University Lowbrow Astronomers

Journey Into Another World.

by Jim Wadsworth
Printed in Reflections: September, 2002.

Some time last summer I was surfing the web and came across the Nebraska Star Party site.  I logged on and read the info.  It sounded challenging.  I thought about going and it remained in the back of my mind for months.  I didn’t think I could undertake such a large challenge as going that far away for that many days to a strange place without knowing anybody or what I would be getting into.

Anyway, I bought a small trailer called a Scamp, easy to pull behind the Aerostar.  This spring I got the application form for the Nebraska Star Party and registered.  Now what!  Well, I talked to Clayton Kessler because he is a veteran of the Texas Star Party and should know what to bring, how to take care of the scope and stuff, what food to bring, and what to do when not observing; nothing like talking to an expert.  Well, the time approached fast, August 4-9 was two weeks away.  I better get packing and planning.

The Nebraska Star Party is located at Merritt Reservoir, 27 miles south of Valentine, Nebraska.  It’s 120 miles north of North Platte.  That’s a long way from Dundee, MI.  It dawned on me that I wouldn’t make it in a day so I’d better leave on Friday the 5th.  I did!  That’s a long ride at 60/65 mph on Interstate 80.

After a stop over in Lincoln, Nebraska and a scenic drive up Neb. 97, I arrived at Merritt resort where I got the required state park permit and directions to the observing field at the Snake campground, 5.5 miles south of the resort.  It had been brutality hot, high 90’s most of the trip.  Just as I was about to leave for the observing field, it rained I mean a cloudburst with horizontal rain.  Oh great now the campground will be wet and mucky.  After 1 and 1/2 hours it stopped and I went to the “SPOT.”

One drives back into the observing field through a winding road up and over sand dunes covered with grass, small trees and local plants down into a camping area with a boat launch, a shelter, outhouses, and a hand pump for water.  Trees line the shore of the reservoir, which is 11 miles long.  Turn around from the water and on the hills in about an 11 mile circle is the observing field.  Take your pick of the hilltop or valleys.  No need to be grouped all together.  No obstructions either nothing but hills and clear blue sky!

Now the problem was, where to find my observing site.  Should I go into one of those valleys or up on top of the hills.  To me, the valleys presented two problems.  One, you couldn’t see the horizon very well and what if we had lots of rain.  Better go to the hilltop.  Which one, well close enough to the privy but far enough so other campers wouldn’t interfere with my viewing nor mine with theirs.  So, I selected one of the higher ones, where I could see the horizon clearly in all directions.

It was still cloudy but slowly clearing so I set up my Scamp and easy-up shelter and waited to see what was going to happen that evening which was Saturday the 6th.  This is going to be great, I thought as the thunderstorm receded into the distance, slowly but surely.  Some thick very broad stratus clouds were on the horizon in the west but posed no problem now.  I got out my blue collapsible chair and enjoyed the sight.  O boy this is going to be GREAT, I said under my breath.  A slight wind was blowing out of the south cooling the heat of the day.  “I’m really here in clear sky country, I made it.”  This week will be fantastic.

I went inside the Scamp to rest a bit.  It gets dark about 9:00/9:30 PM CDT.  I woke up about 10PM and went outside.  Venus was in the western sky.  It was not dark enough to see the other objects or stars.  I set up my tripod and 11x80 binoculars.  I could see the half-disk of Venus clearly.  Amazing!  Setting in the camp chair, I enjoyed watching the sky turn darker and darker.  “There’s that pesky stratus cloud blocking most of the sky now.  DAMN!!  The sky was clear in the south to about 40 before being blocked by that cloud.  Scorpius is clear and just to the east is the teapot, Sagittarius, clearer than I’ve ever seen it.  And there it was Brilliant, Clear, Majestic, actuality, Awesome; THE MILKY WAY!!  Starting from the south across the sky all the way through Cassiopeia.  The different arms; clearly marked; the Sagittarius Arm, the Perseus Arm and all the stars in their glory.

I had a hard time comprehending what I was witnessing.  There it was close enough to almost reach out and touch.  The visual display of our galaxy; showing itself, clearly; much, much more than any picture or word description I’ve ever seen or read.  Actually, just drinking that sight in with my eyes was mystical even can I say Soul shaking!  Snapping back to reality, I wanted to see how many of the traditional objects we see at Peach Mountain could be found with the binocs, so I trained them on M-4.  It popped immediately in view as did M-22, M-28, M-7, M-6, the lagoon, M-8, M-20, M-24, M-17, the Swan Nebula, and M-16, the Eagle Nebula.  The last two were well defined.  I tried other sites but guess what, that stratus cloud was covering most of the sky.  I looked at my watch and 11:24 appeared.  Having gotten up at 6:00 AM/EDT that morning and traveling 600 miles in 95 degree heat, I was exhausted.  I went to bed, hoping for more clear skies Sunday night.

Well I woke up about 8:30 the next morning, looked out the window and much to my surprise saw low wet clouds.  They remained all day and all night.  The wind kept blowing also, not the normal Michigan wind but wind that rocked the Scamp and made the top vent rattle.  Needless to say, I slept as much as possible in the 90/95degree heat.  Well, maybe a better tomorrow.

