Eyes wide open, heads firmly planted in the universe, we party with the stars

During a cloudy spell, we laser-painted a silo with the letters FFSP – Furtman Farm Star Party – Saturday night. Credit: Bob King

I filled up on the universe and good friends this weekend at the annual Furtman Farm Star Party. Astronomy teacher and IT specialist Greg Furtman hosts the event for his amateur astronomer friends on a hilltop at his home near Webb Lake, Wisconsin.

Definitely a not-to-miss affair. The conversation, food and great views through so many telescopes make the inevitable loss of sleep nothing to worry about. Heck, even if the sky poured rain, I’d come just for the awesomely delicious Italian sausage spaghetti Saturday night.

Friday night we worked between clouds to share views of the night planets Uranus and Neptune and classic deep sky wonders like the Great Globular in Hercules, Andromeda Galaxy and double stars Albireo and Gamma Delphini. When waves of clearing blew in, we were there like mosquitos on mammals.

Star party host Greg Furtman with a book about UFOs he was given by a party attendee. Credit: Bob King

Back in the kitchen under red lights to preserve night vision, we snacked on hot jalapeno salami, cheese and chips while yakking it up about the usual stuff – cars, careers, hydrogen fusion reactors. There’s nothing like sitting down with a group of people who love knowledge and appear to be able to answer any question you might have on your mind.

A beautiful Milky Way unfurls across the southern sky Saturday night. Credit: Bob King

I went to bed “early” Saturday morning around 1 a.m. Others got up at 5 after a brief sleep to discover a clear sky and perfect viewing conditions. Jupiter was tack-sharp at 300x in Mike Brown’s 24-inch reflecting telescope, and the Great Red Spot stared right back at every one of us who got in line for a look.

I took a cellphone photo of Jupiter through the 24-inch telescope around 8:15 a.m. Saturday morning (left). It’s a little grainy but you can just see the Great Red Spot. Photo at right made on Sept. 4 by astrophotographer Damian Peach.

I can vouch for recent observations by other amateurs that the Spot is much redder and easier to see than in recent years. No more salmon, beige, peach and tan – this sucker was red. More wonders followed. Amateur Jim Schaff of Duluth used his 10-inch telescope to spot the white dwarf companion of Sirius, a feat requiring not only good optics and eyes but very serene skies.

Mike Brown lines up his 24-inch f/3.3 reflector on the star Castor in Gemini Saturday morning. If you know where to look, even a small telescope will show the brightest stars in the daytime sky.  At right are Jeff Cole of Bloomer, Wis. (left) and Eric Norland of Duluth. Credit: Bob King

Now here’s the curious thing. Some saw Jupiter, Orion and the rest at dawn, but the rest of us got up after sunrise. After learning the 24-inch scope was still pointed at Jupiter in full daylight, we hurried up the hill for a look. Wow! I blown away by how much detail you could still see. Lots of belts and curdled clouds jumped caught the eye. All three of the visible moons were sharp disks of varying size.

The double star Castor in daylight at about 200x in Mike Brown’s 24-inch telescope. Illustration: Bob King

From Jupiter we hopped over to pink, gibbous Mars and then to Sirius and the double star Castor in Gemini.

With the sun beating on my back, I got the best view ever of this famed double. The duo looked like a pair of real suns, blazing white hot in a blue sky just like our home star. The visceral reality of seeing these pinpricks of light as suns about knocked me off the ladder.

The Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster shines over Bill Childs’ head as he peered through Mike Dziak’s 17-inch reflecting telescope early this morning. Credit: Bob King

Saturday night offered a better sky with lots more naked eye and telescopic adventures including the most stunning view I’ve ever had of the Hercules globular cluster in Brown’s 24-inch, a spectacular 3D vista of the Veil Nebula - delicate arcs of glowing gases plowed into space by an ancient supernova explosion – through Greg’s homemade large binoculars and my first sighting this season of Comet 2P/ Encke in my own 15-inch scope. Encke will be visible in smaller telescopes perhaps as soon as the end of the month.

