I’ve finally gotten enough sleep to be able to share my experiences at a weekend star party. If you’ve never been to a star party, well, you’ve barely scratched life’s surface. Every year, the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society puts on the Northwoods Starfest, an event for beginning and amateur astronomers and their families in a sandy field next to Hobbs Observatory west of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Skies there are quite dark when the weather’s good with the Milky Way easily visible from Perseus in the east all the way down to the Sagittarius Teapot in the south.
We set up our telescopes on a flat ground in front of the observatory and observe all night long. Some do. Me? I pooped out at 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning and 1:30 on Sunday. Although humidity and some haze smeared the sky a bit, we saw many, many wonderful deep sky objects and planets through everything from binoculars to a 24-inch computer-controlled telescope.
Highlights included spotting the orange mylar-wrapped solar panels on the International Space Station through a telescope during its several weekend passes, tracking Pluto’s slow trek across a rich star field in Sagittarius over the two nights, fantastic views of Saturn and four of its moons, close-ups of familiar star clusters like M13 and M22 in a variety of different scopes, the fragile crescent of Venus in the daytime and a sweet look at the entire Pleiades star cluster through a wide-field, knife-sharp refracting telescope.
Each night we looked forward to the “midnight snack”, a pastiche of junk food some of which wasn’t junk at all like peaches, grapes and granola bars — all part of a critical aid package for crazy astronomers who rarely look at clocks.
While skywatching was the focus of the event, it was hardly the only thing going on. When not gazing through the eyepiece or using hair dryers to keep our telescope optics free of dew, the crew was fully immersed in discussion, eating delicious food (pulled pork sandwiches, blueberry pancakes and “Secret Recipe Homemade Baked Beans”), attending talks or checking out the swap meet.
Geology professor Phillip Ihinger from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire spoke on meteorites and the origin of life, mingling the fields of geology and astronomy in a unique way to create a comprehensive view of how space rocks share many similarities with the rocks we encounter on Earth. His expressive gestures made us chuckle in delight; one attendee described them as “Shakespearean”.
Four shorter talks by members of regional astronomy clubs made up the “Papers Session” Saturday afternoon. Topics ranged from Being a National Park Astronomy Volunteer to Planetary Nebulae – Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask. Even if the air conditioning wasn’t working at the time, the sessions were a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the outdoors.
A swap meet followed where I finally sold a 4.5-inch telescope for $10 after repeated mark-downs. Hey, whatta deal! I hope the new owner will find it useful. Saturday night’s talk, titled The Year of the Ice Worlds by UW-Eau Claire physics and astronomy professor Paul Thomas, featured the latest images from dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto delivered with a perfect mix of insight and humor.
Dinner followed, then anticipation for a second clear night in a row. But before we headed out to plumb the cosmic depths a second night, it was time for door prizes. Books, eyepieces, calendars, red goggles and even a small telescope went out to those whose names were picked from a hat. I even won something – a set of parfocal rings for my eyepieces. Fat and happy from food and laughter, we prepped for the night.
Telescopes offered up Neptune and Uranus and their moons, the Saturn Nebula in Aquarius (which looks like a ghostly, gassy, blue version of the planet Saturn), Comet Lovejoy and of course the Perseid meteor shower. Even four nights past maximum, Perseus still had a quiver full of meteors to sling across the sky.
Observing and learning are wonderful things but so are laughter and debate. One morning we found ourselves deep into a discussion of religion and evolution that could have boiled over but managed to stay civil. I’m going to attribute that to a broad-mindedness that comes from a hands-on realization of how big and unfathomable the universe truly is. Either that or we were tired.
I offered that we all share an animal origin, and that if a moose could sing pop songs, it would go on and on about the same things people sing about: the search for a mate, children, broken relationships, life’s vicissitudes. At this point, one of the local club members looked up with a wry smile and said two words — “Barry Mooselow”. I lost it.
If you’re crazy about the night sky and have the opportunity to attend Starfest or a gathering like it, go. You’ll feel right at home.