Sharing stars and making comets at Northwoods Starfest

7-year-old Madeline Chopp of Green Bay, Wis. laughs as she peeks into her dad Brian’s scope Friday evening. Credit: Bob King

Every August, the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS) holds a two-night star party at Hobbs Observatory near Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Tucked in a patch of forest between cornfields, Hobbs’ dark skies entice amateur astronomers across the Midwest to get their fill of nebulae, galaxies and comets otherwise lost in the glow of city lights.

Guest speakers, good food and great conversation liven up the mix and always make for an immensely satisfying weekend. Whenever you spend time with those who share your passion, you can’t help but come away energized.

Mike Brown, CVAS president, assembles his self-built, computer controlled 24-inch Dobsonian reflector Friday afternoon. He uses an iPad and tracking software to slew quickly to any object in the sky with a tap on the keypad. The club’s radio dish is seen in the background. Credit: Bob King

I attended Friday and set up my 15-inch (37-cm) reflector on the sandy flats among dozens of other telescopes. All types were represented – small to medium refractors, binoculars on homemade mounts and reflecting telescopes with mirrors up to 24-inches (61-cm) across. The club even operates a radio telescope.

Friday night I spoke on comets and the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission. Judging from the audience reaction, the ESA needs to fire up that high-resolution OSIRIS camera and shoot a lot moreĀ close-up, 3-D views of comet 67P C-G. Everyone loved the in-your-face realism of seeing the comet’s alien landscape in three dimensions.

Comet Hobbs is born during a comet-making demonstration at Northwoods Starfest Friday night. Notice the little ‘geysers’ of outgassing. Credit: Greg Furtman

After the talk, we gathered round a table to make a much smaller version of Rosetta’s comet in a bucket. I added water (comets are mostly water), molasses (sugar as organic molecules), dirt (dust embedded in cometary ices), ammonia, alcohol (methanol has been found in comets) and powdered charcoal (more carbon and to create a realistic black-coated ice ball) in a plastic bag and mixed it all together with a wooden spoon.

A real comet! 30-second time exposure of Comet Jacques at ISO 6400 with a 400 mm f/5.6 lens. Credit: Bob King

Then it was time for the crucial ingredient: dry ice. Three gloved handfuls of smoky white pellets went into the cosmic ‘stone soup’, the bag was closed and the mix crushed together into a well-packed snowball. Peeling back the plastic, a delightful mini-comet emerged replete with jets of vaporizing gas geysering from small cracks in the carbon-coated surface.

All new comets have names and this would be no exception, so we settled on Comet Hobbs, or more formally, C/2014 Q1 Hobbs. Sadly, this comet exists no more. A final observation revealed the fist-sized object had morphed into a petite puddle.

Mike Brown’s 24-inch reflector had a steady stream of customers at Northwoods Starfest this weekend. Mike treated folks to views of the globular cluster M13, Comet Jacques, the planetary nebula NGC 6210 and many others. Credit: Bob King

The night began overcast but soon turned partly cloudy. We had fun observing a real comet – C/2014 E2 Jacques – as it inched its way across Cassiopeia. The bright coma was very easy to see in 50mm binoculars. Mike Brown, CVAS president, generously shared time with anyone who wanted to see anything in his 24-inch reflector. In a big scope like that, even tiny objects like the planetary nebula NGC 6210 in Hercules invite many minutes of exploration.

Jon Dannehy of Arcadia, Wis. and Eric Norland of Duluth, Minn. have fun while standing around Eric’s homemade telescope Friday. Credit: Bob King

Another CVAS member, Greg Furtman, treated us to wide-field views of the comet and Veil Nebula in Cygnus with his homemade short-focus 6-inch (15-cm) reflector. At midnight, we welcomed the opportunity to rest our legs and recharge with the traditional ‘midnight snack’ in the campground’s dining cabin. Besides fruits, juices and chips, someone broke out a box of ice cream sandwiches. Deluxe!

Although I had to leave Saturday for work, Day 2 featured additional speakers, a swap meet, a dinner BBQ and l’m sure lots more great laughs and discussion. Nothing like hanging out with a bunch of crazy astronomers.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Sharing stars and making comets at Northwoods Starfest

  1. Hello Bob. Just wondering after looking into the Universe many times over, if you ever saw a UFO, or flying saucers as I call them? I just can not believe as large as the Universe is, that there is not alien life living out there somewhere. What think you?

    My friends kid me and tell me that I am an alien, as of all my strange health problems, that no one else seem to know about. Even my doctors say I am a strange one. I kid them by saying it must be something in earth’s atmosphere that affects my health.

    There would be nothing more exciting for me to do is to get into a space vehicle, with a large front window, and take off into the cosmos and just keep going, checking out all of the wonders of the universe. Then someday, just maybe, to meet some ET’s and share our lifetime experiences.

    I have been diagnosed with cancer, so my spaceship could also then be my casket at my demise, and I could journey though endless space for my final resting destination. What a peaceful journey.
    Bruce Brovold

    • Bruce,
      You are quite a poetic writer. I’m sorry to hear about your diagnosis but hope that remission is possible. I’ve looked up at the sky a lot but have never seen a UFO (unidentified sky object) that I couldn’t later explain as either a plane, an isolated patch of aurora and once, a flight of geese at night. Like you though, I think life is inevitable in this big universe, but it may be in many diverse forms, few of which are interested in space travel or have the ability to do so.

  2. Hi Bob,

    I really enjoyed your talk and images from the Rosetta Mission. It was very informative. I thought your “Build A Comet” demonstration was extremely interesting! And, the results were quite impressive!

    Thanks for sharing,
    Bill

  3. Cool the DIY comet and have a question: carbon gives it such black color, while for ex Rosetta nucleus appears pale grey: is a real comet nucleus more grey or does it appear it as such for the illumination/exposition?

    PS In the photo at red light, I see a red lightsaber in a tent behind, I hope Darth Vader enjoyed the star party.

    • Hi Giorgio,
      The reason 67P and any comet for that matter looks light is because space is blacker. For a demonstration of this, take a piece of charcoal or blackened wood and hold it up against a lighter background – it will look black. But light it with a flashlight even against a black backdrop and the coal will appear considerably brighter. I’m going to be writing an article on this very topic for Universe Today this week.

      • Thanx Bob!
        Speaking about comets I spotted Jacques in Cas tonight in binos. I followed it since it was in Aur and you’re right, in latest days it travelled much. Just back from a session far in Slovenia, very clear sky (a rarity for these times). First time since mid July that I got some satisfactory stars photos. Excellent Milky Way. Best New Moon!

        • Hi Giorgio,
          Glad to hear you got a good sky finally. We’re also going to have some clear night hours tonight and tomorrow with great transparency. I plan to get up early for Oukaimeden.

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