Saturday, August 24th was the proposed date of our monthly star party, and I confess, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I might even confess to hoping we would get rained out. The dates were set way back in March, and revolve around the dates of New Moon. But while I am the star party coordinator, I had to make some changes this year so that I wasn’t automatically the default event marshal too…too much commitment, too many days. So we changed things so that we only book 2 days a month instead of 4, 1 for the Saturday before New Moon and 1 for the Friday after New Moon. A much softer load on the need for marshals, and for me. And up until this weekend, I have had marshals available to cover the events, even if I couldn’t make it.
But this weekend is the height of the summer, lots of people are on holiday, and more importantly, the date conflicted with the annual big StarFest up near Collingwood. So my normal marshals weren’t available, and this left me more or less on the hook for the event. Originally, I thought this would be no problem, but then I was up at the cottage and had no real desire to rush back. But if I didn’t marshal, there would have been no event (our insurance requires it). So I was kind of, sort of, totally hoping the weather wouldn’t cooperate. Nope, this time we had a completely clear forecast! We packed up Saturday morning at the cottage and headed back.
I would have liked to take Jacob too but I had to stay until it ended, and it would have been way past his bedtime, so I went out by myself. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to set up the 4″ or the 8″ scope, so I took everything with me. I got there about 10 minutes later than I wanted to, turned off the lights in the parking lot and on the nearby building, unlocked the portapotty, and set out the traffic cones. We had word that some people in wheelchairs were likely to be coming too, so we asked a bunch of people to set up their scopes at a lower level, and 3 or 4 had a good option for those in wheelchairs. Mine isn’t at all conducive, as you can’t get close enough to the eyepiece and the tripod legs, and the scope is short (i.e., doesn’t stick out very far). I decided to set up the big one for the night and managed to get it all ready just as Jupiter was starting to shine through. And while I showed off Jupiter to a few people, I also managed to get the scope aligned fairly early using Saturn, Antares and Arcturus. Booyah!
Up until close to 10:00 p.m. or so, the big hits were Saturn and Jupiter. Standard views and responses, nothing particularly amazing. And then a family returned that I think is the same one I saw two years ago. If so, they were the group that gave me my favourite experience ever at a star party…the father had brought his family with wife, two kids and his mother. They were from Pakistan as I recall, recent immigrants, and he was happy to bring his family out to a free science event. His kids looked first, and they were excited. Then his wife looked, and I was watching him. He was super happy that SHE was happy. Then it was his mother’s turn. She kind of giggled and shuffled over to look, all fun and games, something silly to do, until she looked through the scope and saw Saturn. And her world got rocked. She grabbed her son’s arm and started chattering away excitedly. And then looked again. The experience blew her mind, seeing another planet so clearly. But for me, while it was great to see, it was again watching him that was so amazing. He was almost emotional because here he was with all three generations of his family, and each of them was happy and excited. They started to walk away, after thanking me, and I was like, “Don’t you want to look?”. And he was like, “Oh, I get to look too?”. Kind of an afterthought, because he was just happy to be the facilitator for them. And then he was amazed too. It was awesome to see.
As I said, I’m not sure it was the same family, but it looked like the same guy. They were now a totally assimilated family though if it was the same family. The young boys were now 9 and 11 or so, and much more aggressive and vocal about what they say. The younger one kept saying, “OMG, OMG, OMG”. Sure, he was milking it and putting on a performance, but it was interesting. Mom was dressed in Western-style clothes, and much more fluent and comfortable in English. She looked and was really happy again. Then it was Grandma’s turn. No shuffling, no traditional dress, no giggling, almost like a running back breaking through the line of scrimmage, she deked between her grandkids and strode right up to the eyepiece in jeans and a sweater. And she again had her world rocked. A little less “shocked”, and a little more “Oh, wow, oh, wow”. But rocked. And Dad wasn’t leaving until he got his view too. I like to think it was the same family. I have no real idea, it was two years ago and only a few minutes together, but it seemed like him. Either way, it was nice to see three generations enjoying the view.
I also met a couple who have the same scope, but who have had a bit of trouble getting used to the setup for the 8SE and she has also been disappointed with the quality of seeing so far. I tried to give them an overview of my experience, but it was very disjointed as there were lots of people coming through, and I kept adjusting the scope and thus having to start and stop some of the advice. I gave them my card and suggested we go out one night just one-on-one with the two scopes and I’d walk them through my setup. Hopefully, they’ll take me up on the option.
