Since this was my first star party, my first time out with my scope, and there
first time I’d been camping in 15 or more years, I thought I’d give a “quick"
summary of my experience so all of you can tell me what I did wrong and what I
should do different next time.
My first “Of crap!” moment occurred as I was driving thru downtown Phoenix on
I-10 when I realized I didn’t pack a pancake spatula! I had planned on having
pancakes and sausage for breakfast Saturday and Sunday. Not fatal, I’ll just
make dollar size ones so I can use a fork for flipping them. (I got the one and
only spatula at the Mobil station in Tonopah so I solved that problem on the
I arrived at the airfield around 3:30 on Friday afternoon after a two hour
drive from Chandler. I followed a Toyota pickup with a big tube in its bed to
the airfield. When I got there, it looked like everyone was lining up along the
south runway, so I drove to the end of the line and found a spot to park. I
then started to walk back north to see who was there and immediately ran into
Paul and the rest of the ATMers. This is a group I’ve fallen into at the
monthly meeting at Paul’s house so there were familiar faces there. I chit
chatted with them until about 5:30 when I headed on up to the EVAC tent to see
what was happening with the potluck. It looked like there was a half dozen
people gathered there. I headed back to my truck to setup all of my stuff and
to cook my hotdogs.
After dinner, I went ahead and got my scope setup and ready for the dark which
wasn’t long afterwards. The digital compass in my iPhone was reading 359
degrees in every direction. No biggie, the runway is probably close to
North/South so I’ll align the tripod with that and adjust once Polaris is up.
This is when my second “Oh crap!” moment occurred. My Windows 10 laptop was
DOA! Evidently it didn’t go into sleep mode when I unplugged it at the house.
So it completely drained the battery by the time I went to set it up. OK,
that’s why I brought my MacBook as a backup. Get it out and turn it on and “Oh
crap!” number 3 happens: the stupid Apple logo on the lid lights up half of the
airfield, including my neighbor who’s trying to do visual observations! So I
grab the roll of painters tape and put a dozen layers on hoping that will tone
it down enough so I’m not annoying everyone else in the valley.
I then proceeded to try and polar align my mount. That needed up taking the
better part of three and a half hours! I could identify Polaris but I could
never get the scope lined up close enough to the polar axis so that Polaris
would appear in view of my PoleMaster. Once I finally got in it view, it took
about 10 minutes to do the alignment. This is a recurring issue I have: I
cannot where my mount and scope are pointed when I’m trying to eyeball the
rough alignment. Argh!
After finally getting the mount aligned, I turned to using my scope computer
with PHD2 and APT to begin imaging. But PHD2 wouldn’t connect to the mount for
some reason. “Oh crap!” #4: my Windows scope computer now decides it needs a
new driver for the USB/serial port to the mount! Great! I have no way to get
one out there in the boonies! That pretty much kills any idea I had for imaging
on my C6.
Since it’s only 11pm at this point, I decide I’ll try using my old Star
Adventurer with my Canon SL1 to do some unguided imagining. It takes my a whole
10 minutes to polar align it using the built in polar scope and my PoleMaster.
(Luckily the universal adapter for the PoleMaster arrived late the afternoon
before!) After alignment, I mounted my Canon with the 200f2.8 lens on the Star
Adventurer and proceeded to fire up BackyardEOS to try to image the Pleiades so
I’d have something to show for the trip. And as soon as I start up BYE, the LCD
screen on the camera lights up the valley! Argh! I quickly tape some red gel
filter to the back of the camera hoping I haven’t permanently blinded my
neighbor! I eventually get 10 exposures at 3 minutes taken that I hope will
give me a half dozen good images to stack. (Several were ruined as I bumped the
camera trying to keep the red gel filter from peeling off the LCD.)
I eventually gave up about 12:30. By this time, everything on my table was damp
from the dew that started around midnight. Dew is not something I’ve had to
worry about before! I had a rough night as the back of my wife’s Explorer isn’t
as long as I thought. As a result, I can’t lay flat, I have to have my knees
bent (“Oh crap! #5).
About 6:30 in the morning, the sun makes it up over the hills and shines
directly into the back window of the Explorer and into my eyes! I’m not going
to be able to get any more sleep now. I notice my neighbor is up and all
bundled up. So I slip my sweatpants on (Not an easy task since I can’t sit up
in the back of the car!) and then pop open the rear tailgate. I’m immediately
hit with this hot, humid wave of air! I’m not sure why my neighbor was all
bundled up but no time to dally as there’s a half mile hike to the other end of
the runway for the toilets! (Poor planning on my part!)
I stop by the EVAC tent and chit chat with Claude and a couple of the other
guys for a bit. Then it’s time to hike back down the runway to my camp and get
my much anticipated pancakes going. And to get my sweats off!
After breakfast I decide to see the if built in inverter on the Explorer will
work for charging my DOA Windows 10 laptop. For that, you have to have the
engine running. So I get out the charger and my little extension cord and start
charging the laptop up. Oh! Did I mention my MacBook was down to 56% after the
previous night’s usage? So I throw it’s charger on too. About every 15 minutes
the car wants to turn off since it’s just sitting there idling. So you have to
pay attention the whole time to tell it to keep running! After an hour of
running the engine, the MacBook is up to 80% and the Windows laptop is just
above 25%. So it’s going to take another 3-4 hours to charge everything up.
Hmm, if I do that, will I have enough gas to get back to Tonopah? Probably. But
by this time, the wind has picked up enough that I’m starting to worry about
all of my equipment blowing over. With the forecast not looking too good for
that night’s viewing, I wuss out and decide to pack up and head home. I’m not
prepared for the blowing dust nor the possibility of rain that night.
By this time, it looks like close to half of the other attendees have also
bugged out. And all of the remaining ones are hiding in their nice air
conditioned RVs and trailers. It looks kind of like a deserted ghost town
looking up the runway! I stop by the EVAC tent on my way out and extend my
thanks to Claude.
So, what did I learn on this trip?
1) I’m too old to be sleeping in the back of my wife’s SUV! If I’m going to do
this type of thing again, I’ll have either a real tent or, preferably, a travel
trailer to work out of. And if I’m not self contained, I need to park closer to
2) My rig generates way to much light to be anywhere near any other people who
are trying to do visual observing! Even with all of my attempts to block all of
my light sources, my stuff just generates too much stray light. So I’ll
probably have to go solo for the most part in the future unless it’s with other
imagers who don’t mind the stray light.
3) My expectations of what a “star party” was like were incorrect. Everyone was
spread out over a huge area. I didn’t see very many people get together to
socialize. There seemed to be 3 or 4 groups that mostly kept to themselves.
Maybe everyone came together Saturday evening for the raffle and chili and I
just missed out.
But I survived and learned some stuff so it was a successful trip for me. Just
not quite in the way I was hoping. :-)
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