home and gave the whole thing a good washing.  But, this is why the sky is good and dark there.  It is, after all, a desert mountain location.  Desert means dry, dry means low humidity, and low humidity means transparent air.  Gotta take the bad with the good (but not necessarily the ugly, right, Doug?).

Daytime activities during the week included napping, developing film, eating, hiking, napping some more, taking pictures, spending mucho denero at the vendors’, eating some more, fossil hunting, cleaning eyepieces, swimming, still more napping, watching out for dust devils, doing Batman and Yoda impressions, and engaging in conversation ranging from meaningful debate to meaningless drivel.  We also took in a special technical tour of nearby McDonald Observatory, home of 82”, 107”, and 9.2 meter telescopes.  The 9.2 meter, the third largest telescope on the planet after the twin Keck telescopes, is scheduled to be fully operational before the end of the year.  The hosts gave us a really nice, informative tour.

Not a bad way to spend a week, eh?  If you are really into deep sky observing or photography, you owe it to yourself to attend the Texas Star Party at least once.  And don’t let that long drive deter you.  As that little pointy-eared green guy once said, “Do, or do not.  There is no try”.

[Photographs taken by Doug Scobel on this trip.]

[The Texas Star Party Home Page.]


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