(Weekend Under The Stars)
A place called Dry Park on the USGS map was chosen as the alternate site for the 13th annual WUTS due to the forest fire adjacent to the usual Foxpark, Wyoming location. Unfortunately, due to the arrival of our long-awaited monsoon season in this dry year, the park was anything but dry - at night, anyway. Very few of the original attendees spent any time under the stars this year, and quite a bit of time under the rain showers and their associated clouds.
The alternate site is a pretty good one. It was suggested by some that the annual event be permanently moved to it. It is an oblong, flat, grassy, rock-free meadow surrounded by lodgepole pine forest, with the major diameter oriented roughly northeast to southwest, and the same size or even a bit larger than the two Foxpark meadows combined. This orientation resulted in everyone setting up along the northwest border where some daytime shade could be had while still having a night time shot at the southern sky without the tall lodgepoles on the southeast border interfering excessively. Not one attendee set up camp along the southeast side. Latecomers were jockeying for position in securing a campsite under the northwest trees, but room was found for most.
The lowest part of the treeline is toward the northeast, which points directly toward the Laramie skyglow. Under clear observing conditions this would not be an issue. Under cloudy conditions I guess it isn't an issue either, obviously. Needless to say, the western sky is quite invisible from the northwest side.
It seemed that the attendence was a little light this year, probably due to the dire weather predictions and the fear of smoke from Foxpark, which is about 6 miles to the south as the crow flies, and at the same elevation. This probably eased the population pressure along the northwest treeline a bit.
So, which site is better? For me it would be a coin toss if we were talking about a smaller gathering of people. The Foxpark site is closer to pavement, but the Dry Park site seems a bit more pristine - a wider selection of wildflowers and bugs to investigate. The fact of the lowest treeline being toward the northeast and Laramie's glow and the all but invisible western sky, in combination with the tall trees to the southeast which negates that side's attractiveness as a place to set up a telescope, tends to reduce the amount of astro-useable area for those that desire trees nearby. The shorter and more separated tree population of Foxpark seems more appealing to me by having a larger area of useable astro-area in combination with scattered low trees for shade from the daytime sun.
Besides the thick lodgpole pine forrest which invites getting lost in, another drawback of the newer site is that there is an unimproved dirt road that passes through the very center of it, near the southeast side about 80 yards from where most people had set up. This road connects Albany, Foxpark, and lake Owens together, so there is occasional traffic that cannot be controlled. We only saw maybe two or three cars per night go though, and the headlights are always pointed tangential to observer's positions. That's not too objectionable, but in dry weather I'm sure there is more traffic and of course a lot more dust to deal with.
By about noon some 70 folks had already registered. There was a short rain sprinkle in midafternoon that made very little moisture. It was cloudy all night. The clouds held the heat in very well. At 4 AM Friday morning I was walking around under the trees and clouds in a tee shirt with no chill at all, and Mars peeking in and out behind the clouds.
Friday morning was clear and hot. Friday evening brought three waves of rain storms. Those with campers or well-built hooches enjoyed a nice evening of socializing or sleeping. Those with tents spent the night confined. The second wave was a gully-washer producing large puddles which the ground soaked up as soon as the rain stopped. By about 1 AM a good sized sucker hole opened up revealing Scorpius and Sagittarius. The hole gradually opened until about 2:30 when it all went down the tubes I hear. I had already hit the sack about 1:30. I am aware of only one person that uncorked their telescope for that hole.
During the torrential second wave of rain, a caravan of quitters hit the road which significantly reduced the field's population. A bright Saturday sunny morning was not enough to stem the tide of defectors.
Saturday's swap meet was light but fun and preceeded a bit of rumbling in the sky which encouraged many to don their raingear before heading to hear the speakers and drool over the doorprizes, though no drops were felt throughout the festivities.
The first speaker was from Ball aerospace who gave a very interesting talk and Q&A session about the Hubble Space Telescope and the upcomming multi-mirror space telescope that will go to one of the LaGrange points along Earth's orbit. One item I learned about HST that sticks in my mind is that none of the great pictures we see that were taken by that telescope were done with the telescope's full aperture!! The cameras and other instruments are fed by a pick-off mirror that transfers only about 1/5 of the telescope's light! WOW! What could that thing do if they used the full aperture of the telescope? Shazaam!
The second speaker reported on the political process, stress, and compromises encountered in his efforts to get a lighting ordinance passed for Albany county.
The door prizes included 3 nice eyepieces, some videos, some generous gift certificates (thanks Randy and others!), and lots of tee shirts and assorted other goodies.
Saturday night brought in another thunderstorm that left a little bit of rain, and the clouds began to open up about 12:15 AM. The major part of the sky had a few stars in it and the milky way was visible, but there was so much moisture in the high layer of thin cloud that very few deep sky objects could be seen. The few that stayed up long enough to uncork their telescopes spent most of their time viewing Mars through that stable layer which acted very much like a neutral density filter, as well as a warm blanket to hold in the warmth - at 3 AM the temperature was still above 50 degrees! Under a normally clear sky at that altitude the temperature typically drops into the low 30's or even 20's at that time of the morning. The last two remaining observers hit the sack around 4:30 AM.
Aside from the lousy night time weather this year, WUTS '03 was a fun time as usual. People spent the sunny days socializing with other astro-geeks or hiking or photographing birds, bugs, flowers, and trees.
Many thanks to Marty and Marcie and the rest of the LASSO and CAS gang for their great and much appreciated efforts in putting on a good time, as usual.
As for the weather, well, better luck next time, yes?
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