University Lowbrow Astronomers

Okie-Tex Star Party 2009 Report.

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections: October, 2009.

Okie and Chris

Okie, Tex and Chris Sarnecki (Chris is wearing the Lowbrow shirt) at OTSP 2009.

Chris presents his impressions of Okie-Tex ‘09, so read on!

The Trip...

Traveling from Ann Arbor to Camp Billy-Joe, in Kenton, Oklahoma (home of the Okie-Tex Star Party (OTSP)) is a 1,250 miles experience that many would ask why make this trip? Months earlier the e-mail buzz started amongst Lowbrows Mark Deprest, Don Foley, Nathan Murphy, Doug Scobel, Robert Wade, and a reluctant yours truly. I was won over by an opportunity to observe in skies reported to be darker than our other recent annual haunt at the Black Forest Star Party (BFSP) deep in the mountains of central Pennsylvania; and, a guarantee of no recent hurricane tracking over the observing field as we experienced at the last 2 of 3 BFSPs. Driving was a day and half experience. One has to overnight on the way, and I landed in the small town of Abilene, Kansas, home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum. No I didn’t see it, I didn’t have time, and I was driving. They say half the fun of traveling is getting there. My fun found me the next morning when I woke to find the weather was in a fowl mod. The clouds were laying on the ground and prospects for the first night’s observing was not looking good. We all traveled separately to OTSP and eventually I caught up to Camp Lowbrow West already established by Mark and Nate on Saturday, the opening day of OTSP.

Day One and First Night Observing

When driving in the Oklahoma panhandle, one notices the driver of every passing pick-up waves to you as they go by; and, the expectation is you will do the same. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I did confirm it with my fellow Lowbrows. So, when traveling in the Oklahoma panhandle, don’t forget to wave. I landed at Camp Lowbrow on Sunday, at 2:00 PM, set up camp, had a beer, caught a bite to eat; and, made the scope ready for a night’s Observat’n. Yes, you heard it right. I had a beer. OTSP is very laid back. Having a brew is not prohibited, just don’t flaunt it and no one will bother you. The weather wasn’t as billed by our previous Lowbrow OTSP veterans, but was still promising. Got the cool down fan going on the scope’s mirror, and proceeded to collimating the scope. Now you can imagine that after driving half way across the country for a day and a half, that one wouldn’t be at the top of your game. Well, that was me on the first night. The sky wasn’t exactly cooperating either. A mix of upper level clouds and marginal seeing lowered our expectations right away. Someone decided to dial up Jupiter. The view of old Jove was incredible. “Best Jupiter ever seen”, was the cry from the assembled Lowbrows. We witnessed Jupiter’s belts as never seen before. The Great Red Spot was huge, festoons were numerous, mini belts were seen between the South Equatorial Belt and polar region; and, colors such as brown, terra-cotta, black, and green were displayed on the belts big and small. Definitely a peak experience. The sky closed down somewhere after midnight, and so did the Lowbrows.

Day two, Eye Candy, and beyond the Milky Way

Woke up the next morning late after a restful sleep on the ground only to find our clan ready to go to breakfast at the Kenton’s ‘Merc’. Kenton is the small town adjacent to Camp Billy-Joe and is reported to have a population of 26. The ‘Merc’ or Mercantile is the only business in evidence of operation in Kenton and serves as the local food store, restaurant, and family room for the community. The food was filling. So after breakfast, Mark, Robert, and I decided to go a mesa walk around the perimeter of Camp Billy-Joe. During this 3-hour scramble we witness strange geology (Hey, anybody seen my rock?), high mesa flora, and cow pies. Don’t ask me how cattle get on top of these mesas, but obviously they can and did as evidenced by leaving their calling cards. Night two was shaping up to be better than the first night, but not the ‘effing’ darkness that I was promised. The assembled Lowbrows made ready their scopes. Before we new it, the darkness was upon us. Previously many of us expressed a wiliness to spend some quality time looking at some bright eye candy in addition to the usual faint fuzzies. I was ready to put to the test a new wide field eyepiece that I recently procured. So it made sense to start the evening in the Milky Way stream beginning in Sagittarius. OTSP is almost 37 degrees north latitude or about 7 degrees farther south than Peach Mountain. That puts those objects in the southern Milky Way that much higher in the sky for our viewing enjoyment.

After the sky was fully dark, M8, the Lagoon Nebula was first up. M8 is a massive dust/gas cloud and stellar nursery. As luck would have it, I was observing at the clearest, steadiest, darkest time this night would offer. The new eyepiece easily revealed the Lagoon’s famous dark lane. Completing the view was a generous sprinkling of stellar jewels from the embedded open star cluster NGC 6530. One didn’t have to try to imagine the nebulosity surrounding the dark lane, as is often the case on Peach Mountain; the cloud formation was obvious. Next up was M20, the Trifid Nebula, like the Lagoon, the Trifid was visible to the unaided eye in the night’s sky. In the telescope with the wide field eyepiece, observing at Okie-Tex, the view was heart stopping. The name Trifid comes for the dark nebula Bernard 85 which subdivides the nebula NGC 6514 into three, no four divisions. The Open Star cluster Collinder 360 is superimposed next to the nebula and completes the view. The view of the cloud nebula in both M8 and M20 was like a black-and-white photo. The effect was 3-D.

