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Karoo National Star Party, Britstown, 2010 August 06-09

By Richard Ford. Published 2010 August 23.

I could not wait to go away this long weekend to the Karoo National Star in Britstown. It was the magic moment in astronomy for me this weekend. The over excitement lingered in the air for me to take a break away from my stress related job for a few days to enjoy the good things in life. It was one of my magic moments I will never ever forget in my life as long as I will live. Not knowing that I was going to go away in lone vigil this weekend, the Cape Centre member Liasve who lives in Stellenbosch offered to drive up with me to the Karoo Star Party in Britstown.

After picking up Liasve in Stellenbosch, I had plenty of space in my Ford Bantam Bakkie to load all her luggage. Finally we parted for Britstown. At the same after having all my equipment including my 12”-inch dobby with my luggage as well. I was well equipped with a combination of star charts and filters for the evening.

In view of the fact that it was going to be a long ride to Britstown. We pulled off at the coffee shop at Matjiesfontein where we had toasted sandwiches for lunch. At Matjiesfontein, Liasve took photographs of the Lord Milner Hotel and the big grey hound bus at this village. After lunch we left.

By refuelling up with petrol at the Shell Petrol Garage at Laingsburg on the way to Britstown we encountered our first road block on the way to Beaufort-West. In the meantime Auke, Carol Botha, Lynette Eygelaar was travelling with Edward Foster whose bus was riding ahead of us.

When we stopped at the road block, I and Liasve met Auke Slotegraaf, the Deep-Sky Director who was going to give a deep-sky workshop demonstration at the Karoo Star Party with Carol on the way. By riding in the sweltering Karoo heat we managed to reach Beaufort-West in time. Leisurely we reached the “Shell Ultra City Garage”, where we refuelled again with petrol. It was just going to be sufficient to take us through Britstown.

After encountering numerous road blocks leading to Victoria-West and Britstown it was so nerve wracking for me which almost made me fly off the handle with the parking tenants. With Liasve being with me in my Bakkie. I remained calm under fire. I sigh of relief came upon me when I met Louis Fourie from Worcester who was also on the way to the “Karoo National Star Party”.

Finally at last after encountering our last road block, late in the afternoon .Finally we reached our destination at last. Liasve was just taking photographs of the Karoo landscape and the road blocks. At Britstown I and Liasve checked ourselves into the hotel, the “Transkaroo Lodge” in town. Although we stayed at the Backpackers Lodge we enjoyed our stay and hospitality there.

After unpacking all my luggage and equipment. I took a cold shower before we were to leave for the observing site at the camp site at “Kambro Padstal”.

I and Liasve enjoyed dinner with Karoo Lamb, baked potatoes; vegetables and salad on the car vary that evening. Deserts were also on the menu. Shortly afterwards Kechil and John Richards joined us.

By finishing off our dinner at the hotel we left for the camp site “Kambro Padstal which was in the vicinity of 20km away from us. We had no problem finding the camp site in the dark. When I drove up to the gate which was closed, I phoned Martin on my cell-phone to get the secret code of the gate, so that we can open it up and drive through. Somewhat it was a bit of a performance for me to open it up. Finally at last I succeeded.

Meanwhile at the site, I and Liasve both set up our telescopes to observe the night sky. My 12”-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope worked hand in that night, while Liasve’s compact 6”inch dobby was put to use that evening.

One of the highlights of the “Karoo Star Party” which I enjoyed is when I met observers from Bloemfontein, like Hannes Pieterse and his son. Danie Bernado, and Johan Smit from the Pretoria Centre who came along that evening. There was over 70 amateur astronomers from Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and 8 amateur astronomers from the Cape Centre who were there that evening.

Auke being there at present with Carol, Ed and Lynette set up there observing tents with Martin who also had his 16”-inch Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope in his observing tent.

Here is one of the memorable highlights I would like to share with you of what happened on Friday and Saturday evening at the “Karoo National Star Party” at Britstown.

One of the famous planetary nebula which I really wanted to observe was M57(Ring Nebula) in Lyra.

The Ring Nebula’s doughnut hole looked like a smoke ring in space. The observers from Pretoria, like Danie Bernado was absolutely fascinated of what he had seen in my 12”-inch dobby. The bystanders like Kechil and John really enjoyed observing this famous planetary nebula in my scope.

By manoeuvring my 12” in the vicinity of the constellation of Vulpecula, I took my chances when I observed M27(Dumbbell Nebula) in Vulpecula. The Dumbbell Nebula was such an awesome sight to observe in my 12”-inch dobby on account that this planetary nebula’s hourglass shape looked like a weight lifters dumbbell in space.

