Linda and I had very different ideas about what exactly a star party was. I thought it would be a bunch of geeks (like me) hanging around telescopes, looking at stars and bragging about their discoveries. Sort of how I would imagine family gathering of fishermen telling stories about the one that got away.
Linda told me she thought it would be more like Hors d’oeuvres, cheese, wine and beer by the glass. Maybe some chamber music to liven things up a bit.
We were both wrong.
On Wednesday, while purchasing McDonald Observatory Tour Tickets (McDonald Observatory Tour), we purchased advanced tickets for the Friday night Star Party.
We left our campsite in Davis Mountains State Park (Adjusting to Altitude and Making Plans) at 8:30 PM. As we expected, we pulled into the Visitor Center parking lot by 8:45. Inside the Visitor Center, Linda picked up our Star Party stickers. The bright orange stickers were used to identify paid attendees. We were told announcements would be made telling us where to go just before the festivities starting at 9:30 PM.
Realizing the Visitor Center lobby would become crowded, we walked through the cafe where people were eating and out the doors onto a patio with chairs around tables and benches to sit on. We chose a bench up against the far masonry wall.
Looking around the patio, I could see the two telescopes on Mount Locke and a closer smaller telescope on the other side of the masonry wall.
As darkness came, more and more people joined us on the patio.
At 9:30, the announcement came as promised. We were to gather in the plaza in front of the Visitor Center by the sundial. By this time, it was really dark. The only outside lighting is red. There wasn’t really enough light for either of us to walk normally toward the plaza. We held hands to keep from being separated as the crowed surged around us. I could hear an announcer outside talking to the crowd. I moved myself and Linda, still holding hands, toward his voice.
When we got close enough to the voice, not only had the crowd thinned out, but I realized that the voice was coming from a speaker. Duh! Turning toward the sundial, through the crowd I could make out a man talking with a microphone attached to him in front of his mouth. I guessed, correctly, that this was the man whose voice was coming clearly through the speakers.
He told us it was too cloudy to run the regular Star Party. Attendees had choices:
- Get a full refund
- Get a rain-check and come another evening
- Stay and partake in other activities including looking through telescopes
We chose to stay. Our first activity was a lecture on the night sky held in the theatre. I enjoyed the lecture much more than expected. The lecturer launched software allowing him to show a simulation of the night sky as seen from the Observatory site.
The first thing the lecturer did was show us the constellations. The constellations appeared as overlays on the screen. Then he showed us the zodiac, also as an overlay. He was quite animated when he talked and was a compelling and interesting speaker.
The lecturer would pick a point in the sky and then zoom in closer and closer until the object filled the screen. Then he would flip over to an object specific info-graph.
Next, the lecturer would show a higher-resolution color view of the celestial object like this one from the Hubble Telescope.
The lecturer covered around ten common celestial object visible by the optical telescopes like the ones available during Star Parties.
After The Night Sky presentation ended, we decided that our next and final stop would be the telescopes outside. We followed the crowd out to the telescope viewing area behind the Visitor Center.
The three white circles behind the Visitor Center above are the domes for relatively smaller telescopes (under 20 inches). Star Party attendees can visit each of the domes and under normal conditions (clear skies), see a different part of the night sky.
Walking in red dimly lit light to the telescope area is challenging. The telescopes housed in domes are easy to find as their open doors spill out red light and they are surrounded by red light pedestals. Enter and Exit signs are barely visible on dome doors.
We went into the second dome we came upon. The line at the first one was too long. Inside, I couldn’t make out the features. It looked like their might be a desk and an easy chair inside. On the other hand, I couldn’t see the Observatory employee. I could hear her so clearly that she must have been close at hand.
My turn at the telescope was unlucky. It was so dark, I couldn’t see the telescope or the eyepiece. I literally bumped into it. Unfortunately, a cloud had covered Mars and there was nothing to see. This had been a problem from the start of the Star Party which is why an alternate party agenda was being followed. As we moved through the dome exit I could saw a flash of lightning out of the corner of my eye. Odd… That wasn’t in the weather forecast.
Around the domes are additional even smaller telescopes that can be used to look at even more stars or planets. Each telescope is staffed by a McDonald Observatory employee who can describe what can be viewed through their telescope.
We moved toward the fringes to a smaller telescope (no dome). I asked the telescope operator what he was showing tonight and he replied, “Mars but it is covered by clouds.” His comment was followed by a closer brighter lightning flash. Moments later, I heard over the radios the employees carry a frantic voice crying out, “WE JUST LOST THE SKY.”
A few minutes later, a general announcement was made over the public address system that the Star Party was over. Participants could reschedule anytime for another night (even five years out).
We found our way to the ramp back down to the Visitor Center.
The ramp opened up into the plaza in front of the Visitor Center.
We drove back down the hill, back to our campsite. Arriving at our campsite, Linda had email confirmation for the rain-check.
We will do this again. It turned out to be way more fun than expected for both of us.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!
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