Monday started out not much better, still high winds and cloudy.  I better read Astronomy or Sky and Telescope.  Not much accomplished, heat and wind, high heat, high wind.  That afternoon looked much better.  The sky cleared with cotton-ball clouds.  Everyone around was anticipating a good night.  Still the wind was up.  Around 7:00 PM the other astronomers started setting up their scopes.  I followed.  We waited, checked the scopes and waited, hoping the wind would slow down, still hot though.  One can see for miles when clear.  About 9:00 PM, a cloud deck moved in, and yes, it got thicker and thicker.  I gave up about 11:30 PM and dismantled the scope and went to bed.  I woke up around 3:30 AM.  The sky was clear but the dew was heavy and the wind strong.  As I said earlier the Milky Way was majestic, radiant, and beautiful.  The arms were distinct and clear.  I looked and absorbed Lyra and Cygnus, the swan, and Aquila in the west.  Taurus and the Pleiades were rising in the east, all cradled in the Milky Way’s arms.  I didn’t want to battle the moisture, wind and heat and crawled into bed.

Tuesday, clear all day but hot again with very high wind.  Not much to do so I went to Merritt resort and hung out in the air-conditioned rec. room watching the weather channel on the big 54 inch TV.  The evening looked good.  I set up the scope and binocs.  I’m ready man!  Here comes the sunset, glorious, and twilight and Venus.  It’s half disk clearly visible.

The MILKY WAY is very subtle.  You can see it faintly as Scorpius and Sagittarius stand out.  The summer triangle stars stand out brightly and then there it is.  It smacks you right in the face.  It outshines these previous stars and constellations.  Now you have to look for Scorpius and Sagittarius or the triangle.  They’re hidden.

Now comes the serious stuff.  Check out my bright clear M-8, Lagoon Nebula.  See if it’s entirely in my 34mm plus filter, clear, well-defined dust lanes, distinct.  M-20’s there, the Trifid, clear; now the Swan, M-17 shows its stuff very detailed, then M-16, the Eagle, best ever in clarity.  One could see the outline not the smudge we see here in Michigan.  Other objects checked out were; M-28, M22, M-13, M-31/32, the Andromeda galaxy.  The double cluster was naked eye.  Again, the entire Milky Way was brilliantly clear across the sky from south to north.  The meteors were there too!  Even the Space Station came into view briefly.  But as things go, the sky got milky and all but the brightest stars disappeared.  I closed up shop and went to bed about 2:45 AM.  Hopefully it’s a better night tomorrow.

Same-o, same-o on Wednesday, hot, windy and humid.  It looked like a decent night so I was ready to go around 8:30 PM.  Venus was visible and many bright stars appeared.  I thought M-4 would be a good target.  I tried and couldn’t find it, or any of the other objects.  I finally found M-4 with the binocs though extremely faint.  The sky was completely washed out even some of the main stars were hard to see.  It was getting sticky, sticky on everything so I quit early and had a good nights sleep.  As usual the wind is strong all the time.

Thursday was cloudy most of the day.  One astronomer had a NOAA radio.  It forecast high winds and storms for that evening.  That group was covering up and tying down their scopes.  I took the hint and did the same with mine.  It was double covered and staked down.  No wind is going to blow this scope over.  It did blow and rain and thunder and lightening with small hail thumping the Scamp around 6/7 PM.  No viewing tonight!  I woke up about 12:30 AM.  It was cool, actually cold and you guessed it windy, very windy.  It was clear now but so windy that the scope would be pushed and bounced about.  I didn’t unpack it.  I used the binocs instead.  I could see M-4, M-22, M-31/32 and all the usual others.  The wind was so strong that it even affected the vision of the binocs.  I gave up and went to bed at 1:30AM.

Friday morning was overcast.  Weather predictions were for cloudy all day and possible thunderstorms in the evening.  I had enough of the hot sticky windy, windy weather.  It didn’t take much to push me to pack up and leave for home.  The people from Omaha told me about a short cut with good roads and little traffic.  There would be lots of small towns though.  I took it and cut off about 200 miles.  The rest of the trip was long but I was glad to pull into my driveway in Dundee.  Mission accomplished.  I’d been to the NEBRASKA STAR PARTY!

Since that time I’ve had time to absorb and reflect on the experience.  Negatives were the hot weather and the ceaseless strong wind.  Clear/cloudy skies are a tossup.  Probably the most important thing that has lasted is the experience of the Milky Way.  Clearly one is overpowered by its brilliance, its massiveness, and its awesome presence, hiding within its brilliance the Messier objects we see here at Peach Mountain.  Many other treasures are there to be discovered and enjoyed like so many of you know.

The strange thing is; I felt a comfort from seeing the Milky Way this clearly.  Like I’m home now!  I know where Earth is in relation to its place in the universe.  We read about our position in the solar system and in the Milky Way and the rest of the Cosmos but all that is abstract.  When I saw the Milky Way and can see the Sagittarius Arm in the south extending overhead and stopping only to pick up the Perseus Arm to the north though Cassiopeia I’m home here in the Orion Arm.  I’m in a place where I know where it is.  People talked about the moon in many different ways but when a man stepped on it, it became a place.  To me that was the discovery of the Nebraska Star Party that I hadn’t expected and am glad I experienced it.  It certainly was a journey into another world different from all the noise, busyness, and chaos that stress us daily.  That different noise and heat and magnificent sky is part of me now and I’m glad I experienced this different world.


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