Camping in April !  

I've been a member of the Stargasers lounge forum since January 2011, and booked myself a place at their annual star party at the Luckshaw Caravan park in Herefordshire, originally for three nights over the weekend of 1st / 2nd and 3rd April. Now I've never slept under canvas, nor had I ever attened a star party, or been to Herefordshire for that matter!

I arrived at the camp site at around 1:30pm. Checked in and selected a pitch, and then set about putting up the tent. Now whilst it was a bit windy which didn’t help, there was no way this was a five minuet erection claimed in the instructions. After a bit of fluffing about I had the tent up, bed assembled and kettle on for a cuppa !
Having had a welcome cup of tea and something to eat I then set about putting the scope up. Everything went together really well and I then had time to walk round and introduce myself to the other members and admire some of the serious kit that some had brought.

At 5.00pm the word went round that the evening meals had arrived. The organisers had arranged for food to be pre ordered which was supplied by a local pub, and I must say that the chicken curry and chips went down a treat!

The weather by this time was touch and go. The wind was still blowing hard and the sky was milky with wispy clouds and the odd bank of cloud coming in from the west. But an hour later there was enough of a chance of the sky clearing enough to get glances between the gaps that people started to take the covers off and prepare the scopes for use. By the time Sirius and a few other starts appeared the wind had picked up and most of the cloud cover had blown away. Dressed up like the Michelin Man with so many layers on I tried my hand at polar aligning the mount – I left it too late ! Looking through the polar finder scope there were so many stars it was hard to actually pick out Polaris. I took my best guess and then ran through the 2 star alignment process and once corrected selected my first target – M42

Using a 32mm wide field Revelation eyepiece the nebula was stunning... even though Orion was low down in the west the sky was very dark even though the sun hadn’t long gone down. I tried my hand at some imaging using my dSLR camera, and then selected M45 as my next target. Again, there were so many stars in the field of view it was amazing. I’ve not seen this cluster under such conditions through a scope, and I was blown away. Again I tried to take some images with the camera.

Whilst in the same general direction I turned the scope on the Beehive Cluster... again the scope revealed the beauty of this cluster and I tried to take some images. The problem I have is that my camera, an Olympus E500 is not the best suited for astro- photography as it suffers with amp glow and shed loads of hot pixels... Also focusing is not easy as it doesn’t have a live view LCD. So focusing is sometimes a hit and miss affair.

By around 11.30pm the wind was starting to cause me some problems, not only with the movement of the scope which was causing rounding and slight trailing of the images, but inducing a headache. I chose to take a break and have a wander round to see what others were upto. Earlier in the evening I had spent a while admiring a jaw dropping imaging set up based around a pair of Takahashi scopes (see below). The estimated cost of this set up new was around £30,000 !!! But as I wandered up in the dark, heading for the red glow of his laptop I could see why. Martin was imaging M81 and M82, fully automated with colour filter wheel with each sub around 400 seconds. To give you some idea of the quality of this kit the image on the screen of the main galaxy was about the size of the top of a can of cola and full of detail it was inspiring. So much so I went back and turned my scope in that direction. However by this time my headache had turned into a migraine and my eye’s couldn’t focus so I called it a night at around 1.45am.

I was awoken bright and early (5:30am) by the dawn chorus which included a woodpecker tapping away on a nearby tree ! The kettle was turned on and a nice warm cuppa made. Whilst drinking my tea the wind picked up a bit and we had a quick shower... my tent took that in its stride and once it had finished I commenced cooking breakfast.

By 10.00am the dark clouds had changed places with patchy white ones and there was a thin milky appearance to the sky. The moderators on the form had arranged a set of tutorials and demonstration of various topics in various marquees. I spent best part of the day attending various talks and socialising with other forum members. By late afternoon the caterers had arrived and the BBQ was well under way. Having eaten our attention turned skywards again and things looked promising for a second evening.

The scope was set back up and this time I was adamant that I was going to get the polar alignment right this evening and catch Polaris before all the other stars came out. As the sun dropped down so did the temperature and whilst the wind was nowhere as strong as it had been, it was bitterly cold. The sky by this time was becoming dark blue and most of the bright stars were visible. I spotted Polaris and lined up the mount accordingly. I then performed the alignment routine in the synscan unit and waited for the skies to get really dark.

Again I targeted the Beehive cluster, then M13, and was impressed at just how well the goto system was performing, which suggested that I had aligned the scope very well. Saturn popped up behind the trees above the car and revealed how turbulent the seeing was. As the goto was working so well I thought I would take a look at the whirlpool galaxy. Looked really good visually and so I tried to take some pictures, which sadly didn’t come to much. One thing I have learnt is that I need to replace the Olympus camera with something else if i want to image things, possibly a Canon 350d as that is what most of the chaps have.

By this time the cold had set in and I wasn’t feeling brilliant either – Murphy’s Law being that it would be this weekend that I came down with a cold, so feeling sorry for myself I put the scope in the car and turned in for the night. I settled better and the lack of sleep from the previous night caught up with me and I dropped of to sleep quickly.

The following day I woke up at around 7.00am, having slept through the dawn chorus. Regretfully my health hadn’t improved so I had no choice but to cut short my stay. I began packing the equipment away and by 8.00am had loaded everything into the car. It took me another quarter of an hour to change the battery and re-enter the radio code, and then a further half an hour to walk round and say a few farewells. I left at around 8.45am and the homeward journey was fairly un-eventful, taking around three and a half hours. Having un-packed everything a nice warm bath, a beecham’s hot lemon drink and an early night was in order. – Even with the health issues, the car issues and equipment issues it was overall it was a fantastic weekend under the stars.