University Lowbrow Astronomers

Observations of the 2001 Texas Star Party.

by Mark S Deprest
Printed in Reflections: June, 2001.
Photographs by John Causland.

I’ve heard of bull in a china shop.... But a buffalo in an observing field?

Well the Texas Star Party (TSP) is over and John and I made it back without incident.  John Causland and I flew down to El Paso, Texas on Saturday, May 12th and rented a car to drive the rest of way.  Our equipment went down in Clayton Kessler’s van (Thanks again! Clay), and arrived at Prude Ranch just a few hours before we did.  Prude Ranch is a working Dude Ranch for most of the year with horses and cattle and other livestock, but for one week each spring the astronomers come and take it over.  About 775 astronomers this year and all of them hoping for some of the clearest and darkest skies available in continental United States, 150 miles from the nearest town of over 10,000, right in the heart of Texas’ Davis Mountains.

John and I arrived in El Paso on the 12th.  That basically gave us a whole day before we could even show up at the gate for the TSP.  So John suggested that we take a drive over to Carlsbad, New Mexico and tour the caverns.  It sounded like a good idea to me, so we stopped at the nearest Kmart and picked up a few supplies that we had planned to buy anyway and headed off into the Texas desert just east of El Paso.  A curious thing about El Paso that John and I noticed was the large number of auto salvage yards that lined the highway.  For the first ten to fifteen miles outside the city limits, there were junkyard after junkyard, one right next to the other.  John and I figured this must be where all cars eventually end up.

The first spot along the way was for lunch in a little town called Cornudas, for a world famous “Cornudas Burger.”  The total population of Cornudas, Texas was 3 the day John and I stopped there, but the week before they were a bustling 5, at least according to the waitress we talked to.  She said that an elderly couple went back to their summer home in Washington just last week, so it was just her and the cook and Mayor May left in the town for the summer.  Cornudas consisted of a restaurant/gift shop and a couple of mobile homes scattered about a wide spot in the road surrounded by scrub brush and cactus about 45 miles east of El Paso.

John and I continued our little drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park on a highway that led straight through the Guadeloupe Mountains.  The drive was a little bit longer than we had anticipated and we arrive at the National Park just in time to catch the last few elevator cars going down into the Caverns.  We took what they call an Audio Self-Guided Tour of the Big Room.  It was kind of neat; they give you headphones and a transmitter that activates a taped recording of a tour explaining the different formations as you walk along a railed path.  It was a wonderful experience and one I highly recommend.

After Carlsbad Caverns, John and I decided to drive Van Horn, Texas which turned out to be a town of about 3,000 and only 70 miles from Prude Ranch.  We found a Best Western to spend the night at and a little restaurant called “Chuy’s” that served a Tex-Mex bill of fare.  John and I had some Mexican beer with our dinners and headed back to the motel for a bit of sleep.

Sunday morning brought some clear skies and we drove the 70 miles left to Prude Ranch and the TSP.  Our drive took us right past the McDonald Observatory and through a mountain pass that was just under 5,000 feet.  The scenery was beautiful and a lot greener than I would have thought, but the locals were saying that they had been getting much more rain than usual (let’s hope that stops soon).  We got to Prude Ranch just before noon local time and were pleasantly surprised to see Clayton Kessler already there and half set up.  He got there about 9:00 am that morning and started unloading his tired van.  We started to set up our tents and get our equipment out of Clay’s van rather hurriedly as we could see rain approaching from the west.  John and I set our tents up just before the afternoon shower, which Clayton said was not unusual.  John and I were glad to hear Clayton explain that these kind of showers move through very quickly and then the sky clears shortly after the sun goes down, which was precisely what happened that night.  The sky cleared and we got a glimpse of what truly dark skies are like.  John and I were very impressed with the steadiness and clarity, but the thing that blew me away was the intensity of the “Zodiacal Light” which rose well past the zenith from the western horizon, until very late in the evening.

