Essentials for Remote Dark Sky Viewing
Summer is here and many of us will be packing up and traveling to dark sky sites. So I thought I might share some of the things I have learned about observing under field conditions at star parties. Most of what I will have to discuss is just common sense, but it is often the simplest things that lead to serious problems when one goes to a remote site
The major difference in astronomy at home and in remote sites is that at home sites one is usually not concerned with creature comforts. A warm bed is not far away, and if you forget something, so what, you can just run home and get it. For those of us who are spoiled with a home observatory, life is even better: Internet access, power, good music, electric blankets to keep warm, and so on.
Oregon Star Party, 2004 photo by Jan I. Keiski
Dark sky sites vary greatly in their distance from the nearest town and in the creature comforts available. The Texas Star Party for example has an air conditioned dining hall and meeting rooms, a swimming pool, on site fl ush toilets, shower houses, RV hookups and even motels and cabins within 5 minutes of the viewing field. The only downside to this event is that it is 1,200 miles from Bainbridge Island. On the other extreme is the Oregon Star Party. OSP is a great star party, but definitely in the middle of nowhere. It’s dusty, hot, windy, rocky, and cold, but it does have great horizons and the skies are some of the darkest in the country. It has shower trucks but everything else, including the porta potties and meeting tents, are definitely in the beyond rustic category. A new addition to OSP, that I look forward to again this year, is Internet access.
One thing all star parties have in common is that if you forget something you may be in deep trouble. And the more complicated your equipment and methods the greater chance you have of something going wrong. If you observe with a Dob and use paper charts, not too much can go wrong. However, if you are using a Goto scope, electronic charts, computers, and imaging cameras watch out for Murphy’s Law.
What to Bring?
The answer is simple. Bring everything you can fit into your car or trailer. I know some will disagree with me on this, but this is not a backpack where weight is an issue, so just bring everything. Yes every site is different, but for the remote sites like OSP just bring everything.
How Not to Forget
The only way not to forget something is to begin making a check list early, at least a week before the planned departure. Keep a small note pad handy and as you think of things write them down. I keep my check list as a doc on my computer and refine it before each trip. Check lists made at the last minute or the night before do not work. Once the list is made, USE IT, before backing out of your driveway, not when you are 50 miles down the road. If you are going to a very remote site the list will be long because you must include both your creature comfort equipment and astronomy gear. Another suggestion is to set up all your telescope gear the day before then load it directly into your vehicle.
Things I Have Left At Home
In spite of check lists I have still left things behind. The most egregious was leaving behind the truss poles for my Dob. We were only two hours from home so a recovery was possible, but if we had been at OSP without truss poles the week would have been ruined. Here are some items that one could easily forget. Insect repellent, prescription medications, sunscreen, sunglasses, two spare batteries for every piece of equipment, rain gear, bottled drinking water, tools, fire suppression equipment (required for OSP), reference books and charts, coffee, ice, binoculars, a compass, money, cell phone, computer software, spare computer if you have one, phone numbers for software and equipment dealers, ear plugs, black out eye patches for sleeping during the day, shower gear, laser pointer if permitted, warm clothing, more warm clothing, moon boots, and more warm clothing.
Prepare Your Car and Trailer
There is nothing more irritating and inconsiderate than someone who by accident turns on headlights, dome lights etc. at a star party. Newer cars are real difficult to operate without some darn light coming on. So if possible remove all door and dome lights from your vehicle. Try to figure out how to drive your car without the parking lights coming on or figure out a way to cover them should it be necessary to move your vehicle at night. Another thing that happens is the remote keys used to lock and unlock doors will fl ash headlights, so remove the remote from your key chain and use a key only. I fl ashed my lights at OSP because the remote was in my pocket and went off when I bent over to get something. If you have a trailer install red lights, curtains usually are not sufficient. This is serious business. Light violations at the Texas Star Party were enforced by uniformed armed sheriff’s deputies who issued $75 fines for the first offense and expulsion from the site for the second offense. They do things different in Texas, but I did not see many white lights and, yes, I heard that two astronomers were escorted off site about 2:00 a.m. one morning.
