Sacramento Astronomy at Blue Canyon Star Parties
Don't miss the Star-B-Q held at mid summer
The Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society has been in existence since 1945. The organization has regular star parties and many other special events and monthly meetings; it also offers scholarships to students of astronomy. I, Kosmo, have been attending star parties at Blue Canyon airport since 1992. I've had many good times viewing the celestial vault while visiting with friends and partaking of refreshments. (With a name like Kosmo, what else would I be doing?) By the way, the Star-B-Q is the major astronomical event of the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society.
The following are my reviews of recent Star-B-Qs and other Blue Canyon star parties, and then you’ll see some photos and a short story.
Please keep reading!
The 2018 Star-B-Q held on July 14th was a sparsely attended event, perhaps because thunderclouds in the east may have put the fear of God into the eyes of some star gazers. Sure enough, some clouds intruded after dark, ruining the party somewhat. Moreover, disappointing to some folks, especially me, there were few large telescopes to enjoy, just Keith’s 20-inch Dobsonian, which provided some spectacular views of globular cluster M92, spiral galaxy M82 and M17, the Omega Nebula (aka the Swan Nebula).
Very good views were also available in the Henry Grieb Observatory, where people gazed through the eyepieces of the 16-inch Ritchey Chretien telescope and a 9.25-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, their faces agog while viewing the rings of Saturn, the belts and zones of Jupiter, as well as Mars, very close to the earth, that bright orange orb dominating the night sky.
The 2017 Star Party held on August 19th was a lightly attended event, perhaps because of the solar eclipse happening two days later. But if you weren’t there, you missed a crazy experience. At about 10 p.m. two carloads of people came and then drove south on the runway, even though people are prohibited from driving motor vehicles on the runway, which is almost certainly a moving violation. Then, a short time later, two cars driven by the California Highway Patrol came and seemingly followed the two previous cars by driving south on the runway. Surprisingly, the CHP cars came back within minutes and then promptly left the star party. Had the cops found the two cars and given the drivers tickets? They almost certainly didn’t, because they returned too soon! And the two cars the cops went after never came back! (Rumor has it that a dirt road connects with the southern end of the runway, but I've never found such a road.)
Later, two different cars came, parked where they weren’t supposed to park on the tarmac, and then the passengers got out and walked around. My friend and I thought these people would unload telescopes and stay for awhile, but they didn’t, and soon left. A short time later, other cars came, but the passengers didn’t stop, simply leaving within a minute or two. By the way, all of these cars had their headlights on, ruining people’s night vision in the process. “This is nuts!” I told my friend.
Nevertheless, other than the rudeness of the aforementioned drivers, it was a good night for viewing the cosmos - as long as you waited until after midnight before you set up your telescope!
The July 30th 2016 Star-B-Q was about a six on a scale of one to ten. The sky was mostly clear of clouds, but smoke from the Big Sur fire obscured viewing from time to time; nevertheless, Saturn and Mars were prominent in Scorpius. Also, unfortunately, few people brought large telescopes, the use of which greatly enhances viewing. Also, all night people were turning on their headlights while leaving the event, thereby destroying people’s night vision. Thank you very much – assholes! Maybe next time these inconsiderate people will observe the proper star party etiquette!
The Star-B-Q of July 18th 2015 was a fairly good one. The crowd was medium in size and enthusiastic, though few large telescopes had been brought. Fortunately, however, the sky was clear all night. As usual, the best telescopic views were seen through the lenses of “Sweet Sixteen” in the Henry Grieb Observatory and, out on the tarmac, Matt Jennings’ 22-inch Dobsonian. Also, a set of Fujinon 25 x 150 binoculars were available for excellent viewing. Only one incident marred the event. Somebody drove their car all the way up and down the runway. By the way, public driving on the runway is definitely prohibited. People aren’t even supposed to walk there!
