University Lowbrow Astronomers

S.M.U.R.F.S. 2001 Report.

by Charlie Nielsen
Printed in Reflections: September, 2001.

At long last one of my favorite times of the year had arrived.  I was ready, heavily armed and prepared for action.  The star party had begun on Monday the 13th and from the forecasts I had seen for the Alpena area, the weather had been clear at night.  Of course I was not going up until Wednesday.  But then if there are two days of the event before my arrival they usually are clear, so all was normal.

I drove unto the hallowed ground a little after 4PM Wed. as planned.  On the way up to the site I noticed increasing clouds from the Northwest on a convergent course with mine.  So of course I accepted immediate responsibility upon my arrival.  Not knowing how much time I had, I wasted little time in setting up tables and scopes and my tent.  Within minutes of dropping protective covers on the scopes, the rain began.  Since I prefer to be trapped inside my Van rather than my very small and semi-water tight tent, there I stayed, and stayed and stayed.  On the plus side, I caught up on some reading, did some really thorough eyepiece and binocular cleaning, and studied some charts.  After dark I found a good classical music radio station, and practiced the true art of consuming munchies and junk food.  Are we having fun yet?

Thursday morning brought with it the promise of... lighter rain.  Indeed there were times during the day when one could come out from cover and move around.  It was a good time to visit friends and fellow astronomers and check out people’s equipment.  There was no hurry, time was cheap.  I realize that this is one of the main reasons I come up here every year, life is slow, and my cell phone does not work.  Sure would be nice to get some clear skies tonight though.  Would be nice....  But did not happen.  The rain returned for most of the afternoon and evening.  We did get a teaser around midnight or so though.  Occasional, very clear openings developed, giving me the chance to get some experience in the sport of speed binocularing.  I had to grab the openings and enjoy for the few seconds it was open, then quickly find another hole.  How about a Messier Marathon for the under challenged?

Friday morning...like a houseguest that has worn out their stay, the rain has returned.  Now I am getting a little irritated.  This part of the state had been even drier than southeast Michigan for most of the summer.  This was not the time for the correction burn, darn it!  The forecast for Friday night was for partly cloudy skies however, so all in camp were hopeful.  Our hope was fulfilled.  Just before sunset the skies began to clear, and just after sunset they blew out completely.  Now we were in business, but so was the dew.  In fact, I had to use the hair dryer on my refractor for the first time just before the sun went down!  Dew is a very serious adversary up here, and this night promised to be typical.  The skies are worth the battle though.  This was not the best night I have seen up here, but I gave it a 75-80%.  Even this quality up here is very good though.  The great rift in the Milky Way is startling.  M31 is so easy it almost scares you.  The best night I ever experienced up here, I actually could glimpse M13 naked eye!  This night was not that good, but darn good enough.  I hoped to try some photos, but my tracking motor had a problem that I could not resolve.  Therefore I stuck to visual astronomy in between un-dewing objectives, my Newtonian secondary, and several eyepieces.  I even had to dry off the BOTTOM side of a Panoptic eyepiece...twice!  The highlights of the evening were the best view I have ever seen of the Veil Nebula (14” DOB, 22mm Lanthanum Superwide, O3 filter).  The detail, knots and twists and ropes that could be seen almost knocked me off the ladder.  Earlier in the evening, using this same scope with a 31mm Panoptic, I actually tracked the space station.  For a few precious seconds I could see a bipolar effect, or a definite dark space down the middle of the assembly.  On half of the assembly was larger than the other, and looked somewhat yellow in color compared to the smaller half.  I believe I detected the space shuttle attached!  This may sound crazy (but then we Lowbrows are), but I recommend that people try doing this.  It is a real challenge keeping up with the speed and keeping steady enough to see a decent image, but if you do, it is really quite a view.

I finally gave up the dew battle about 3:30 or 4 AM, discovering my 14” primary looking more like frosted glass than a mirror.  Passing clouds had developed, and after a walk down the line and visiting some observers that were still at it, I called it a night.  It had been a good one!  The forecast Saturday morning sounded dismal.  Though the prediction was partly to mostly cloudy, it did not look good to us.  We did the SMURFS cookout and the door prize drawing just before we heard thunder not far away.  I decided to pack up before everything got wet again, and pull back out just what I needed for the night if it looked worthwhile.  But the conditions were getting worse so I decided to head for home.  Many others did the same.  When I left around 4:30pm, the place looked like a ghost town.  I said my good-byes and asked for a thank you note if it did become partly cloudy.  But if it went completely clear, please do not let me know.  So now we wait till next year and hope for friendly weather...I will be ready!

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