What to Do First
When one arrives at the dark sky site the first problem is setting up and trying to figure out where north is if you will be operating any kind of tracking equipment. A compass is essential as well as knowing the declination. I always allow at least two hours for set-up. Setting up in the dark is really difficult so avoid having to do this if possible. Get your equipment organized so you can find it in the dark with out too much light. Over-dress for cold. If you use a computer make sure that the screen is shielded with dark red material to prevent white light from fl ooding the area. I also use a black hood to completely cover the computer when I am not using it. Light pollution from computers can be a real problem so if you use a computer, be responsible.
Too Many Stars and It’s Dark
The Milky Way
Once it gets dark many experienced and first time observers find it difficult to find their way around the sky. The problem is that there are just too many stars and the familiar guide stars are buried in a sea of dimmer stars that together make the sky appear almost dusty. The Milky Way will have a marbled appearance and will extend from horizon to horizon. In really dark sites finding your eyepieces and other equipment will not be possible if you are not organized and finding a dropped eyepiece retainer screw becomes a major problem. If you can’t find and operate your equipment blindfolded during the day then you are not ready for a really dark sky site. Get everything you will need out of your car before dark. Car interiors and trunks are extremely dark even with a red light and white light is not an option. Using a finder scope with cross hairs becomes difficult because the cross hairs are not visible, it’s too dark. Illumined finders are a must-have piece of equipment for visual observers without Goto scopes. Walking in the dark is not easy and I have witnessed people walking into equipment, other people tripping over rocks and falling down, tripping on tripod legs, and I even had a person completely collapse my table, computer and all. At OSP I cleared rocks from paths but there is nothing that can be done about the infamous “dammit” bushes (you trip on them and then say dammit). I mark my tripod legs, trailer tongue, and awning tie down lines with blinking LED lights. I also have white refl ector tape on chairs, table legs, and other equipment. If you have visitors during the night expect the worst.
Fatigue is a natural consequence of sleep deprivation but may also be the result of dehydration. Remember many star parties are held in high mountain deserts where additional fl uid intake is essential. A good rule of thumb is to double your normal fl uid intake. It will not harm you and could make a real difference in your ability to perform during long observing sessions.
Sleep deprivation can be a real problem after about four all-nighters. It seems sleeping late in the morning does not help. Although most star party rules ask that quiet hours be maintained until 10 a.m., someone is usually up and about by 8:00 a.m., talking or making noise. These of course are the folk who turn in before midnight. Just be aware getting sleep beyond 8:00 a.m. may be difficult. If you are in a tent it is even more difficult to sleep beyond 9:00 a.m. because of the heat. I have even been awakened by barking dogs, and my reaction was not very diplomatic. The Texas Star Party bans pets, a good idea in my opinion.
Serious Observers Have a Plan
If one is going to get the most out of the time spent at a dark sky site, an observing plan is essential. Know what you are going after before it gets dark. The list of objects should be sequenced so that minimal movement between objects is required and those objects that set early are observed first. Be prepared for wind and dew.
Alcohol and Coffee
I do all-nighters and must have a triple mocha around 2:00 a.m. to make it until the sky begins to brighten up around 4:00 a.m. For serious observers, alcohol is very bad for night vision and coordination and may make just staying awake almost impossible. I do, however, find a glass of wine allows me to go to sleep quickly after an all-night viewing session. But this is a very individual thing
Problems at Star Parties
Most of the larger star parties will attract folks with different objectives. Some come to socialize, others to learn, and some to do serious astronomy. As in any large group there will be problems, such as noise when you are trying to sleep, fl ashlights that ruin your night vision, kids running around in packs, and people bumping into your scope. But keep in mind star parties are supposed to be fun, after all this is a hobby. So a good attitude is also essential. Have fun this summer.