Clear Nights, Good Friends And Aurora

Venus (left) and Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, shine from nearly the same altitude this morning September 13, 2015. Orion's at right, while the Milky Way and zodiacal light cut across the center. Credit: Bob King
Venus (left) and Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, shine from nearly the same altitude this morning September 13, 2015. Orion’s at right, while the Milky Way and zodiacal light cut across the center. Credit: Bob King

I just returned from a really fun weekend hanging out with a bunch of amateur astronomers at the Furtman Farm Star Party in the Town of Scott in northwestern Wisconsin. The annual, small-scale event, hosted by amateur astronomer and computer guru Greg Furtman, is set in a mixed landscape of farms and boreal forest a couple hours from home. We observe, share stories and favorite sky targets, feast and laugh. The only thing we don’t do much of is sleep.

Greg's dog got more sleep than all the humans combined over the weekend. Credit: Bob King
Greg’s dog Kettu got more sleep than all the humans combined over the weekend. This morning found him napping as usual in the trunk. Credit: Bob King

That’s the point. Look up! A flat rise adjacent to an unused grain silo offers an all-around view of the sky. From this grassy place, we launch personal and shared journeys across the cosmos, whether that’s finding Neptune, seeing fresh detail in a familiar nebula or simply soaking in the silence of the night.

Gorgeous little aurora this morning just before dawn low in the northern sky. Credit: Bob King
Gorgeous little aurora this morning just before dawn low in the northern sky. The Big Dipper is tilting upward center and right.  Credit: Bob King

Between the roughly 15 guests, we had the sky covered. When the “early” crew hit the hay around midnight, a second contingent remained till 2 or 3 a.m. When they finally dragged themselves away to bed, so happy to get off their feet, the earlier crew arose again at 4 a.m. to catch sight of Orion and the morning planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter. Daytime was spent dozing, talking and scoping out the sun in a candyland of telescopes.

Painting with lasers on a silo on the property. Our friend Jon wasn't able to make the event. Credit: Mike Brown, Eric Norland, Jim Schaff - photo by Bob King
Painting with lasers on nearby silo. Our friend Jon wasn’t able to make the event. Credit: Mike Brown, Eric Norland, Jim Schaff – photos by Bob King

Both nights featured auroral displays. On the first, weird puffy, pickle-shaped patches mysterious appeared and disappeared all night; a single auroral pillar showed up on night 2 during twilight but quickly faded away. Before dawn this morning, the northern lights returned with reinforcements, forming swirls of molten vanilla caramel low in the northern sky.

Participants looking over a telescope at the observing site. Credit: Bob King
Participants lookover a 8-inch Dobsonian reflecting telescope at the observing site. Credit: Bob King

According to what is now a tradition, we produced laser from the folds of our heavy coats and painted the grain silo with shapes, patterns and messages. Fellow amateur Mike Brown of Eau Claire surprised us all with his excellent laser cursive style. Who knew?

Stephen Bockhold of Duluth (center), along with the rest of the crew, anticipate the clear night ahead. Credit: Bob King
Stephen Bockhold of Duluth (center), joined by other in the group, anticipates the clear night ahead. Credit: Bob King

Food always plays an important part of the weekend experience, and Greg’s sausage spaghetti did not disappoint. Astronomy requires not only infusions of caffein through tea and coffee but also kilocalories of carbs and sweets. Is it because we’re traveling across so many light years that we’re always so hungry at these events?

"X" marks the spot. The cone-shaped zodiacal light (left), formed by comet dust glowing in sunlight, intersects the Milky Way this morning shortly before dawn. Credit: Bob King
“X” marks the spot. The cone-shaped zodiacal light (left), formed by comet dust glowing in sunlight, extends upward to intersect the Milky Way this morning shortly before dawn. The brilliant object is the planet Venus. Credit: Bob King

I hope you enjoy the photos. Before I go I wanted to share a bit of news. Auroras are again in the forecast – a minor G1 geomagnetic storm — Monday evening — September 14.