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Nebraska Star Party 2003 - 10th Annual

Well, all in all, I had a pretty darn good experience at NSP-10, although as with any star party, I never got all I wanted to do done. I packed my 10 inch Newtonian and my 100mm f/6 refractor, and left the house at 6:25 a.m. On Saturday morning July 26th from my home in Beatrice under cool variably cloudy skies. It was a pleasant six-hour drive into the high Sandhill country of western Nebraska to reach Merritt Reservoir nestled in the former upper reaches of the Snake River Canyon 28 miles southwest of Valentine. I also tempted fate and tried the imfamous Brownlee Road short- cut well southeast of the reservoir. This one-lane winding road is black- topped, but its narrowness and its deep sandy shoulders made it a somewhat riskier route for those who want to save time. Still, the road lead me into a sort of Nebraskan “Shangri La”; a wonderful green flat-floored hidden valley of ranches and farms, framed by 200 to 300 foot-high grassy but nearly treeless dunes.

After getting settled into my 2-bed cabin at the little Merritt Resort facility and sampling the evening buffet at Merritt’s “The Water’s Edge” restaurant, I headed out to the Snake Campground next to where the observing fields were. I helped fellow club member Brian Sivil get his big tent up, and despite my “help”, he still got it properly erected :-). I then ran into Bob Cuberly from Illinois, who had his huge camping trailer parked in the shade of some trees. We spent time talking and taking some refreshment in the cool breeze blowing through the campground (it had been 111 degrees F. the previous afternoon). Bob gave us a look at his monster Astrophysics mount which could have held a 14 inch with ease, but he was only using a 6 inch planetary Newtonian on it. He hadn’t set up his 15 inch Obsession, but it would clearly be only a matter of time until he did. Tom Miller of Lincoln, Nebr. Showed up a few minutes later to say that he had indeed brought the 30 inch Obsession to NSP. The sky was mostly cloudy, so several of us congregated in the luxury of Bob Cuberly’s camper for a while.

We got some nice holes in the cloud cover, but it never cleared enough to justify getting the “big guns” out. I made the rounds of the early birds and did a lot of renewing old friendships, but we didn’t observe other than with binoculars or the unaided eye.
Sunday was the first official day of the star party, marked chiefly by the start of registration in “Dillon’s Lounge” in the lower level of the restaurant at Merritt Resort. The air was a bit warmer, which allowed many of the arriving families to take advantage of the sandy beach and warm water of Merritt reservoir for swimming and boating. I got over to the observing fields and pulled out my 10 inch for a reporter at the Sioux Falls TV station KELO so he could do an interview and get some footage of some of setups on the dunes. The sky once again did not want to cooperate very well as the night began, although it teased us with a spectacular sunset and some hazy openings at times. At least the photographer from NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (doing an article on the Great Plains) probably got some decent pictures of the area and the sunset before it got too dark to shoot. Some who did set up got fairly decent views of Mars once it cleared the clouds near the horizon in the wee hours of the morning, although the more “serious” observing would have to wait another day. I got back to Merritt Resort to an area above the beach behind our cabins where our NSP staff usually congregates for some refreshments and late-night talk. My roommate John Lammers from Fairbury finally got in rather late, but at least he managed to navigate the Brownlee Road without incident (and in the dark no less).

Monday was partly cloudy, and I was quite busy. John Johnson of Omaha and I were the instructors for the 3-day NSP “Beginner’s Field School”, so we had to be up and running for the start of our first session at noon. After lugging the box of 100 Field School Manuals from my cabin (as well as my big “portable library”), I was startled to see the number of people filing into the restaurant for our first session. For only the introductory session, it looked like we had 43 people and of those, a majority indicated that it was only their first of second star party. We covered things like star party etiquette, planispheres, star atlases, guide books, constellations, and finding techniques. After a nice meal at the Water’s Edge, we went back over to the observing field for the NSP Ice Cream social, a nice mixer for those who had never been at the star party before. The skies showed a lot more blue than the previous evening, so the guy from National Geographic was also busy on the fields. After the first of the doorprizes were handed out, I hiked back towards the southern observing fields to see what was going on.

I ended up doing more of a “walk-about”, observing with others’ scopes rather than mine. Dob Row and the area around it was getting a little crowded, as there were quite a number to choose from (anything from 5 inch refractors to 8 and 10 inch SCT’s to 10 and 13 inch Dobs to a 25 inch Obsession). I wandered away and ended up spending some time helping club member Liz Bergstrom with her new C8 that was proving difficult to manage.

We finally got it set up and did at least get the binoviewer to work with it, although we were cursing the inadequate locking screws on the star diagonal.

