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November 2010 Public Star Party Notes

On the evening of November 30, 2010, the Bartlesville Astronomical Society hosted its first public star gazing event in many years.  This was, in some ways, a practice run, to re-familiarize ourselves with how best to conduct public astronomy events.  Considering the conditions, it was a successful and rewarding restart.  Temperatures started in the mid to low 30's, slowly sinking to the upper 20's, while wind chills remained below freezing the entire evening.  Despite street lights and security lights dotting the horizon, especially at two nearby schools and the Sooner Pool parking lot, the sky was dark, clear and stable.  Our observing sight in the old model airplane flying circle, just southeast of Sooner Pool, offered a wide open sky, clear nearly to the horizon in most directions.

Steve Plank and John Grismore each brought an SCT scope, and Don Fudge set up an Orion Dobsonian.  In addition, Steve Plank brought a Meade Sky Scout, mounted on a tripod, for sky orientation.  Duane Perkins, Joyce and Carroll Ritchie, Rex Murray and Virgil Reese also braved the cold to participate.  After hearing a casual comment about how hot chocolate would really add to the experience, Virgil made a quick "cocoa run" and returned with a canister of hot chocolate and another with coffee.  This was a great addition to the evening, and is highly recommended for future winter star parties.  Although unexpected, it was good to see Daryl Doughty at the star party.  He's recovering well from surgery about a month ago, and wasted no time getting back into his role as "night sky guide", providing constellation mythology, sky orienteering and fascinating "factoids" about stars.  For instance, did you know that there are more first magnitude stars visible in the winter sky, when Orion and Canis Major rise, than any other time of the year?

Despite the cold temperatures, we had about half a dozen visitors; more, actually, than I expected.  They were all very interested and enthusiastic; they'd have to be to stand out in the cold to look at the sky.  Jupiter dominated the night, high in the southeast, brighter than anything else.  Through the telescopes it clearly showed one equatorial band, and confirmed that the second band is still missing, as it has been for months now.  The four Galilean moons lined up nicely on either side of the giant planet.  Only a couple of degrees from Jupiter, the planet Uranus was obvious through the telescopes as a relatively bright, bluish green dot, much smaller than Jupiter, but clearly distinguishable from the fainter, smaller stars nearby.  Further to the west we found Neptune, fainter than Uranus, but still easy to identify.

Next to the planets, the Andromeda Galaxy was the most interesting object for our visitors.  One even brought binoculars and located the galaxy herself.  With one of the scopes we were able to make an interesting comparison between the apparent size, brightness and shape of the Andromeda Galaxy (~ 400 billion stars) and the globular cluster M15 (~ 400,000 stars).  The clear, stable skies also provided good views of the Wild Duck Cluster, the Ring Nebula, the Double Cluster in Perseus and the Pleiades.

After the visitors had gone, the members had packed up their scopes and the last of the hot chocolate had been consumed, we agreed that there's a unique sense of satisfaction in showing the universe to others.  Not even cold weather or city light pollution could diminish that.