Northwoods Starfest: a time to connect, laugh and learn

Looking at the Veil Nebula in Cygnus through Mike Brown’s 24-inch telescope. Big Dipper at top. Credit: Bob King

Astronomy’s not just about stars. It’s about people. This weekend I joined fellow amateur astronomers for a little observing and a lot of laughter at Northwoods Starfest.  The yearly event is hosted by the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society at Hobbs Observatory near Eau Claire, Wis. We all looked forward to the opportunity to observe under a dark sky with a variety of telescopes. And while the weather was dicey, the company couldn’t have been better.

Members of our local Duluth Arrowhead Astronomical Society on Friday night. I’m kneeling at lower left. Credit: Bob King

Amateur astronomers are monks of the night. We get up at odd hours under sometimes trying circumstances to plumb the wonders of the heavens. The ultimate takeaway for our efforts is an inkling of our place in the grandeur that surrounds us. We love making that connection, and it can happen unexpectedly at any time. A bright meteor.  The glowing husk of a supernova remnant. That umteenth look at Saturn. Each is a path to revelation.

Starfest attendees admire a stylish handmade telescope owned by Michael Kauper. The scope was made by the person responsible for the telescopes used in the Harry Potter movies. Credit: Bob King

But even monks like to party. I haven’t laughed as hard or as often in weeks. Maybe months. Hardened by nights of finger-numbing cold, mosquito warfare and cloudy skies at the most inopportune times, we spent as much time cracking each other up as talking astronomy. One participant, Angie Gregory of Duluth, complained that her cheeks hurt from laughing too much. Good medicine.

Angie Gregory of Duluth flexes her tattoo planets. A Pluto devotee, she made sure it was part of the official family … at least on her arm. Credit: Bob King

Dozens of people from across the Midwest set up telescopes in the sandy field outside of Hobbs Observatory. Pity it was cloudy Friday night. One lone observer, William Wiethoff of Port Wing, Wis., kept vigil over the sky and reported that Vega was the only star visible … briefly.

You might think you’d see long faces on a cloudy night or folks retiring to bed early, but no. Fueled by cheeseballs, coffee and cherry licorice, the jawing and punning went on past midnight under the ropes of red lights in the camp’s dining hall.

Earlier that evening, we listened to a fine presentation on supernovas and neutrinos by Justin Vasel, teaching assistant from the University of Minnesota Duluth physics department. Did you know that 99% of the energy of an exploding star is carried away in a blizzard of evanescent neutrinos? All of us left with a better understanding of how a supergiant star evolves into a neutron star the size of a small city.

Vasel participates in SNEWS, the Supernova Early Warning System, a network of neutrino detectors set up to provide an early warning of the next core-collapse supernova in the Milky Way. Supernovae emit a burst of neutrinos promptly during a stellar explosion, hours before the first light arrives. Click the link if you’d like to participate.

Participants enjoy side-by-side views of the sun in white light and H-alpha light through Bob Wiltrout’s telescopes. Credit: Bob King

Saturday’s sunshine meant the solar observers held court at the observatory sharing views of the sun in white light and in the narrow red spectral sliver called H-alpha. Bob Wiltrout of Tony, Wis. had side-by-side white light / H-alpha scopes set up that made it a joy to compare the two perspectives. Wiltrout prefers daytime observing to night. It’s convenient, temperate and you don’t have to wander around with a red flashlight stuck in your mouth.

Several speakers gave presentations after lunch. Greg Furtman of Webb Lake, Wis. described the downright cute big-binocular telescope he built named after the animated movie character “Wall-E”. Jeff Setzer of Menominee Falls, Wis. took us on a Powerpoint tour to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., home of the largest refractor in the world.

The observatory is expanding its public outreach and education programs in a big way with public viewing  sessions, free tours every Saturday night throughout the year and more.

Rick Swenson (right) of Eau Claire, Wis., checks out an eyepiece at the swap meet. Credit: Bob King

Later that afternoon we checked out the swap meet, where you could pick up a used eyepiece, book or telescope for a great price. We fueled up on a delicious Cajun-style dinner of rice, chicken and sausage with ice cream for dessert and talked excitedly about the night ahead. Everyone had their own take on the weather forecast based upon years of squinting at the sky trying to divine what nature might have in store:

“I know it’s going to clear off.”
“Should be partly cloudy for sure.”
“We’ve got rain coming around 3 a.m.”
“I don’t care what it’s going to do. I’ll be out there.”