As dusk deepens, amateur astronomers anticipate a great night of observing Saturday on the hilltop at the Furtman Farm. Credit: Bob King

When clouds blew in, we either took a break to feast on more food and coffee or lined up more creative pursuits like painting an old farm silo with jiggling laser lights. (We’re still cave painters at heart.) Drunk with starlight, I finally pulled into my sleeping bag at 3 a.m.

Michael Cain of Jim Falls, Wis. sets up his 6-inch f/10 refracting telescope during twilight Saturday. The scope gave great images of double stars. Credit: Bob King

This morning’s coffee and cheery if tired faces coaxed us back into the daylight world of responsibilities and commitments, but with batteries fully charged, our small band of skywatchers is floating on top of the world.

12 thoughts on “Eyes wide open, heads firmly planted in the universe, we party with the stars

  1. Mars is a good object used to locate Comet ISON till late October. By November 23, the 2 may be about the same magnitude. Mars will be rising about 6 hours before sunrise, but ISON, only about 80 minutes before sunrise.

  2. Seems you had a really great time, Bob!

    Thanx for quoting Gamma Del, it was missing in my double stars list. Speaking about Delphinus, I checked the nova a couple of days ago (I bet you did too), it now has a definite pink shade also in visual.

    I love watching planets and stars at daylight. I still didn’t catch the Jupiter side with GRS, glad to know it’s redder. I confirm, as I anticipated, that the N&NN temperate belts are quite more evident (in visual and photo) than last year (even at day).
    I got Mars “entering” in Praesepe/Beehive cluster yesterday, at morning (when it was high enough above the near roofs). The full alignment was today but rained.

    Sirius B: Wow I didn’t know one could catch it with amateur instruments – of it I previously saw only photos by space telescopes HST and Chandra. I just learned that B has current separation about 10arcsec and magnitude 8, so it’s not an impossible target, if not for Sirius’ glare which I suppose is less a problem with good seeing/transparency, and big diameter scopes, isn’t it? I searched on web and someone managed to catch B with an 11 inch diameter at single shot in DSLR, or even in an 8 inch like mine, by processing a video as usually done for planets: it will be tough but I have hopes. It seems like catching a faint moon of a SS planet. What about trying to construct a coronagraph to try see B easier on photo, or maybe even in visual? Where on the optical train would you place it?

    • Giorgio,
      Yes, on the Sirius B observation he didn’t know in advance where it was. Jim used 500x in early twilight and noted the position. We checked it later and the position was correct. Another way to make it easier to see it to use an occulting bar – a small slice of aluminum foil – taped inside the eyepiece near the field lens. With Sirius glare block by the bar, it’s easier to search for its companion. If you have the Mars-Beehive picture, please send me a copy and I may use it in the blog. Thanks!

  3. If you could already see Comet Encke in a 15 inch telescope, it is a little brighter than I had guessed. In looking through my star atlas, I see that Comet Lemmon and 57 Draco were pretty close together around Sept. 3. 57 is magnitude 3.2.

    • Edward,
      I watched Encke between 12:30-2:30 a.m. slowly creep to the southeast in Perseus. It was extremely diffuse, about 4′ in diameter and approx. 12.5 magnitude. Very dim!

  4. bob,

    Thanks for the star party fotos… Was able to view del 2013 three times.. it seemed to get dimmer each time; once I guess at Mag 6.. My first nova.. used 7×50 resolux binos.. appreciate your column… Frank; 71 and retired in hermantown;longtime novice stargazer…

    • Dear Frank,
      Thanks for writing and congrats on finding the nova. You’re right about it fading. Last time I saw it over the weekend it was mag. 7.3. If you’d like to meet a few fellow stargazers, come join us at the UMD planetarium tomorrow night Weds. at 8 p.m. (after the 7 p.m. free show) for the monthly meeting of the Arrowhead Astronomical Society.

  5. I have a pattern of stars ive wanted to send a drawing or post it for someone to help me see if its a real one ,or just a dream lol , I tried drawing it on my google page if anyone could look , thanks hope I get someone to see if im crazy ty

    • Ann,
      It’s fun to make your own patterns so no one would think you’re crazy. Can we see a drawing? Can you post on Flickr or another site where you can just send a link?

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