The Southern Star Party (2011 March, Bonnievale, South Africa)

posted: 2271 days ago, on Wednesday, 2011 Mar 09 at 04:05
tags: astronomy, star party, Southern Star Party, events, Bonnievale.

The mere utterance of the words "star party" makes me tingle. As a school kid I read with wide-eyed longing of Stellafane, a mystical place far, far away where all they did at night was look at deep sky objects and spent the days pushing glass. It's taken a while, but the first inkling of a local Stellafane happened this past week-end just outside Bonnievale in the Western Cape.

The story begins, however, with another star party. In 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, the Karoo Star Party (KSP) was held outside Britstown. Friend Martin Lyons and I discussed star parties in the months before the event, and we shared our fantasies of Stellafane, the Winter Star Party, and the Texas Star Party.

Prior commitments meant that I couldn't attend the 2009 KSP, but I made sure that 2010 would find me there. During the long drive home after the 2010 KSP, there were more discussions.

Ed Foster and myself had long chats about the pros and cons of it all, and Martin, of course, also had lots to say. By August 2010 it was settled: there would be a star party in the McGregor area in March the following year. By December 2010 we were talking about the "Southern Karoo Star Party", and 2011 January 21 we held our first meeting. We invited Willie Koorts and Suki Lock to join us at the River Club, and not long after settled on the name "Southern Star Party".

[View a slideshow of images from the SSP]

It soon became apparent that there was a lot to do. Besides setting up a website, advertising, planning talks, and coordinating schedules, we had to find a suitable site. Edward and Lynnette suggested the aptly-named 'Night Sky Caravan Park' outside Bonnievale, and a few night-time visits confirmed its suitability.

Needless to say, from January onward everyone in my friend group was getting unsolicited updates about the SSP when they innocently came for coffee, and were being interrogated for ideas. So it came that Hermann Swart explained to me how a "pub quiz" works.

By the end of January, our key-note speaker and my good friend, astrophotographer Dieter Willasch had agreed to give the main talk. With surprising ease, the other speakers were arranged: Lucas Ferreira, enthusiastic astrophotographer from George, agreed to be a presenter, and he suggested Johann Swanepoel, creator of a 20-inch Dobbie. The most excellent Kos Coronaios agreed to come out of hiding and venture into civilization to share his love of the night sky with us; his long-suffering wife Sarah and their two kids were lured with promises of care-free days at the beach (and free beer). Almost at the last minute, Ed suggested that we ask Johan Uys, laser-expert at the Department of Health, to give a brief talk. On March 01, Johan agreed, and we could add his name to the already-full programme.

Wim Filmalter, who could easily host a dozen workshops and talks on his own, will be kept in reserve for the next SSP. I already have a long list of names [you know who you are] to invite to speak at future SSPs.

A myriad of tasks had to be addressed: maintenance of the website, keeping track of the bookings and payments, design of a feedback form, pub quiz questions, dreaming up rules and regulations, doing marketing, planning the black-out of the chalets and ablutions, creation of an info-pack for registration, and more.

By February 28 we were fully-booked. I was astonished. The next day, the final programme was ready. We tried to include something for everyone, to cater for the complete novice and for the more seasoned astronomy enthusiast. All-in-all, I think we managed this well. Once I've analysed the feedback forms, we'll have a better idea.

Friday, March 04

12:00 Registration opens
16:00 Astronomy for the Beginner. (Edward Foster; Social House)
16:30 Using the Southern Star Wheel and ConCards. (Auke Slotegraaf; Outside)
17:00 Light Pollution and the GLOBE at Night Project. (Auke Slotegraaf; Outside)
17:30 Astrophotography – Getting Started. (Kos Coronaios; Social House)
18:00 Official Opening of the SSP. (Willie Koorts)
18:30 Braai!
20:30 What’s Up in the Night Sky Tonight. (Willie Koorts)
night Practical: Astrophotography
night Practical: Explore the Constellations.
night Practical: Guided Binocular Tour of the Sky.

Sunday, March 06

10:00 Demonstration of Astrophotos taken during the SSP (Lucas Ferreira)
15:00 Camp site evacuated.

