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Observing in Lewis and Clark Country : The Oregon Star Party offers a little of everything for everyone.

The midday Sun burned through a crystalline blue sky as I stepped outside my camper, took a deep breath of fresh Oregon mountain air, and then got out of the way as a stocky man with a bullhorn led an eighth-of-a-mile-long line of people across the observing field. A towering gray anvil-shaped cloud smothered the southwest horizon. Had another Cascade volcano blown its top? A man on a unicycle, wearing a helmet adorned with an imitation solar panel, waved as he passed by. "Some forest fire," he said. "Hope the wind doesn't shift." He followed the long line, which piled up behind a crowd of kids on the north side of the mountain's dome-shaped summit.

I followed the unicyclist and arrived at a patch of red dirt lined by pink string. It was Saturday, September 11, 1999, the next to last day of the 12th Oregon Star Party, and I was just in time for the event's second annual Rover Race. An enthusiastic crowd huddled around the makeshift track as Interplanetary Race Commissioner Dan Petersen, a solidly built man full of wit and humor, lowered a checkered flag. The action began, slowly. As people cheered, 7-year-old Christina Gale struggled with her remote control. In front of her, a Kay-Bee Toys Martian rover jerked across the dusty terrain. It took a while, but finally her rover trundled across the finish line.

Gale was one of several young contestants. Anyone could enter, I learned, as long as his or her vehicle ran on real or imagined solar power. Suddenly the man with the solar-paneled helmet burned down the course on his unicycle and blew all the rovers away -- no contest, he won. Like a true champion, the man declined his prize and bowed to the youngsters. "It's all in fun, of course," the real winner, young Jennifer Haffney of Redmond, Oregon, said with a nonchalant air. "The course was exciting, but difficult on the rocky places." And would she like to go to Mars someday? "No," Haffney replied without hesitation. "It's too dusty."

The rover race was just one of many activities that kept kids of all ages entertained during the four-day Oregon Star Party (OSP), an annual event sponsored by Portland's Rose City Astronomers and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Rose City Astronomers is the largest amateur club in the Pacific Northwest, with close to 400 members throughout Oregon and southern Washington. It supports the museum by holding public stargazing and telescope-making workshops. The Oregon Star Party is the club's largest and most popular event.

The star party kicked off on September 9th, when more than 600 attendees began strolling onto the OSP's dark-sky site at Indian Trail Spring, a rounded ridge in central Oregon's Ochoco Mountains (S&T: January 1996, page 103). The site is on federal land some 150 miles southeast of Portland. At an elevation of 5,200 feet, the summit offers a commanding 360[degrees] view of the sky. Scanning the area, I could imagine that little has changed since explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (of Lewis and Clark expedition fame) first ventured through this territory in 1806. Coyotes still serenade the stars at night, and the day is as still and bold as the ponderosa pines guarding the lower Big Summit Prairie.

The Oregon Star Party is the sleeper of the nation's big amateur events. Its enthusiasm is radiant, like the auroral glows that can haunt the site's northern horizon. Take the elevation and the dark, transparent skies (and the dust) of the Texas Star Party, add the Florida Winter Star Party's rock-steady atmospheric seeing (well, okay, not quite), sprinkle some of Japan's Tainai Star Party zaniness, mix in the enthusiasm of a Central American amateur-astronomy congress, and that is the Oregon Star Party -- a splendid brew of astronomical fun and camaraderie.


The night fell clear and pitch-black. I found the man with the unicycle, Portland amateur Robert Brown, standing next to his 12 1/2-inch f/5 reflector. An optical engineer for Rockwell Collins Flight Dynamics and a specialist in holography, Brown offered me a rectangular, hand-size glass filter. "Hold it carefully by the edges," he said. It turned out to be a "nebula-blocking" filter, maybe the only one of its kind on Earth.

The idea for it came from Lumicon's Jack Marling, who believed such a filter could help observers see the faint central star in planetaries by blocking the emission from the nebulae themselves but letting the star's light shine through. Brown made a couple of samples, which got Marling excited. The filter blocks the part of the spectrum from about 4860 to 5010 angstroms and transmits everything else. In contrast, a typical narrowband filter (such as Lumicon's UHC or Orion's UltraBlock) does the opposite: it transmits this same band and blocks everything else. "The nebula-blocking filter must be made either holographically," said Brown, "or by using sophisticated thin-film deposition techniques that require so many layers the cost becomes prohibitive."