Much later on, I linked up with a guy from California who had just come from being “skunked” by forest fires and bad weather at the Wyoming Star Party. Despite a little haze and a weak Aurora at times, we had a pretty good session with his 22 inch truss-tube Dobsonian. We hit a lot of the “usual suspects” (showpieces which almost everyone looks at initially) before going after more difficult targets. The “Cat’s Eye” nebula (NGC 6543) was sharp and detailed as I had seen in years, with the arc-like inner detail and central star easily seen. I mentioned a trio of galaxies in Draco (NGC’s 5981, 5982, and 5985), so we had a look at them. This trio consists of an edge-on spiral, a somewhat smaller elliptical, and a tilted spiral, all in a short line which could be fitted into a 20’ arc field of view. The edge-on galaxy showed its slight nuclear bulge, while the middle elliptical showed a small brighter core, and the larger tilted spiral showed its nucleus with mottled spiral detail in the outer haze. After going back to help Liz coax her 8 inch SCT back into its cases, I called it a night around 3 a.m., as I had to get at least a little sleep so I would be coherent enough to teach at the Beginner’s Field School.

Tuesday was bright and sunny, and so was my disposition. The second day of the field school (Telescopes and Equipment) went pretty well with over 50 in attendance, although I sometimes found it hard to get these new people to ask the questions they really needed to ask. One of the NSP committee members from the Platte Valley group in central Nebraska gave me a CD-ROM with some shareware on it as a doorprize for the school. When one guy in the back row of the restaurant finally asked a question, I answered it and then awarded him the disk, letting everyone else in the room know that sometimes, asking a question provides more of a reward than just the answer! Once I finished with the Field School, I took a look at the two vendors set up on the north entrance to the restaurant (Astrosystems and Camera Concepts). Liz Bergstrom, our club’s “binocular afficionado”, was quickly consulted on one pair of Celestron 10x60’s I had my eye on. The recommendation “BUY THEM” came back, and I became $99 poorer but at least now, I have a decent pair which are tack-sharp and don’t slide out of focus!

I noticed large cumulus clouds in the north, activating my storm-spotter instincts. A quick look at the radar showed a line of intense thunderstorms was bearing down on our area with a severe thunderstorm watch in effect. We sent Liz to the observing fields to warn people. Still, even as the sky darkened and the wind began to increase, the vendors kept right on selling their stuff! Finally, as the gust front arrived, it forced them to quickly pile their wares into boxes, vans, and the foyer of the restaurant until the storm passed. The storm dumped a heavy burst of rain over the area, but the skies cleared before sunset and we had a great night of viewing. John Lammers and I set up his 8 inch f/5 Newtonian, my ten inch f/5.6 Newtonian, and my 100mm f/6 refractor next to where the road in the site splits to go to either Dob Row or the lower campground. While my computer was doing a disk scan initiated by Windows for a boot problem, I wandered around a bit. I did a little trouble shooting on a new ETX finder one attendee was trying to get to work, and when I finished there, another gentleman grabbed me to work on a balky LX-90 which wouldn’t do a proper 2-star alignment (minor finderscope problem again). I wandered over to Dob Row for a look at M13 in Tom Miller’s 30 inch, and I could see color in some of the stars.

Finally, my laptop computer I use for MEGASTAR finished its little Win95-induced tirade and it was time to observe. The Milky Way put on its usually stunning visual show, being easily seen even before twilight ended.

John put his 30mm WideScan III eyepiece in my 100mm f/6 refractor (a FOUR degree field of view at 20x), and we were blown away by the views up and down the Milky Way. Imagine viewing both M8 and M20 in all their glory the same field of view with the UHC filter and you get the idea. We cruised the dark nebulae which flow around and past the large Sagittarius star cloud, and held M24 in awe as a glistening cloud of stars framed nicely in the eyepiece. The Scutum star cloud was particularly well shown in that little 100mm aperture, bounded by patches of dark nebulosity and M11 shining brightly on its northern edge.

The entire Veil Nebula was beautifully displayed in the scope with the UHC and OIII filters, including both arcs and the small triangular mass between them. The North America and Pelican Nebulae were also easy targets in that scope. In fact, other than a few brief looks at things (and some long looks at Mars), I didn’t use my ten inch nearly as much as the refractor. After a look at M31 in the refractor (wonderful as usual), we were taking a break when I glanced up at the head of Draco and decided to do a little star counting. John and I found a dim triangle of three stars near the middle of the head asterism, so I turned around to my computer to find out how faint they were. The one near the center of the head was easiest at magnitude 5.75, and the second one was 6.61, but to my surprise, the third and faintest star in the triangle was 7.59! It was definitely a good night! We went up to the 22 inch Dob on the ridge next to our observing spot and did some more sight-seeing. We looked at the core of M31, and the whole area seemed to be faintly yellowish-orange, somewhat like the color of Arcturus.

