Astrocamp X - The Full House

Astrocamp X - The Full House

I've just come back from walking Gelert, my hound.  There's nothing quite like being brought back down to Earth and normality than a dog sitting in front of you, 3 times a day reminding you of your dog owner duties.  Once again, Astrocamp has given me a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and routine.  This one has been like a holiday to me, just like all the rest of them.  Yet, this camp has also been quite different.
I set off for camp a day early as seems to be the normal thing for so many regular attendees and pitched up mid morning on Friday to be greeted with a big hug from my neighbour Karen, and some good friends from around the site.  It's great being able to see the arrival of people and to witness camp beginning to build and get started.  Over the years, I have spent nights under the stars and nights under canvass all around the globe, yet this isn't camping as I truly know it.  With electric come the options of a cool box and the legendary slow cooker!  Not to mention the ability to keep all the astronomy toys charged up and ready for action.  With the tent and base camp all set up, it was time to settle down and let the fun begin.
Friday night was a reasonably quiet affair, with cloud cover giving no opportunity to observe, it was time to pop the Farmers Arms cherry.  In all the camps I have been to, I quite simply haven't had the urge to go.  Friday night was different though. I could sneak in a swift half or two before tea surely?  The Farmers Arms is a great little pub, but it's easy to see why Astrocamp quickly outgrew it as a location for the "astronomers in the pub" pub quiz.  I believe a popular expression heard from behind the bar when things get a little bit busy is "It's f###ing chaos!"  The rest of the evening was pure catch up time.  Thinking about people who we knew weren't going to make it to this camp, and waiting for the arrival of the rest of the camp regulars and newbies.
With my head hitting the pillow somewhere around midnight, it wasn't until around 3.30 am that some other campers quietened down enough to be able to get to sleep.  With the crows starting their dawn chatter around 5.30, it didn't make for a pleasant Saturday.  Confronting drunk strangers in the early hours of the morning isn't the way I wanted camp to start, so I just rode it out.  It was a relief to hear the next morning that I wasn't the only one in this boat  But at least the neighbours enjoyed themselves I suppose, even if they were a little inconsiderate.
Somewhat jaded by tiredness, the buzz of camp started to build quite early on Saturday.  The collection of telescopes started to be brought out into the broken sunshine on The Common.  Released from their covers and jackets, they stood glinting in the sun, tall and proud waiting for their first use of camp.  And camp HQ also sprang into life with a new look signs and camp organisers Damien, Ralph, Paul and John beginning to welcome people to Astrocamp X.  One has never seen a trundle wheel used in such authority!

So, to the weather.  Forecasts being read out and spoken about all gave slightly different opinions.  Debates on which app was better for getting the forecast correct ensued, all with the conclusion that no matter what the forecast said, nobody could influence the actual outcome.  It was with these discussions going on around camp that I took my dob up to the common to join the others.  It must be said that the dobsonion type telescope was very well represented this year.  Usually counting only around 5 on the common, this year they seemed to be most definitely the scope of choice.
In terms of actual astronomy, I wanted to keep my options open, so I had set up my 80 ED-R refractor near the tent.  This is where it was to stay for the whole of camp, and where I wanted to get stuck into a bit of astrophotography.  Equally, I wanted the option of switching to visual and be part of the experience of the buzz on the common.  Life is all about options, whether you have an option or not, whether you take the right option from all that are presented.  But sometimes, options can be a pain in the backside!  You see, Saturday night was wonderfully clear well into the early hours.  Great I hear you say.  The problem was that I wanted to do everything.  Like a child in a fairground, I wanted a go on everything, when really and truly, I should have made a call in hindsight.  Stick with photography for the night, or stick with visual.  Yet, I found myself trying to get the photography side of things going and then spend some time with the dob.  It was only a marginal success.  Yes, astrophotography did happen, but with mediocre results at best.  I captured two images.  One of M 18 in Hercules and a wider field shot of the realm of the galaxies in Virgo.  Also, visual astronomy did happen, but the list of targets observed was somewhat limited due to lack of preparation and time at the eyepiece.  On the positive side though, some new targets observed in Virgo have helped me a step further towards ticking off all the Messier objects that I have left to see.

Sunday morning.  Solar SUNday as it is designated on the agenda.  An opportunity to collectively break out the white light filters, the HA filters or the solar scopes.  It's an aspect of astronomy that you can undertake in broad daylight providing the sun is out.  It goes without saying that you should only practise it with the correct specialist equipment.  You can never put a price on your eyesight.