To make the venture cost-effective for Brown's company, Marling would have to order some 10,000 filters at about $50 each. Since the market for such a product would probably be only a few hundred, tops, the project was abandoned. But the filter works! Brown showed me the central stars in the Dumbbell and Ring without the nebulae, a unique sight. By holding the filter between my eye and eyepiece and moving it at different angles, I could make part or all of the nebula disappear. Amazing! For technical information contact Paul Swanson of Lumicon at

Set up next to Brown were two of the Pacific Northwest's foremost deep-sky aficionados: Candace Pratt of Portland and Rebecca Gee of Vancouver, Washington. Both had big Dobsonians -- Pratt had a 12.5-inch and Gee a 15-inch -- and both were busy hunting down objects in the Herschel catalog. "I have a long way to go," said Pratt. "But little by little I'm sketching each one and making progress." Pratt was living in Washington, D.C., in 1986 when somebody showed her Halley's Comet through an 8-inch reflector. "It was my first view through a telescope," she explained. "I've been hooked on astronomy ever since."

At the OSP Pratt took a break from her eye-straining quest for dim galaxies to sneak a peek at a different comet -- Comet Lee, C/1999 H1 -- which then shone at 7th magnitude in Camelopardalis. Long lines of people suddenly formed behind her telescope. We could see not only the comet's thin, 30cents-long ion tail but also a rare and unexpected 10cents-long antitail, one that appeared to point toward the Sun instead of away from it.

Later in the night Pratt called people once again to her telescope. While looking at the 11th-magnitude galaxy NGC 7457 in Pegasus, she noticed a striking chain of about 10 roughly 8th- to 12th-magnitude stars running approximately east to west with the galaxy about a third of the way along this line. The chain extends about 1/2[degrees] with a wide pair of stars on its eastern end. I dubbed it Candace's Chain. Check it out for yourself; it's a miniature telescopic version of Kemble's Cascade (S&T: February 1998, page 98).

I hardly ever go to a star party without having some observing challenge in mind. For the OSP I brought along Sky & Telescope's June 1999 issue. On page 20 is a news item about the Ursa Minor dwarf spheroidal galaxy UGC 9749, with a CCD image taken at McDonald Observatory and a finder chart adapted from the Millennium Star Atlas. I wondered if amateurs had ever seen this galaxy. Although the dwarf's total magnitude is 10.9, it's a challenge to see since its light is spread over a 41cents-by-26cents area of sky, larger than the full Moon (see page 81). The galaxy has a very low surface brightness of 18.3 magnitude per square arcminute. Several observers took on the challenge with their big Dobs, including Pratt and Gee.

We spent hours squinting at UGC 9749's location. We asked "runners" to find eyepieces with wider fields of view. Despite all our efforts, we can agree only that the galaxy stood at the threshold of visibility. The trouble was that we couldn't get a field wide enough to make the galaxy appear small and framed by presumably darker sky.

While waiting for news of an eyepiece, I happened to notice that the CCD image also revealed a dozen or more tiny, dim background galaxies, none of which is plotted on the Millennium because they are too faint. Could they be seen? We gave it a try. To our amazement we started picking them off, one by one. We had caused another stir. Suddenly other scopes on the field started turning toward Ursa Minor.

Meanwhile, Pratt, Brown, and I headed east to meet some fellow deep-sky treasure hunters: Portland's Howard Banich and Chuck and Judy Dethloff (see the box at left). We found them together at Judy's 16-inch f/4 reflector surveying Saturn's rings. Soon Chuck turned Judy's scope to the Ursa Minor dwarf and inserted a 27-millimeter Tele Vue Panoptic eyepiece. At last, all of us saw the dwarf in the Panoptic's wide field of view, looking like a fog of photons. Banich picked out a few more background galaxies as well with his 20-inch f/5 Dobsonian. Here was a humble perfectionist, a man who spends a lot of time before nightfall tweaking his scope's collimation to optimize it. Into the wee hours of the morning Banich entertained guests with razor-sharp views of Jupiter (its South Equatorial Belt dominated by a chaotic disturbance of white ovals, dark spots, and angular pillars) and Saturn (including the Encke Division and radial spokes on the planet's B ring).

These experiences were just the tip of the OSP iceberg. The event had something for everyone: an activity tent to entertain kids each morning, solar-viewing sessions with Mark Seibold's DayStar hydrogen-alpha telescope, and informal tent talks every afternoon. And each evening there was a sky identification program -- a true star walk! Another fun activity was the Telescope Walkabout, proposed a few years ago by Seattle's Randy Johnson to reinvigorate amateur telescope making. A man with a bullhorn (in this case, Mel Bartels) walked a large group of OSPers to various telescopes on the field, where participants could interview the telescope builders themselves. Since the scopes were not being judged, the owners enjoyed describing their construction trials and tribulations. It was a relaxed, informal session that was good for a lot of laughs, honesty, and, of course, learning. "The great diversity of OSP activities," said Dethloff, "is due to the huge effort by the OSP Committee, which numbers about 15 from year to year, as well as members of the Rose City Astronomers. Without their collective effort, the OSP would not be the same." OSP 2000 will be held on August 31st to September 3rd. Contact the OSP at 16016 SE Division, Suite 307, Portland, OR 97236; 503-357-6163;; Experiencing OSP is like reading the works of Oregon's famous author Ursula LeGuin: "Some of it is fantasy, some of it is realistic, some of it is magical realism." Enjoy!

