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.
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 more 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.