Imagine night skies darker than you have ever witnessed. Imagine being surrounded by 500 other astro observers in the middle of nowhere on an Appalachian mountaintop with summer nighttime temperatures. Imagine being given an opportunity to observe with some of your fellow Lowbrows for two nights in such a setting. Well, then you have imagined the Black Forest Star Party (BFSP) held recently on September 6-8, 2002 at Cherry Springs State Park in central Pennsylvania hosted by the Central Pennsylvania Observers. Lowbrows John Causland, Mark Deprest, Jim Forrester, Bob & Joni Gruszczynski, Doug Nelle, Gary Perrine & Cynthia Winzeler, Doug Scobel, Jim Wadsworth, and yours truly attended. A BIG thanks to Bob & Joni Gruszczynski for finding this annual Amateur Astronomy gathering.
For years a number of Lowbrows have attended Astrofest near Kankakee, Illinois. Well, maybe we were looking for something different, so this year we decided to try the BFSP. About 400 miles and eight hours later we found ourselves in the middle of the very scenic Appalachian Mountains and miles from cell phone towers. Was the drive worth it? Read on and see for yourself.
Amenities at the Cherry Springs State Park are pretty much limited to rustic camping (well water and porta-potties). The limited facilities were made more than tolerable by the incredibly dark night skies. Skies so photon filled that I’ll have its memory burned in to my brain for some time to come. Not just stars down to the horizon, but the Milky Way from horizon-to-horizon. BFSP is located well away from city light pollution. In fact, no light dome of any kind was observed. I can only imagine that this is what the night sky looked like before the invention of electricity and the modern age.
Camp Lowbrow was set up in the middle of the observing field thanks to many of the Lowbrows who arrived a night before the official opening of the BFSP. This annual star party had 200 participants just two years ago, but in a short time word has gotten out that the dark skies here is the best possibly east of the Mississippi. The observing field is less than ten acres and salamander shaped. So getting here early is highly desirable. BFSP’s claim to fame is observing served up with a side order in imaging. A portion of the observing field is set aside for astro imagers. While vendors, ATMers, and speakers are present, they are not considered the highlight of the weekend. Most come prepared to observe. A sizable number of sizable scopes were present. An 8-inch scope is a small scope here.
I arrived Friday afternoon to find many of the Lowbrows, who arrived Thursday, tired but bedazzle from the previous night’s observing run. Most were already on astronomer’s time; observing all night, followed by daytime snoozing. A quick tour of the field yielded evidence (18-to-22 inchers, Starmasters, Obsessions, Night Sky Scopes, a 10-inch refractor) that serious observers were in attendance.
The weather this week was in a word clear. One had the feeling that the whole weekend would be cloudless. Late Friday afternoon some upper altitude wispy clouds formed from the few jet contrails that found their way into our part of the state. At the start of nightfall the seeing was less than perfect, but soon the seeing did improved. Right away you knew these skies were different. The Milky Way was blazing. The M24, Cygnus, and North American star clouds jumped out at you. Limited magnitude naked-eye test yielded 6.0 in Ursa Minor. We looked at Kemble’s Cascade sans binoculars. A naked eye Andromeda galaxy was an extended object!
Most of the BFSP participants come prepared with an observing list and I had a list of faint fuzzes that I have been saving up. In the August Reflections [see “Dob-serving’” by Christopher Sarnecki”] I listed an observing challenge. NGC 6822, Bernard’s Galaxy, is an 11th mag dwarf galaxy in northeast Sagittarius. This is a large 10 x 20 arc mins galaxy with low surface brightness. I indicated you might want to save this one for your summertime dark site. Well, I did manage to see a suggestion of this object at Peach Mountain, but at BFSP it was a much more defined galaxy. It is nice to contemplate this little world as a satellite to our own Milky Way. Just in time for BFSP the October Sky & Telescope had an article titled “Observing Faint Nearby Galaxies” by J. Freeman. Listed was a few more dwarf galaxy challenges. NGC 147 and 185 are dwarf galactic satellites of M31. You would never know it from their location about seven degrees north of M31 near the border with Cassiopeia. Both are 9th mag objects approximately the same size as Bernard’s Galaxy and with a higher surface brightness and were easy objects by comparison. Doug Scobel and I attempted to locate another nearby dwarf called Maffei 1, an 11th mag, 10 arc mins satellite. The article has photograph that enabled us to pin point the exact location. At first Doug didn’t claim it. After looking in my scope and I think I convinced him that we were seeing it. Perhaps our imaginary vision was working overtime.
