Sunday, March 01, 2009

Austin Astro Society Public Star Party, 2/28/09

Last night I took my daughter to the Austin Astronomical Society's monthly public outreach star party. Their observatory, located in central Texas, is positioned right next to a holiday camp. As such, when public nights are advertised there, the folks who are staying at the holiday park make their way over to look through the club's observatory scopes and the scopes belonging to the club's members. As it turns out, a lot of folks who book holidays at the park make sure they book around the public access nights.

So, my daughter and I drove down there early, enjoyed a Texas country dinner and then arrived at the observatory grounds an hour before sunset to set up. We took the 12" Lightbridge to maximize people's views of deep sky objects. At first this was a bit of a concern due to some very high gusting winds in the area (15-20 MPH!) but at sunset, these settled down. I also used my car as a wind break which worked just fine.

I estimate there were about fifteen astronomers there who had set up various scopes, including small goto scopes, through to big Dobs and some nice equatorially mounted refractors. So, the visiting public definitely had the chance to look through a nice range of scopes.

Even though a cresent moon remained in the sky through most of the evening, picking out and showing people various objects was really easy with the Lightbridge. Favorites included:
  • M42 Orion Nebula
  • M35 in Auriga
  • Double Cluster in Perseus
  • Venus (vey nice thin cresent phase)
  • M81 and M82 galaxies
  • Comet Lulin (still relativley bright with a barely noticeable tail)
  • Saturn
  • M46 (star cluster) and NGC2436 (planetary nebula)
The visitors were generally "wowed" by a lot of these objects. After having read some articles on star parties, I decided to keep the information I gave to the visitors really high level. I tried to avoid fancy terminology, references to measurements of distance and catalogue numbers and just tried to keep it simple. I also had my laptop handy with Stellarium running to help folks pick out constellations. They also had some interesting questions ranging from the cause and effect of sunspots through to choosing a good beginner telescope. I estimated maybe 60-80 visitors for the night.

My daughter enjoyed the event too. There was a scout troop present who were working on there astronomy merit badge and she enjoyed their company (!). But after a while it got too cold for her and she ended up getting cosi in the back of my car.

A fun event, anyway. I enjoy public outreach and using the Lightbridge is a really good way to let folks get up close and personal with many DSOs. Even with the moon present, the Lightbridge easily teased out details on various galaxies and nebulas. I love that scope!!!!

I also got to meet some club members I haven't met before as we traded notes on the visitors, our gear and the sky/weather conditions. All really nice people, and some of them even brought a big pot of hot soup to share. Excellent!

All in all a good night out. We left pretty early as the temperature dropped dramatically and the winds picked up again.

As the crowd thinned out I attempted a star trails photo. Due to the darkness of the site I was able to leave my shutter open for longer periods. I ended up taking an hour's worth of 5 minute exposures. I also made the shots slightly out of focus so that the star trails themselves were a bit thicker. The result is below.


Jase said...

Nice photo mate!

Polaris B said...

Sounds like a great time! Thanks for the report. You are lucky to be so close to darker skies.

Phil said...

Thanks guys.

Polaris - I guess Houston is so big the light pollution must be hard to get away from. You should head out this way sometime. The Central Texas Star Party is a good fun event held by the Austin club.

Polaris B said...

Yes, I forget what dark skies look like, actually. Forgetting dulls the pain from the loss ;-). I hope to make it someday.