Thursday, October 17, 2013

A View from the Stars: The Almost Heaven Star Party 2013

Mr. Bob Traube of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club reflects on September's annual Almost Heaven Star Party.

Center of the Milky Way from TMI
Those of you reading The Mountain Institute’s Blog already know how beautiful and relaxing it is at TMI.  If you’ve visited there you also know how knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly the staff is, so some of what I’m reporting here will come as no surprise to you.  Now, imagine those fantastic facilities and that super staff coping with over 250 guests camped on the field at TMI over a long, five-day weekend.  That’s exactly what happened this past September.   For the 9th consecutive year, TMI successfully hosted the “Almost Heaven Star Party.”  Every year, volunteers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club and TMI staff organize and conduct this annual astro-extravaganza, offering astronomers and their families the opportunity to experience the darkest skies East of the Mississippi.  Those not recovering from a long night of observing also participate in numerous daytime activities uniquely suited to TMI’s setting. 
California Nebula
Solar Observing from the Yurts

Extremely dark skies over TMI provide astronomers with amazing views of galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, and planets that are the grist of amateur astronomy.   Without the light pollution and sky glow so prevalent in other areas of the country, these objects are not only visible in our telescopes - they are dazzling!  Visual observers can see faint details only available through much larger telescopes while astrophotographers are able to image delicate features not possible to capture from home.   It’s no wonder that so many amateur astronomers and their families flock to the Almost Heaven Star Party each year.  But that’s only the beginning of the fun.

While the main focus of the event is on observing and photographing the nighttime sky, a host of other activities are available during the daylight hours at AHSP; these include birding, caving, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, and rock climbing.    Most of these are 
scheduled activities led by either a TMI staffer or a knowledgeable NOVAC member, and are open to all AHSP participants.  There is safe solar observing during the day, when sun spots and solar flares (prominences) are visible. Having the right gear is essential to doing this effectively and safely.  Never look at the sun without a proper solar filter!  You’ve been warned!

There’s another good reason to attend the Almost Heaven Star Party… the door prizes!  These amazing incentives are provided to the event by astronomy vendors, NOVAC, and even individuals, to the delight of participants.  This year, we gave away nearly 50 prizes, valued at thousands of dollars.  The door prize drawing is always well attended, as you can see…
The AHSP Door Prize Give-away

In addition to all the local events taking place during the day on the mountain, there are two big “road trips” to fill the days.

Steam Locomotive at the Cass Mountain Railroad
This classic steam rail line was built in 1901 to haul lumber to the mill in Cass, West Virginia.  The AHSP tour visits their maintenance depot and takes a breathtaking trip up Cass Mountain via their coal-fired, steam-powered Shay locomotives and coach rail cars.  The sound of live steam and train whistles accompanied by the smell of burning coal provides a visceral trip back in time to an era when steam-driven locomotives were an essential part of everyday life in West Virginia.  This trip is fun for astronomers and their families alike.

On the second tour, participants experience the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Greenbank, West Virginia. 

300ft Byrd Radio Telescope at NRAO
The site is home to the largest, fully steerable radio telescope in the world.  The tour includes a behind-the-scenes visit to the technical workshops and laboratories, rarely open to the public.  For those who register, there is an overnight workshop that includes training and hands-on experience operating a 40 ft radio telescope dish to capture and analyze radio signals from planets, distant galaxies, quasars, and black holes.  It’s certainly not the usual fare for us backyard astronomers!
Kevin Enjoys the AHSP!
TMI Campus

Perhaps the most appreciated feature of the Star Party is the hospitality shown to us by the TMI staff.   They seem to “never say no” to any request.  They go far, far out of their way to accommodate the 250+ guests and make us feel at home.  Amazingly, they never fail to help us solve the logistical problems we all have when traveling and to make us comfortable in the unique culture and environs that is TMI.  For an additional fee, TMI serves savory meals to keep us satisfied and well fed.  For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we are treated to a sometimes unusual, but always tasty, variety of food.  Their desserts seem to be everyone’s favorite, given the chef’s fondness for chocolate cookies and brownies!  Oh my!  Our thanks go out to all of the TMI staff for making us feel at home.
Andromeda Galaxy

While the sky is the main attraction at any star party, getting together with old friends from past AHSP events and meeting new ones is a key part of the pleasure of observing under the dark West Virginia skies.   Participation at the Almost Heaven Star Party is open to everyone; you don’t have to be a NOVAC member to register.  Please consider joining us next summer, August 22-26, 2014, for our 10th annual event.  Registration will open sometime early next year so keep your calendar free and check the website often for news and registration instructions.
Eyes on Ulan Bator
-Article and photography by Bob Traube

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