The Eldorado Star Party – 2014

The Eldorado Star Party is one of the larger amateur astronomer gatherings in Texas each year.  A bunch of us setup in a field on the X-Bar ranch to view the stars, take pictures, chat, learn and generally have fun.  This will be the second time I’ve attended and I had such a good time the first year that I had to come back.

My preparations started a couple weeks prior trying to plan out what deep space objects I wanted to image and making sure I had all the equipment I needed.  I built a large spreadsheet with lots of potential objects and gave each one a rating based on how interested I was in a particular target.  Combined with data about brightness, proximity to the zenith at transit, number of other images of that object that could be found on the web and lots of other parameters, I was able to select a few potentials.  Ultimately I settled on NGC474 which is an elliptical galaxy interacting with NGC470 (which appears to be a classical spiral) and NGC476.  There are some very interesting tidal tails around these galaxies that are very faint and I was hopeful that I could capture some of the details.

As the star party approached, my wonderful wife helped me plan out meals and make sure I wasn’t missing anything.  I had a detailed check list to help me remember everything when I went to pack it all up.  Despite my best efforts I still forgot a few things, however they weren’t critical.


Monday 2014/10/20

I car-pooled out with John and we stopped in Menard at Sideoats Cafe to grab some lunch, which was delicious, before continuing on to the X-Bar ranch.  We arrived around 2pm and checked in, then started unpacking food and clothes at the Granger house.  We then moved to the observing field and setup our equipment, marking off the area that we would need for the rest of the Williamson County Astronomy Club members when they arrived later in the week.

Based on the forecast we didn’t expect any visibility that Monday, in fact it didn’t really show any chance of observing until Thursday evening, but being hopeful we went out before sunset to see if we could at least polar align our equipment.  It turned out to be quite clear and stayed that way until about 3am.  I got over 3 hours of imaging time on NGC474, while John and Bob (who arrived around sunset) browsed the sky looking for faint galaxies.

I wandered around a couple times during the night talking to others on the field.  We chatted with Jeff and Woody (also members of the club but they had setup somewhere else) earlier in the day, so I stopped and talked to them for a while and got the chance to see part of the veil nebula (I believe the eastern portion) through their neighbor’s 25” Dobsonian telescope.

I was just flipping my telescope to the other side of the meridian when it started to cloud up so I packed up and headed over to the house to snooze for a while.  I think my head hit the pillow a little after 2am.

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Tuesday 2014/10/21

The next day I woke up around 9:30am and had some cereal for breakfast.  While eating I checked the forecast which wasn’t promising.  Jim and Ted showed up around noon and 2pm and most of the day was spent chatting and prepping our equipment for potential rain.  I also spent a fair amount time processing my data from the previous evening.  I managed 22 total exposures of 10 minutes each and I was very pleased with the signal to noise ratio with this first set of data.  I could see most of the structures I wanted to capture but they were still a bit noisy.  I figured 12 more hours of luminance data and 6 of color would be enough to extract the structures I wanted to see without a lot of noise.

The evening was a lost cause.  Clouds were everywhere and in the small gaps only high cirrus clouds were visible.  There was a small amounts of rain during the day and lots of dew at night.  I got some good sleep though.


Wednesday 2014/10/22

Since it did rain slightly and more was forecast, I decided to wrap up my equipment even better and I’m glad I did.  While the rain we got wasn’t heavy it was enough that I was concerned some would make it into the electronics or that the moisture would build up under my scope cover.

After processing some data John and I went over to the field to check on our equipment and then took a short nature hike towards the X-Bar ranch lodge.  I took my 55-250mm lens for my DSLR since it is the better of my two lenses, but this turned out to be the wrong choice as we came across wide vistas and having a shorter focal length lens would have been very useful.  Instead I decided to take several shots and stitch them together with software later on.  This works reasonably well with a tripod but I figured I might be able to do it by hand if I was careful and used the autofocus points as markers for overlap.  In hindsight I should have taken a few other steps like focusing on my primary target and then locking the focus into manual.  Keeping the same exposure settings would have been helpful as well.  Clearly I don’t do a lot of landscape photography and didn’t think about this until I was stitching the images together and found all sorts of problems.

On our way back to the house it started to rain so we rushed back and I spent most of the rest of the day processing some of the images I took.

Around 7pm, Ted was looking out the back window of the house and noticed a very bright rainbow.  We all rushed out and found that it was actually a double rainbow and several of us tried to capture it.  Again, I only had the 55-250mm lens, so I only got some of the corners.  It faded fairly quickly and the secondary rainbow was only visible for a few minutes.

Around 11pm it looked like the clouds might break, but instead they thickened up more.  Bob, Jim and Ted woke up around 3am and found that the clouds cleared.  I think they did some binocular viewing and Jim tried some wide field shots.  I apparently snoozed right through, totally unresponsive to the world.


Thursday 2014/10/23

After having some breakfast we went over to the field to check our equipment.  There was standing water in several places but all of our protection methods seemed to have worked as nothing critical got wet.  We took the covers off and let everything dry off in the sunlight and to make sure no moisture had built up on the inside.  After covering everything back up John, Jim and I went into Eldorado to pick up a few things.  I was making Tacos for everyone that evening and I needed some fresh items.