Regarding totally forgettable star parties, the 2014 Star-B-Q held on July twenty-sixth may have been the worst Star-B-Q of all time! Few people showed up and even fewer with telescopes. Dark monsoon clouds from the east loomed everywhere and a wildfire in Amador County almost certainly caused many people to stay at home. (Another forest fire in the Yosemite area added to fire woes.) So, by midnight the sky was clouded over and the smell of smoke pervasive. And, at three o’clock in the morning, the sky was still shrouded by clouds and smoke. For a star party of any sort, this was a near total blackout!
As for the 2013 Star-B-Q held on July the sixth, the crowd wasn’t great in number but enthusiasm for the cosmos was high. Davin Enigl supervised the use of the two well-collimated telescopes in the Henry Grieb Observatory, scoping out at one point Seyfert’s Sextet, but I could see little more than background stars and nary a galaxy. Sorry, Davin! Out on the tarmac, Matt beguiled folks with the use of his awesome 22-inch, truss-tube Dobsonian, sporting a new equatorial table. You gotta love his scope!
The 2012 Star-B-Q held on August eighteenth wasn’t nearly as good as the one in 2011. Thunderstorms in the area brought clouds to Blue Canyon. Consequently, the sky wasn’t clear until about 3 a.m. Few people stayed up that late, but the ones who did were treated to a fabulous starry vault featuring the winter constellations.
The 2011 Star-B-Q held on July thirtieth was a spectacular event. There wasn’t much action in the Henry Grieb Observatory, as class seemed to be in session, but the various telescopes on the airport tarmac provided lots of eye-popping pleasure for stargazers. On this glorious night, four huge Dobsonian telescopes were available for viewing - one 25-inch monster and three 22’s. I’m not sure that’s happened since I started coming here in 1992. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the rings of Saturn - the Cassini Division sharply outlined - through one of these scopes with around two feet of aperture! Also, numerous meteors streaked through the sky, sometimes in one’s field of vision while gazing through the eyepiece of a telescope.
Do UFO's Exist?
Hey, I’ve seen many spectacular sights while at these star parties, including Comet Hale-Bopp in April 1997. It resembled a gigantic light bulb hanging in the sky! Anyway, I’ve seen a lot up there over the years and would like to share with you something really unusual that I saw during the summer of 2001. The following is a short story based on this event. Don’t worry, it’s not very long! Please read UFO at the Big 33:
Ed hoped for a good night of stargazing, but his wife Wilma seemed bent on initiating the Big Bang.
The astronomy club arranged star parties throughout the summer months on the Saturday night nearest the new moon (or no moon). The location was Blue Canyon Airport, near the town of Emigrant Gap, about a mile in elevation in the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada in California.
Ed wheeled his pickup truck along the short access road and continued onto the tarmac, an asphalt area perhaps 150 feet wide and twice as long, where another 20 carloads of folks had parked and were now setting up telescopes, camping gear and amenities. The observatory, a long, single-story building, stood on the east side of the tarmac, its retractable roof now open. From time to time, people filed through the front entrance, perhaps hoping to get a view through the 16-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope. On the opposite side of the tarmac, a 3,300-foot runway stretched from north to south. The number painted at the south end of the runway was 33—the Big 33, as Ed called it. (Planes and helicopters seldom used this public, unattended runway, as it was reserved for emergencies or training exercises.)
The middle-aged couple, married for 25 years, attracted little attention as they climbed from the cab of the truck. Ed waved at two of his fellow male astronomers, while Wilma kept to herself, as usual. Like most people well into their forties, Ed and Wilma carried a few extra pounds, though they appeared reasonably fit. Ed had recently grown a gray-flecked goatee. Wilma, a natural brunette, had dyed her hair blonde. She had also given up cigarette smoking—at least as far as her husband could tell.
Ed began unloading his 11-inch Celestron, a top-of-the-line reflector telescope costing thousands of dollars.
“Gotta wonder if this is necessary,” Wilma said, as she erected a portable table and began placing reading materials and other items upon it.
“Necessary?” Ed asked.
Wilma pointed with her head at the Celestron. “You still owe big bucks on that pretty thing. Can’t we look through other people’s scopes?”