Observers from the Cape Centre, like Liasve and observers all over the country were absolutely blown out of their minds of what they had seen in my 12”-inch dobby that evening.

Friday evening after all was not just about observing, it was entertaining where we socialized and exchanged other ideas with amateurs.

Martin’s 16”-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope and Louis Fourie from Worcester’s 14”-inch scope was a crowd pleaser for observer’s young and old alike all over the country.

One of the thought provoking highlights of this evening is when I shared a conversation with Kechil and John when we went to the pub, the “Wild Fig Restaurant” with Auke. By having a conversation with Auke, in the observing tent, me and Kechil exchanged ideas of how to reach out to the public to advertise astronomy. One of the comments I made of how to reach out in the public was to advertise astronomy in the Jacuzzi with women drinking a glass of champagne and picking women up in the discotech. This was mind-blowing and thought provoking which made everybody laugh this evening.

As Martin walked into Auke’s observing tent, I, Auke and Kechil burst ourselves laughing in tears at the idea of promoting astronomy.

When I started laughing, I behaved wildly and acted boisterously. After Auke lighting up his pipe in the observing tent, his pipe almost created a fireworks display.

However, Martin kept everyone rolling in the background.

By returning back to night duty after making jokes with each other, one of the objects that was well overhead in the night sky, was the famous Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula and the Swan Nebula. These bright deep-sky gems was an absolute favourite for everyone which took everyone’s breath away at the “Karoo Star Party” at Britstown. These bright nebulae in Sagittarius well high overhead in the sky. These nebulas’s cloud of gas and dust were seen in all their awe and glory.

One the popular deep-sky objects which almost took my breath away that evening was NGC 5139(Omega Centauri), one of the most popular globular clusters in Centaurus whose stars were resolved into thousands of stars.

The strange elliptical galaxy in Centaurus, NGC 5128(Centaurus A), looked like a hamburger in my 12” in view of the fact that the dark-dust lane was clearly seen bisecting in the middle of the galaxy. All the observers enjoyed a spectacular sight of this strange elliptical galaxy in Centaurus.

Out of the spiral galaxies that were observed was NGC 4945, a classic spiral galaxy which looked face-on to us through my 12”-inch reflector telescope.

Afterwards by manoeuvring my 12”-inch dobby in the vicinity of the constellation of Capricornus. One of the globular clusters that Charles Messier discovered in 1784 was M30, a prominent globular cluster, whose individual stars were just resolvable at that time when Charles Messier observed this globular cluster through his 3’-inch refractor telescope. Upon observing M30, this globular cluster was clearly resolved as a tight swarm of bright stars.

Out of all the planetary nebula, I enjoyed observing that evening was NGC 7293(Helix Nebula) in Aquarius. By inserting my OIII filter onto my 20mm ultra wide angle eyepiece, this filter brought out the splendour, vigour and beauty of this large planetary nebula in my 12”-inch dobby.

As I was observing the Helix Nebula, this planetary nebula’s embroiled and helical coils were seen in all their awe and beauty.

One of the deep-sky challenges I enjoyed observing that evening was NGC 7600, NGC 7608 and NGC 7585; these galaxies were well observed as faint smudges of light through my 12”. To all the observers like John, Kechil, Gavin, Suki and Liasve, these faint deep-sky gems were equally vague to observe in small telescopes. Through my 12’-inch it was still somewhat faint to observe. Not much detail was observed through my 12’.

One of the two prominent globular clusters in Pegasus, M15 was well resolved into a large swarm of bright stars whereby M71 presented a granular appearance of fainter stars in my 12”inch reflector telescope.

At the “Karoo Star Party” as the temperatures almost dropped below freezing, I was shivering slightly.

With Martin’s 16”inch scope, he entertained all of us with deep-sky objects like M22, M17 (Swan Nebula), M8 (Lagoon Nebula), M20 (Trifid Nebula). These bright nebulas were absolutely awesome to observe in a large telescope. All the globular clusters like M28, M54, M107, M62, M10, M12, M14, NGC 5139(Omega Centauri) and M104 (47 Tucannae) were absolutely too good to be true to observe in a 16”.

Galaxies like NGC 1365(Great Barred Spiral), NGC 1316(Fornax A) and NGC 5128(Centaurus A) were all revealed in there full glory and honour in Martin’s 16” Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. All of us were totally blown out of our minds of what we can see in a large telescope.

As I was enjoying the evening observing with Martin, I, John, Kechil and Liasve had conversations with him behind his telescope. That evening by making thought provoking jokes with the observers in a warm and friendly sociable atmosphere of observing. We enjoyed every moment of it.