I continued processing some data and then around 3pm started cooking.  I’m not the best cook so it takes me a really long time to prep a meal and I wanted to be done and have everything cleaned up by 6pm so I had plenty of time to head back over to the field and get ready for the evening.  While cooking, Ted came back to the house and told me that I had won the door prize for the day, a very nice pair of binoculars.  Since I was looking for a pair of wide field binoculars this was excellent news!

There was a partial solar eclipse predicted for today, but the clouds hadn’t really let up so none of us were really prepared when it cleared enough to see it.  I did manage to capture one image of the eclipse projected onto the wall through the Venetian blinds from one of the windows.

Everyone seemed to enjoy dinner and John and I cleaned up, although John ended up doing most of it (Thanks John!) as I had to take a call from a colleague related to work.

We all trickled over to the field after dinner and started getting things ready.  The sky was nice and clear by this time and while the forecast showed high humidity we were hopeful that we would have a good night of viewing and imaging.

After some help from John and Bob, I attempted some wide-field shots of the Sagittarius region of the Milky Way using my DSLR on a tripod and continued imaging my target, NGC474 and friends.  While the cameras were clicking away I browsed the sky with my new binoculars.  Everything was going great until you started to hear the hair dryers.  Astronomers use them for keeping dew off their lenses and mirrors and depending on their design some scopes are more susceptible to dew than others.  We heard the hair dryers start fairly early in the evening so we knew the dew was going to shut us down earlier than we had hoped.

After processing some of the Milky Way data, John mentioned that Pluto should be in the field of view, so after digging around some we found a small blip that was likely Pluto.  I’ve marked it along with Mars and Earth (not that anyone really needs Earth labeled) in an image below.

I managed to image until about 11:00pm.  At that point there was so much condensation it was even starting to accumulate on my laptop, which while not hot still produces enough heat it’s not normally an issue.  I covered everything up and headed back to the house to sleep.


Friday 2014/10/24

All of us had high hopes for this evening.  Humidity was supposed to be lower and it was supposed to stay clear.  The astronomical forecasts showed reasonable seeing (atmospheric turbulence) conditions as well.  I helped Jim with some image processing of his bubble nebula data and then went over to the field to setup my solar scope.  It provided some nice views of a few prominences and filaments as well as the extremely large Active Region 2192 (sunspot).

Later I decided that I would see who had won the door prize for the day, so I walked over to the lodge and found that there was a presentation on the state of the amateur astronomy equipment market given by Gregg, the Explore Scientific representative.

It was a very interesting talk.  I learned just how small our market is ($300-400M) and how it is changing.  There were a lot of good questions and discussion at the end of Gregg’s talk.  Afterwords, they had the raffle and I found out that Philip, who had arrive the prior day, had one the prize.  I walked back to the house to find Philip asleep.  Ted decided he wanted to have a little fun with him and asked me not to tell him.  This turned out to be quite easy as I had to get ready for the night’s viewing anyway.

The forecast was good, still a little high in the humidity department, but otherwise everything looked to be on track for a great night of astronomy.  As the sun set the wind died down and the Milky Way started to pop out from the background of stars.  I’m impressed every time I see it.  It’s not something I see regularly living near a larger city like Austin.  It really gives you a sense of scale knowing that what you see is actually only a fraction of our own galaxy and that fraction has billions of stars in it.  Picking up a pair of binoculars and browsing the sky towards Sagittarius it becomes clear just how many stars are out there and how many more we can’t see.

I got my imaging rig going and started taking shots of NGC474 again then tried to do some more wide-field shots.  I was a little better prepared this time and was able to get some shots of Orion rising over the observing field, the core of the Milky Way, and some shots of the Pleiades and the Andromeda galaxy in one field.

I used my visual scope to browse the sky some, with no particular agenda and my binoculars to check out objects like the Lagoon Nebula, the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies, the Pleiades, the double cluster and many others.  I still don’t know the sky nearly as well as I should, but I was quite pleased with what I was able to spot.

Most everyone went to bed around 2am as dew settled in.  I decided to stick it out and see if I could get some more data.  It was hard fought but I got a little more than one additional hour of imaging time.  I had to borrow someone’s hair dryer and dug out my dew heater strap to keep dew from forming.  The dew strap heats up the lens and forced me to have to re-focus every few images and my tracking was having issues as well.  Earlier I had made a dew shield for my laptop and electronics out of a cardboard box that I brought with me.  It worked quite well, although it suffered visibly for all the wetness and was quite warped the next day.  At 4am I was tired and was losing the fight against the equipment and elements so I packed it in and walked back over to the house to get some rest.


Saturday 2014/10/25

I woke up way to early, around 9am.  However, once I’m awake, it’s very hard for me to go back to sleep so I decided to get moving.  I helped Jim some more with some PixInsight tools and then got a message from my wife about an issue that needed my presence at home.  It meant losing a good night of imaging from a dark site and some good company, but family comes first so I packed everything up and headed home.

I hope that everyone else had a great night of viewing and imaging.  It was a fun time, I met lots of new and interesting people, got to see some incredible views, took some good pictures and as always learned a lot.  I will definitely be returning next year!

Here is my image of NGC474 using all the data I collected at ESP this year:


Clear skies everyone!