Ed threw her a look of reproof. “Wilma, the best way to learn about telescopes is to own and operate one.”
“Why wasn’t the old one good enough?”
“It was junk, Wilma, a stone-age Dobsonian with a pitted mirror. I might as well have owned the proverbial department store telescope.”
Wilma nodded her head in the negative, as if such a gesture were possible. “Whatever you say, Ed.”
“Thanks, Wilma. My hands are full. Can you get me a Coke?”
From the table, Wilma glared at Ed. “I’ve only got two hands—”
“Like most humans, Wilma. Maybe you should turn ET, grow some extra tentacles or something.”
“Very funny, Ed. Can I write that down?”
“First, get me the Coke. Please, okay?”
Grunting with the effort, Ed lifted the optical portion of the telescope, placed it on the mount and then screwed it into place. “Got it!” Ed cried triumphantly, waving a fist. He then patted the scope in a few places, sighing with pleasure. Out of the corner of her eye, Wilma watched him.
Ed growled and snatched a Coke from the ice chest. “Gotta get it myself,” he muttered. While sipping, he viewed the western horizon, where the ruddy orb of the sun seemingly melted like a mound of sherbet.
Once Ed finished putting together the Celestron, he sat with Wilma in lawn chairs, while the sky gradually darkened to navy and indigo. Soon the planets Venus and Jupiter popped into view, as well as the reddish star Arcturus, directly overhead. And, toward the northwest, tiny Mercury shined visibly, about 10 degrees above the trees on the opposite side of the runway.
As Wilma thumbed through a women’s magazine, she asked, “How long do we have to wait till dark?”
Ed lowered an eyelid. “You know how long it takes, Wilma, we’ve been up here enough times. In mid summer it doesn’t get completely dark until ten-thirty.”
Wilma flattened her mouth. “It’s getting too dark to read.” She tossed the magazine onto the table. “Now what do I do?”
“Take a nap, maybe? Use your imagination. Even though it’s not very dark yet, I’m looking at Jupiter.” Ed took the GoTo hand control and, using the electronic drive, slewed the scope toward the glinting planet. When Ed brought the belts and zones of the gas giant into focus, he asked,” Can you name any of the Galilean satellites, Wilma?”
Wilma’s eyes flickered like a distant star. “No,” she answered. “Why should I?”
“Well, if we’re gonna bond with this stuff, you should learn more about astronomy.”
“Oh,” Wilma said, nodding and frowning and rolling her eyes in a comedic fashion. “A satellite? Like GPS or something?”
“No, a moon, like our moon. But scientists prefer the word satellite.”
“Okay, smart man, what are the names of those Galleys?”
Ed told her the names of the four largest satellites of Jupiter: Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.
“I like the name Europa,” Wilma said. “Good name for a daughter,” she added, looking coy.
“We’re not having anymore kids.”
“I know. At my age, I couldn’t get pregnant if I watched porno movies for three weeks straight.”
“Wow!” Ed exclaimed. “I can see a shadow of a moon on Jupiter!”
“Don’t you mean—shadow of a satellite?”
Ed pulled away from the eyepiece and grinned. “You’re learning, honey. What’s the largest satellite in the solar system?”
Wilma made a silly, puzzled look. “Mars?” she said.
“Oh, you’re messing with me—”
Wilma snickered in an evil fashion, reached into the ice chest and pulled out a beer. “Cheers, baby. I’m getting ripped.”
“You better not—“
When nightfall finally came, Ed looked through the telescope while Wilma stood along the periphery of the woods, near the latrine, drinking her second beer. Once or twice, Ed glimpsed the ember of a burning cigarette near Wilma’s face. “Uh-huh,” Ed kept saying to himself, “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.”
Minutes later, while Ed showed Wilma the Whirlpool Galaxy in the telescope, Ed backed away a step, crossed his arms and said, “A few minutes ago I saw a little meteor streaking by your head.”
Wilma turned from the eyepiece and gaped at Ed. “A little Meteor?”
