The Loneliest Guy at the Star Party

I don't go to star parties very often anymore. Packing up all the gear, telescope, food, clothes and setting off to remote dark sky sites lost its appeal to me somewhere along the way.

Star parties are part camping trip, part observing opportunity and part social event. Anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of people come together, pitch their tents or park their campers, set up their telescopes in an open field, swap equipment and stories and share the views through their telescopes through the night.

My wife went to one star party with me a long time ago. She doesn't like to be cold, and when it's clear it's usually cold. She doesn't like to go camping much either. Forget raccoons and porta-potties. Her idea of 'roughing it' is staying in a hotel that doesn't have room service.

I tried my best to make her comfortable. We had these brand new camp lounger chairs, I tucked her into a sleeping bag in the lounger, and covered the sleeping bag with a plastic tarp to keep the dew off her and made a little hood for the back of her head. It was August, and I figured she could at least sit back and watch for Perseid meteors. After a short time, I real bright one exploded overhead and I could hear everyone around us who happened to see it oohing and aahing. Coming from Irene's lounger was the distinct, lady-like, unmistakable sound of snoring. I went back to observing variables with the telescope.

My observing program is mostly cataclysmic variables. 9 out of 10 observations I make are 'less than' observations. In other words, I don't see the star, so it's not in outburst tonight, and I record the faintest comparison star I can see in the eyepiece to set an upper limit on the star's brightness, for example <14.9. Then I move on to the next field to see if anything has popped up since the last time I visited there.

As is the custom at star parties, eventually someone comes around to see what you are looking at and asks for a peek in the eyepiece. So I give them a quick primer on cataclysmic variables, show them the chart so they can identify the field and let them have a look. They stare into the eyepiece for a minute and then say, "where is the variable star?" I tell them it's too faint to see and they walk away somewhat disappointed. Or they'll say, "I can identify the star field, but it's not there?" to which I say, "I know, isn't that cool?" As they walk away they warn the next curious spectators, "Don't go over there. He's looking at nothing!"

It takes a special kind of nutty to do what I do. Like I said, I don't go to star parties very often anymore.


Baskill said...

The "less than's" are what makes the "Wow, I can see a few thousand million tonnes of gas avalanching through a disk every second" all the more exciting!

Jamie said...

It's kinda like being a Detroit Tigers fan, Mike. You just never know if they will show up or not?


Justin said...

Love your blog! Your posts are always in-depth and interesting. Enjoy looking at nothing :P

Astroprof said...

Well, I might be weird, but I would be excited to see nothing where a star chart shows something!