Northwoods Starfest: a time to connect, laugh and learn

Astronomy's not just about stars. It's about people. This weekend I joined fellow amateur astronomers for a little observing and a lot of laughter at Northwoods...

Astronomy's not just about stars. It's about people. This weekend I joined fellow amateur astronomers for a little observing and a lot of laughter at  Northwoods Starfest .  The yearly event is hosted by the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society  at Hobbs Observatory near Eau Claire, Wis. We all looked forward to the opportunity to observe under a dark sky with a variety of telescopes. And while the weather was dicey, the company couldn't have been better.

Amateur astronomers are monks of the night. We get up at odd hours under sometimes trying circumstances to plumb the wonders of the heavens. The ultimate takeaway for our efforts is an inkling of our place in the grandeur that surrounds us. We love making that connection, and it can happen unexpectedly at any time. A bright meteor.  The glowing husk of a supernova remnant. That umteenth look at Saturn. Each is a path to revelation.


But even monks like to party. I haven't laughed as hard or as often in weeks. Maybe months. Hardened by nights of finger-numbing cold, mosquito warfare and cloudy skies at the most inopportune times, we spent as much time cracking each other up as talking astronomy. One participant, Angie Gregory of Duluth, complained that her cheeks hurt from laughing too much. Good medicine.

Dozens of people from across the Midwest set up telescopes in the sandy field outside of Hobbs Observatory. Pity it was cloudy Friday night. One lone observer, William Wiethoff of Port Wing, Wis., kept vigil over the sky and reported that Vega was the only star visible ... briefly.

You might think you'd see long faces on a cloudy night or folks retiring to bed early, but no. Fueled by cheeseballs, coffee and cherry licorice, the jawing and punning went on past midnight under the ropes of red lights in the camp's dining hall.

Earlier that evening, we listened to a fine presentation on supernovas and neutrinos by Justin Vasel, teaching assistant from the University of Minnesota Duluth physics department. Did you know that 99% of the energy of an exploding star is carried away in a blizzard of evanescent neutrinos? All of us left with a better understanding of how a supergiant star evolves into a neutron star the size of a small city.

Vasel participates in SNEWS , the Supernova Early Warning System, a network of neutrino detectors set up to provide an early warning of the next core-collapse supernova in the Milky Way. Supernovae emit a burst of neutrinos promptly during a stellar explosion, hours before the first light arrives. Click the link if you'd like to participate.

Saturday's sunshine meant the solar observers held court at the observatory sharing views of the sun in white light and in the narrow red spectral sliver called H-alpha. Bob Wiltrout of Tony, Wis. had side-by-side white light / H-alpha scopes set up that made it a joy to compare the two perspectives. Wiltrout prefers daytime observing to night. It's convenient, temperate and you don't have to wander around with a red flashlight stuck in your mouth.


Several speakers gave presentations after lunch. Greg Furtman of Webb Lake, Wis. described the downright cute big-binocular telescope he built named after the animated movie character "Wall-E". Jeff Setzer of Menominee Falls, Wis. took us on a Powerpoint tour to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., home of the largest refractor in the world.

The observatory is expanding its public outreach and education programs in a big way with public viewing  sessions,  free tours every Saturday night throughout the year and more.

Later that afternoon we checked out the swap meet, where you could pick up a used eyepiece, book or telescope for a great price. We fueled up on a delicious Cajun-style dinner of rice, chicken and sausage with ice cream for dessert and talked excitedly about the night ahead. Everyone had their own take on the weather forecast based upon years of squinting at the sky trying to divine what nature might have in store:

"I know it's going to clear off."

"Should be partly cloudy for sure."

"We've got rain coming around 3 a.m."

"I don't care what it's going to do. I'll be out there."


But before we'd know whose guess was best, the night's main speaker, Dr. Jennifer L.B. Anderson, associate professor of geoscience at Winona State University, presented an excellent talk on the Sudbury, Ontario impact event . She enthralled the audience with vivid descriptions and graphics of the chaos that ensued when a 10-mile wide asteroid struck the Canadian Shield 1.85 billion years ago. Rocks as far as northern Minnesota were caught up in the blast wave, shattered and crushed back together to form great heaps and layers of broken and twisted rocks called breccias.

Her expertise and humor, combined with a knack for making the whole event feel so close to home, wowed the crowd and sent us into the night wondering when and where the next big hit would happen. It'll probably be an amateur astronomer who sees the end of civilization as we know it because we tend to look up.

The Perseids were out as was the space station under partly cloudy to mostly cloudy skies. We pointed our telescopes wherever the sky would let us, gathering every photon we could.

Lines formed to look at the Lagoon Nebula (star-forming region), the Veil Nebula (supernova remnant), Saturn, the great Hercules globular cluster M13, Comet Lemmon and the space station. It's never easy to track the station through a telescope manually, but we managed to give four people a 15-second look each during a single pass through my telescope. My personal favorite sight of the night was the famous "Double-Double Star" Epsilon Lyrae through Mike Sangster's telescope. Four perfectly sharp white stars in two widely-spaced tight pairs. Sweet.

At midnight we rested our legs and charged up with essentials from the junk food group. Just to be fair, fruit did make an appearance. Little did we know were were in for a pleasant surprise. Teens Christina Barnaby and her friend Kate Hohmann announced they were going to sing and do a routine to the song "Two Black Cadillacs" by Carrie Underwood. We loved it.

I stayed up till 3 and then brushed my teeth under the red lights in the bathroom, where the normally aqua-blue toothpaste looked instead like grape gum. Yes, it was late.


After breakfast and more laughter and stories, we loaded up the trunk of a Ford Explorer with three telescopes, sundry equipment, 40 ears of Minnesota corn and three guys and drove home with happy hearts.

All I can say is this. If you want to have a blast and keep the excitement in astronomy, go to a star party. The Chippewa Valley Club knows how to do it right, but lots of clubs host them. You might even find one in your area. Click HERE and HERE to see a list what's out there yet in 2013.

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