Then something unexpected happened in our viewing. A woman happened to ask about “that sparkly star below Jupiter”, which was Antares, and I offered to show it to her if she hadn’t seen it before. Which she hadn’t and I did. Then everyone else saw it. And were really impressed with it. In the past, I’ve stuck to the big-ticket items like the planets, but they were interested in the star. So I gave them Arcturus too, which they all liked. So I went to Albireo, which turned out to be the hit of the night. Normally I tell people the history of Mizar (Roman guards, etc.), but letting people look at Albireo in a group, and each saying what colours THEY see for the two stars was illuminating (sorry, bad pun). It got THEM talking. I confess I don’t have a lot of experience with outreach, and this approach sounds obvious in retrospect, but we often all default to telling people what to look for, and they see it and say thank you. But they were far more engaged telling ME what THEY saw, then me telling them what they SHOULD see or look for in the eyepiece. That was a good lesson learned, and something I’ll try to include for the future.
A second development also showed up. Normally, my favourite eyepiece is the 17.3mm Televue Delos. It gives a nice big Field of View (FoV), isn’t too overpowering for power (118x) and good for planets and most objects. Plus everyone seems to enjoy it equally, or so I had thought. When I was choosing EPs for Jacob last month, I had him try all the different options. And he really liked the plossls; my larger FoVs didn’t work very well for him with his glasses on. That might be partly needing adjustment, but he works well with the plossls. So when a couple of people — old and young — this night had trouble seeing through the Delos, I swapped them out for a Plossl. And each time, they nailed it on the first try. The Plossl is just way more forgiving for them. I had the same experience with Andrea’s grandfather and friend the night before — the Plossl worked well for them, the Delos did not. Another “trick” I need to remember in the future if someone is struggling to see through the particular EP I have in at that moment.
Finally, the inevitable happened…someone bumped the tripod in the dark. Which of course threw off my alignment, and I had to start my setup over. But it got me thinking about the visibility of the legs again. Most of the time, when this happens, it’s newbies whose eyes are not yet dark-adapted. And even the night before, the grandfather and friend had trouble knowing where to step to avoid the tripod, after just having come out of the cottage to see Jupiter (which didn’t require dark adaptation). Interestingly though, as I was getting to wind down for the night, I noticed another guy was using those round glow sticks around the legs of his tripod. It might not go over well with the purists at a dark sky site, but for a public star party in a darkened parking lot, I thought it was a brilliant solution. Very clear where the legs were and easy to avoid them with your feet.
Despite my initial reluctance, the night was great. I had a really good time. And I did some other objects near the end of the night (mostly globulars, although I almost pulled in the Pleiades from behind some trees). Most of the public was gone by 11:30 p.m., but I let everyone else stay until closer to 12:25/30 before I turned the lights back on and locked up.
The night ended a bit odd though. As I was driving out of the lot and back on to the Carp Road, a young woman seemed to be crossing the road about half a block away, but when she saw me, she went back and waited on the curb, kind of waving me through. But then as I got closer, she had her hand up waving me down. When I chatted with her, it was clear she was somewhat drunk and was confused as to where she was. But then as I spoke with her a bit more, I also realized she was developmentally delayed cognitively too. She told me her full name and that she “lived at the post office”, which I recognized as a frequent training method people use to make sure they know how to self-identify, seek help, and get directions to home. I offered her a ride, as I was going right by the post office, and as we drove along, she was getting a bit agitated at herself. She had been out somewhere, and upon leaving, had turned the wrong way.
She had walked all the way to the end of town (Carp is pretty small), and couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong, just knew something wasn’t right because she couldn’t find the post office (it was in the other direction). As we drove, she recognized some landmarks as we went, and realized how far she had gone the wrong way, and I think that realization was also scaring her a bit by the way she talked about it. Anyway, she was hugely relieved when we got to the post office, and then she wanted to tell me her life story. Not really, but it seemed like it. She apparently used to work at the Stittsville Flea Market watering plants, with her dad. Now she lives in the building next to the post office (she pointed out her kitchen window), and that the building is now a heritage building as it used to house the old newspaper. Anyway, I made sure she got inside okay, and then headed off again. My Good Samaritan duty for the night, I guess, but I was disturbed more by what would have happened if I didn’t come along — would she have kept walking into the country? Would someone else have found her? It was almost 1:00 a.m. at that point, and the town was deserted. I didn’t see another car almost until I was nearing the 417, 10 minutes down the road.
Finally, though, as I was heading across the Carp Road to the highway, I ended up with another astro event. The waning crescent moon was rising over the fields to the East, and it was spectacular. Almost a yellowish colour in the low haze around the horizon, and it looked gigantic so close to the ground in altitude. I really should have stopped and taken some pictures, but it was now after 1:00 a.m., and I wanted to just get home and crash. Except I ended up getting home, unpacking the car, doing a few other things, and I never crashed until almost 3:00 a.m. Idiot that I am!
But a pretty great night, even if I didn’t get to stay longer at the cottage or get the picture.