Contributing editor Stephen James O'Meara is the author of Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects (available from Sky Publishing for $34.95).

RELATED ARTICLE: Oregon Star Party's Cornerstone

Star parties are built on a foundation of love: the love of the night sky, of telescopes, and of gathering friends. One of the cornerstones of this foundation can be found about 35 miles west of Portland, Oregon, in a small town called Forest Grove in the Coast Range. Here Chuck Dethloff, the founding father of the Oregon Star Party, pursues his passion under nearly 7th-magnitude skies with his wife and observing partner, Judy. "I see myself as ort.

Propane is the cheapest, cleanest, and easiest fuel to use for heating. It is also an excellent fuel for the electrical generator. A 500-gallon tank holds enough propane to last us a full year. To control dust we trucked in 14 loads of crushed rock to spread around the site. Because water is nearly 800 feet down, drilling a well would have been much too expensive. Instead, we installed a 1,600-gallon water tank, which turns out to be surprisingly inexpensive to have filled -- the annual water cost amounts to about $50 per member. We have considered installing a propane-powered refrigerator, but so far ice chests have sufficed for food storage. Two of our members have added air conditioners to their buildings, but these can be run only when the generator is operating since they consume a lot of power.

Security was an important consideration. Since our rural area can have cattle or sheep roaming the open range, fencing was needed to keep them out. While people were sleeping, we didn't want some cow deciding one of our telescopes would make a good scratching post! Keeping out nefarious humans was a bit more of a problem. Our solution has been to simply take valuable equipment home with us. While not the most convenient solution, it is effective.

Decisions regarding placement and mounting of equipment were left to the individuals since each member's requirements varied. Keith Allred and I have nearly identical installations consisting of two steel piers set deep into large concrete pads. The piers were custom machined to fit our Astro-Physics 1200GTO and Losmandy G11 mounts to simplify setup. A conduit carries power and computer lines from the base of each pier to desktop computers inside our respective buildings. Using accessories made by Cybex, we added a second monitor, keyboard, and mouse so that each computer can be operated at the telescope.

Tom Carrico's setup for his Astro-Physics refractor is similar, but with less involved computer connections since he prefers to work at the telescope with a laptop. Tom is clearly tougher than the rest of us! Instead of relying on paint to protect his pier, he had it galvanized.

Jim Girard uses his 10-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a Losmandy G11 mount. He has built a novel clamp-on tray to support the power supplies for his CCD camera.

Dennis Luse is the only member of our group with wind protection around his telescope. His shield is a cleverly constructed octagonal enclosure with flip-up panels. Although our site is seldom windy at night, during the few nights when it is, Dennis is seen happily imaging long after the rest of us have given up.

Pete Finnoff built a wooden deck surrounding a concrete base for his computer-controlled Paramount, which carries several telescopes. Pete's design eliminated problems with guiding that some of us experienced while walking on our concrete pads during exposures. Another solution would be to isolate the piers from the pads, but we didn't go to this effort since we knew in advance of construction that we would seldom need to be on the pads during exposures.

One of the final steps in building our facility was to come up with a name and a logo. Jim Girard's suggestion of ARGO was the winner, but in light of some of the other names we considered, it wasn't a close race. ARGO stands for the Astronomical Research Group of Oregon; though we have done largely esthetic work to date, we hope to engage in serious pursuits in the future. We felt the name to be especially appropriate since Argo was also Jason's mythological discovery ship portrayed in the now-defunct southern constellation Argo Navis, the stars of which form parts of present-day Carina, Puppis, Vela, and Pyxis.

Building ARGO was challenging as well as a lot of work. Although such a site would be costly for a individual, it was amazing how reasonable the expense became when divided among six people. Furthermore, our annual operating costs are quite low. In 1998, for example, we spent about a dollar per day per member on common expenses such as fuel, insurance, water, and maintenance. Not bad for the opportunity to image from a secure location under dark skies and in the company of five other experts! We encourage other astro imagers considering a group effort to press on with their plans.

Bill McLaughlin became interested in astronomy as a teenager. His first CCD camera was an SBIG ST-4, and he now does high-resolution imaging with an ST-8E.

Electronic Galleries

The majority of ARGO members maintain personal Web sites that are updated continuously. These sites are entertaining as well as informative, since collectively they contain an extensive gallery of astronomical images in addition to detailed views and descriptions of the hardware and software used to make them.
Tom Carrico

Peter Finnoff

Jim Girard

Dennis Luse

Bill McLaughlin
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Author:O'Meara, Stephen James
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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