Lord knows I have tried to see dark nebula from Peach Mtn. I have read up on the darkest and biggest of these objects to prepare myself to observe them, but I have always managed to come up empty at the scope. Dark nebulas are essentially clouds of non-luminous dust and gas that block out stars behind them. At BFSP, viewing dark nebula is a piece of cake. Barnard 86 (B86) is an island of dark in a sea of stellar jewels three degrees north of the Sagittarius teapot spout. I can testify that this object looks just like the photographs. It’s DARK man! The surrounding stars fade to the background, as the dark nebula seems to float in the foreground. As added bonus to viewing B86, locate the embedded open cluster NGC 6520 on B86’s eastern border. This smallish 6 arc min, 7th mag cluster has a very noticeable perfect circle of stars in it. Perhaps this will help locate the dark nebula when observing in more light polluted skies. B92 and B93 are two dark nebula on the northern edge of M24, the Sagittarius Star Cloud. Sometimes looking at a difficult object at a dark sight helps one to find the same object in a less than dark site such as Peach Mtn. All of these dark objects are easy to locate and now that I know what to look for when I check ’em out again back at home.
The Horsehead nebula is probably on everyone’s observing list, yet most of us are honest enough to believe we will never see it unless we travel to the southwest. Well, we spotted it in an 18 incher with a hydrogen-beta filter. It was superimposed on a gray field as a ‘notch’ with a noticeable horsehead shape.
Many of us started looking at galaxies. Not faint fuzzies, but photon busting behemoths. NGC 891 is a 10th mag, 13 x 3 arc min object that John Causland has indicated “was put here to frustrate amateur astronomers”. I have seen a whisper of this galaxy in John’s 18-incher from his dark backyard. If you think that an 18-inch scope can sweep this edge-on object easily, you would be mistaken. Low surface brightness is the cause for our frustration when viewing NGC 891. From BFSP a central dust lane centered in a bright nebula was obvious. Sweeping up this galaxy in the scope was child’s play. NGC 253, the Sculptor Galaxy, is 7th+ mag elongated 26 x 6 arc min island universe that doesn’t present much to see from average skies due to its southern location. From our mid-Penn mountaintop, it was big and bright. M31 had two huge dark lanes in it. You’ve read about it. You’ve seen it in long exposure photographs. At BFSP, observing it took your breath away. I caught Doug Nelle scooping up M31 globulars with his 17 1/2 using and map from an old ATM magazine. Impressive.
At one point during Friday night, a few of us were discussing an e-mail received by Dave Snyder on a sighting of what was thought to be three high altitude military aircraft in the sky over Hastings, MI. It turned out to be one of the NOSS (Naval Observation Satellite System) satellite constellations. Right on clue this 4th mag triple satellite grouping, in a perfect equilateral triangle formation, appeared overhead moving south to north. An hour later we saw two paired satellites following a similar path. As we continued to follow them the third satellite winked in just before all three became victims of atmospheric extinction. Wow, in one night we managed to see two NOSS fly overs!
As Saturday evening turned in to night, the prospect for a night of perfect darkness seemed to be all but guaranteed. All day the skies were absent of any hints of clouds. As the twilight gave up its last grip on the western sky, the northern horizon appeared like a major metropolis was parked beyond. Soon it became obvious that a full-blown aurora was in the making. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better it did. Thin green auroral streamers would grow towards the sky, then grow wider. After a while red streamers appeared. Every time a streamer would reach for the sky, a roar when out across the assembled masses. The Lowbrows soon gave up the scopes for comfort of lawn chairs. At one point the auroral activity reached up to the zenith. After a while I was wondering if the night’s observing sessions was going to be cancelled due to nature’s light pollution. That was not to be. The aurora decided to shrink back in to the northern horizon and we were back to the scopes.
Never without another double to view, Mark Deprest and I decided to prepare ourselves for Sky & Telescope’s resident double star writer, Sissy Haas’s presentation Saturday on double stars. We selected Sissy’s favorite double Gamma Ceti, a 3.6 mag Yellow primary with it 6.6 mag blue companion 2.9” away. If you think this is an easy split, you would be wrong. While it is not difficult, it is a challenge. This double is also a beautiful sight to see the smaller star sitting on the first diffraction ring of the brighter star. In the middle of Saturday night’s observing run, I had an opportunity to share naked eye doubles Alpha Capricornus, Omicron 1 Cygni, the Pleiades pair of Atlas & Pleione, Theta Tauri, Epsilon Lyra, and Delta Lyra with Doug Scobel. Yes, he split them all I am happy to say.
BFSP was this observer’s dream come true. I was able to enjoy extremely dark skies that I thought were only available in the southwestern states, and I got to share all the magnificent sights with my fellow Lowbrows. If you count yourself a dedicated observer, then you owe it to yourself to get to the BFSP.