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Starry starry nights with Don Machholz

Jane Houston Jones


“The visitors all got to see 40 objects in less than an hour and a half using Don's method ...”



I participated in the first two of seven nights of astronomy in the Sierra and foothills, a fantastic public astronomy event organized by SJAA member, comet discoverer and Messier marathon co-creater Don Machholz on August 28th and 29th.

Starry Starry Nights - Seven Nights at Seven Sites kicked off Wednesday night, August 28, at elevation 6,930 foot Sugar Bowl ski resort, long. 120.2 W, lat. 39.3 N. Don was able to have all indoor and outdoor lights turned off for the whole night, which made for an incredible observing location. It was warm enough that a sweatshirt was all I needed for comfort. He even brought in a clean porta potty, compliments of his employer, and observers could stay as long as they wanted after the public star party.

There were about eight telescopes there including a 6-inch f/12 Astro-Physics Starfire refractor (one of only 10 made) and some 6-inch Takahashi binos (this Tak guy also has one of those 6-inch f/12 Starfires too). Just imagine the views we all got to see through these instruments! I brought my 12.5-inch f/5.75 Litebox reflector, Strider, and it was one of two similar sized instruments on both nights. None of the observers brought larger equipment, though many owned 18 - 25-inch reflectors, too.

About 50 or so people from the Sugarbowl/Norden/Truckee/Donner Lake community came to the star party, and not one of them had white flashlights! The skies were amazing, about LM 6.8 or better. I stayed after the public star party to observe on my own and watch and sketch the moon rise in the high sierra sky.

Don called the astronomers together at 8:00 p.m. and handed out five heavy card stock observing chart lists. The first chart had Venus, six bright stars, six double or multiple stars, the Double Cluster and the Garnet Star listed.

Each astronomer took one object from each category based on their preference or their telescope aperture. The handouts showed where each object was located, and provided detailed charts for some of the objects. The second chart showed two multiple star systems and two good variables, 61 Cygni and Omicron Cygni, V Aquilae and T Lyrae, complete with good finder charts for easy starhopping to these objects.

When it was dark enough to move away from stars and bright planets we moved to the Milky Way and some interesting galaxies and we received a chart listing them. We all selected a couple objects. I won't dwell on this but again each observer selected a couple objects from among 25 Milky Way objects and three galaxies. Don gave each astronomer his book: Messier Marathon Observers Guide to use as a star chart for these objects. Some observers chose to add their own favorite objects to the star-hop pot.

Next, we moved on to comets and Map 4. Comets Hoenig and Swan were mapped for the duration of the seven night event, and another good red star WZ Cass, and nearby open cluster NGC7789 were mapped out. I showed Hoenig both nights.

It was time for more planets now and Don also provided star charts for Uranus, Neptune, and object #40 on the list, Pluto. Yes, Don assigned Pluto to one or two star-hopping observers each night, with excellent charts showing the planet motion over the 7 nights and with predictable excellent results - the assigned observer was able to locate and describe Pluto to the gathering. Pluto was easy to spot in a 13.1-inch f/4.5 Coulter reflector one night, and two 12.5 inchers the second night, including my own Strider.

The visitors all got to see 40 objects in less than an hour and a half using Don's method of assigning objects and switching to another target after about ten minutes. His handouts gave just enough factoids about each object to fill one line of text. Each observer had a sound bite to say for each object. The small group of telescopes were arranged in a loose circle so people could walk from telescope to telescope. This method worked well for our size of crowd and our number of telescopes and astronomer experience level. On each night there was an observer who didn't or couldn't get his go-to to "go to", but they were brave for coming to a public event and enjoyed themselves. They both learned a lot from the other observers.

The second night's star party was at elevation 3,600 foot long. 120.6 W lat 39.2 N China Wall, 12 miles past Foresthill, which is 18 miles past historic Auburn in the Sierra foothills. Sacramento is about 50 miles away, but trees obscured most of the light dome, and the other directions were very dark. There were some clouds which made for a short but successful night of observing. A local astronomer from the Foresthill area was the one who pointed out that the clouds were black due to the lack of light pollution.

This particular observer is usually imaging these objects in his nearby observatory and relished some starhopping for a couple nights. You night recognize his name - Tony Hallas - who was borrowing one of Don Machholz's two 6-inchers for the night.

Again there were about eight telescopes and about 75 attendees at this event, despite the approaching cloud cover. Most of these folks knew Tony Hallas and Don Machholz - they are well known in these communities in the Sierra foothills. It was a real community happening at another incredible observing location, one which is available for amateurs to use when it is not covered with snow. I would have stayed later but by 11:30 p.m. most of the sky was obscured by black clouds.

Friday night the traveling star show went to nearby Colfax High School and I headed for a vacation elsewhere. Saturday night the site was Big Bend, about 30 miles from Colfax. Sunday night Don set up at Sugar Pine Reservoir boat parking lot near Foresthill. This spot is reputed to be among the best of the seven. It's not too far from the China Wall spot I observed from on Thursday night.

Monday night the setup was at Dutch Flat and the last night, Tuesday night's finale was at the Soda Springs Ski Resort parking lot. This whole seven-night event was co-sponsored by the Colfax Chamber of Commerce, and Don did an incredible job of promoting it. He had red flashlights for everybody too.

I saw the event mentioned in a large article in the Auburn Sentinel newspaper Friday morning and Don appeared daily on local radio shows (perhaps TV too) giving "observing reports" of each night's activity.

I am really glad I made the scenic drive to the Sierra for this special event. I woke up Thursday morning with a view of Donner Lake from my camping spot, and in the cool Sierra air had fresh brewed coffee and raspberries and cream. Plus I got to observe with some of the great amateur astronomers from the region.

I also brought my roadside geology books and took a scenic drive between the two star parties on Thursday afternoon. I drove the 67 miles of California 20 from Marysville to Emigrant Gap, Highway 49 from Grass Valley to Auburn, and Interstate 80 from Sacramento to Truckee, noting interesting geology and history at every turn of the road.


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