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Four Dobs and a Dobson

Or...the 2001 Grand Canyon Star Party

Jane Houston Jones
San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers

I can't quite decide what part of the 2001 Grand Canyon Star Party I liked the best. Was it the fantastic 840-mile drive from San Francisco through the great California Valley, over the Mojave Desert into the Arizona Basin and Range province, and up onto the Colorado Plateau? Or was it the daily afternoon ritual of driving to Yavapai Point, the thrill of finding a parking spot, the fast but methodical preparation and telescope setup for a night of observing with the public? Was it the glorious horizon-to-horizon Milky Way view we had every night? Or the enchanting encounter with California Condors numbered 3, 7, 36, 76, 98 and eleven of their soaring friends as they curiously observed the observers above the West Rim trail on our last hike of the week?

All these parts were memorable, of course. It was great to meet members of the hosting club, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, too. Public-minded astronomers from all over Arizona came with their telescopes, and the Saguaro Club from Phoenix came bearing pizza on Sunday afternoon. Others traveled from California, Utah, Texas, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Hawaii, and yes, Virginia, even from Virginia. And I can't forget the groups of people from all over the world who stopped by our telescopes for a look into the past through our time machines. I had visitors from all over the USA, and overseas too, at my telescope. They flew in from France, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Vietnam, Korea, and even from the Bronx. A visiting astronomer and two grad students from Lowell Observatory spent time at several of our telescopes, too, and last time I saw them, they were having a curbside cosmology confab with John Dobson.

We awoke bright and early on Friday morning, June 15, gulped some coffee and headed south across the Golden Gate Bridge to collect John Dobson at 6:30 a.m. Our group of four included, in addition to John and me, my hubby Morris (Mojo) Jones and our good friend Hawaiian Astronomy Club member (and the maker of our three LITEBOX telescopes) Barry Peckham. We are all ardent sidewalk astronomers and have been excited all year about the possibility of attending the Grand Canyon Star Party. A purchase of a used Dodge Caravan, dubbed the Big Green Pig, cemented the planning in December 2000. We now had a telescope hauling vehicle, and four operators to man the four telescopes we planned to bring with us.

We arrived at the Yavapai Lodge in the early afternoon of Saturday, June 16. The first two things out of the van were John and his treasured 6-inch homemade sun scope, sporting an award-winning plaque from the RTMC on the rocker box. We quickly unloaded the non-observing luggage into room 7090, while John was showing the other lodge guests the great array of sunspots on the afternoon sun. An hour later we hooked up with GCSP head honcho Dean Ketelsen in the cafeteria and shared a table and a pizza with him. Next stop was Yavapai Point, and our first night of the Grand Canyon Star Party.

Every observer there had their own plans for the night and we were no different. We enjoyed being in the background of all the attention John Dobson received. It was fun to see the look on our neighbor's faces when we mentioned that John was right behind them or signing the telescope next door. One person exclaimed "John Dobson? I thought he was dead"!

Each afternoon we removed our three large LITEBOX travelscopes from the back of our van, and then set up and collimated the 12.5 inch f/5.75, 14.5 inch f/4.8, and 17.5 inch f/4.5 reflectors while John worked the solar scope until the sun set behind the trees.

Then, like everybody else at the star party, we talked to our neighbors, watched the magnificent sunset over the north rim of the canyon, and settled in for the night. The sunset talks each night were presented by either John Dobson, Dean Ketelsen, Joe Bergeron, Steve Dodder or Dennis Young. We had a slide show ready to bring but somehow it never got packed into the van, so we listened to the other talks or stayed with our telescopes as twilight turned to night.

My routine every night was the same and yet different. The crowds were not too huge at my telescope at any time and so I was able to provide a comprehensive sky tour to each group. I started by showing the family or group the solar system objects or describing them if they were not visible. Occasionally, a meteor brightened the sky, and gave me an opportunity to explain what they were and where they came from. Later in the evening, Uranus and Neptune were added to the Solar System tell-and-show. Then I proceeded to explain the Milky Way and our place in it. Some of these visitors may never have seen the Milky Way from their towns and cities. In a dark site like the Grand Canyon, it is the most beautiful object in the sky, a true splendor of our universe.