“Admit it, Wilma. You were smoking—”
“That was a firefly.” She returned her attention to the eyepiece. “This is the great outdoors, mister, isn’t it?”
Ed made a clucking sound with his tongue. “There are no fireflies in California.”
“I’d bet my telescope.”
Wilma sat in a lawn chair, yawned, stretched and then gazed toward the southwestern part of the sky. “I love the Milky Way,” she said. “Isn’t the center of the galaxy over there in Sagittarius?” She pointed to the Milky Way, its star clouds and dust lanes.
“Yes,” Ed said, “the Maya called that dark area the cosmic vagina.”
Wilma looked outraged. “Ed, watch your mouth!”
“I will, if you don’t smoke anymore.”
Wilma smirked and looked down at the tarmac. She tapped her sneakers on the pavement, seemingly keeping the beat to an imaginary tune.
“I didn’t hear a response—”
“I didn’t give one—“
“Come over to the scope and I’ll sight in the Lagoon Nebula.”
Wilma nodded with obvious boredom. “I’ve seen the Lagoon a hundred times. You can even see it without the telescope.” For emphasis, she pointed.
“But it’s always good, like Messier Thirteen in Hercules.”
Suddenly, Wilma jabbed a finger into the sky. “What’s that?” She ejected from her chair. “Over there!”
Ed followed her finger to the southeast, where, about 30 degrees above the tree line, a glowing red object slowly descended. At arm’s length, it seemed about the size of a grape. “What the heck,” he said. He grabbed his 7 X 50 binoculars and took a closer look.
The object gradually dropped at a shallow angle and in a northern direction, moving more or less toward the airport and all the telescope enthusiasts. From time to time, the object emitted reddish embers or sparks, as if burning.
By now, many people had spotted the curious thing. Gasps, sharp whispers and nervous laughs filled the tarmac. Many people thought it was a meteor, while a few thought it was a space ship. All eyes seemed directed toward the plunging, burning UFO. “Probably a plane coming down,” Wilma said.
“No,” Ed said.
“Isn’t this an airport?”
“Of course it is.”
“I see fire. It’s a plane crashing!”
“Wilma, it’s probably a rocket booster re-entering the atmosphere.” Ed took another look through the binoculars. “It’s kind of cylindrical or cigar-shaped. Here, look at it through the binos.“ Ed stepped toward Wilma and said, “Look—“
“We’ve got to save the passengers!” Wilma dropped her beer and bolted toward the woods.
Ed stomped his foot. “Have you lost your mind?”
About this time, the object dipped behind the pine trees, and then many people cheered, applauded or waved their arms jubilantly. “Where are the Little Green Men?” somebody yelled, generating chuckles. One man hollered, “Gotta love it—another Tunguska Fireball!”
“Wilma, come back here!” Ed shouted, as Wilma disappeared in the pine trees. Ed set his binoculars on the table and jogged after his wife.
In the forest, Ed looked for his wife behind trees and in the Manzanita and black oak. Again and again he called her name. When he was about to return to the tarmac, figuring Wilma probably had done the same, a shadow leaped at him and knocked him to the ground. Wilma pinned Ed’s arms to the ground. “Now I’ve got you!”
In shock and bewilderment, Ed asked, “Wilma, are you drunk?”
“Don’t need to be.”
“Get off me now—my shirt and pants are filthy.”
“Finally got you away from your precious telescope.”
“What are you doing?”
“More fireworks, baby!” She kissed Ed on the lips and starting popping the buttons on his shirt. “Get that off—“
“Wilma, people saw me running after you. They’ll be curious. What if they follow us here and see us?”
“Good for them—more wonders of the universe.”
Ed kept thinking about his expensive telescope. What if somebody put their hands on it—stole an eyepiece or something? Then, eventually, Ed stopped resisting and went with the flow. When his wife was like this, there wasn’t much else he could do about it.
If you have any more interest in the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society, check out their website at www.svas.org
© 2008 Kelley Marks