Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Astrocamp XI - Astronomy Lite

Astrocamp XI - Astronomy Lite

Astronomy Lite.  It sounds like some sort of freebie version of a paid for app you'll find in the Google Play Store.  People who attended this Autumn's camp will know exactly where I am coming from on this one!  If not, you will read what I mean soon enough.
I was hoping to try out a video blog for this camp, but to be honest, I wasn't very good at it.  Most of it ended up on the cutting room floor, and what was left isn't worth the effort.  Good job I can still type, albeit with the occasional spelling and grammar issues.
On the run up to this camp, social media was buzzing with activity.  And from this, I could see that a fair few of my friends were already there ready to experience the uber dark skies of Cwmdu,  As it turns out, Thursday was to be a perfect night for astronomy.  I had a choice on my hands.  Pack the van and rush straight to the campsite after work, or set up at home and enjoy the opportunity to stay up as late as I wanted...
After an awesome night out under the stars on Thursday, I left for camp on Friday, excited as ever and looking forward to meeting up with friends old and new.  
If you've read my blog post on the Spring camp, or have been keeping tabs with the Awesome Astronomy podcast, you'll know that the newly installed LED street lighting through the village of Cwmdu has caused a large amount of controversy.  Following some excellent work by the Astrocamp team, plus the local councillors and Welsh government, we received some brilliant news about the lighting.  The results of which meant that an agreement was put in place to permanently dim the LED lighting by approximately 30% through the village and beyond into the National Park.  Not only this, the organising team of John, Ralph, Paul and Damien received word that the street lights across the bottom boundary of the campsite would be switched off at night, improving the situation further.  When I got to Cwmdu, this is what greeted me as I drove through the village.  Result!
But as they say, the proof is in the pudding.  Things didn't go entirely without a hitch.  Apparently, the lighting was also switched off on Friday night, before camp started.  It's just that it was the wrong lights.  Due to, shall we say, an administrative error (although who's is a closely-ish guarded secret!) lights at the other end of the village were switched off.  Nevertheless, a couple of phone calls later on Saturday night, and the correct lights were switched off bathing the whole campsite into inky blackness!  Awesome!
Still buzzing from the night before, it was a time for an overdue catch up with some friends from previous camps.  Astrocamp has a much deserved reputation as being an extremely friendly star party.  One most certainly for the beginners and the more advanced astronomers alike.  This is what attracted me to Astrocamp in particular, and thanks to it's unique atmosphere, I have made so many friends and looked forward to meeting them all again.  Friday night, the weather was a bit rubbish to be fair, but that left plenty of time to nip down to the Farmers Arms and catch up over a couple of beers and steak and ale pie.
Saturday morning, and with fellow astrocampers starting to appear on site and set up their tents, I saw yet more familiar faces coming together ready for the weekends events.  Despite the weather forecast being iffy, people optimistically started putting their scopes out on the common ready for any chance of some communal observing that became available.  This of course, included the cornerstone of the common, Bob the Dob!



It was during this afternoon, that I met the remainder of my new astro neighbours.  Carol, Karen, Karen, Callum and Mark were around me, and it has to be said, I really couldn't have wished for a better set of neighbours at camp.  
So, the astronomy itself.  Following the meet and great on the common, people carried on getting acquainted with each other before darkness began to fall.  This was to prove to be the best night of camp for astronomy, even-though stars were only visible between gaps in the cloud as and when they happened.  Personally though, I had everything set up ready to do some imaging.  This didn't prove to be a wise idea though.  As I could hear people on the common talking about things they were able to snatch a glimpse at between the cloud, I was left frustrated, unable to polar align my mount and with no chance of doing any sort of guiding.  On more than one occasion I was heard to mutter 'should have brought the dob'.  Bad decision.  I'd left the SBT Dob tucked up in a blanket and cover back at home.
Sunday.  A highlight of camp.  A day which was lined up with solar SUNday in the morning, before an afternoon at the Spiral Arms.  Unfortunately, the weather was up to its normal tricks so there was very little opportunity for any sort of solar observing.  We did still have the part of camp where the weather could do what it liked.  The Spiral Arms, the Pub Quiz, a talk and the Masters of the Universe quiz.  
The quiz is a personal favourite of mine, and though I have yet to be part of any winning team, I take immense pleasure in watching the prizes given out.  These are not ordinary prizes, and one prize is not always expected...  First prize went to a team of seasoned astronomers.  The prize was a brand new Altair 70 ED telescope and mount.  But how would a group of people make use of the first prize.  Well, this is a testament to exactly how friendly a star party this is.  An example of peoples willingness to help others.  An example of generosity.  The members of the table agreed to put names into a hat and a draw made for the ultimate winner of the scope with some selflessly not putting their name forwards, the draw was made, and the winner was left holding the prize.  In a mad series of coincidences, my astro neighbour Carol had been looking at my equipment the day before and had even showed me a screen shot of a picture I had posted on Facebook before camp.  She had been looking at it with a view of finding out a bit more about it and was stunned to find that I then set up that same set of equipment next to her when she arrived at camp.  Carol had said that she was looking to get something similar, and the previous evening we spoke about different combinations and what her possible options were.  Spooky then that Carol was left holding the prize!