One of the prominent galaxies in Sculptor I enjoyed sharing with other observers were NGC 253(Silver Dollar Galaxy) in Sculptor that was situated 7 million light years away from us whose bright spiral-like structure was seen face-on to us through my 12”. Liasve enjoyed observing NGC 253 and NGC 55 through my 12’-inch telescope that evening.

Before 5 am Sunday morning, I managed to track down the very bright galaxy in Andromeda, M31. The Andromeda Galaxy which lies 2.5 million light years away from us was well placed for observing that evening. Despite the fact that we live in the “Southern Hemisphere” M31, the Andromeda Galaxy is situated very low below the horizon.

M31 (Andromeda Galaxy) was somewhat overrated in my 12”-inch reflector telescope on account that it was a large spiral galaxy. However, this galaxy’s dust lanes were revealed in all their glory. Liasve was totally blown out of her mind of how the Andromeda Galaxy looked like in my 12”-inch dobby. Although Liasve’s 6”-inch dobby was meant for basic deep-sky observing. My 12”-inch brought out the fine detail of every deep-sky object that I observed that evening.

After 5 am, I and Liasve returned to the Transkaroo Lodge Hotel for an evenings rest.

It was mostly during the day that I slept at the hotel after an exhausting night of observing the night sky at the camp site, “Kambro Padstal”. While Kechil, Liasve and John took a walk down the streets of Britstown where they explored the surroundings of this town. They also took photographic surveys of the town itself.

However late in the afternoon, close to sunset, me Kechil, Liasve and John decided to eat out at the restaurant at “Kambro Padstal”. After setting up my 12”-inch reflector telescope along with Liasve’s 6”-inch dobby. Upon observing the evening star (Venus). Undeterred by clear viewing conditions before sunset we manage to get a glimpse of this brilliant evening.

By observing Venus through my 12”, Venus looked like the moon on account that it undergoes phases similar to our neighbour the moon. What a spectacular and fantastic sight to observe this planet.

On the other hand, Mercury that is situated very low below the horizon which can be located straight after sunset, being much smaller than Venus is the closest planet to the solar system. This planet can also undergo phases similar to Venus and our closest neighbour the moon. Despite the fact that Mercury is very close to the sun, it can be somewhat difficult to observe its phases on account that it is a smaller planet than Earth.

Consequently Mercury is seen as a small and elusive disk in our scopes.

Finally after observing these two planets, I, Liasve, Kechil, and John joined Martin and Carol for dinner at the restaurant where we were served with Karoo lamb and vegetables on the car vary that evening. By socializing with each other in a warm and friendly hostile atmosphere, I, Martin and Carol entertained our guests at the table.

When we had our dinner, we returned to our scopes for serious observing that evening.

That Saturday evening at the “Karoo National Star Party”, the weather gods being favourable to us on account that we were to expect crisp clear viewing conditions that evening.

Towards the south, by manoeuvring my 12”-inch dobby in the vicinity of the constellation of Chameleon, one of the deep-sky objects that I came across was the small planetary nebula, NGC 3195. However after observing this planetary nebula’s small disk which appeared as an out of focus star through my 12”-inch reflector telescope. Even by making use of high power, NGC 3195, still remained a small disk in my 12”-inch dobby.

There were two prominent globular clusters that caught my attention that evening in Musca, namely NGC 4372 and NGC 4833. That evening Liasve managed to track down these two globular clusters in Musca. By revealing more detail of these globular clusters when observing them in my 12”, these two globular clusters stars were clearly resolved into hundreds of bright stars.

The bystanders were absolutely thrilled of what these globular clusters looked like through my 12”-inch dobby.

One of the planetary nebula’s that was first discovered by John Herschel in 1835, when he carried out his work at the “Cape Of Good Hope”. NGC 5189(Spiral Planetary Nebula) had the resemblance of an “S” shape which looked like a barred spiral galaxy in my 12”-inch reflector telescope at high power. All the bystanders from Pretoria, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and my friends from Cape Town were totally star struck of what they had observed through my scope. It was just awesome.

One of the missing targets, I haven’t observed in Lyra for almost three years was M56, a prominent globular cluster, which I first observed way back to the year 2007, at the Cape Centre’s old dark sky site at Contermanskloof through my old 8”-inch dobby.

By putting my 12” to the test that evening, I managed to get a good glimpse of this globular cluster. This globular cluster’s stars were resolved in all its beauty and splendour that evening. I entertained all the observers that evening when they observed this globular cluster with me.

