Lockwood Custom Optics at the 2011 Winter Star Party

A shuttle launch, my 20" F/3 makes its third journey to the Keys, and a 32" scope amazes us

All images and text Copyright Mike Lockwood, 2011

I've written a lot about the Winter Star Party in years past, but this year I think I'll let the photos do most of the talking.

Equipped with a couple of new lenses, we made the long journey to sunny Florida a bit later this year, thanks to a late Winter Star Party.  I certainly needed the break, having only recently finished up optical work on a 50" f/2.2 R-C primary, a very involved job that kept me in the shop during one of the nastiest Illinois winters in recent memory.

Well, all of the crooked politicians in Illinois and a bunch of the cowardly state legislators that "visited" from two other states can all kiss my ass - I'm heading to Florida for a couple of weeks, so please try not to have the state too much more screwed up when I return.  (Yes, it's my web site, and I can say stuff like this, but maybe that was a bit of cabin fever talking.)

After two days of driving, we headed out to watch the shuttle launch where a friend had graciously held a parking space for us about 10 miles from the pad (thanks Grant!).  Following a relaxing couple of hours in the warm sun, the shuttle somehow went off within its launch window, and we were treated to a nice show until it disappeared into a recently-arrived cloud bank about 20 seconds after launch.  Oh well, at least we saw, heard and FELT the launch.  We were fortunate to see a launch two years in a row, and we celebrated with dinner and beer.

Discovery lifts offAnother Discovery shot

After this, we headed for Andrew's workshop, where you can always count on seeing some unique things.  This year there were grinding machines, a coating chamber, and lots of interesting people around for his yearly pre-WSP mini-star party.

Here, Andrew concentrates on the task at hand, doing a bit of grinding, and Russ admires a fresh aluminum coating that was just deposited on a 10" mirror that I made for him a while back.  (Contrary to the comments around the shop on that day, the mirror did not break due to his reflection.  Some people are just unkind.)

Andrew concentratesRuss reflects

Russ then went on to admire John Pratte's beautiful 25" F/4 scope, and got up close to take a photo of his own.

Russ centrally obstructs

On Sunday we headed for the Keys, where we would spend the night before WSP opened so that we could be reasonably early in line.  As it turned out, this wasn't really necessary, because there was a good amount of open space when we arrived.

After dinner on Big Pine Key, we returned to falling darkness at our resort, and out came the camera.  Despite some lights on the property, the sky was beautiful.  My new wide-angle lens got a workout.

Here's a nice summary - the winter Milky Way and a palm tree make a nice combination for those of us from the frozen land of corrupt politicians.  Binoculars were retrieved with haste as we scouted objects for the star party and enjoyed the nice sea breeze.

Sure beats a snow-covered evergreenGood use of a picnic table

Perhaps my favorite spot was sitting in these chairs, scanning around with the binoculars, enjoying a very good beer, and calling friends up north and leaving messages that highlighted the local weather conditions.

The tower and red lights are across the road from the WSP site, and the time exposure turned the reflection into a line marking the way to the "promised land" of winter astronomy.

Chairs by the sea

The next day dawned, still breezy, but beautiful, clear, and sunny.  The humidity was relatively low, and we hoped the next night would be as good as the previous one.  We waited in the line along US 1, enjoying the breeze blowing through the van as we sat by the sea.  Life is hard, we thought.

We set up our scopes in the "Valley of the Quality Dobs" behind the showers/restrooms.  This turned out to help shelter us from the strong winds during the week.

I wandered around as Tippy did the customary opening address, snapping a few photos.  A tall Starmaster dominated the field in this area.

This starmaster demands some prime real estate

The collimation police were out in force, and the captain of the force sat in the shade of his instrument (below, left).  I resisted the urge to give one of the collimation knobs on his telescope a random turn.  Maybe next year......

A 32" telescope arrived, containing a primary and secondary that I had just reworked.  Before we knew it, it was getting dark, and I brought my camera and tripod over to it.

Vic Menard relaxesThe 32" surveys advancing darkness

Darkness fell in earnest, and the 32" began to deliver some of the most amazing views that I have seen through a telescope.  Despite some gusty winds, the showpiece objects revealed themselves in stunning, overwhelming detail and clarity.  The structure in M42 was indescribable.  What stuck with me from this first night was the view of M51, where the "globby" nature of the spiral arms first appeared to me plain as day, and the view of Saturn at 3am, where we saw the shading/structures within the rings that many call "spokes".  The color of the planet and rings were vibrant and unparalleled by any instrument I've used.

On a later night we went star-hunting in the Trapezium, and found a total of 10 stars.  The owner of the 32" will say much, much more about his observing when he finishes his own report.

Below is another shot of the 32" and its owner (left).  Next, Al Nagler (right, below) enjoys a view through my 20" F/3.  He said:

"The 20 inch f/3 is my favorite big scope.  Imagine 20 inches, with NO ladder needed (in fact I observed mostly using our "Air-Chair"). It has the biggest possible true field for its size, with fabulous optical performance (Saturn showing the crepe ring plus MANY moons with the SIPS + 3.7 mm Ethos-sx @ 473x). I was happy to get my annual "Omega-Fix" and I found a NEW benefit to this instrument - STABILITY: it was virtually the only one operating in the stiff wind we had for several days. BRAVO, Mike!" - Al Nagler

The 32" takes aim at OrionAl Nagler views with my 20" F/3 Starmaster

Due to the wind, the 32" was moved TWICE, once to the valley, and again back against some trees, between two camper trailers.  This afforded good shelter from the wind, and allowed viewing up to 1400x.

The 32" is moved the first of two times

With all the hard work we were doing watching a guy move a 32" scope around the field, we were tired and decided to venture down to Key West and enjoy a margarita.  We also stopped for the obligatory tourist  photo-op at Mallory Square.

John and Bob enjoy the sunshine

We returned, relaxed by the margarita, napped a little bit, and waited for darkness to fall again.  I climbed some stairs to capture a twilight shot.  The lights of passing cars create the red-orange-yellow trails on the right side of the image, and this illustrates just how narrow the camp property is.  It is truly a narrow "slice" of paradise.

Twilight falls, and red lights come out

As some clouds pestered us, a colorfully-lit tent caught my attention, and I had to capture it in a photograph, Orion above it, and the distorted perspective giving the radio tower an interesting "lean".

Sources of illumination

One of the later nights proved to be the clearest, and the haze dropped down fairly low, revealing Eta Carinae (reddish glow near horizon in photo below), the bottom star in the Southern Cross, Alpha and Beta Centauri later on, and the Milky Way hugging the southern horizon.  I decided to frame it with a couple of palm trees just to make my northern friends more jealous.

Southern-sky wonders framed by palms

Overall, this trip was over too soon.  I could have used a few more days to unwind after a very busy winter of optical work, so I resolve now to add those days to next year's trip.

Hell, maybe I'll add another week.......

Clear, dark skies, warm weather, good friends, and good seeing.

  -Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics

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