The Texas Star Party is an observer’s star party, and although the promoters, who include many dedicated individuals of the South West Region of the Astronomical League (SWRAL), depend on the support of the many vendors for contributions and support, the main reason astronomers come is to observe.  John and I enjoyed that first night and when the skies finally submitted to some high clouds and we both crawled back to our sleeping bags, I know that our only thoughts were of what will we look at the next night.  My first night of observing was spent working on this year’s observing list.  Which was compiled by John Wagoner - TSP Observing Chairman, and was entitled, “An Astronomical Odyssey.”  This observing list was the fourth in the on going TSP Observers Challenge Program, which include last year’s Glorious Globulars and previous years’ Planetary Nebulae List and The Great Southern Sky Challenge (a.k.a. Grazing in the Grass).  In addition to the telescope observing programs, they also have a Binocular Objects list and for the past two years they have produced an Advanced Observers List that John can tell you contains some objects that would challenge even the most seasoned observer.  I will run off some copies of this year’s list as well as the Glorious Globulars List and I believe John Causland might be persuaded to do the same for the Advanced Observer’s List and have them at the June meeting, for those of you who are interested.

Unfortunately this year’s TSP happened to be in the beginning of the “monsoon season” and the weather was not real cooperative.  This is not to say we didn’t have any good skies, just that this was an atypical TSP as far as the weather went.  We were only completely clouded out one night, but most evenings the skies were not very transparent or we were looking through “sucker holes.”  John was persistent and stayed up well into the wee hours of the morning most nights, but by Thursday he had enough of fighting the night sky and decided to go to sleep early.  Of course this was one of those nights that looked like a cloud out at the beginning but turned out to be the best of the week.  Although it took until 1:30 am to clear, once it did, it was incredible.  The stars were visible right down to the horizon, the Summer Milky Way was so bright you’d swear it could cast a shadow.  Mars was well above the hills and shone with an intensity and clarity I’ve never experienced before, but definitely would like to again.  I found my self sitting next to the scopes with my head tilted as far back as I could manage just gazing wide-eyed and mouth opened in total awe of a vista that has inspire both poets and preachers.  By 4:30 am, even I was getting a little tired and by then I had completed both the observing lists I was working on, which earned me two pins, and I proudly display them on my hat.  So, I packed up the equipment for what was to be the night of observing for John and I at the 2001 TSP, because Friday night was the total cloud-out, and Saturday night we had to drive back to El Paso for and early flight out Sunday morning.

Although observing the night sky is the primary purpose of the astronomers who come to the TSP, it’s not he only thing going on there.  Prude Ranch has horses to ride if that is your pleasure, there is a very nice pool for swimming, and during the afternoon there are many wonderful talks given in the air-conditioned meeting hall.  The TSP also provides transportation to the McDonald Observatory for guided tours twice during the week.  Near the Upper or Main observing field there is a vendor’s building where the vendors display and sell their wares.  John and I saw Al Nagler assembling one of his own scopes there.  Representatives from both Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines were there and the editor of Amateur Astronomy magazine, Tom Clark, was one of the speakers during the week.  John attended most of the talks throughout the week and said that all the talks were worth while.  Clayton Kessler and I were coming back from the Upper Field and we stopped near the edge of the Central Field where a small group of people were scanning the afternoon skies for a naked-eye daylight look at Venus, after a few minutes we found Venus and were then surprise to have Stephen J. O’Meara ask us our names and club affiliations for the photo he snapped of us.  Stephen O’Meara is a contributing writer and photographer for Sky & Telescope magazine and was one of the featured speakers for the 2001-TSP.

We didn’t have the best weather but what we did have was one helluva good time.  I enjoyed myself thoroughly and will be going back again.  I would like to say Thank you to my traveling companion John Causland for his company and good humor.  I would also like to give a HUGE “Thank You” to Clayton Kessler our equipment transporter and guide through our first TSP.  I hope that next year we might get a larger group of Lowbrows to go and experience those dark Texas Skies.

Part of the Very Long Baseline Array, just outside of the Prude Ranch Property.

“Now just why weren’t you at the 2001 TSP?”
(This is some of the livestock on the Prude Ranch).

[See also “Deep Sky Observing - Texas Style.” by Doug Scobel, May, 1998 (a description of the 1998 TSP).]

[The Texas Star Party Home Page.]


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