The owner was looking at planetaries, but did agree to try for the “Bubble” nebula NGC 7635 in Cassiopeia. He thought he found it, but when I looked in, it was clear that he had found something else. He was pointed at the nearby nebula NGC 7538, which looks like an irregular puff ball around a pair of stars. A few nudges later brought the Bubble Nebula into the field. For the first time, I could just begin to see the arc-like cusps which give this object its name. We even tried (and saw) the central star in M57 before going back to planetary hunting. Mars was showing a fair amount of detail in my ten inch with Syrtis Major sitting near the middle of the planet. The 22 inch showed it as well, but seeing had started to decline a bit. Since we were in the area, we hit the Helix Nebula, and it was quite nice with the OIII filter. After a quick trip down Dob Row, we both decided to call it a night.

Wednesday was the last day of the Field School, and we covered a lot of ground on eyepieces, observing techniques, and projects. I also spent more money to buy a 30mm WideScan III eyepiece from Astrosystems. The NSP Beach Party then got into full swing, with sand volleyball, a sand wedge pitching contest, 2-legged races, and a lot of fun in the water. The kids had a lot of fun with the water balloon toss, with NSP Clear Skies Coordinator Alan Scruggs of Amarillo, Texas being the main target. Brewers Tubing brought out their gigantic Indian-style canoe which holds between 10 and 20 people, and many took advantage of it for a quick trip out onto the lake. At about the same time, the swap meet was being held in Dillon’s lounge and I noticed that John Lammers had finally sold one of his eyepieces. Later, the free Bratts Barbeque was held and more doorprizes were awarded, followed by a long night of observing under a clear sky. At Merritt Resort, a public star party was also held that evening put on by a small group of NSP staff and attendees.

Between 50 and 100 people from the area showed up, and were treated to a constellation talk by NSP regular Lorri May of Wentworth, South Dakota, along with viewing in 4 and 5 inch refractors, a couple of medium-sized Dobs, and an 18 inch Obsession.

Thursday was the day of the tubing/canoe trip down the Niobrara river, where a lot of people took in the scenery of the canyon or got wet in the water gun battles on the tubes or from standing under Nebraska’s highest waterfall, Smith Falls. A catered steak dinner was held that evening at the Water’s Edge restaurant, and after that, most went back to the observing fields. I ran into the reporter from the NBC affiliate KNOP in North Platte and we had a nice discussion about what he had filmed. The western sky was starting to fill with high clouds from some thunderstorms in the area, so most only got an hour or two of viewing before having to tear down for the night.

Friday was the last full day of the star party and was highlighted by the formal presentations held in Valentine at the United Methodist Church.

This was a change in venue, as the High School was undergoing a replacement of its air conditioning system, but the large church meeting room worked quite well. Several vendors were present, including Pete Smitka of Mag-1 instruments, and the swap meet also continued in the hallway. In the main meeting room, Bill O’Donnell gave a fascinating multi-media presentation of “Astronomy in Art, Music and Poetry”, although he may never live down his reading of the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” to a bunch of adult Astronomers! This was followed by lunch on-site provided by Pizza Hut and served by local school students to make money for their activities. The next speaker was Michael O’Connor’s “Dakota Star Lore”, followed by Richard Nugent’s presentations, “The Age of the Crab Nebula Supernova”, and a short one on the International Occultation Timing Association. The last talk was by South Dakotan Ron Dyvig, entitled, “Badlands Observatory...From the Ashes”. A large number of door prizes were then given away, with the grand door prize being a 6 inch Dob from Hardin Optical for the kids and a Meade ETX-125EC Mak-Cassegrain for the adults.

Those not having to travel back home went back out to Merritt Reservoir for a final night of observing under clear skies. Many of the NSP staff had a full-blown cook-out behind the cabins with lots of food for everyone. The crescent moon made its appearance, but it didn’t stay up long and certainly didn’t hurt things all that much. Richard Nugent brought his I3 image intensified eyepiece and put it on Don Chrysler’s 14 inch Celestron SCT, where it was directed at a large number of things. Although the number of people present was down from earlier in the week, Dob Row remained the center of all the action, with a large number of scopes set up, including Jim Rippey’s 25 inch Obsession. Most observed to at least 3 a.m., when many of us decided to break down early due to having to travel long distances home after dawn (I had to get going by 11:00 a.m.).

Final numbers were: ATTENDEES: between 270 and 300.
NIGHTS CLEAR: 4 (including 3 in a row).

Hopefully, we will see you all at the next Nebraska Star Party. Clear skies to you.


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