Blackwater Falls Astronomy Weekend
Sept. 27 - 29, 2013
By Steve Luzader
(Click on an image to enlarge)

The 2013 Astronomy Weekend officially began on Thursday, Sept. 26.  I arrived at the lodge around 1:30 on Friday after stopping for lunch at the Mountain State Brewing Company in Deep Creek on my way from Frostburg.  Rodney Waugh and Ed Conners were describing the installation of a new telescope and mount at the KVAS observatory at Breezy Point when I came in.  The mount is incredible--an Astrophysics 1600 with a load capacity of over 200 lb!  The telescope is a refurbished Newtonian donated by Chuck Spann, which weighs over 100 lb--that's why they chose a mount built like a tank.  The next speaker was supposed to be Nancy Casto talking about the New Horizons mission to Pluto.  Unfortunately she had to cancel, but it gave me the opportunity to talk about "2013: Year of the Comets?".  After some general information about comets, I described the hype about Comets PanSTARRS and ISON.  I reported on my disappointing experiences with PanSTARRS and discussed the failure so far of ISON to live up to its predictions.  I invited people to go out and look for ISON near Mars in the early morning sky.  My presentation was followed by an outdoor activity organized by Chuck Spann to help people appreciate the scale of the solar system and the fact that it is mostly empty.

Rodney Waugh describing KVAS' new mount.
PanSTARRS on March 23 from Big Savage Mountain near Frostburg.
Chuck Spann
Chuck Spann with his "planets".
Empty solar system
Bob Dean as the Sun showing how empty the solar system is.  The white dot is Earth.
The weather was promising for the Friday night star party--it was cloudy as I headed to Blackwater Brewing Company for dinner but the National Weather Service and the Clear Sky Chart all insisted skies would clear up by nightfall.  I was extremely disappointed by dinner at BBC--the service was poor and the menu was incredibly limited.  But the Helles Bock beer was good and I took a growler of it back to my room.

I was nervous about the star parties both nights.  I had emergency back surgery in July and was having difficulty walking or even standing for long periods of time.  The only equipment I brought was my little iOptron mount, my 80 mm ShortTube refractor, my 60Da camera with some of my old screw-mount lenses, and the necessary eyepieces.  I wanted to photograph Kemble's Cascade, but I wasn't sure whether the mount could tolerate the load of the scope with a piggyback camera, and I wasn't sure how the images would look being taken on an alt-az mount.  Once I finally managed to get the clutch really tight I discovered I could easily take 30-second exposures and still have nice tight round stars, at least with a 135 mm lens.  I spent the evening taking pictures in the region near the Cascade.  A sample is shown at the right.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't really look for the Cascade.  I was rapidly becoming fatigued and I wanted to get up early the next morning to look for Comet ISON.  So having found that I could get sharp images, I packed up and went back to the lodge.  I was in bed by 11:30.  I learned the next day that I missed a spectacular fireball that occurred around 11:25.  Mark "Indy" Kochte, who would be the keynote speaker on Saturday, had set up a camera to take images for a time lapse movie and he captured the fireball over Pendleton Lake.  The pictures below show some of the scopes at the Friday star party and Indy's image of the fireball.
Friday scopesFriday scopesFriday scopesFireball
Star Field
I got up at 5 AM Saturday morning and drove to the Nature Center to look for Comet ISON.  Alas, I was only one there.  After I got everything set up, I discovered that the batteries were dying in the iOpton, so the mount was not tracking well.  (I had considered bringing a car battery with me, but it was too heavy...)  I looked for the comet near Mars in the ShortTube and my 9 x 63 binoculars and could not see it.  The pictures looked awful, so I glumly packed everything up and headed back to the lodge for breakfast.  A week later, while looking at the images, I thought I had actually captured the comet.   But CAC member Steve Vincent alerted me that it might be a galaxy, so I studied my Cartes du Ciel chart for early Saturday morning and discovered to my dismay that the fuzzy is actually NGC2903.  It's in the circle on the far left side of the image to the right.  ISON should be roughly in the circle near the star close to Mars, which is the red smear in the lower right corner.  (There does appeart to be a very faint object in the circle, but it's easier to see in a negative image.)  According to Cartes du Ciel, 2903 has a total brightness of magnitude 9, so ISON must be considerably fainter than that.Comet ISON?
Maria Hamilton
Brent Maynard
Tim Hamilton The Saturday morning session began with a talk on black holes and general relativity by Maria Babiuc-Hamilton of Marshall University.  Brent Maynard, also from Marshall, returned to do a live example of how to process DSLR images using a series of exposures he took at his home the night before.  The processing took longer than expected so he stopped to allow the next speaker, Tim Hamilton of Shawnee State University to give his presentation on exoplanet searches and Project Panoptes.  Brent was going to show the result of his image processing, but alas I never got to see the finished product because I had to leave just as Tim finished his talk.  At the right is Tim and Maria's daughter Rebecca admiring a moth she caught outside the conference center.  Tim and Maria's daughter
Caitlin Ahrens The trip to Hellbender's for lunch was a real adventure.  The normally sleepy town of Davis was packed with people because it was the annual Leaf Peeper's Festival, which featured a marathon that caused traffic to be halted occasionally on the main drag.  But I finally got my burrito and beer and headed back for the afternoon talks and raffle drawing.  The first speaker was Caitlin Ahrens, a WVU grad student, who discussed the geology of Mars.  She was followed by the keynote speaker, Mark Kochte, from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab.  He's the lead scientist on the Mercury Messenger mission and after showing us his movie and still image of the fireball the night before, he told us about what has been learned so far from Messenger.  Then came the drawings.  I won nothing this year, but first-timer Joe Mendel walked away with over $100 worth of gift certificates from places like JMI and Lumicon.  I went to my room to install fresh batteries in the iOptron and head to the Nature Center for a meteorite etching class.
Mark "Indy" Kochte

