Sunday, October 29, 2006

Canyon of the Eagles

I just got back from my weekend trip to Canyon of the Eagles (COE). Near Lake Buchanan, Texas, this nice little spot has a lodge, RV park, hiking trails and, more importantly for me, the local astronomy society's main observing site. I met two mates there, one of which I worked with some time ago who had a pop-up trailer and was wanting to get into the hobby a little bit, and the other chap was a friend of his who was well into the hobby (owned a Orion Xt8i Dobsonian and a Meade ETX-125) and pretty much knew the names of most of the stars in the sky up to magnitude 10!!! ;-)

The RV park is about a mile or so away from the observatory site. The site itself is well conceived. (See picture) The main building is a roll-off roof observatory housing two scopes; a 12 inch Newtonian and a 16 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. Both scopes are from around the 70s or so but the optics on them are fantastic (more later). Around the observatory on the nearby field are a few dozen tables, each with multiple power points (to run your scopes, laptops etc) and most of the tables have red lamps too. The site has a WiFi connection, which is really handy when you want to check the weather situation or do on-the-spot research into something you're observing. Also, because the site has somewhat limited cell phone coverage, you can use the web to keep in touch with loved ones back home. There is a very long driveway to the site that has about four or five signs indicating "Please turn headlights off" well before the site itself. Naturally, you get a few bafoons who can't/won't read them but for the most part everyone rolls onto the site with lights off. A very nice idea!

We stayed in trailers/caravans and that was great fun. I stayed in a pop-up trailer which was fun, very comfortable but a bit cold on the last night we were there. The other chap brought his own trailer which was well appointed indeed (toilet, sink, fully enclosed, TV etc. etc.) Both were quite cool and it was good to get to try one of them out. I think the family would enjoy one soon...

Friday night was so-so. Seeing conditions were about 2/5, so we really stayed for just a few hours to check out the site and admire the location. We could still very clearly see the Milky Way (even with the moon in the sky) and managed to pick out a few interesting objects, including Comet Swan which had brightened dramatically since a week or so ago (not sure why!). We peered through the 16" SCT in the observatory, at the moon mostly. Fantastic views, very detailed. Awesome scope and I hope to one day soon get taught how to use it so I can book time on it.

Saturday we spent chilling out. I decided to go for a quick 1.5 hour hike around the nearby walking trails while the other guys got some firewood from a nearby store. I saw cactus, butterflies, cactus, grasshoppers, cactus, fire ants, cactus, fire ants, cactus and, umm, cactus. Actually it was quite peaceful and a very relaxing walk. We spent the rest of the afternoon eating Australian sausages and chatting about world politics, science fiction and music. Talk about R&R!

After a hearty steak dinner provided by my old pal, we headed out to the observing site again. This time the conditions were much nicer, the air was very still and no breeze. My two friends decided to leave the site around 11:00 though, as they were a bit bushed and were in the mood for some S'mores. Granted, it was getting rather cold too.

The semi-moon decided to go to bed around 11:45 and we could finally settle down and get in some good observing. The Milky Way now sat majestically in the sky, and Taurus and Orion were beginning to climb up from over the horizon, their shapes occasionally punctuated by small meteors as the morning grew on. Also, from time to time we could hear packs of coyotes calling out to the night, usually accompanied by some other unfortunate animal screaming its lungs out. (Ten points for guessing what was going on there!)

I got out my target list for the night and starting doing the rounds. Everything was fantastically clear and deep sky objects appeared quite decently through my LX200. Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy were prominent in my eyepiece, and I could make out the dust lanes in the latter with relative ease using the 13mm Stratus. I could clearly M31 and it's two "sister" galaxies in the same field of view using the 1RPD eyepiece I just purchased, and it was quite nice to see three galaxies in the same field of view. M31 itself looked amazing, its arms stretching even beyond the 80 degree field of view of my eyepiece. By 1am we could look at M42, the Great Orion Nebula, and it was just lovely, lots of swriling clouds and new, bright stars. I love M42, I could never stop looking at it. I also checked out some old winter favorites, includng thr Double Cluster (very bright tonight!), M36, M37 and M38. All looked very clear indeed.

There were a few other hardcore folks out last night. One of which had an amazing 20" Obsession Dobsonian reflector. He allowed me to have a look through it and let me move it a little. I was frankly stunned at how easy it was to move it. Through this beast I could easily see the darker dust lanes of the Andromeda galaxy (M31). It was simply amazing and something I shall not soon forget! Other folks were out there, some had tents right on the observing field while others sought warmth in the observatory building.

My true intention for the weekend was to take an image (or two) of Saturn. However, as the night drove on the temperatures continued to fall, and by 2:30 am I couldn't bring myself to stay out there for another two hours to allow Saturn to get to a good enough altitude for photography. Quite frankly I was freezing my butt off! So, I packed up and went back to the camp, where my two mates were fast asleep. I set my alarm for 5:30 so I could try and image Saturn from the campsite, fell asleep and woke up at....8:30am! Blast! Oh well. That's the way it goes.

After making breakfast this morning we packed up and headed home. It was a great weekend, totally geeky and was had with great company. The COE area generally is very picturesque and the observing site is second-to-none in these parts. You'd probably have to keep driving way out west to get something better. Anyway, I'm glad I have access to it and am willing to drive the 1.5 hrs it takes to get there to experience the darkness the site provides. The company I had this weekend was also fantastic, and I'm sure they'd be up for another trip like this soon enough.

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