Sunday, March 9, 2014

ASV 2014 Messier Star Party

This past weekend I was able to take a day off of work, and head on out to the Astronomical Society of Victoria's (ASV) Messier Star Party.  This is an event held around the first new moon in March, at the Leonard Mow Dark Sky Site.  The LMDSS is an observing enclave maintained by the Society for the benefit of it's members... and a wonderful benefit it is!

As it so happens, about one year ago was my first visit to the LMDSS, also for the Messier Star Party.  It's been an eventful year, but I've still been able to make the trip five times or so in the intervening months.  Every time I have the chance to go out and combine two of my favorite things, camping and stargazing, it's a huge plus for me and really helps my state of mind.  Sometimes, when I'm lucky, my partner will even indulge me and come along, despite her troubles with insects.

Several times a year the ASV opens the LMDSS to the public.  This particular event, as the name implies, is ostensibly about running a Messier Marathon, although I did not meet one person that was trying one :-)  Mostly, it's a good time to catch up with members, enjoy some local wine and food from invited vendors, and take in a good night of observing.  I wanted to extend the single Star Party night into two nights of observing, so I left Melbourne around 15:00 on Friday to head up.

Friday Night

It's a very scenic two hour drive from Melbourne, but the Friday traffic extended it to three and made it a but less pleasant.  I arrived around 17:00 and was surprised to find a half dozen groups there already.  Some people had even arrived as early as Thursday!  There was still plenty of good places to camp, and the large observing field had plenty of space, so it did not take long to get everything unloaded and arranged.

The LMDSS is separated from the Melbourne basin by a bit of a hilly/mountainous feature and is quite inland, so the weather is very different.  I've been fortunate that every time I've made the trip, no matter what the weather was in the city, or when I arrived at the site, by nightfall the clouds have rolled away and left the sky clear.  Transparency will vary with humidity, and potentially bush fires, but the sky has always been clear...

Sadly, my lucky streak did not hold out, and the clouds never really left.  They would slack a bit, and open up sucker holes, then close in just when I got the scope pointed somewhere.  Shortly after dark lighting started far away from the North and lit up the clouds very consistently for several hours.  Since there was no observing to do, I setup the camera to take some shots of the beautiful, but pesky, clouds.

Lightning and Stars at the LMDSS

Once I got over the disappointment of a missed night of observing, the sky was almost hypnotic to watch and I had a chance to chat with the other sullen observers on the field.  As we were chatting, the sky opened up enough to see the Large Magellanic Cloud, so I setup a quick timelapse to capture it and the clouds.

Not the night I had hoped for, but fun and better than a day at work and a night back at the apartment!


Saturday started wonderfully, there was enough cloud cover to keep things cool so I could sleep in, and I had a great view of some ravens as I made and ate my breakfast.  

A couple of Ravens mucking about

The rest of the day passed somewhat slowly, I spent a lot of time pouring over and annotating a Souther Sky Messier Marathon list from the (Grupo de AstrĂ³nomos Mendocinos Aficionados).  While not an Australian club, they share roughly the same latitude as Melbourne and thus the same sky.  Since some of the Messier objects are simply not viewable from the southern hemisphere, and many are very difficult, this modified list was a big help.  

My plan was to run the marathon on Friday night, sleep in on Saturday to catch up, and then have an early night of observing on Saturday to make sure I was in good shape for work on Monday.  This would have worked out perfectly, as Saturday was the public night and it's tough to power though a long and dense observing list and do outreach at the same time.  Since my Friday plans were thwarted, I decided to work my way though the list focusing on things I may not have seen before, but not try to run an actual marathon.

As night fell, the sky opened up and it turned out to be a good night for observing.  Not perfect, the humidity in the air limited transparency a bit, but still pretty darn good as the image below shows.  This is the area to the north of Crux, the Southern Cross, and rich portion of the Milky Way which includes the Eta Carina nebula.

Milky Way - Eta Carinae Nebula

After checking with some folks around me, I setup the camera for what I hoped would be a nice timelapse of the same basic region.  The movie below starts in the same basic region as above, and ends up with Crux in the top-left quadrant of frame.

I did manage to log some actual observing, although I did not make it very far through the list.  Items in bold are new objects for me:

SMCSmall Magellanic Cloud - Irregular Galaxy
0362Globular Cluster in Tucana
0104Globular Cluster(47 Tuc) in Tucana
1316Radiogalaxy in Fornax
2168035Open Cluster in Gemini
7078001Crab Nebula
2068078Bright Nebula in Orion
1976042Orion Nebula
1982043Orion Nebula
1904079Globular Cluster in Lepus
Globular Cluster in Columba
LMCLarge Magellanic Cloud
30 DoradusTarantula Nebula
2632044Beehive Cluster

It was a great night, and I ended up splitting my time between observing and socializing with the public and other club members setup around me.  Sometimes I enjoy the solitude of a night of observing, and I used to get this when I would observe from my cabin in Joshua Tree, California. Sometimes it's nice to share the experience with others, and this is what most of my experiences at the LMDSS have been like.  Each one is a mini star-party, and there are always other people observing and sharing the sky.

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