Second prize were vouchers for Tring Astronomy Centre, which were distributed amongst the second place team members.  Again, selflessly, someone elected not to take their voucher as they already had everything they needed astro wise.  Finally, and in true Astrocamp fashion, there was no third place.  In fact, there was a last place prize.  A prize going to someone who though might not have scored well in the quiz, but took part to the best of their ability.  This year, third prize was a pair of astronomy binoculars and went to young Eva.
Awesome Astronomy podcaster Jeni was next up.  Jeni's research has taken her around the world to use different instruments in different locations, gathering her data and working towards her PHD.  A couple of camps ago, she had not long returned from Australia where she was working with the Huntsmen Array, and while there, learnt about the history of astronomy according to the native aboriginals amongst other things.  I really enjoyed that talk, and so was looking forwards to hearing what her latest adventure had been about.  I wasn't disappointed.  Most recently, Jeni has returned from South Africa where she carried out work collecting data identifying exoplanets, studying one in particular.  Although, don't ask me the name of it!  It sounded more like a bunch of scrabble tiles and dice had been thrown into the air and then picked up at random!  My interest was particularly peaked when she spoke about how light changes according to the phase of transition, especially how there is a detectable difference even though the exoplanet is not actually in front of its parent star.  Fascinating stuff.  Jeni if you read this, thank you!  I didn't get chance to say it personally at camp, but thank you.  I enjoyed the talk very much.
Following on from the talk, we had the much anticipated Masters of the Universe quiz where the only prize is quite frankly the only one worth playing for out of the whole day - beer.  It is notoriously difficult with often a score of only 3 out of 10 winning the quiz.  This year, we scored two thirds out of 10.  Not even a whole single point.  Yep, it was hard!
That day, it rained.  Lots.  But in between rain showers and everything else going on, I had the privilege of showing people my self made dew controller and explaining how I built it.  A simple bit of kit that all in all would cost around 10 to 15 pounds to make, compared with some available on the market costing 5 or even 10 times as much.  Astronomy has always amazed me as a hobby insomuch as everyone I have come across are only ever to glad to give you information or help you out with no expectation of reward or recompense.  I like to think that I contribute in my own way too, by doing this sort of thing.  The link to my build method is at the top of the page of this blog.
For me, Sunday night's bad weather was an excuse for me to hit the pillow reasonably early on, although I did spend some time going through processing some imaging data I had captured the day before I left for camp.  As I lay there, the echoes of people out enjoying themselves rang around the campsite late into the night.  After all, what else can astronomers do when there is no astronomy to be done?
Monday is the last full day before camp.  And, with the potential for sensible observing conditions somewhat diminished, it was my last day.  Thankfully it was dry, so, with a lazy morning and with tents drying out, I was able to spend more time catching up with people culminating in high tea on the Common.  This is another great demonstration of how friendly this star party actually is.  People from all around camp bring contributions of snacks, food and drink to share, and everyone enjoys the afternoon together.  This year, Kevin brought his guitar along with him.  A lovely Washburn electro acoustic instrument which he was only to happy to pass around and allow people to try out.  I couldn't resist!  The weather held all afternoon, even providing people with breaks in the cloud sufficient enough to break out a couple of solar scopes.
And so in reflection...  At first, I wasn't sure if I would have much to write about from this camp.  The lack of actual astronomy going on made it feel that there was something missing.  But looking back, and reading through this piece, actually, plenty went on.  After all, where else can you go and listen to someone you have never met before tell you all about a telescope restoration project he has been working, whilst diving back and forth his tent to check on a 3D printer and giving demos and printing off some replacement parts for people.  Chris, you the man!!!  As I have been thinking of what to write during today, I am aware of Jamie Carters piece published today on the Sky At Night website.  I urge you to read it.  It's great seeing what someone else's first impressions of Astrocamp have been.  And let's face it, his writing is much better than my waffle!
I have to thank primarily Paul, Ralph, John, Damien and Jeni yet again for their organisation and getting the event up and running,  It's a massive task, to do this twice a year, and knock out podcasts all over the shop and everything else it entails.  I am all too aware that events like this can become very arduous, and as they have said themselves, they'll keep on doing at as long as they keep on enjoying it.  I sincerely hope you keep enjoying it for many years to come!
I need to give specific thanks to my neighbours Carol, Karen, Karen, Mark and Callum.  A better crew of people I could not have wished for and neighbours.  Your friendliness and kindness were without boundary.  Being around fellow astrocampers like yourselves are what makes leaving site at the end of camp harder every time.  I will miss you.
And then, my thanks to everyone else who I have got to know over recent years.  I'm pleased to say in a way that there are far too many of you to mention these days for fear of missing anyone out.  You are a special bunch of people, and you are all missed.  I look forward to catching you all at another event soon.
So, I finish this post with a quote.  It might be one you are already familiar with, but I think it sums things up pretty well.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Carl Sagan