The Spiral Arms is the location of the much adored pub quiz and talks.  This year Paul took the helm with a prepared talk on aliens.  Well, that's not exactly true.  It was a thought provoking talk on the possibility of aliens.  This is a huge branch of science and free thinking that forms entire careers for scientists and academics the world over.  So, to tackle it in a talk lasting less than an hour is an impossible task.  But what Paul did do was to put some points forwards that got me thinking.  Starting with the creation of the universe, the timescales required to create the necessary heavy elements which go on to form life was part of the talk.  Then looking at things that could happen and have happened since time began in the form of filter events which could wipe out life in the universe.  Black holes, asteroid and comet impact even nuclear annihilation.  Paul then went onto what is possibly my favourite equation.  The drake equation.  I know, it's a bit geeky to have a favourite equation, but I find it fascinating.  Just don't end up with a result of less than 1!
Learning from the previous evenings mistake, I made the call fairly early on to stick to using the 80 ED-R for the whole evening.  So, as darkness approached and the buzz on the common started to build once again, I settled down in front of the laptop to give this imaging thing another go.  Results to come in a different post!
Monday morning.  At last,  A good nights sleep with some quality time under the stars and no other disturbances!  A seasoned astrocamper will always tell you that ear plugs are essential for a sensible wake up time, not being woken at the will of the local corvid population.  Rain.  That was the sound that greeted me when the ear plugs came out Monday morning.  So far, we had 2 out of 2 good observable nights.  Would there be a third?  The forecast and all the apps said it would be.  Alas though, as camp began to awaken to the new morning, more and more people started about their business of emptying tents and packing up.  I'm afraid to say that I was also one of those.  With the prospect of a 3rd good observable night, but with tiredness increasing, the possibility of observing for night 3 from the comfort of my own home was too great.  So, it was with apprehension that I decided to call it a day, bringing to an end my Astrocamp X.  A walk around the site showed that many pitches had already been vacated, so as I did my rounds saying farewell to my fellow campers my thoughts moved onto the journey home.  A common theme in my experiences at the end of camp is the feeling and process of change and adjustment back to everyday life.  A feeling that can take a couple of days to pass completely.
My thanks once again have to go out to the organisers of this event, Paul, Ralph, John and Damien.  It's a big undertaking, to organise and run this event twice a year.  During the last day, as more and more people have expressed their thanks on social media, a theme has emerged.  Comments such as 'the best camp yet' and 'the best star party I have been to' have been passed.  It really does say it all.
Though my camp was over in Cwmdu, I still joined my Astrocamp friends in observing for the third out of 3 nights, albeit from my home back garden.  It is this third night that gave the legendary and very rare Astrocamp Full House!  All nights of camp were observable nights.  You couldn't as for much more from mother nature when it comes to weather!

A request to the authorities in Wales.

Wales.  The place of my birth and upbringing.  Some of the best scenery found anywhere on the planet can be found in Wales.  People come from around the globe to visit Wales.  They come and use the beaches, climb the mountains, sail the lakes and paddle down the rivers.  Over the years with the decline in certain industries, Wales has turned to tourism and attracting visitors to it's little corner of the UK.  Tourism is a huge part of the welsh economy.  Wales needs tourism of all sorts.  From activity holidays for children to family staycations to attracting international visitors from Europe and beyond. In recent years, another natural resource of Wales has started being tapped into.  It's dark sky attracts people from all over the world to observe and image.  Astronomy as a hobby is now more accessible than ever before.  It is more affordable and uptake is increasing.  Wales is in competition with other dark sky areas around the UK.  From the moors of Devon to the remote forests of Galloway, stargazers travel far and wide to get access to the most pristine skies the UK has to offer.  
On the run up to the recent stargazing event, Astrocamp, held in the small village of Cwmdu, it emerged that recent lighting changes have taken place along the trunk road in the area, swapping out the old sodium style lighting in favour on more modern LED lights.  This isn't the only part of the dark sky park that has had these changes.  Indeed through Wales, towns, cities and villages have been making the change, all with the idea of saving money and energy.  This is a very admirable reason, and one that has little opposition.  But the manner in which it is being done is bringing this brilliant natural resource under threat.  To role out these initiatives without something as simple as consultation of the national park or the local residents and businesses is regrettable.  The government of Wales, it's councils and authorities need to understand the impact of such changes, running the risk of obliterating this fantastic resource and having the highly acclaimed dark sky status at risk of being revoked.  The knock on effects can be substantial for a small economy that could be exploiting this resource and becoming a country wide if not European wide centre of importance.
The deployment of this lighting, the brightness, positioning or even requirement in the first instance should all be considered before its installation.  Please talk to the residence, the national parks, the dark sky organisations that fight so hard to do their best for Wales.  There are ways in which outcomes can be reached to suit the requirements of all parties.  From reducing the height of the lampposts carrying the lights, reducing the number of lights needed, to using dimmer lights or switching them off during the quietest time of night.  There are people willing to work with you on this, not against you.