Custom Optics at the 2015 Winter
Notquite ideal conditions, but we make the
best of it
The winter of 2013-2014 was absolutely terrible. As of my leaving for WSP 2015, the winter had been reasonable, with about average temperatures and almost no snow. However, after I left the week before WSP, the weather seemed to turn cold just as I was leaving, and I think it stayed that way while I was gone.
Clearly I timed that part of the trip right, but some of it tried to follow me.
After a brief stop at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I visited relatives before heading south to the Keys with John Pratte of JPAstrocraft on Saturday.
The trip was uneventful, but we encountered significant delays in Islamorada, the tourist-trap hell that is the upper Keys. When there is a "festival" going on, which there seems to be every Saturday, it's like a 10-mile long strip mall with traffic that has ground to a halt. Usually the festival is some giant flea market selling nautical or some other type of tourist-attracting crap.
Islamorada, clean the cobwebs out of your wallet and build a couple of pedestrian bridges with ramps across the whole two lanes of US 1 where the "festival" is. Make an effort to actually keep traffic moving instead of being selfish and ruining thousands of people's days and wasting their time. End rant.
We stopped in Marathon at Keys Fisheries as usual for dinner, fortunately not arriving too late and finding a restaurant that was not swamped with hungry tourists. A short time later we were on Big Pine Key at our home for the next week. My friend Bob arrived later that evening, and we enjoyed some margaritas and other beverages by the ocean to celebrate the start of another great week in the Keys.
Sunday dawned with nice weather, so I went for a run after a light breakfast. I only run when I'm on vacation, to get some exercise, which is a necessity for me. After taking a shower, I found that the third member of our party had just arrived after flying all night and driving up from the Key West airport.
That third person was Carl Zambuto, owner of Zambuto Optical Company. He only looked a little dazed after his overnight journey.
Having talked to Carl countless times on the phone for years, I finally convinced him to come to the Winter Star Party in 2015. Carl took a nap after his red-eye flight from the west coast to Florida, and while he slept Bob, John and I made a visit to the No-Name Pub, a Florida Keys institution.
It's definitely off the beaten path, but we know the way there well. The food is great, and the ambiance is absolutely unique, as you can see in the photo below.
Thousands of dollar bills line the walls and ceilings of the bar, with hand-written notes and drawings to personalize each one. The wait staff brings a stapler for those who with to make their own addition. I think I'll just give my dollar bills as extra tips instead. There is also an outdoor seating area now, and a small upstairs room. Come early, this place gets crowded.
After Carl woke up, we headed over to the star party to introduce Carl to the staff and to do a bit of setup. Tim Khan was busy flying an RC helicopter over the mostly empty field. Then we had dinner in Marathon, and returned to the site for some observing before the star party got underway the next night. We used John Pratte's 25" f/4, however, the bunkhouse lights were left on, and this made the observing of faint objects a bit challenging. It was a bit sad, since it was a nice night. So, after viewing a number of objects in Orion and nearby, and getting a taste of the southern sky, we went back to the house to relax and talk. As usual, it was always fun to talk shop and about the present and future of amateur astronomy.
Monday was another nice day, and after an early seafood dinner we went back to the site to wander around and see the telescopes that had been set up before it got dark. We stopped by the area where Joe had set up his 32" by John's 25", and I took a photo. Starting at left we have Dennis, Doris, Dana, John Pratte, and Carl Zambuto.
We walked around and spotted a number of Starmasters containing Zambuto mirrors, so we stopped to say hello, not knowing to whom it belonged. As it turned out, the first was Kim Colter's 20", set up on the berm. I had not seen Kim since I took delivery of my 20" f/3 Starmaster at Bob Kirschenmann's place in Missouri. He was very happy to meet Carl. After a nice chat we continued down the observing field.
Below Carl examines a smaller Starmaster in the western part of the observing field.
We did some good observing Monday night, but all of us were tired before too late due to travel and not being used to staying up really late at night. It always takes me some time to shift my schedule later into the evening and to be able to stay up and enjoy the observing.
Tuesday proved to be quite different. The forecast was for clouds and later rain. We ended up back at our house after clouds came in and rain was showing on the radar. It was a great place to watch the lightning from, which as we found out later, seemed to be right on top of the star party site, at least according to those who were there during it.
The above photo is not of the flash from a nuclear weapon (remember the scene from True Lies!?), it is the result of a very bright lightning bolt in the dark of night. The cloud to ground strikes were not visible due to rain, or perhaps most of it was cloud to cloud. In any event, we enjoyed the story and used it as an excuse to enjoy some tasty margaritas and other beverages during a warm rain shower and thunderstorm. After being stuck in the dry frozen north for the whole winter, the humidity was wonderful as we watched the storm sitting under the house. I made the most of it by capturing images like the one above. After a nice relaxing night, we slept really well and woke hungry.
The storms brought a cloudy morning, and we went out for breakfast by heading west to the Galley Grill on West Summerland Key. Their breakfast was absolutely amazing, as I hope you can see below.
