A Star Party - Texas-style
Texas is a place where they take their barbeque seriously, and, as we now know, their star parties as well. The Texas Star Party is a well-organized and well-run event. But it’s a long way from Bainbridge Island . . . 1,895 miles to be exact.The Party is held at Prude Ranch, near Fort Davis, in the Davis Mountains, in the vast expanse of nothingness known as West Texas. The trip from Bainbridge to Prude Ranch took us four and a half days, driving most of each day, with only occasional forays off the highway for irresistible attractions, such as Arches National Park and Mesa Verde.
Having just dissed West Texas, I do feel compelled to say that the Davis Mountains are beautiful, and that Prude Ranch is an appealing, pastoral place. The ranch is at an elevation of 5,500 feet, and has a variety of accommodations, including guest lodges, bunk houses, RV hookups, and tent sites. The facilities include a restaurant, an air-conditioned auditorium, a swimming pool and tennis courts. There are towns nearby, with additional accommodations and restaurants and a fullrange of services. Amenities abound, distinguishing the
Harry and Diane Colvin at TSP, photo courtesy Diane Colvin
Texas Star Party from many of the star parties held in the Pacific Northwest, such as the Table Mountain Star Party and the Oregon Star Party. There were about 650 attendees: we saw license plates from practically every region of the country. Many of the participants were regulars, having attended for more than twenty years.
The Texas Star Party started in 1979, and has been held at Prude Ranch since 1982. We chose the lowest of the three observing fields. It was conveniently located next to our trailer, but proved to be too close to the road. Should we ever return we would go to one of the upper fields. Despite the occasional annoying headlights, we had good viewing each night of the seven we were there, with one exception, mid-week. On that night, we were entertained instead by a spectacular lightning storm. The Texans didn’t make much of it, but we were impressed.
The skies were dark, in large part due to the efforts of the Texas Star Party organization, which has worked hard to increase and preserve the darkness of the skies in the area of the Davis Mountains. With McDonald Observatory, the TSP organization has funded public information programs on light pollution and efficient lighting practices in West Texas –supporting activities such as the replacement of street light fixtures throughout the county. The skies, while dark, were not nearly as dark as those in central Oregon, in the Ochoco Mountains, where the Oregon Star Party is held. Nor was the Milky Way as spectacular.
Lighting restrictions were comprehensive, and strictly enforced. There were penalties for driving on the Ranch when lighting controls were in effect, including fines and permanent banishment from TSP. Lest anyone not take all this seriously, there was a Texas-style gendarme on site. The mere presence was enough to make a believer out of me. My comportment was exemplary for the duration of the star party.
McDonald Observatory is just 17 miles from the ranch. As Star Party attendees, we received a VIP tour of the Observatory. A research unit of the University of Texas, it is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research. It has three principal research telescopes. We first toured the Otto Struve Telescope, the first major telescope to be built there. Constructed in the 1930s, its 82-inch mirror was the second largest in the world at the time. Next, we toured the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. It has a 107-inch mirror. When it was constructed in the 1960s, it was the third largest in the world. The Hobby-Eberly Telescope, with its 433-inch mirror, is one of the world’s largest optical telescopes. The HET was completed in 1997, and is optimized for spectroscopy. The star party featured some excellent speakers, including David Levy and Wil Tirion.
But the undisputed star was Omega Centauri (NGC 5139). It proved to be the real reward for driving nearly 2,000 miles south. Omega Centauri is one of the nearest globular clusters to the earth, and is by far the brightest and largest. Its stellar population is estimated to exceed one million. Although 15,600 light years away, it is visible to the naked eye. The beauty and magnificence of Omega Centauri prompted us to consider the Southern sky. There is that Winter Sky Party in the Florida Keys, you know. And it’s only 3,487 miles from Bainbridge.