Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Astrocamp - Spring 2019

Astrocamp - Spring 2019

Things to do at Astrocamp in no particular order...
  1. Meet up with some awesome people and come away with some great new friends.
  2. Learn loads!
  3. Have your brain slightly melted by a talk on dark matter by a theoretical physicist.
  4. See a home made Martian rover casually drive past while you're catching up with everyone.
  5. Observe.
  6. Win.
  7. Go for a cycle ride around the stunning surrounding mountains, get back to camp, discover that you have cycled 44 miles in the process, and then stop wondering why your legs feel like lead for the remainder of camp.
  8. Find the 'quiet corner' and know when to retreat there.

The meeting up bit.

So, back by some sort of demand, here is my blog post and my take on the most recent Astrocamp held this weekend.  As I type, people are packing away and saying their goodbyes.  Some with very long journeys ahead of them.  Astrocamp brings people together truly from all around the country.  As happens in every camp, there are the now life long friends made at previous camps, and then there are the new recruits, cautiously stepping into their first star party, not knowing entirely what to expect.
Organised by the team that brings you the Awesome Astronomy podcast twice a month, Astrocamp is held in the village of Cwmdu, between Crickhowell and Talgarth, nestled between the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons.  Cwmdu has everything that is required to hold a small, friendly star party.  A café, a pub, a village hall, a campsite, and most importantly, access to some of the UKs darkest skies.
The view from the top of the campsite at Cwmdu during Astrocamp, Spring 2019.
I have now officially lost count of how many Astrocamps I have been too, but I keep going back.  For me, it's a step away from everything else I do.  There's no one from work and no one from home, but a completely different circle of friends, all with the Astronomy hobby in common. A true Astro Family.  Each camp now feels like a home from home.  This Spring, it was awesome to meet up with some brilliant people again, particularly Mark and Karen who made the mad journey down from Scotland, and come to their first camp in 18 months.  Quite a commitment, given that Storm Hannah was unleashed on the UK, threatening to blow down anything in her path.  At the risk of turning this post into a list of names, I will leave it there, but everyone who I spoke to, and who took the time to say hello, thank you.  Your were awesome!  One other shout out though must go to Nic and Kevin, first time visitors and who were lovely, letting me join their breakfast table in the village café on Saturday morning.  It was an absolute pleasure to meet you both, and I hope to see you again in September!

The learning bit.

Astronomy is for me, as it is for many others I expect, a lifelong quest to learn.  Even the professionals are in it for the learning.  A hobby where you suddenly know everything would soon become a chore.  Although it could be said that sitting under the marquee on the common, under the red rope lights on Sunday night was one of the more memorable learning experiences of camp whilst talking about docking and waffles, it was indeed at the Spiral Arms that I actually learnt most things.  The main quiz held in the village hall on Saturday is a chance to pick up all sorts of random knowledge.  Learning outcomes can come in many forms.  Some of these nuggets can be hugely complex, others, mere facts that you hadn't appreciated and always incorrectly assumed in times gone by.  Who knew that the Double Cluster is actually in Perseus for example, and not in Cassiopeia after all?
The afternoon at the Spiral Arms is always the highlight of camp for me.  I love the way everyone at camp gets together for the quizzes and talk.  A chance to dust off the brain cells, and fill the grey matter with a bit more knowledge from others.
The gathering at 'The Spiral Arms', the pop up pub at the village hall in Cwmdu.  I'm not sure what Rae has just said to Chris, but those are some evil looking eyes there!!!

The brain melt bit.

The talk at The Spiral Arms this year was given by David Abergel, called 'Uncovering the secrets of dark matter'.  David's background is as a theoretical physicist, and it's fair to say his talk was pretty intense.  After all, it's hard going presenting to a large group of mostly amateur astronomers on a subject which science itself often replies to questions by saying 'we just don't know, but we're looking'.  I found David's talk really interesting, bemusing, complex and amusing, all in one go.  I just keep thinking to myself WIMPS!  I am in awe on how someone can stand up and seemingly deliver something this complex to a listening group completely unscripted and yet still make you feel that you have picked something up and come away from the talk having learned something new.  It's fair to say though, that for a dyslexic amateur astronomer who only just scraped maths in school, and has a memory like a sieve, that I would need to sit a listen to the same talk a few times for some of those things to really sink in.
David, thankyou for coming to camp and delivering your talk.  Hat's off to you, Sir!
David Abergel, this camps guest speaker at The Spiral Arms.

The Martian rover bit.

