Desert Sunset Star Party, AZ 5/1-5/3

by Brian Zehring

I arrived at Kartchner Caverns Park located 40 miles east of Tucson, Arizona on Thursday around 1:00 pm for the Desert Sunset Star Party. I was one of the first to arrive and was given my choice of observing locations in the telescope field. Most of the field was on a slope and the site was fairly smaller than I was expecting, but I found a good, reasonably flat location. My wife and I unloaded the 30" from the motorhome we rented for the week for touring the state. The 30" took up a lot of space in the motorhome and just barely fit through the 22" doorway. The rocker box took up the dinette, the mirror box and mirror took up the overhead bed, the ladder and poles claimed the large storage area leftover and the secondary took up half the area around the bed. Not to mention charts/books, eyepiece case and table. The funny part was me loading all of this and two weeks worth of supplies into the suburban and driving down to San Diego to load it into the motorhome there.

The weather was absolutely awesome with temps in the low 80's and a cool breeze that died promptly at sunset. The first night had some high clouds that left things pretty soft. The site also had some light pollution from nearby Sierra Vista (40,000 people) and from Tucson. I met a guy named Sam that had a 25" Obsession and basically mooched off his scope for most of the evening. I did not set up, I was extremely tired from driving all week long. I got a good look at Centaurus A and Omega Centauri which were almost 10 degrees above the horizon. Very cool. Omega was very similiar to M-13, just larger. Centaurus A was one the strangest things I have looked at with the big "empty" area in the middle of the galaxy. We also looked at several hicksons, M-51, the double quasar (which no one around had really heard of) and much more. I went to bed around 12:00. The Obsession was beautiful and Sam was good company. Sam also owns 40 acres about 30 miles southeast of that location were he sets up his scope regularly. Gotta love Arizona.

On Friday I woke up to more beautiful weather, but more high clouds later in the afternoon. My wife and I toured the caves nearby, you really can't beat the location of this star party for cool things to do nearby. The facilities were excellent and they had several talks on and tours of nearby Kitt Peak and McDonald Observatory. We also visited nearby Tombstone, the backdrop for one of my favorite all- time movies (Tombstone). The site was not a great dark sky site from what I could tell and from what I heard from the locals. Probably the equivalent of a Blue Canyon or Fiddletown. Nice, but too close to major metropolitan areas. Attendance seemed to be way below what was projected with maybe 30 people Thursday and 40-50 on the weekend.

Friday night started out not very promising but there was a couple of groups of boy scouts and parents that came to look through the scopes. I had a great time showing them all the usual stuff (m-13, M104, m-51) and they were very appeciative and a lot of fun. Around 11:00 things clouded up completely and five or six people came over and sat around the scope for some good conversation. Things digressed fairly quickly after someone mentioned the movable floor at the Yerkes Observatory and I mentioned that I needed the same for my scope to eliminate the problem of the eyepiece height. Someone suggested a big rig and a team of roadies to set it up, to which I replied "if you're going to have roadies than you gotta have groupies!". The thought of it even now just makes me laugh. Maybe you had to have been there. I just see tour buses full of alcohol and telescopes going to every star party like it was a Grateful Dead tour, the inevitable overdoses, a VH-1 special and of course, the reunion tour. But anyway,it still makes me chuckle. Almost as much as the Girls of Tac-Sac calendar that I have been working on. I should mention that Jane lost her cover spot after dissing my telescope for not having a Zambuto mirror.

Anyway, I went back to the motorhome around 12:30 for some warmer clothes determined to get some telescope time that evening. When I stepped back out, the sky had cleared completely and we had about 3 and half hours of awesome observing. I started with Abell 46 in Lyra (the only Abell in Lyra) at mag 15.6, it was impossible without the 0-III filter. It had a round shape and the central star was fairly easy. I next moved to Abell 61 in Cygnus. A very difficult observation due to its large size (192") and low surface brightness. I finally located it and verified its movement as I moved the scope around. With averted vision there was a hint of irregular shape and some darkening in the middle, but not sure. The Abell planetaries have been quite a challenge, but rewarding to push your telescope and observing ability to their limit. We then looked at several galaxy clusters in Coma and then moved over to Scorpius for one of the most awesome views of m-17 I had ever seen. Nebulosity for days, all kinds of internal structure, very cool. We looked at a few other things and called it a night around 4:00. Saturday was clouded out and we headed for San Diego early. All in all, a lot of fun and very relaxing (much needed I might add). Hope to see you soon.....I am staying away "on business" in sunny southern california until things clear up around there.

Funniest things heard at the Desert Sunset Star Party:

By the planner of the event: "This thing got one of those Zimbabwe mirrors?"

Nice woman: "I'm okay" After taking the shortcut off my ladder, stumbling backwards five feet, nearly flattening my 19 month-old daughter and then landing on her rear.

My wife: "You're an idiot" After I ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere at 2:30 in the morning. I guess Ford's don't have low fuel lights.

My wife: "You're an idiot" After she realized I had grossly under- estimated the space my telescope was going to take up in the motorhome and that we had nowhere to eat or store extra stuff, not to mention the safety hazard of these huge parts flying around when I hit the brakes.

And last, but not least:

Me: "Last call for the Ring nebula in the 30". Nobody got it. But I thought of you all when I said it.