Monday, April 8, 2013

The Calendar says April...

We're just back to civilization (well, an Internet connection, anyway), so we've gotta tell you about our weekend at the Southern Star Conference, an astronomy convention of some sort, put on by the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club.  In short, it was great!  It is also unlike like any other event like it.   Held in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the Wildacres Retreat, it has got to be about the perfect venue for an event like this!  It is a remote, high location, offering great dark skies for observing.  There are very good accommodations with dorm rooms for about 150 attendees maximum, and they've got excellent facilities for dining and an auditorium that can't be beat.  They arrange for 4 speakers, of which I served as one this year.  We each spoke on 2 topics, one on the work or research we were doing, an another on an astronomy-related topic.  In addition, the speakers stayed around for the last morning's panel discussion on all things astronomical, taking questions from attendees on all topics - interesting stuff!

Besides the venue and the smaller crowd than
what most regional astronomy conventions host, I was taken by the laid-back schedule, and the slack time built into the schedule.  As a result, this is a very social atmosphere, with time for casual conversation, catching up with friends, and field trips to local art and pottery studios as well as an nearby observatory tour.  Perhaps it is the deference to a more relaxed pace of southern living, that made the schedule so enjoyable. 

As we drove to the site last Thursday afternoon, we watched the temperature readout nosedive as we climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The chance of rain that had been predicted the night before turned into a "heavy snow" conditions at a nearby town.  While we didn't see much snow, we did see sleet and snow pellets, and the icy conditions (which thankfully occurred after our arrival), made for some beautiful sights as the vegetation was coated...

Upon our arrival, we immediately ran into a familiar face - Elaine Osborne, a former regular from the Grand Canyon Star Party, just about tackled us as we were checking in!  She is the warmest, friendliest person in the world, knows absolutely everyone at the event, and made sure we knew everyone worth knowing all weekend long!  If the relaxed, friendly attitude of the conference didn't bring everyone your way over the 4 days and 3 nights of the Southern Star, Elaine made sure of it!
Like I said above, the dining hall was great and
the food was first rate and served family-style.  Elaine stuck to our side, making us feel at home and guiding us through the customs of the event.  Big bells were rung alerting us to when it was mealtime, as well as in advance of talks.  Absolutely everyone attended all of the events, which is another new one on me - since RTMC has a 3-ring circus of speakers and venues going on most of the time...  But dinner was another time to socialize and meet everyone, as well as talk about interests and research...  I got quizzed about some aspects of the Mirror Lab (my topic for Saturday night), but other than generalities, I held most questions off till then.

I was first up on Thursday night as well - my "general interest" topic was "Astro-Tourism in the Southwest", talking on my experiences of doing public astronomy in my 30 years in Arizona, from the beginnings of the Grand Canyon Star Party, to my part-time efforts at the public observing programs on Kitt Peak, to the 9 days we spent with our dozen Russian amateur astronomers touring Arizona last Fall.  It was very well received, and after a night to recover, and another full day of talks, socializing (wine and cheese tasting!) and a pottery studio tour Friday, we actually had some excellent observing conditions that evening!  One of the attendees, Corrie, shown left here observing with her little Dobsonian, was asking for help with her intervalometer after he saw my time-lapse videos, and I took this shot of her.  You can see from the sky that it was very nice - the Winter Milky Way was quite visible, with no major light domes to be seen.  The shot at right was of an 18" or 20" scope with the Big Dipper high in the sky overhead.  You can also see there was some stray light from the dining hall - they were still cleaning when this picture was taken.

So we enjoyed some winter weather our first day, but the rest of the weekend was top-notch.  I took a couple field trips (next post), and throroughly enjoyed the conference.  This was their 27th (!) year, and have sold out nearly every time.  It seems amazing I've never heard of Southern Star before, but with a max attendance of only 150, it remains a local event, which isn't a bad thing.  I'd gladly return, as speaker certainly if not a normal attendee...

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