Another galaxy that resided very close by to NGC 253, in Sculptor which I wanted to observe this evening was NGC 247 in Cetus. Upon observing this galaxy, NGC 247 was well observed as a large and elongated galaxy. In my 12” it appeared as a faint spiral galaxy with a faint smudge of light.

One of the open clusters in Vulpecula, namely Cr 399, known as the “Coathanger Cluster”, sparkled like bright diamonds in the night sky. Although Cr 399 was a binocular object to observe through a pair of binoculars on account that it was too large to fit in my 12”-inch dobby.

M77, a bright active Seyfert galaxy with an active galactic nucleus obscured by cosmic dust was vaguely visible in Liasve’s 6”-inch dobby as a faint smudge of light. However, by observing M77, that evening the bright galactic nucleus was clearly visible in my 12”. Apparently the cosmic dust lane was obvious to all of us at the star party those evenings.

Another prominent planetary nebula that resided very close by to M77 was NGC 246 in Cetus. Although this planetary nebula suffered from a low surface brightness on account that the light of this object is spread over a large area. This planetary nebula was a fairly large object with an annular shape of three stars. Its cloud of gas and dust which was left over was obvious to all of us in our scopes that evening.

One of the brightest galaxies I observed in Pegasus, was NGC 7331, part of the “Stephan’s Quintet” was well observed as a tilted spiral galaxy similar in appearance to our home galaxy. This bright spiral galaxy absolutely blew everyone’s minds out that evening. At present this galaxy is red-shifting at a value of 1000km/s away from us.

Other galaxies like NGC 7217, NGC 7332, NGC 7457, NGC 7814, NGC 7479, NGC 7619, NGC 7626, NGC 7743 and NGC 7742, all in Pegasus were somewhat resolved as vague objects which looked like faint smudges of light many light years away from us. Liasve really enjoyed observing these galaxies with me that evening.

Other galaxies that were in a favourable position to observe in the constellation of Pisces were NGC 474, NGC 520, NGC 488, NGC 676 and NGC 741. Although no structure were observed in these galaxies. All of these galaxies were somewhat faint to observe in my 12”.

One of the most difficult galaxies in the entire Messier catalogue which I wanted to observe this evening was M74, a classic-face on spiral galaxy which had a bright stellar core where the dust lane’s were vaguely visible in my 12”-inch reflector telescope. Both Kechil and Liasve enjoyed observing this stellar beauty with me.

Another galaxy which forms part of our local group of galaxies alongside with the Milky Way galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy, M33 (Triangulum Spiral Galaxy) in the constellation of Triangulum. Situated very low in the horizon this galaxy lies within our sight at a great distance of 3 million light years away from us. Although M33, is a large spiral galaxy as most galaxies are concerned. It is a large spiral galaxy which has a low surface brightness compared to M31 (Andromeda Galaxy) in Andromeda.

Upon observing M33, through my 12”-inch dobby, this large galaxy’s bright dust lanes were just barely visible in my scope. Liasve also enjoyed observing this galaxy with me.

Straight after 5 am, Sunday morning, before Kechil and John returned to the hotel. They enjoyed a breathtaking view of NGC 2070(Tarantula Nebula) in Dorado also part of the Large Magellanic Cloud. This nebula’s vigour and beauty absolutely blew everyone’s minds out at the star party at Britstown, which was revealed in all its awe and glory through my 12’.

One of the captivating highlights that I shared with Liasve is when she observed NGC 104(47 Tucannae), a brilliant globular cluster whose individual stars were resolved in all its glory and honour through my 12”-inch dobby absolutely made Liasve’s evening.

Afterwards after observing the night sky we drove back to the hotel, for an evenings rest.

As usual, I mostly slept during the day.

Just before sunset, I, Liasve, Kechil and John had our evening dinner at the restaurant at “Kambro Padstal”.

That evening, Michael Poll, the President of ASSA from Pretoria awarded Auke with a President’s award certificate for his outstanding work for what he has done for the deep-sky section.

On Sunday evening, Auke conducted a Deep-Sky workshop where he briefly discussed the basic skills of observing the night sky.

He briefly mentioned two aspects of observing, namely perception and cognition. He also mentioned that a person has to be in the right frame of mind to observe the night sky.

Despite windy conditions that evening, I did not bother to set up my 12” that evening. I felt somewhat exhausted to observe Sunday evening on account that I needed to have an early nights rest.

As a result of windy conditions that night we left early to go back to the hotel for an early nights rest before we headed back home the next day. However on Monday morning, the 9th August, all of us left departed back home.

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