One of the sights that caused the biggest reaction this camp, was the appearance of a Martian rover.  There I was, standing, talking to my Astro Family on Saturday, when I heard the high pitched whine of servos moving a creation across the Astrocamp landscape.  Piloted by Chris, his latest DIY creation come into view.  Chris has spent many months of time and effort into creating a home made, remote controlled Mars Rover.  Much of the structure is made up of 3D printed components, and aluminium frame.  Based on NASAs Curiosity Rover, Chris's build steps are written up in his own blog.  You can follow his build steps here.  It certainly is a fantastic piece of home build engineering, especially when you consider what the original Mars rover was built to do.  It's fair to say Chris's build wouldn't look out of place on the Martian surface.  However, it did make me think of Marvin the paranoid android from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, with his brain the size of a planet, as Chris's build, with all it's potential for exploration and discovery, was soon turned into Astrocamps very own Deliveroo-ver cake delivery system, as it was loaded up with various pieces of cake, and sent on it's way around camp.
The rover in all it's glory.

The rover and the pilot and creator.

The observing bit.

Astrocamp has an unofficial clear skies guarantee with many different interpretations of it's terms and conditions, meaning that at some point over camp, day or night, and not necessarily restricted to the skies visible from Cwmdu, a clear sky will present itself to someone somewhere, for an undetermined period of time.  This year, we were fortunate to get some excellent observing conditions on Saturday night, the first night of camp.
As a trial, this year, I decided to get a pitch down the very bottom of the site.  These pitches are large pitches, with EHUs available.  What has historically put people off from using these pitches before had been the proximity of the road running along the bottom of the campsite.  Last camp, I went down the bottom of the site one night, to gauge for myself how good, or bad, the observing conditions actually are.  I thought it was worth a try, staying down the bottom of the site.  It's also worth remembering that the good people from Awesome Astronomy also have an agreement with the local authority, that the LED street lamps at the bottom of the site are switched off at 10pm each evening for the duration of the camp.  This makes a big difference.
So, with the first clear night available, I decided to set up my 12" dob on my pitch and waited for it to get dark.  Once the stars started putting in an appearance, I was joined by fellow Astrocamper, Steve, for some views through the eyepiece.  It's fair to say that there is still a bit of local light pollution coming from a single street lamp down the road, over a road junction, but this was only noticeable when moving away from the tents.  With careful siting of the telescope, you can make sure there are tents between your scope and the light, so it becomes hardly noticeable.  
As the constellations were revealed by the darkening sky, Steve and I were able to start picking off various targets.  We had good views of M51 where we could make out the cores of the interacting galaxies with relative ease, even against the distant light pollution caused by the night lights of Abergavenny.  
We then moved the scope higher in the sky, and took in the Leo triplet of galaxies, each being picked out from the darkening background of the sky as light grey wisps.  The 32mm Panaview eyepiece really helped out significantly, allowing us to position all 3 of the galaxy group into a single field of view.
Next we moved away from the SE horizon and pushed the dob around to the constellation of Auriga.  It was time to start picking out some of the riches of it's clusters.  We soon picked out M36 and M37, being able to distinguish a blue hue to the colour of the stars, especially in M37.  The same 32mm eyepiece combined with the dob allowed us to resolve many of the stars as single pricks of light.
Though the sky was predominantly clear, we were interrupted from time to time with passing cloud which gave opportunity to sit down and establish what was to be next on the list of observations to make.
My next target was M3, a globular cluster in the constellation of Canes Venatici.  This took some finding for some reason, although it is reasonably easy to establish where you ought to be looking in the night sky, it did take several minutes to pick out.  However, when I did get it in the eyepiece, the dense core of the cluster stuck out really well.  I was able to resolve the individual stars around the perimeter of the cluster, but, not so much towards the centre.
It's been well over a year since I last did any sort of visual astronomy, and it was simply awesome to be standing at the eyepiece once again, instead of running my astrophotography set up.  Like many observers, I carry a notebook with my kit, and take notes on what I have seen each evening.  In the back of the notebook, I have a tick list of the remaining objects to see in various catalogues.  On Saturday, I turned to my Messier tick list, showing the remaining objects I hadn't yet managed to observe.  Working through that list, I managed to tick off two more.
The first new tick was M61.  This is a barred galaxy in the constellation of Virgo.  Virgo is in prime position this time of year, ready to display is vast collection of galaxies to observers and imagers alike.  At magnitude 10.1, it is beyond the capability of smaller aperture scopes.  I wouldn't be able to pick it out with my 150mm reflector or 80mm refractor.  The 300mm dob has the light gathering ability to help me pick it out though.  Even then, it is a tricky object to locate amongst many other galaxies in the locality, but I was confident that I got it and as pleased to be able to strike another one off the list.
My final observation for the evening was something that I have wanted to observe and image for a long time.  M104 is the Sombrero galaxy.  To be honest, this one wasn't in ideal position, being quite low toward the horizon in the direction of Abergavenny, but once I did locate it, I was pleased to be able to see the characteristic black line that appears to strike through the lower portion of the galaxy.  This is definitely a target for the AP list, although just to be able to observe it is quite special in itself.

The win bit.