A quick review of the visible and obvious constellations came next, and I never failed to show the great dark rift of the Milky Way. I usually showed some colorful double stars through the telescope and then continued my tour of some objects from within our own galaxy. I was using my 17.5-inch reflector at 222 power with a 9 Nagler almost every night. A second telescope was mounted on my upper cage. It was my 80mm Orion Short Tube, and gave a nice 16 power Milky Way view using a 25mm eyepiece. Mojo operated his 14.5-inch LITEBOX with a Lumicon 80mm finderscope, and Barry operated Strider, the 12.5-inch reflector. John often took over our scopes, or added to the commentary, or sometimes lead his own discussions nearby.

Depending on the level of interest, the time and the weather, I then took my guests on a tour of the Milky Way. I often first showed an open cluster such as M11 the Wild Duck, or Stephenson 1 in Lyra, followed by a globular cluster such as M5 or M22, or NGC7006 in Delphinus. Next, a planetary nebula or two such as M57 the Ring Nebula, NGC7662 the Blue Snowball, or NGC6905 the Blue Flash in Delphinus, or NGC6905 the Little Ghost Nebula in the dark Pipe Nebula of Ophiuchus.

Then when Sagittarius got a little higher, I aimed my big dob at my favorite summertime object, the dark nebula B86, called Barnard's Ink Spot, with nearby open cluster NGC6520. A spot of ink in the galactic center of our Milky Way is so dramatic, and the red and orange red stars are so colorful in the cluster. Moving up the Milky Way, I next showed an emission nebula using a borrowed UHC filter. I selected from Sharpless 2-84 in Sagitta, near M71, and Collinder 399 the Coathanger Cluster, or M17 the Swan Nebula, through an O-III filter, but it didn't need a filter to show the lovely obscuring dark nebulae near the swans neck. I kept binoculars handy for views of M8, M20, and other Milky Way wonders.

I varied the objects each night depending on my mood, the clouds, the state of my weary legs, and the crowds and their enthusiasm. When nobody was looking, I revisited the dark nebulae "Barnards" of Sagittarius, Scorpius, Scutum and Sagitta, and environs.

After we had concluded a tour of our own galaxy, I often began with other galaxies that showed a nice dust lane, to compare to our Milky Way rift. NGC4565 Berenice's Hair Pin, or M104 the Sombrero Galaxy in Virgo, were a couple I showed, with late comers getting a look at M31 the Andromeda Galaxy. Then on to a couple other interesting galaxies to cover the various galaxy types. Needle galaxies like Draco's NGC5907, face on galaxies like M51, and interacting galaxies like the Ring Tail Galaxy in Corvus, NGC4038. For a while I kept the Hercules Galaxy Cluster in my eyepiece, but no one could see it but me. A last object was often a final look at mars and the Veil Nebula high in the sky at 222 to 333 power with the boost from an O-III filter.

Every evening at about midnight or so, John reminded us how nice it would be to have some graham crackers and milk back in the room, so we usually packed up before 1:00 a.m. By then there were not many of the visitors to entertain, and we were usually pretty tired from our afternoon hikes and evening step-ladder aerobics anyway. On our last night we did have some late visitors, however. Three bakers from the El Tovar Hotel stopped by after work. Since they were bakers I wanted to show them some celestial sweets that they would be familiar with, so I showed them the Bagel Nebula and the Cinnamon Bun Galaxy.

None of us did any special observing projects or hunted down any personal observing challenges. Those will have to wait until another weekend at one of our favorite dark sky sites. We were happy to provide views and information to many people through our telescopes and in exchange, to get a great visit to the Grand Canyon. Now what was my very favorite observing experience at the 2001 Grand Canyon Star Party? It has to be my confirmed observations of a California Condor with identification tag 7 on his wings, observed on the afternoon of June 21, 2001. In the same field of view, the more spectacular eight member Condor Cluster was visible with direct vision above the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Now that's one to add to my lifetime observing log!

Jane Houston Jones
San Rafael, California

Copyright © 2001 Jane Houston Jones
Last Updated: April 06, 2005
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