What I lost in sleep this past Saturday night I gained in fellowship and photons. This weekend Greg Furtman of Webster, Wisc. convened the annual Furtman Farm Star Party on a neatly mowed hilltop field tucked among the cornfields and forests of northern Wisconsin. Friends from light-polluted towns across the region set up their telescopes in anticipation of observing under dark, pristine skies. We weren’t disappointed.
After a dinner of homemade chili and chocolate-frosted brownies, we wandered out to the field to unpack and prepare our telescopes. The instruments ranged from binoculars and small telescopes to a 22-inch reflector. I brought a 15-incher, a substantial scope, but parked near the 22-inch it looked, well, tiny.
The night was chilly with temperatures dipping into the mid-30s. Dew was everywhere and literally drenched the scopes and coated our coats, but the sky was clear and the air steady. A few folks who didn’t bring a telescope wandered from scope to scope to look at whatever was on the menu at the moment. That might be the Dumbbell Nebula, the planet Neptune and its moon Triton, a wispy remnant of a long-gone supernova or the Butterfly Cluster deep in the southern sky in Scorpius, a region normally saturated by city light pollution or obscured by trees up for many of us in the northern states.
It was a wildest-dreams-come-true sky. Whatever you wanted to see, whether that was following the path of the Milky Way all the way down to the southern horizon or resolving the faraway globular cluster NGC 7006 into sprays of the faintest stars imaginable, you could do it.Â Hesther Bowman of Minnesota used her 4 1/2 reflecting telescope to track down the last nine Messier objects of the 70 she needed to earn a special certificate from the Astronomical League. It touched me to see another young astronomy enthusiast doing the same project I’d done myself over 40 years ago. Mike Dziak tested out a new tracking platform for his scope, while Jon Dannehy found several galaxies he’d been keen to see under a dark sky. Lydia Ricard, back from college for the weekend, entertained us all with her witty repartee, delivered in a variety of foreign accents, as she described telescopic sights and activities.
For me, Jupiter stole the show. After midnight the air became very calm and waves of fog enveloped the field. Fog is usually a good sign for planetary observing because it means stable, steady air. With our optics hazed up by dew anyway, all scopes turned to Jupiter whenever the fog settled in. A big, soft corona surrounded the planet like a fur ruff, but the detail we saw was jaw-dropping. In Jeff Setzer’s 22-inch scope at 500x a half dozen bands or partial bands striped the disk. One southern cloud belt, which normally looks like a gray line, resolved into a series of tiny dots, each a small vortex of activity. The colors were delightful from the peculiar blue-gray of the faded south equatorial belt to the organic ruddy brown of its northern cousin.
The fog also made for a fun “drawing board” for green lasers. When it was particularly thick, a couple of us played around making patterns and writing messages in the air with light. Food was in abundance around midnight when we returned to Greg’s house to warm up. Apple pies, more brownies, chocolate chip cookies, coffee, chips, summer sausage and cheese. One thing about people in Wisconsin – they don’t mess around with their cheese and meat. Everything these guys brought came from a butcher shop and had a pedigree. No strays here.
The fog came and went, the Earth rotated and the summer stars set as the winter ones rose in the east. Even the moon came up, a toenail crescent below Gemini the Twins. We heard owls, coyotes and little shouts of joy around 4 a.m. as Hesther nailed her 69th and 70th Messier objects. Appropriately, they were the Orion Nebula and the adjacent nebular puff M43. Hey, hey!
I want to thank Greg for another great star party. He’s one of those guys who gets everything in order so all the rest of us have to do is show up. Somehow it all seems easy and natural, but I know he’s done the prep work to make sure we have everything we need.
Besides the viewing, good eats and fun, there’s always a reflective side to these outings. Late at night, I overheard a conversation between Mike Dziak and Rick Swenson, both of the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society. They were discussing the origins of things and whether we’ll ever know how everything got started. I dont’ think they arrived at an answer but neither seemed to mind. If nothing else, the night makes us feel comfortable expanding on and sharing thoughts we keep to ourselves in the day. To do so with friends of like mind is like coming home.