2012 Black Forest Star Party

Some weekends are good, some are bad.  Some weekends are memorable, some are forgettable.  This past weekend was definitely one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.  My dad and I attended the Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs State Park this past weekend and it was incredible!  Living my entire life under the heavily light polluted skies of the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area has severely limited my ability to get to a dark sky, and when I say dark I really mean just dark enough that a trace amount of the Milky Way is visible directly overhead.  I have to drive about 30 miles from my home in the suburbs in northeastern Baltimore County to reach my dark sky site where I do my observing and even then, there are still significant light pollution domes on the horizon that can extend up to 10 or 15°.  It’s not very inspiring to see Sagittarius and the galactic core sink into a haze of bright blue and grey during your observing session but it’s the best I’ve got around home.

Cherry Springs, on the other hand, is simply magnificent!  It is located in the middle of a massive state forest in Potter County, PA.  There is literally nothing in any direction for at least 20 miles.  There is hardly any light pollution evident and only towards the north that extends but a few degrees above the horizon.  The starlight is crystal clear with the altitude close to 2,5oo feet and less atmospheric turbulence.  Then there’s the Milky Way!  The central spiral containing the galactic core extends in milky white beauty up from the horizon in the south-southwest after sunset all the way across to Cassiopeia and almost down to Perseus and Auriga.  I’ve never in my life seen a sky so beautiful before!  It’s truly amazing that for thousands of years of human history that sight was an every night occurrence and now in the last 150 years we’ve almost completely lost it!  It really makes me much more appreciative of the work the International Dark Sky Association does to preserve the night sky and it makes me more proud to support their mission as well.

As for the Black Forest Star Party itself, it was a great time.  My dad and I arrived late Friday afternoon and hundreds of other amateur astronomers were already there set up with their telescopes and cars and in some cases, RVs and clam shell observatories.  The astronomy field was absolutely packed as you can see from the photos I took.  This was my first star party so I expected to get a case of telescope envy and sure enough, I did!  The first scope that caught my attention was a 25″ Obsession dob…freaking sweet!  We began setting up the tent under increasing cloud cover and by the time we had gotten everything set up the rain started.  At that point we were totally bummed that the night was a complete wash out so we got in the tent and did some reading before going to bed around 9pm.  I was woken by my dad at around 10:30 to him whispering “Come out and look at the sky!”  I mumbled back to him, “The clouds are gone?” and I poked my head out of the tent entrance and…WOW!  Our tent was facing southwest and looking directly at the Sagittarius-Scorpius border with the Milky Way exactly perpendicular to the horizon.  If my jaw could have dropped, it would have fallen straight to the ground.  “Alright, let’s get the scope out” were my next words and we spent the next 2 – 2 1/2 hours observing the pristine skyscape.  We viewed many of the Messier objects visible in Sagittarius and Lyra, along with M31, the Andromeda galaxy which was an absolutely stunning view!  The Veil Nebula was an amazing sight as well, even without a filter.  We also observed the Dumbbell and Ring nebulae.  Many globular clusters were great views also in the 35mm Panoptic.  We finished the night with M45, the Pleiades and Jupiter in my 6mm Radian but the seeing was pretty bad.  We both went to bed feeling extremely satisfied with the night even though it started off so terribly with clouds and rain.

Saturday morning was freezing cold.  We cooked eggs and pancakes for breakfast and at noon headed off to the first of the lectures on magnetars and pulsars.  The second session was pretty interesting.  The Penn State team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize team leader talked about the competition and the search for life in the solar system.  Lunch followed, then I planned out what we were going to look at that night (I decided to go with a bit of a Messier Marathon, M2-34).  At 5pm was the keynote speaker, Dr. Heidi Hammel, the Executive Vice President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and interdisciplinary scientist working on the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor.  Dr. Hammel was speaking about JWST and all of its capabilities as NASA’s next great observatory.  I very much enjoyed her lecture and I’m all the more excited for JWST’s launch in 2018.  The raffle for the door prizes was next but we can skip that part because I didn’t win anything 😦

All that was left was to have dinner and get prepared for another glorious night of observing, and it was going to be glorious because the clouds that ruled the day had cleared out completely by the end of the raffle.  The first stars, Vega, Deneb, and Altair began to appear to form the Summer Triangle near the zenith about 20 minutes after sunset, followed by an ever-brightening Milky Way. We did our mini Messier marathon which included objects such as the Lagoon Nebula (which my dad spotted with our binoculars), M13, the Hercules globular cluster, Andromeda again, the Wild Duck cluster, and much more.  Again, we ended the night by observing Jupiter which was much higher in the sky than Friday night and the view through the Radian was spectacular!  The amount of detail on the cloud bands blew me away and we got to watch Io transit Jupiter for a little while before we decided it was too cold and we were too tired to go on any further.  All in all, I’d have to say that both nights were absolutely inspiring!

Guy next to us (left) showing off his homemade “Ferrari” scope to Dr. Michael Paul, leader of Penn State’s Google Lunar X Prize

The other awesome part about the weekend was getting to see all the different (and expensive) telescopes other people brought.  I mentioned the 25″ Obsession that was near us, but by far the coolest one was right next to us.  The guy two spots over had the most amazing telescope of them all.  It was a homemade truss tube dobsonian scope made from machined aluminum.  He had fabricated and cut all the aluminum parts from the base, to the pivoting cradle, to the truss tubes, and the secondary mirror ring and painted them red.  To top it off he had a Ferrari name plate on the base because his son is a huge Ferrari fan.  That little addition was absolutely fricking sweet!  He also had a partial light shroud with the Ferrari logo on it.  By his estimate, he had spent roughly 200 hours designing and building his scope and had just finished it the week before the star party!  The quality of the design and all the parts seemed incredible for a homemade scope.  My only regret from the weekend is that I didn’t get more pictures of it or a chance to observe with it as he left Saturday evening.  The only picture I got of the scope was of him showing it off to Dr. Michael Paul, the Penn State X Prize team leader (who seemed really impressed by it).

I’m extremely glad I got to go to the Black Forest Star Party this year and I will definitely go again next year, hopefully before then as well.  If you’re reading this and you’ve never been, get your rear end up there before it gets too freezing cold!  Even if you don’t have a telescope or binoculars you can spend an entire night just staring at the beauty of a truly dark sky.  Cherry Springs State Park is dedicated astronomy park and is specially outfitted for the study of astronomy both professionally and for amateurs.  It is also only the second International Dark Sky Park in the entire world and is given a gold rating which is the highest level of quality of sky.  The upkeep and improvement of Cherry Springs’ astronomy program is funded by the Dark Sky Fund.  If you’ve enjoyed the benefits of CSSP in the past please consider donating to the fund to keep the park one of the best in the world.

I would highly recommend CSSP and the BFSP to anybody interested in astronomy.  Whatever your experience is, this is the place for you to be!  The Black Forest Star Party will go down as one of the coolest and most memorable night of my life so far and I can’t wait to go back!  For more pictures of the weekend (including some sub-par images of the sky) visit my album on Imgur.com.

About Tim

My name is Tim Phelan. I am a nerd, amateur astronomer, sports nut, and follower of Jesus. I live in Baltimore, MD where the skies are oh so polluted with light. This is Ravens Country, Birdland, and the City that Reads, or whatever. Follow me on acrosstheuniverseinnotime.com and tphelan.wordpress.com

Posted on September 19, 2012, in Night Sky, Star Parties and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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