Friday at a Star Party

Even the approach to the 2022 Michiana Star Party was sublime, as a dirt road dappled in sunlight set the stage. And then you arrive at Dr. T.K. Lawless County Park in Vandalia, MI. Fresh signage welcomes you with their dark sky messages.


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Clear daytime skies yielded great sungazing. At least four techniques allowed visitors to look safely at the sun. Shown is Michiana Astronomical Society (MAS) President Bruce Miller looking through a Hydrogen-Alpha telescope, which is dedicated to solar viewing. This Lunt telescope showed prominences outside the solar disk appearing as umbrella-shaped plumes. Turn a big knob and you could change the detected wavelength, revealing structure across the face of the sun.


A second solar telescope featuring a dedicated white light filter excelled at observing sunspots. A sensor tracking the sun kept the image continuously centered, so observing was easy. This would be a great telescope for chasing predicted ISS transits. And, oh, the sunspots! They're back. After a low low in a sine wave, the eleven-year cycle of solar activity is on the upswing. It has been a fun few months watching the gyrations of the sun at Spaceweather.com.


Then I got out my own scope, which I hadn't used in awhile. Steve Accuosti helped me revisit projecting the sun with a Sun Funnel. With sunspots on the rise and the 2024 Total Solar eclipse approaching, I need to brush up my gear and observing practices. While Steve held the bucket (yes, it's big), a visitor held a backdrop of cardboard to align the scope by its shadow. Lo and behold, sunspots. Gotta work on the mount.


I was at the registration table when Robert Parrish was presenting in the park's community room. Robert is the energy behind the designations International Dark Sky Park and Michigan Dark Sky Preserve. Back under the blue sky, a young girl observed a plane have a near miss with the moon. Or a near transit.


Then a happy surprise. A busload of youths and parents from SUCCESS Club led by Ron King pulled into the field. Because the 2022 Michiana Star Party was in June, the days were long. Though the sun had set, the crescent moon was well positioned. Those visitors who looked down the tube of the reflector telescope saw a beautiful sight--themselves! The terminator--the line where the dark part of the moon meets the bright part--is one of my favorite telescope targets, and on this Friday night it put on a show.


A phone app that can map the night sky hinted at unseen constellations beyond the twilight that were about to become visible there! The group took a break from my rambling to await darker skies. Eventually brighter stars emerged, and a green laser pointer traced some known constellations. Thanks to everyone for bringing and using only red flashlights on short notice. I look forward to seeing you again.


That night were several reminders of why I enjoy star parties. For example, at the registration table I had solicited help to collimate my reflector telescope, which is when you align the mirrors to give the best focus. I've used other MAS members who'd help me as a crutch instead of remembering how to adjust the scope regularly on my own. Dave, who hadn't been to an MAS star party in 7 years, came over at twilight and taught me (again) how to collimate. Notice the red bullseye on the side of the eyepiece, which is centered by adjusting wing nuts on the back end of the telescope.


And then it happened--the darkness that comes from the combined factors of the end of astronomical twilight, the eye's dark adaptation, and a dark sky site. I had recently presented a talk about using the iPhone for astronomy, but on this night I simply gazed. On June 4 at 12:40 a.m. EDT I finally took a picture using a handheld iPhone with Night mode. The Summer Triangle is rising with Cygnus the Swan flying south through the Milky Way.


As dawn breaks, only the intrepid astro-imagers remain at their scopes. Unfortunately, dew descending on the telescope optics (and the need for sleep) have ended the observing for most Star Party attendees. From their tents, the amateur astronomers will awaken to lots of birds speaking bird-speak.


At 5:28 a.m., a plane appears to fly below the ecliptic, the line along which the planets seem to move. This morning, planets are aligning in the southeast. From upper right to treeline left are Saturn, then bright Jupiter near reddish Mars, and brilliant Venus visible between the trees if you move your body left or right a few feet. (Planets are clipped in this cropped square image.)


Since I had capped the ends of my telescope much earlier, it had been well shielded from the dew. While nearly everyone slept, I pulled out some eyepieces and turned my homemade scope toward the planets. And there, with no dew and the scope focused with the clarity of freshly collimated optics, I witnessed more grandeur of the firmament. The rings of Saturn and the moons and belts of Jupiter never cease to amaze me.


With the sun up, a drone overflight captured the observing field. Thanks go to all the attendees who made Friday of the 2022 Michiana Star Party downright...sublime.

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