A great time at the Northwoods Starfest

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, September 01, 2011

I spent this past weekend in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. The organizers of the 23rd annual Northwoods Starfest — led by Jon Dannehy — had asked me to speak about an observing-related topic, so I made the 4-hour drive northwest. This year, the star party occurred Friday through Sunday, August 26–28, at Hobbs Observatory, which is part of the Beaver Creek Reserve.

Nobody at the Northwoods Starfest could miss me in my crimson Astronomy magazine shirt. Here, I’m passing by Hobbs Observatory on my way to where the star party organizers were serving food. // All photos by Michael E. Bakich
One of the impressive things about viewing through the observatory’s scopes is the mount for their 24-inch reflector. It’s a solid aluminum 5-inch naval gun mount that weighs 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilograms)! As my wife, Holley, looked through the telescope, I stood at the back of the mount and kicked it several times. This would dislodge a celestial target from the field of view of most telescopes, but she detected no movement of any kind. Wow.

My talk began at 8 p.m. Friday. I titled it “The ABCs of Observing,” and the approximately 100 attendees received it well. (OK, at least they laughed where I thought they should laugh.) Unlike many of my talks, however, when it ended there was only a single question. “Did I cover every aspect of observing leaving nothing left to learn?” I wondered. Hardly.

Hobbs Observatory, part of the Beaver Creek Reserve in northwest Wisconsin, houses two impressive telescopes. The dome on the left contains a 24-inch reflector while the one on the right has a 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. A large meeting room sits between the two domes.
The reason there were so few questions became apparent when we stepped outdoors to a perfectly clear sky. Everyone — and that included me — was hot to observe.

I didn’t bring a telescope because I knew I could count on the kindness of like-minded amateur astronomers to share what they were looking at with me. So, I just wandered the field where at least 50 telescopes stood waiting.

My first look was through a 10-inch Alvan Clark refractor. That’s right, this magnificent restored telescope is one of the many projects of Gerry Kocken. His shop in Green Bay, Wisconsin contains parts and pieces of nearly 100 telescopes, many of which are in full running order because of his work.

The 24-inch reflector sits on a solid aluminum 5-inch naval gun mount that weighs 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilograms). Once this baby locks onto a target, the object has no choice but to remain in the field of view.
And what a sight I saw when I looked through the eyepiece! There, on one side of the field of view, sat Comet C/2009 P1 (Garradd) glowing in the magnitude 8 to 9 range. Opposite it was the loose magnitude 8.4 globular cluster M71. Gerry cranked up the power several times so I could get a closer look at the comet’s coma.

From that great start, I pinballed my way across the observing field. I had nice views through binoculars, small refractors, Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, and large Dobsonian-mounted Newtonian reflectors. Atmospheric conditions were not the best because rainfall earlier in the day had left the humidity quite high.

Attendees of the Northwoods Starfest began setting up their scopes early Friday, August 26. This was the scene near sunset that day. It shows about half of the observing field. By the time my talk ended, more than 50 telescopes were collecting celestial photons.
Still, I observed about 50 objects, including some old favorites. Among them were magnitude 12.9 NGC 1 (easily) and magnitude 14.2 NGC 2 (barely), the Bow-Tie Nebula (NGC 40), the Blinking Planetary (NGC 6826), several galaxies in the Deer Lick Group (NGC 7331), and four members of Stephan’s Quintet. I’d call that a nice observing run despite the humidity.

What impressed me most, however, was the level of enthusiasm of the attendees. Many had great praise for Astronomy magazine and the job we’re doing promoting outreach to beginners. And many participate in such outreach themselves. With a facility like Hobbs Observatory at their disposal, it’s easy to see why.

Gerry Kocken from Green Bay, Wisconsin, stands by the amazing 10-inch Alvan Clark refractor he lovingly restored. Gerry has brought dozens of antique telescopes back to working order.

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