Saturday, March 05

12:30 Astronomy for the Beginner. (Edward Foster; Social House)
13:00 Deep Sky Observing Workshop. (Auke Slotegraaf; 1 hour; Social House)
13:00 Choosing and Using Binoculars for Astronomy (Edward Foster; Outside)
13:30 How to Clean your Telescope and Binoculars (Willie Koorts; Outside)
14:00 Astrophotography - Getting Started. (Kos Coronaios; Social House)
14:00 Using the Southern Star Wheel and ConCards. (Auke Slotegraaf; Outside)
14:30 Next steps in Astrophotography. (Lucas Ferreira; Social House)
15:00 Astrophotography - Getting Started. (Kos Coronaios; repeat; Social House)
15:00 Fossils, Light and Time. (Edward Foster; Outside)
15:30 Next Steps in Astrophotography. (Lucas Ferreira; repeat; Social House)
15:30 Light Pollution and the GLOBE at Night. (Auke Slotegraaf; Outside)
16:00 Designing & building a large Dobsonian. (Johann Swanepoel; Outside)
16:30 Sale Table (items on display until 17:30)
17:00 Welcome & announcements (Willie Koorts)
17:15 Green Lasers and the Law (Johan Uys; Dept. Health)
17:30 Astro Pub Quiz
18:15 Braai!
20:00 What Astrophotography teaches us about the Deep Sky. (Dr Dieter Willasch)
21:00 What’s Up in the Night Sky Tonight. (Willie Koorts)
night Practical: Astrophotography
night Practical: Explore the Constellations.
night Practical: Guided Binocular Tour of the Sky.

On Friday midday, I fired up my GPS and headed off for Bonnievale. I must have been insane, because I decided to try a new route. The stupid, it burns. My Nokia Maps got me there, eventually. But it cost me my digital projector - it clearly wasn't designed to withstand 25km of dirt road. Ed, Lynnette, Suki & Gavin - being wiser - had arrived on the Thursday and were well-along with the setting up when I arrived.

The Social House was intended as the focus of the SSP; the talks were given inside or just outside it, and it served as a "night kitchen" for those needing warm drinks and such. Unfortunately, we soon learnt that the total lack of roofing insulation turned it into an oven during the day, which made the day-time talks somewhat uncomfortable. Lesson learnt.

Despite the discomfort, the talks in the Social House were still well-attended. A head-count on Saturday, thanks to Ernst, showed the following attendance figures: Ed's "Beginner" talk (13), Deep Sky Workshop (11), Binoculars for astronomy (9), Kos' astrophotography (13+9), Star Wheel (6), Lucas' astrophotography (16+10), and Fossil, Light and Time (7).

The Astro Pub Quiz was also well attended; as things were running late, it was cut short but the happy winners still walked off with their prizes. Prophetically, the winning team chose "The Winning Team" as their name. Their first-round score of 19 tied with Willie's team. Second place was tied, too: both "The Incredibles" and Wilhelm Carsten's team scored 14. Gavin's team as well as Suki's team scored 12 points. A quick tie-breaker decided the overall winner: "The Winning Team" (Wim Filmalter, Hans van der Merwe, Chris de Coning, Evan Knox-Davies and Richard Ford).

Special mention has to be made of the generous donations we received. Oleg Toumilovitch of FOTON Optoelectronics convinced Graham Lynch of G&L Agencies to donate a pair of 20x80 Celestron binoculars. The binocs come mounted on FOTON's latest model of Super heavy Duty Binoculars mount - an awesome prize! Andrie van der Linde of Eridanus Optics also supported the SSP, as did the Soutpansberg Astronomy Club, SAASTA, and the SAAO.

Various other prizes were awarded throughout the day; Roger Wyatt got a webcam (donated by Eridanus Optics) from Kos for his interest in astrophotography, Magi Sutherland got an astro-sketch board and Bella Clayton got a pair of Newtonian Binoculars (latter two prizes donated by Martin Lyons).

The raffle of a 5-inch equatorially mounted Newtonian (donated by Ed & Auke) proved very popular; the two delighted winners also received a telescope driving course, capably presented by Kos.

In one of those crazy coincidences that's life, Martin couldn't make it to the SSP, despite being probably the most enthusiastic of the bunch of us. As a pilot and all-round crazy guy, he had committed to being the announcer/DJ/comedian at the Swellendam Fly-in and Airshow, and he realized a few weeks before the SSP that the dates clashed. Martin has since cleared his diary for September [right?].

Finally, special thanks to my friends Hans and Evan for being there, to Ernst for his friendly helpfulness, and Wilhelm for the delightful observer's sketch pad he made for me. And, of course, special thanks to the co-organizers, whose hard work made the SSP possible.

We've learnt a lot about what to do and what not to do, and we're already planning the second SSP, to be held in September. I can't wait!

[View a slideshow of images from the SSP]

nothing more to see. please move along.