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Outreach Report, Chiricahua National Monument, 10/21/2017

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Event: Chiricahua National Monument Star Party

Date: Saturday October 21, 2017

Location: Chiricahua National Monument, 37 miles Southeast of Willcox, AZ, about 5400 feet elevation

Weather: Clear skies, low 90s at home in Marana, AZ about 140 miles Northwest of the park at 2:00 PM, about 70 at the park at 5:30 PM, dropping to upper 40s around 9:30 PM when we left.

Seeing: and Transparency: Seeing very steady, transparency generally good with some high stratus due to merging contrails from late afternoon west-bound Los Angeles air traffic.

Equipment: 10” f/10 Meade 2120 SCT operating at f/5 (1270mm) for deep sky, Celestron AVX mount, Mallincam Xterminator live video camera, QFX 19" LCD 12V monitor, Werker deep cycle 100 amp-hour power supply with A/C inverter.

The TAAA provided Jim Knoll, Dean Ketelsen, Paul Williamson, and myself to set up telescopes to support a public night under the stars, part of the Chiricahua National Monument (CNM)’s efforts to achieve International Dark Sky Park status.  Jim did the heavy lifting in setting up the event and visiting the site to choose a setup site.

CNM is a picturesque combined prairie and brushy high desert area at over 5,000 feet elevation and about forty miles from urban light sources, a combination giving it very dark skies along with favorable transparency.  Humidity for the two days I was in the area was under 10%, helping provide a clear access to the exoatmospheric realm.  CNM is rightfully called, quoting from its web site, a "Wonderland of Rocks", waiting to be explored. The 8-mile paved scenic drive and 17-miles of day-use hiking trails provide opportunities to discover the beauty, natural sounds, and inhabitants of this 11,985 acre site including the Faraway Ranch Historic District with plenty to discover more about the people who have called this area home. The quality of the night sky here, with the cooperation of the climatology, weather cooperates, gives  great skies for exploring the full environment at this dark sky site.

OK, on with the show.  The location is about a two hour drive from home, and then back again.  I wasn’t sure how long we’d have visitors since the event was advertised in the area as well as there being a campground within the property.  I needed to be there early enough to set up my scope as well as check out the Bonita Campground Amphitheater for a sunset talk I was requested to give, so I was looking at a pretty full day and late night so to be safe, I planned to drive home the next morning and got a room in Willcox.  The star party was coincident with several major events in Willcox including a wine festival, the Boulder Dash Trail Run, art classes and festivals, all of which had most of the motel rooms in town booked a couple of months in advance but I was able to reserve one six weeks in advance. 

After an uneventful drive to Willcox, I checked into the Super 8 and headed the forty miles to CNM.  I set up with the others at the Faraway Ranch Parking Lot, headed over to the campground amphitheater.  We have been setting up this support for the CNM star party series for around six months, and it was great to meet Ranger Suzanne Moody, our point of contact.  Suzanne was setting up the projector, I plugged in my laptop, and we were ready to go. 

As people began coming into the outdoor arena, Suzanne engaged them in conversation and prompting their observations about the experience in the facility.  I am always amazed when I deal with National Park Service Rangers and their positive approach to the whole function.  Everyone Suzanne dealt with at the Amphitheater received personal attention with a smile and enthusiasm.  And it always seems that way, with the Interpretive Rangers I've teamed with at a half dozen National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas.  Always uplifting to be around.

The talk is an overview of what’s available to view at night.  A brief description of how small and large stars work, basic facts about our solar system and planets, clusters, constellations, galaxies, nebulae, and comets, finishing up with a four minute stream of astrophotographs of the objects we’d been discussing.  We had about 20 people show up; the festivities in Willcox cut down the size of the potential audience.

I went back to the setup site, and the other three were going strong with about 50 visitors.  It took me a while in the dark to polar and stellar alignments done, then I caught up with the others.  The first item I showed was M22, the large globular cluster in Sagittarius.  The gain was set on 3, with only the 2.1 seconds of integration set, and there were some red artifacts in the cluster core so I backed the gain down to zero and upped the integration time to 8 seconds and the cluster exploded on the screen, filling it like a picture of Omega Centaurus.  From then on, I kept the gain off and used only integration time to enhance the various objects.

From then on, it was a great teaching opportunity with about a dozen folks who hung around.my spot.  For this season, I jumped through my usual list of objects that show well with the Mallincam.  After M22, I went over to M8, the Lagoon, and upped the integration time to highlight the huge emission nebula and its evolving open cluster condensing from the gas cloud as each star’s nuclear fusion initiates and sends out a pressure wave to continue the star forming process.  In a few million years, all we’ll have to view is the cluster devoid of gas, but for now, what a beauty. 

Next came The Swan, M17, a red emission nebula that resembles its namesake and appears to be shedding feathers.  Some of the most massive stars generating the energy to cause the emission are hidden behind the dust cloud that makes the crook of the neck of the swan, needing infrared sensors to peer into the dark.  We spent a good amount of time discussing the range of stellar evolution in view, with the new birthing in M8 and M17, while the end of the process residing in M22.

To complete the life cycle demonstration we ended up nearly overhead, first with M27, the Dumbbell planetary nebula in Vulpecula the Fox, just below the Summer Triangle, a huge item on the monitor screen since I operate at f/5, a longer focal length of 1270mm to get a large image size.  This item required an increase of integration time to over 20 seconds, but the blue-green ionizing oxygen center was wrapped nicely in the red hydrogen outer layer all generated by the heat from the white dwarf core star caused by the increased stellar winds from the helium flash near the end of life of the dying former star.  For a while we went over to The Ring nebula, M57, in Lyra, a much smaller object due to being about twice as far away from us as M27.  The double white dwarf stars were clearly visible, but the integration time needed to be dropped to around 5 seconds to accommodate the higher surface brightness of the little Cheerio.  As a comparison, I tried to go back to M8 and couldn’t find it, thinking my alignment had gone awry.  Then I looked up and saw Sagittarius had dipped behind a high Southwestern ridge, and even the Xterminator has trouble looking through rock.

The final object I showed off was NGC457, The Owl Cluster, looking like a bat hanging upside down with the camera orientation appropriate to the upcoming holiday, and is an example of a cluster that has used up all of the source gas but whose stars have yet to dissipate at only about 22 million years old, fills in the timeline of stellar evolution.

Our audience eventually left, I packed up, went to the motel, and had an uneventful trip home, except for an accident that had closed I-10 and had us get off and back on.  Among the dented vehicles I saw was an auto transporter with six vehicles on fire.  That’s going to cost!

A nice start to a continuing partnership with Chiricahua National Monument.

Edited by Skylook123
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Sounds like it went really well. Good luck with getting the International Dark Sky Park status.

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Great report. Super jealous, especially as we only get about 10 good nights a year here!

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23 hours ago, melsmore said:

Sounds like it went really well. Good luck with getting the International Dark Sky Park status.

I do wish our visitor count would have been higher, but there were so many activities going on forty miles away in the town of Willcox, and some guided day hikes within the venue, that we're not surprised. 

I've been fortunate to be part of several successful IDSP accomplishments, and this location already looks to be on the edge of qualifying.  One Park At A Time.

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10 hours ago, Mr niall said:

Great report. Super jealous, especially as we only get about 10 good nights a year here!

I will always be grateful for our special part of the world.  We are fortunate, and I wish many more folks could come through and see how the night sky should be.  We can't fight weather, but we can sure minimize the human intrusion on the night environment under which we, and the rest of the natural world, evolved.

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