Four Decades at the Texas Star Party
May 22, 2018
Forty years! That is how long I have been attending the Texas Star Party held each year at the Prude Ranch in the Davis Mountains near the famous McDonald Observatory. Each year I make the 400+ mile trek across west Texas with the same anticipation of dark skies, friendship, observing opportunities, and astrophotography that are not possible from my home in urban San Antonio. The 2018 Texas Star Party (TSP) did not disappoint me, and indeed, provided new challenges that I had not experienced at previous gatherings.
Just getting to a remote star party like TSP is more like mounting a major cross-country expedition. I drive a four-door pickup truck with seeming unlimited carrying space. My plan was to meet my friend Lonnie Wege at his observatory north of San Antonio, load his equipment aboard my truck, and drive both of us to TSP. Major miscalculation.... my 20-inch Dobsonian telescope, Lonnie's Evolution 8, ice chests, tables and chairs for the Celestron display area, astrophotography gear, TSP door prizes, personal affects... oops. My truck is not as big as I thought. Oh well... it was now a two-car caravan to TSP!
A few days before TSP, we heard the sad news that a major wildfire had been started near the Prude Ranch by a lightning strike. Although the fire, designated the McDannald fire after a nearby ranch name, ballooned to 24,000 acres the prevailing winds kept the smoke away from the TSP. Aside from a vast number of emergency vehicles in Ft. Davis during TSP, the star party itself remained unaffected by the fire.
This year I had the pleasure of representing Celestron at TSP. While this gig was my first official function for Celestron at my “home town” star party, I have for many years helped the industry crowd at TSP because so many of my friends are associated with this part of amateur astronomy. I did quickly learn however, that representing Celestron was more than promoting their current product line. The real challenge for a star party industry representative is trouble shooting, repairing, and offering advice about earlier telescope products that have been replaced by more advanced designs. I understand a telescope owner's affection for an old telescope, I still use my 43-year old Celestron 8! Fortunately, over the week-long Texas Star Party we could solve the majority of technical issues in the field.
We arrived at TSP the day before the event so we could offload and set up commercial displays in the vendor's reserved area on the northernmost of TSP's three observing fields. As usual, the sun was scorching hot but at least the wind was calm. The latter is a godsend when trying to stake down a 20 X 24-foot tarp for dust control in the telescope display area. I couldn't help but think of the irony, “I claim this land for Celestron...by staking down a Meade blue tarp!” Mental note to self: find orange tarps for next year!
Soon to be the home of the Celestron display at the 2018 Texas Star Party
Soon we had quite a telescope farm. Representing Celestron was an Evolution 8 with StarSense and WiFi control, an 11 Edge HD on a CGX-L mount, and an 11-inch RASA astrograph on a CGX mount. I brought my own Sky-Watcher 20-inch Stargate Dobsonian so my friends Kevin Legore and Jeff Simon from Sky-Watcher could show off their premier large aperture offering. Also joining us were Richard Wright from Software Bisque and Michael Hatley, owner of Starlight Xpress cameras who traveled from England to join our crowd.
Robert Reeves sets up his 20-inch Stargate Dobsonian on a sunny day.
Low clouds played cat and mouse with observers for several nights at TSP, but the overall amount of clear sky was a win for TSP attendees. The Tuesday and Wednesday nights were clear dusk to dawn and it was fun watching master imagers like Kevin LeGore and Michael Hatley use the RASA astrograph with several of Michael's Starlight Xpress cameras. I have been an astrophotographer for more than half a century, but I am still stunned by the performance of modern systems like the RASA with a good CCD camera. Unguided 30-second exposures showed galaxy detail that was unheard of when film imaging was still king. I stood in slack-jawed amazement.
The amazing speed of the 11-inch RASA astrograph is shown in this single 30-second exposure of Makarian’s Chain taken with a Starlight Xpress CCD camera. Photo courtesy of Michael Hatley
This year I was also the proud owner of a modified Canon 6D astrocamera and I was anxious to put it through its paces under dark skies. That camera showed its astronomical versatility on Wednesday night a group of us decided to photograph the Milky Way rising from the crest of Sky View Drive at the nearby Davis Mountains State Park. Since there are strict lighting blackout rules at TSP, that meant loading our photo equipment in a car and parking it outside the gate of the Prude Ranch so we could make the 1 AM drive to the State Park.
The side trip to the State Park can only be described as magical! There is a stone water tank atop the crest of Sky View Drive that was a stunning observing site. Stone steps lead to the top of tank, which is surrounded by a reassuring rock wall that securely embraced us in the dark. The city of Fort Davis lay in the valley below while the rising Milky Way arced above. It was a perfect blend of familiar civilization with the wild splendor of a starry vista. I happily snapped sequences of overlapping 20 second exposures in which the Canon 6D revealed views that used to take a half hour with my earlier cameras. Within minutes I had a panorama extending from north of Cygnus all the way down to Omega Centaurui. Like I said, magical!
Robert Reeves and Kevin LeGore adjust their cameras for some Milky Way photography. Photo courtesy of Richard Wright
An Evolution 8 is ready to show the Milky Way. Photo courtesy of Lonnie Wege
The Milky Way spans from northern Cygnus to Omega Centauri. Bright Jupiter lies at upper right while the city of Fort Davis lies in the valley below.
The heart of the summer Milky Way rises above the city of Fort Davis.
This year, I had the pleasure of visiting with Pravera Hyseni, the well-known international astronomy ambassador from Kosovo. Last year, Pranvera was the keynote speaker at TSP. She enjoyed her stay at the Prude ranch so much she made sure she returned during her tour of the USA this year.
Pranvera Hyseni, Kosovo's internationally known astronomy ambassador, shows there is a new sheriff in town. Photo courtesy of Pranvera Hyseni
I addition to chatting with folks about the Celestron line of products and helping them with telescope technical issues, I had my traditional TSP duties as well. Not only do I secure the evening keynote speakers for TSP, I manage the astrophoto contest and the TSP group photo. Securing the keynote speakers is great fun because I get to interact with some of the truly great people in amateur astronomy. The photo contest is amazing as well. This year there were 40 entries with each being champion quality. It was really tough choosing the winner in the three categories. Like I said, astrophotography has evolved fantastically in the half century of my involvement.
Robert Reeves sits on the roof of the Prude Ranch chow hall while waiting to take the TSP group photo.
Though I have returned to bright urban skies of home, I still have dear memories of a week of ancient starlight through large telescopes, good friendship under both clear and cloudy sky, and the satisfaction of helping folks get the most out of their equipment so they too could enjoy the precious resource of dark Texas Star Party skies. I am looking forward to more of the same next year. I truly hope that if you have never been to the Texas Star Party, I will see you there in 2019!