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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.