Dr. Jennifer Anderson takes questions from the group after her presentation on the Sudbury impact. Credit: Bob King

But before we’d know whose guess was best, the night’s main speaker, Dr. Jennifer L.B. Anderson, associate professor of geoscience at Winona State University, presented an excellent talk on the Sudbury, Ontario impact event. She enthralled the audience with vivid descriptions and graphics of the chaos that ensued when a 10-mile wide asteroid struck the Canadian Shield 1.85 billion years ago. Rocks as far as northern Minnesota were caught up in the blast wave, shattered and crushed back together to form great heaps and layers of broken and twisted rocks called breccias.

Her expertise and humor, combined with a knack for making the whole event feel so close to home, wowed the crowd and sent us into the night wondering when and where the next big hit would happen. It’ll probably be an amateur astronomer who sees the end of civilization as we know it because we tend to look up.

The Perseids were out as was the space station under partly cloudy to mostly cloudy skies. We pointed our telescopes wherever the sky would let us, gathering every photon we could.

Lines formed to look at the Lagoon Nebula (star-forming region), the Veil Nebula (supernova remnant), Saturn, the great Hercules globular cluster M13, Comet Lemmon and the space station. It’s never easy to track the station through a telescope manually, but we managed to give four people a 15-second look each during a single pass through my telescope. My personal favorite sight of the night was the famous “Double-Double Star” Epsilon Lyrae through Mike Sangster’s telescope. Four perfectly sharp white stars in two widely-spaced tight pairs. Sweet.

Christina Barnaby and her dad Rick at dinner. Credit: Bob King

At midnight we rested our legs and charged up with essentials from the junk food group. Just to be fair, fruit did make an appearance. Little did we know were were in for a pleasant surprise. Teens Christina Barnaby and her friend Kate Hohmann announced they were going to sing and do a routine to the song ”Two Black Cadillacs” by Carrie Underwood. We loved it.

I stayed up till 3 and then brushed my teeth under the red lights in the bathroom, where the normally aqua-blue toothpaste looked instead like grape gum. Yes, it was late.

After breakfast and more laughter and stories, we loaded up the trunk of a Ford Explorer with three telescopes, sundry equipment, 40 ears of Minnesota corn and three guys and drove home with happy hearts.

All I can say is this. If you want to have a blast and keep the excitement in astronomy, go to a star party. The Chippewa Valley Club knows how to do it right, but lots of clubs host them. You might even find one in your area. Click HERE and HERE to see a list what’s out there yet in 2013.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

6 thoughts on “Northwoods Starfest: a time to connect, laugh and learn

  1. Thanks Bob for recapping the weekend so well. I have long contended it is the wonderful attendees that make this event, this weekend’s less than perfect skies showed just how true that is.

  2. Hey Bob, did you hear the exciting news that ISON has supposedly been recovered. Bruce Gary using an 11 inch telescope saw it in twilight just a few degrees over the horizon. He said that another observation should be made confirming that this is indeed the comet. Karl Bataams said that if this is the comet, it is doing well and recovered a couple weeks before he thought that it might be. I have summarized what they said, not using direct quotes.

    • Edward,
      Yes I did. Read about it yesterday. Great to here it’s didn’t dissolve away in the last 2 months. Just to be clear, Gary didn’t see the comet, he photographed it. Based on the image it looks around its predicted magnitude of 12.5-13.

  3. Hi Bob, was great to see you again this year! You have one omission from your description, you’re talk on ISON. It was very good and had us laughing, of course the only joke I remember is the bad Ann Landers joke. I need to also make a correction, that was NOT Wisconsin corn but good ol’ southern Minnesota corn! Too bad I listened to the weather report Sat. AM. I packed up the tent that AM because I didn’t want to pack in the rain so rather than set up again I went home after the talk, sounds like it would have been worth staying. Always a good time there, Steve

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for the note and I’m glad you liked the talk. Ach -yes! Minnesota corn. I’ll make the change since accuracy counts. Great talking with a fellow occultation observer and let me just say your corn has been EXCELLENT eating! I ate six ears and froze the rest for later.

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