One of the highlights of Saturday evening (besides the star party) was a meteorite etching session organized by Chuck Spann.  He had several slices of an iron meteorite that came down in South America about 5000 years ago, and he was going to show us how to etch it with ferric chloride to bring out the crystal structure.  There were four of us in the "class".  I think we were all very pleased with the results of our efforts.  I know I was!
Becky Littleton and friend
Becky Littleton (r.) and friend working on their meteorites
Chuck Spann
Chuck Spann and one of the participants
Chuck Spann
Chuck helping a participant
My meteorite
My meteorite!
 After the meteorite etching session, I started setting up my stuff.  Along the way, I took photos of some of other folks around me.  It was still early, so only a few people were there.  The collection of scopes grew larger as the evening wore on.
When the sky finally got dark, I located Kemble's Cascade and started taking photos.  I had decided the evening before (erroneously as it turns out) that the cascade was larger than the field of view of my 135 mm lens, so I used a 17 - 50 mm lens set at 50 mm.  The resulting image is rather disappointing because the cascade appears small and I didn't focus carefully enough.  But at least I got my picture.  (I took some more shots from my driveway after I got home...)  After I got done with Kemble's Cascade and taking some other pictures just to try out alt-az photography, I spent time showing visitors some cool sky sights.  Among other things, we looked at the Cascade (of course), M31, the Double Cluster, and one of my all-time favorites, NGC457 (aka the "ET Cluster).
Kemble's Cascade
Kemble's Cascade is at the center of this image.
This is an experimental alt-az shot of M31.
It's only two 30-sec exposures, so it's not very impressive.
Because I was barely able to walk, I couldn't take my usual hikes to Elekala Falls and Blackwater Falls.  Instead, I had to content myself with pictures of the canyon and the Falls as seen from the overlook on the Gentle Trail.  Bummer...  But I hope next year I'll be able to do the trails again.
The canyonThe canyonThe canyon
The FallsThe Falls