This crab cake eggs benedict was probably one of the best breakfasts that I have had in recent and distant memory. I did not need lunch after that, which is another star party strategy - eat two meals per day instead of three to help keep off the pounds during the event.
Carl and Bob were also quite pleased with their choices of food for this early meal. We would return a couple more times to this restaurant, which was a new discovery for us, and an excellent addition to our list of fine eating establishments.
When we got back to the star party site, we discovered that some staying on-site had not been quite as fortunate as we had, and it had been a long night of thunder, lightning, and lots of rain. Some tents got flooded out. In the image above, the four scopes shown at top left were in our area, but all were fine.
The driveway near us was a bit muddy, but not underwater. Overall, damage was only some wet things that would later dry out.
So, on a day like this, it's the perfect time to visit the vendor area near the entrance to the camp. There is a nice selection of things to choose from, from entire telescopes to eyepieces, clothing, and telescope accessories, like laser collimators.
Speaking of those, I paid a visit to Howie Glatter, the maker of some of the finest laser collimation tools on the market today. These lasers hold their own internal collimation extremely well, something that lesser lasers do not. A laser that is not collimated internally is not very useful, and quite frustrating, so I prefer and recommend quality equipment.
On Howie's table are other laser pointers, his Glatter sling, and various accessories like tuBLUG, which allow seeing the barlowed laser return quite easy from the rear of the telescope, where one is typically turning the collimation knobs.
We (those of us who use fast telescopes) find that a barlowed laser is an accurate way to collimate very fast telescopes, and I prefer a simple laser spot from a finely-crafter laser to precisely align the secondary first. Following that, the barlowed laser works well, and I always check/finish with collimation on a star.
Just across from the vendor area you can cure your hunger at Mickey's Kitchen. They have a good selection of sandwiches and snacks, and the all-important brownies during much of the night. A brownie and hot chocolate is a great sugar kick to prolong your observing or help you wake up while some clouds roll through.
On many days there are speakers in the afternoon in the wheelhouse, and in the photo above, Tim Khan, the WSP's head honcho, introduces one of its original founders, Tippy D'Auria, seen standing at left in the tan jacket.
Above Tim waits to introduce Don Parker, who gave a talk about many years of planetary observation. Mike diligently runs the AV equipment to record the talks and make sure they go smoothly.
Here's another photo of Don as his talk progressed. Sadly he passed away on Sunday, just a few days after giving this talk, and on the last day of the star party. Don helped bring recognition to the quality of the skies that Florida has in terms of the high quality of the seeing, and produced countless amazing images of planets and other events visible through the steady skies at his home near the ocean.
His yearly talks and contributions to the science of astronomy and planetary imaging will be dearly missed.
The skies did clear later in the week, but out of the eight Winter Star Parties that I have attended, this one had the lowest quality observing weather.
While we had clear skies on many nights, the seeing did not get as good as previous years. This was no doubt due to two strong cold fronts that came in from the north during the week, lowering the daytime highs into the low 60s, and the nighttime temperatures into the low 50s, which is pretty rare for the Florida Keys.
Normally we are used to daytime temperatures in the high 70s with lows around 65 to 70 degrees. It was also quite windy on a number of nights, but fortunately the cool north breeze was exactly that, coming out of the north, and in our location up against the trees on the north side of the camp it was mostly blocked. Up on the berm it could have been called cold!
Oh well, I can't complain about one bad week of weather out of eight. The rest of the nation was in the deep freeze that week, and at least we saw water that wasn't frozen, green plants and trees, and beautiful blue skies.
With the non-ideal, atypical weather, it was my goal to get Carl Zambuto, who had flown from the opposite corner of the country to be here and enjoy the Keys, a decent view of Jupiter and views of the main showpiece objects in the southern sky. Those objects typicall include Centaurus A, Omega Centauri, the Southern Cross, the Jewel Box cluster, Thor's Helmet, and a nice view of M46 complete with imbedded small planetary nebula on a velvety black background.
Wednesday evening was fairly turbulent, and we did not observe much. Finally on Thursday some of the warmer air returned to the Keys, and we had clear skies late into the night, allowing most of those objects to be viewed.
In the image above, Carl Zambuto (right) observes Omega Centauri for the first time through Al Nagler's 127mm refractor. Markus Ludes (left) and Howie Glatter try to stand still for my time exposure capturing the moment. All are painted red by my flashlight. The dark clouds low in the south show how dark the sky is over the ocean. The Eta Carina Nebula is visible as a faint red glow just to the left of Carl's head above and to the right of the white van, just above the dark cloud.
Later on Carl saw the objects in 16" f/4 and 25" f/4 JPAstrocraft telescopes, and some of them in Joe's 32" f/3.6. With it being late and clouds coming and going, we called it a night and headed back for a beverage and some sleep. We could see the top three stars of the Southern Cross from the house, so we declared victory and turned in. Unfortunately my friend Bob had to leave earlier this evening to take care of some poorly-timed obligations in central Florida. He promised that this would not happen next year. Sadly he did not really get a good night of observing in at this year's event, but he did have fun, and we did not see a single snowflake.