As mentioned earlier, the highlight of camp for many people, especially if there is not much observing to be done, is the afternoon in the village hall.  In all the camps I have been to, I have never been part of any team that has won anything, but have always come away having had a brilliant afternoon.  This losing streak came to an end in spectacular fashion this Spring.
The quizzes are very light hearted, and teams can be as big or small as you want.  I joined a team made up of very familiar faces, and we sat down to quiz away.
This year, the top 3 teams all finished with 23 points, and after a tie break, we came in 3rd, receiving a pair of Celestron binoculars for the team.  Obviously, it's a little impractical to share these out, so it was decided that Chris should have them to be used in his outreach work within his local astronomy society.  A well worth cause for sure.  But the winning didn't stop there!
The notorious Masters of the Universe quiz is the last thing to be held in the afternoon.  This is fiendishly difficult requiring a great deal of knowledge.  So tough are the questions (of which there were 8), no one has ever come anywhere near scoring full marks.  This year was no different.  Our teams winning score was a fantastic total of 3!  Alas, I could not contribute to any  of the questions at all.  They were well beyond me, but by virtue of just sitting on the same table as the clever people, seemed to get tarred with the winners title!  The prize, perhaps more important than any other - beer!

The cycle ride bit.

The Astrocamp programme is crammed full of things to do.  From organised solar observing to tutorials, to quizzing and to the high tea gathering on the common on Mondays.  However, there are gaps in the programme that allow some down time.  It allows people to go off and explore the surrounding areas either on foot, or by vehicle.  Of course, many also chose to take the chance to get some extra sleep in the peace and quiet of the morning.  This year, I took my bike to camp with me.  No matter where I am, or what time I go to bed, I tend to wake at the same time, around 6.00am.  When I woke on Sunday morning, the campsite was silent.  I got myself ready, and tip toed out of camp at around 6.45 and set off.  Around 5 hours later, returned to camp in time for lunch, having covered 44 miles of a circular route taking in some of the best scenery that the Black Mountains has to offer.  My route took me to Talgarth, then onto some old stomping grounds of Three Cocks and Tregoyd, (where I worked some 20 years ago), onto Hay on Wye and then Capel y Ffin, taking in Gospel Pass on the way.  Eventually, making my way back to Cwmdu via Llanbedr and Crickhowell.  It's fair to say that the ride was a bit ambitious for me, especially when I realised at one point that if I didn't stop and turn soon, I was heading to Abergavenny, in completely the opposite direction from where I needed to be!  Am I glad I did it though?  You bet I am!
In completely the wrong order of appearance, pictures of my ride around the foot, and then over the top of the Black Mountains.

The quiet corner bit.

And so another awesome camp comes to an end.  This camp seemed to go so quickly, but I look back at everything that I did and reckon that I couldn't have fitted any more in if I had tried.  From sleeping in the van the night before camp started, waiting for Storm Hannah to do her worst, to getting the feeling of the Sun's influence on my face on Monday morning, I packed up the van and headed home happy.
My neighbours for this camp were Steve and Jax, along with their dogs.  A massive thankyou to them both for being great Astrocamp neighbours.  A very special hat-tip to Jax for an amazing home cooked lasagne too!  How can you repay someone for feeding you something like that when you have nothing prepared in return?  I am extremely grateful.  Thank you.
My decision to get a pitch right at the bottom of the site raised some questions by some.  Why would you go down there?  The road, the lights, etc.  Often seen as a last resort by some in the search of the last of the pitches available with an EHU, I believe those pitches offer a lot.  In particular, a quiet corner, away from everything else.  Granted, being near the road, during the day time can mean that you are slightly closer to traffic noise than the rest of the camp.  But honestly, you don't notice it a huge amount.  Actually, I really did like this quiet corner of camp.
It's fair to say that this is a very social event, and rightly so.  It really wouldn't be the same without people coming together in the way they do.  For many of us, it is the only time in a year that we are able to meet up.  It's also fair to say that things can get quite raucous and noisy when the drink has been flowing, regardless of the time of day or night.  There are some who love that aspect, and it's good to be able to see people let their hair down and enjoy their camp.  There is also a conflict.  With people who want the partying and the late nights when there's no astronomy to be done, there are also those who want or need the peace and quiet.  Particularly those with younger guests.  It is a family event after all.  The opportunity to get rest at night, and relax is important, and makes the event special for those too.  What no one would like to see is for people get put off from attending what is a truly unique experience.  Will that happen in the future?  Who knows.  
As ever, my expressed thanks must go to the organisers, Ralph, Paul, Damien, John and of course, the one that keeps them all in order, Jen.  It's been another memorable camp, and I hope to see you all again in September.  Thank you so much.  It's truly appreciated.
Finally, thanks to you for reading.  My blog posts on my experiences at camp, are exactly that.  I'd love to hear about other peoples experiences too.  The best bits, the tough bits, the whole thing.  Until we meet up to do it all again in September, best wishes and clear skies.
The quiet corner, bathed in sunlight.