Sunday, May 5, 2013

Well, Two Out Of Three Isn't Bad!

Yesterday was the Spring Star-B-Que at Kitt Peak National Observatory.  Twice a year now, for almost 20 years we've gotten permission to hold a cookout and star party for the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA).  It is always a lot of fun, socializing over a pot-luck picnic, and the skies can't be beat for observing afterwards.  The mountain employees association also supplies their gas grill for our use, and with the pavilion and flush toilets, the site lacks nothing! 

This year we had an extra attraction, after schedules
prevented us us from realizing it the last couple tries - a tour of the Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale, NOAO telescope (WIYN).  The public rarely gets the chance to see this modern 3.5 meter telescope, and the new technology contrasts nicely with the nearly 2 generation old Mayall 4-meter Telescope across the mountaintop.  Since one of my part-time tasks at the Observatory is giving occasional VIP tours of WIYN, I was able to offer an afternoon tour of the building to early arrivals to the Star-B-Que.  Amateur astronomers are a difficult audience, and I was unprepared for some of their questions regarding basic hardware of drive mechanisms, encoders and instrumentation.   Fortunately, I was able to answer questions about where it was polished (my 3rd 3.5 meter telescope at the Mirror Lab in the early '90s!).  Fortunately I had brought along an appropriate lens for a group shot at the telescope, but I couldn't decide on horizontal or vertical format, so you get both here!

As we finished the WIYN tour, the mountaintop
was about to close - time for normal visitors to depart the Observatory.  But after a stop in the Visitor Center for souvenirs, our group headed down to the picnic area to set up our own scopes and have our picnic!  The grill had been delivered as promised, and fortunately, I had a key where it was locked in the mechanical room off the bathrooms.  After setting that up in the pavilion, I wandered off to set up my scope, as did others.  I was planning to use the Celestron 14" on the AP1200 for visual observing early on, and perhaps some imaging later in the evening.  I had a couple friends that are recently heavy into astro-imaging, so wanted to provide a tutorial in use of the Hyperstar there.  Once the scope was set up time for dinner!  We had a great pot luck!  We brought brownies for dessert and as normal, there was a wide assortment of items to feast on!  I've never been a fan on organizing too much on what people should bring, and that proved to work fine here.  My friend Byron's chicken salad was a favorite, and everyone had a great time socializing over the picnic tables or over the grill.  Folks wandered off to the scopes after eating - got some good white-light views of sunspots, and in the picture at left, Wayne is looking through my C-14, trying to read the manufacturer of the AC unit at the 4-Meter Telescope - he was unconvinced on my insistence it was a "Carrier" brand, while Jim and Pat trade storied in the background.  At right, Irene (at left) was giving Marilyn some pointers on her new Sky Commander encoder system she had recently installed on her 16" telescope.

There was a really nice assortment of telescopes
assembled.  At left is shown what nearly became the "valley of the Schmidts", though a vintage 8" Cave Newtonian showed up, and a couple refractors can be spotted too.  Melinda is chatting with Byron, one of our new buddies who is getting into astrophotography.  The sacred mountain Baboquivari watches over us, about 15 miles distant and about 800 feet higher than Kitt Peak.  Shortly it was time for sunset, and while the sky had been crystal clear, suddenly some clouds popped up.  It made for a spectacular sunset, though, and attracted a pretty good crowd at the couple overlooks with views to the west.  These sunset views are HDR shots - 3 exposures are taken in quick succession with varying shutter speeds to try to preserve the high dynamic range of the scene.  These are mostly successfull - catching the views from the solar disk (setting into the smoke of the California fires) to the muted colors up in the clouds.

As the sunset waned, the wind, that had been
brisk to begin with, became even stronger, and more clouds moved in.  Through gaps (sometimes called Sucker Holes!) we spotted Jupiter and 3 of its moons.  Interestingly, over a 3 minute period about 7:35, Jupiter's moon Io moved out of eclipse and became visible where it had not been just moments before!  That was about the only astronomical observation, though as clouds became thicker...  While many gathered around the scopes and chatted, it soon became obvious that trying to observe in the wind through the cloud gaps was going to be a losing proposition, so cars started wandering out by 8.  Melinda and I (with Irene as a rider) hung out for a bit longer, but were packed up and ready to go about 10, with only one die-hard from the Phoenix area left, swearing to take his chances.  At least we had a great tour and picnic, but observing will have to wait for 28 September - the next edition of the Star-B-Que...

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