Intermission: Today’s beer is brought to you by me, but made by New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO. (Note to self —Best brew tour ever, must go back again). Abbey Belgian Style Ale—Sweeeet Belgian sourness and carmelishiness, Mmmm, I’ll have another. 1554 Black Ale—Refreshing smoky darkness w dry notes. Hoptober Golden Ale—Crisp fruity goodness, Looooong dry ending (that’s good by the way).

At the OTSP or Black Forest Star Party, skies are so dark you can see nothing at all. I’m talking about dark nebula here. Dark nebulas are dust/gas clouds that are positioned in front of background star fields from our viewing position. Appearing like a hole in space, dark nebula block out the star light from stars behind them. The best place to look for these objects is in the southern Milky Way sky. The M24 Scutum Star cloud is a vast bright, and dense star field forming a bright knot in the southern Milky Way. Two dark nebulas, Bernard 92 and 93 are located on the north side of this star cloud. Easily seen at OTSP, but one really has to use your imaginary seeing to view these objects at Peach Mountain or even Hudson Lake.

Next up were some paired objects. In Sagittarius the 9th magi globular cluster NGC 6440 is paired with the much fainter 11th mag planetary nebula NGC 6440 in the same wide field view. In the dark OTSP skies, the planetary looks almost as large as the globular even though the glob is listed about four times larger. Another pair is located near M11, the Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum (Yea, I thought M11 was in Aquila, but it’s in Scutum). The 8th mag globular NGC 6712 shares the same field of view with the very dim 12th mag planetary nebula IC 1295. The OTSP skies help us out in locating this faint planetary.

In preparing for this star party, I was reading on the Skyhound web site ( and noticed a misplaced object on the March Deep Sky listings. The 13.8 mag Quasar PHL 1811, located in Capricornus and is a fall object, not a spring one. Well I thought, why not try this one. Armed with the fine star chart from Skyhound, I found this one too easily. Imagine, the look back time on this object is 2.4 Billion light years. That’s more than half the age of the Earth. As the night wore on, Lowbrows and others were dropping off the observing field and falling into slumber land. About 3 AM, Nate Murphy shuts down his scope and I’m thinking I’m observing alone. Nate comes over and inquires what’s next on my list. Well, NGC 1049, the extra-galactic globular cluster in the Fornax dwarf galaxy has been on my observing list for way too long. Time to dial this one up. Even at the OTSP’s 37 degrees north latitude, this object would be grazing in the grass; no, make that “grazing in the rocks” as Nate indicated. Using a photo from a Sky & Telescope October 2002 article, we managed to bag this one, but had the share the field of view with rocks on the mesa behind Camp Billy-Joe. As the night wore on, it was getting time for last call. The Skyhound site had another quasar listed. Quasar MSH 04-12 is a 14.9 mag pinpoint in Eridanus that’s 4.9 Billion light years away. It also happens to be near the fine Planetary Nebular NGC 1535, also known as Cleopatra’s Eye. Observing this planetary at high power will reveal the ‘eye’ and some late night eye candy. Quasar MSH 04-12 wasn’t a cakewalk, but with the combined skills present, we found it. Nate—Thanks for hanging with me on this one! Wow, 2 quasars and an extra-galactic glob in one night!

Third Night Observing challenge

At a major national star party you never know whom you’ll be running in to. Waiting in the dinner line, I had a change to talk with Al Nagler, (or ‘Uncle Al’ as he affectionately known) of Televue fame. Robert Wade and I noticed Dave Kriege of Obsession Telescopes setting up a prototype 22-inch Ultra Compact scope behind Camp Lowbrow in order to use the distant Mesa as a background for a photo shoot. Later that evening after the Lowbrows decided not to set up scopes due to the questionable weather, we had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time observing with Rick Singmaster of Starmaster Telescopes. That night found the Lowbrows sitting around the camp bemoaning about the lack of stars and clear skies. We decided to take a walk around Camp Billy-Joe and see if anybody had scopes set up. As luck would have it, a couple of new fast focal ratio scopes (f/2.55 and f/3.3) where set up in the Starmaster Telescope camp. The sky did manage some sucker holes on and off for a couple of hours, so we hung out with Rick and used his scopes. The final observing opportunity can at Jim Lawrence’s camp and looking through his fine 6-inch binocular scope. I have never had good luck viewing through bino viewers, but this Jim’s binocular scope the view was a show stopper. Jupiter was 3-D. The Double Cluster was dazzling. I understand Mark Deprest went back the next day to get some pictures of this amazing scope. Perhaps we will see them at the next club meeting.

Too soon my time at OTSP was up and I had to leave Camp Billy-Joe to return to reality (darn Smile). The buzz has already started amongst the Lowbrows about returning to OTSP next year. I hope to return and get my dark sky fix yet again. If you think you need the same, then you too should make OSTP next year’s destination. It is schedule for October 2nd thru 10th, 2010.


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