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The Webfooted Astronomer - August 2001


Table Mountain Tales

By Laurie Moloney et al

I will always remember 2001 Table Mountain Star Party as one of the best. It's been many years since I've pulled an "all-nighter" at Table Mountain. This year I did it twice.

The star party was particularly great for me because it was my first dark-sky experience with my new 8-inch F4 Orion Skyview. After more than 10 years with my Celestron 4.5-inch scope, I enjoyed seeing so much more in my 8-inch. We also had two great nights (1½ nights, rather) of clear weather. And finally, I accidentally saw the Space Shuttle streak across the sky with the International Space Station on its heels. It was a stunning sight, more so because I wasn't expecting it.

We arrived Thursday afternoon to cloudy skies. It cleared up at about 1:30 a.m. and stayed clear until dawn. Of course, it cleared up immediately after John put away his scope (thanks, John!) I was very busy all night putting my new scope through it's paces. I observed the Owl Nebula, Veil Nebula, North American, Swan Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, M80, M81 and M82, M51, and many more. I was thrilled that I could actually see more than faint fuzzies in my new scope! Then Saturn rose and was quickly followed by Venus and Jupiter. My little scope still performs much better on the planets. The three planets in a row in the dawn was a beautiful site! As we turned in at 5 a.m., the clouds started moving in.

Friday was a miserable day, weather wise. It rained hard and that night the wind gusted. We turned in early without observing. Saturday it clouded up, it rained, it shined, it clouded up again. I found it interesting that in the absence of technology to predict our weather, people suddenly became superstitious. Putting away a telescope will make the skies clear. Carrying an umbrella will prevent rain. Taking off your raincoat will cause rain. Jim Bielaga is somehow responsible for Friday's weather, but you'll have to ask him why.

By the time the door prizes were over, it was clear we were in for a terrific night. The evening was dewy, but it dried out as the air cooled. At about 4 am, I heard a collective cry on the telescope field. "Wow!" "There they are!" "What is it?" I saw two very bright and very fast moving points of light streaking across the sky. I surmised it was the ISS and the shuttle, which we later confirmed. What a sight! Others found this year's Table a success. Here are their stories.

M11 in the rain—Jim Bielaga

We arrived Wednesday and could barely camp in the trees near the telescope field. The days of 20 people on Weds are over. Get there early. We had cold weather and wind but observed until 2:30 a.m. Mars was soupy, and Comet Linear was impressive like a big elliptical galaxy. This was just a warm up of things to come.

Thursday we had light rain off and on, clouds in the morning then partly sunny afternoons. More old friends arrived and we got caught up. Thursday afternoon more people arrived. There was around 500 or more.

Scope field was busy for me, but that's the price of aperture. Got my 29.25-inch Starmaster Dobsonian last year, and I was busy at the scope with people wanting a look. But it was enjoyable. We did some of the bright objects, Comet Linear, M11, M27, Veil Nebula, Cats Eye Nebula, Blue flash nebula, Blue snowball, M51, M57, M56 and some meteors.

It clouded up around midnight and we had some stars low. You could hear the eyepiece cases closing up around 12:30 am as the faint-at-heart headed to bed. Of course around 1:30 am it was totally clear, and we had great viewing until 4:30 am, and no crowd!

Friday evening wasn't as nice with some stars then a sucker hole or two. I got M11 with light rain and umbrella over the eyepiece! A typically Washington star party. Then 1:33 am it opened up again but still had some high clouds. But I got some observing in until 4 am. Highlights included the Veil and North American nebulas and M76.

Yes, Saturday rules. The skies were better and clearer. Highlights include M27 with an easy central star easy and an X pattern in the middle, Comet Linear with small tail 10 degrees or so, M92, M15, M30 (the Lunar Lander), NGC246 (the Pizza nebula), Helix nebula, NGC253, M51, M82, NGC 5907, M33 (with spiral arms), and finally Saturn at 257X with 9-inch off axis aperture stop.

Saturday, we also saw the shuttle and ISS flying by and a great alignment of the planets. Observed until 5 am. All in all a little damp but got observing in every night.

It's raining? Let's clean the primary—John Waters

The star party was a success. The weather is always a crap shoot at Table Mountain. But we usually get some observing on at least one night. This time Thursday and Saturday nights were the good ones. Friday night it rained and blew. Saturday the weather continued cloudy and intermittently rainy. There were about 1200 people there and about $12,000 worth of door prizes given out. Many got disgusted with the weather and left before then. None of us won anything, but we had two good nights where we observed until dawn.

I made good use of the rainy weather Friday to clean about 15 years of dust off my scope mirrors and then aligned it using the new laser collimator Laurie bought. Since then I think it has performed better than ever. A surprise bonus Saturday evening was seeing a pair of objects about as luminous as Jupiter at it's best, in close formation, moving at satellite speed. I read later that the Shuttle and International Space Station had undocked Saturday at about 2100 EDT so we figured that was what we saw.

A picture is worth 1000 words—Bruce Weertman

I got some pictures of the ISS/shuttle fly buy and made a GIF animation. It's kind of big (630K), but I posted it anyway. Check it out at I also posted more Table Mountain pictures at

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