I never really got into my observing rhythm during this star party because the conditions just weren't up to the high standards that I was used to. I was more motivated to treat it like a vacation rather than a star party, and that worked for me. However, I did have a little work to do.....
This is what the wheelhouse looked like before I gave my talk Thursday afternoon. The title was "Four Lessons in Mirror Testing", and was about how different tests should agree, why sometimes they do not, and why star testing is not always reliable. The room was full and good questions were asked, so I was a very happy speaker.
Carl (left) finally got to meet Bob Royce (right), as seen in the photo above. Bob was having issues locating a part for the mount that carried his Dall-Kirkham, and I'm not sure if he got to use the telescope during the event. At least he wasn't shoveling snow at home, though.
Above John Pratte (left) and Carl Zambuto (right) are pictured by the ocean, as we wait for the Friday door prize drawing to take place. Jackets were the story of the day, with cool weather and a strong breeze. Sunscreen was a good idea, though, as the sun is still up quite high at twenty-something degrees latitude.
The weather was truly abnormal, as is evidenced in the photo at left. Under that hood and multiple layers is Dave, a Canadian, who said he had of course left all of his truly warm clothing at home, and he was not happy about that.
Every year the big prize drawing is late on Friday morning, and everyone gathers around the fire pit to listen intently for their number to be read aloud. If no one claims the prize, the announcer says "going once.... going twice.... ching ching", and another number is drawn. You must be present to win.
For the first time I have ever seen, Tippy did not read the numbers that were drawn. That was strange. As it turned out, he had to leave early to go back to his house and make sure none of his pipes had frozen due to the abnormal cold!
This year there were no "Astro-Oscars", an award that is traditionally given out every year just before the door prize drawing. Apparently there were no nominations, and therefore they did not give them out. So, don't forget to nominate a worthy individual who has done good things involving astronomy education and public astronomy.
OK, so now I have filled in the space beside this photo of the hooded Canadian, so I can put in another image and move on.
Above John Joseph (Starlight Instruments) is used as a climbing gym by half of the children who were present at the door prize drawing. There is a children's astronomy program every year at WSP, so it is an event for the whole family.
Finally it was time for some of the WSP crew (above) to get the door prize drawing underway.
At right Bob Summerfield shades his computer from the sun, and plays some version of the official theme song of the star party, "Southern Cross", originally by Crosby, Stills and Nash, but re-done many times by Jimmy Buffett, complete with slightly mangled/modified lyrics due to multiple margaritas.
Part of me was thrilled to have the chance to spend time with Carl Zambuto at this great event, but another part of me was unfulfilled because we had not had the normal warm weather and steady seeing conditions that compel us to return each year to this little slice of paradise in the middle of the Florida Keys. I had wanted Carl to get a taste of that, but it was not to be. We'll try next year, I hope.
As I sat in the sun waiting to see if I would hear my number, I hoped for better seeing that night (Friday), but I knew that with the latest shot of cool air coming in, it was not going to happen. I resigned myself to simply enjoy the company that surrounded me, and resolved to enjoy one last day of good Keys seafood.
A plan was hatched some days earlier by Sergio to head into Marathon for his favorite (or at least I think it is his favorite because he always seems to be talking about it) - stone crab.
I didn't win anything this year. Some friends did. There are always some great grand prizes that I would almost feel a bit guilty taking home due to the number of telescopes that I have built over the year. If it ever happens, I'm sure I'll get over that. (wink)
Above, from left to right, we have Sue French, Carl Zambuto, Sergio, myself, and Alan French. You will recognize Sue and Alan's name from their writings in Sky and Telescope. With the star party winding down, it was time for some final photos to make those in the northern climates jealous. Thanks to the WSP webmaster for sharing the photo above.
Friday afternoon it was time for some serious seafood at the Keys Fisheries. Sergio holds up a stone crab claw in the photo above, and I had shrimp, stone crab, an oyster, and a few mussels. We all left quite full, and satisfied. However, we also noticed clouds creeping west in the direction of the star party site, and sure enough, later on Friday night it did cloud up. This gave us an excuse to finish the last of the margaritas and enjoy one last evening of optics talk and relaxing.
We headed north on Saturday, being delayed in Isla-hell-rada only for 10 minutes or so due to their latest "festival" bullshit, and soon we were out of the Keys. I visited relatives and clients on the way home, stopping by Chiefland for part of the next week. The weather refused to cooperate their either, and I drove north.
This is what I found when I got home - about 10" of snow in my driveway and too much snow to open the door on the sidewalks! I had to do a lot of shoveling just to get my Subaru in the garage and get the sidewalks cleared. Fortunately the snow melted later in the week, so clearly I should have just stayed in Florida longer.
As I finish writing this article, I have just finished figuring a 45" mirror. The big mirror makes me eager for next year's event where we put good, not-quite-so-big mirrors under superb skies and enjoy the photons that they redirect.
Clear, dark skies, warm weather, good friends, good seeing, and cheers. See you at WSP 2016.
-Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics