SSPM20. Scumbags in the Warrumbungles

By Scott Mellish, 1999

In November 1998 a small group of ASNSW members consisting of myself, Don Whiteman, Mick McCullagh and Les Sara - henceforth known as the `scumbags' - decided to take a trip to Victoria to visit the ASV Christmas get together on their rural property on the outskirts of Heathcote, Victoria. This year we had planned a return trip in February as they were planning a star party of their own. As it turned out it was mysteriously scheduled during last quarter moon and only some two weeks from our own star party, which was not too much of a problem - but last quarter moon? For a couple of avid deep sky observers that is like saying don't come. So, we didn't. What transpired was a small get together of our own known as the 'scumbags star party'. And what better place to hold such a prestigious event than in the Warrumbungle National Park. I arrived at Ilford on Saturday the I3th'' at around 2pm to be greeted by the energetic working party who were preparing the site for the annual star party. I had brought the whipper snipper and some tools to help with matters but everything had virtually been done. Needless to say, my turn will come as official garbologist at the star party. Les and Don were also present, but they would not be staying - having to return to Sydney for the rest of the week. They would hopefully be up the coming Thursday.

The advance party - consisting of Mick McCullagh, myself and my father (who has about as much interest in astronomy as a sheep) were to head off on Tuesday to set up the base camp. In the meantime, we would indulge in some observing at Wiruna. Sunday, after all the poor unfortunates had gone home, proved to be the best night for observing. The sky was lovely, clear and blue all afternoon and it persisted as night fell and darkness came, with not a cloud in sight.

So to start off this edition of post mortem I would like to begin with the so-called `Eskimo Nebula' in Gemini. This was one of these objects that I have only ever had a brief look at in the past, so I decided to spend a bit of time with it and do a sketch. NGC 2392 in the eyepiece at 420x mag sports a soft round outer halo about 2 arc mins across with a defining central star smack bang in the middle. The most enjoyable part of this object is the quaint and prominent ring that surrounds this star, which would be some 9 arcsecs across. Unfortunately, I forgot to write on the sketch whether I used an OXY III filter on this object or not, but I'm pretty sure I did, which obviously made the ring quite a novel feature. This is a pretty impressive planetary, and I spent quite a bit of time perusing this charming object as the seeing was good enough to boost up the magnification a bit to see what further detail could be gained. Though the 9mm Nagler and 2x Big Barlow combination in the l6-inch was a handsome view, it was just on the limits of the seeing conditions and I left it at that. NGC 2392 appeared at about 20 arcsecs in size and is a memorable object, one that you have no trouble in paying the odd visit to every now and then.

Monday at Wiruna was a pretty nice sort of day and the sky was fairly clear all day. It was spent pretty much relaxing and wandering about. As late afternoon approached the sky was looking fairly promising. The anticipation of another night's observing was on the cards. Such was not to be though. Just as the observing was getting interesting, in rolled the clouds, and they did not go away. The night was quite warm, this led me and Mick to propose nude observing for next year's star party- with Claudia Schiffer and Elle MacPherson invited as guest speakers. It will be interesting to see if this proposal is adopted. As a novel observing suggestion while the clouds were in abundance I placed the notebook computer on the old carpet around my scope to do a bit of Megastar observing, unfortunately the program was almost immediately molested by hundreds of pesky bugs and moths - so much for that idea, it was definitely time to go to bed!

Tuesday morning soon arrived and it was a leisurely pack up of all the camping gear. The coffin was staying behind this time in the storage shed, as Mick's new 18-inch was a better option for the trip. Being a truss tube, a considerable amount of room was saved, especially in the trailer.

We trundled off at around 11.45am after locking the place up and headed straight to Coonabarabran. After a pretty comfortable drive, with the customary fuel stops etc., we arrived at Camp Blackman in the Warrumbungles at about 4pm. At first there was some reluctance to leave an air-conditioned car and begin assembling the tents etc. However we bit the bullet and alighted in 32 degree heat and unpacked all the gear.

When everything was out on the ground it looked a bit like a Himalayas expedition or something, it was a shame that we did not have 50 to 100 Sherpas to do all the work instead.

One thing I have found when it is hot, is to not stress out, so it was slow as she goes as we gradually made some sense of the entire shambles. Within the hour all the tents, cooking gear, beds and of course most importantly the telescope were all up and running. The first thing I did after it was all done was inspect the amenities block, which is a bit of a treat for a national park. The block is as good as some caravan parks, with plenty of water, and even hot showers. This was one thing I was straight into - a lovely hot shower. And what a treat it was, after the shower I was a hundred years younger. When you get back to a campsite just when the sun is going down, all refreshed in the cool of the afternoon, it's like no other feeling in the world. A bloke wouldn't be dead for quids!

We all had a pretty easy meal for tea and just sat back and relaxed during the early evening. A visitor in the shape of a goanna was doing the rounds inspecting what there was to eat, it just trundled through the campsite probably thinking, 'hey Boo-Boo, watchya got in that picnic basket Boo-Boo' in the time-honoured tradition of Yogi Bear. Actually, I looked at all the kangaroos around and got the impression they were thinking the same thing. Though a sign said, 'do not feed the animals'; it is obvious by the way all the animals come around that they are pretty well fed, and none too shy into the bargain as well. As the place was not Wiruna, you could not very well tell other visitors to the park to shove their white lights where they fit, so Mick and me decided that a 10.30-1l.00pm start would be a fair bet, so a brief snooze was in order. I got up at around 11.20pm, and the sky was beautifully clear.

The darkness of the site is somewhat better than Ilford, but you do not notice this fact until your eyes are well dark-adapted. Mick was a bit slow off the mark at getting up but we were off and into the thick of it by midnight. The seeing was not too bad, but could have been better, but I was not complaining too much, at least the sky was clear. The first objects we looked at were the numerous ESO galaxies that surround Omega Centauri and these kept us entertained for some time. The night was pretty much a 'look at what we feel like' affair, and it was quite a casual tourist trip about the place. Before I was going to hit the sack I thought I should at least do one sketch, so I chose IC 4402 in Lupus, an interesting edgewise spiral about 8'x2' in size. It is a fairly diffuse and narrow object, which does, oddly enough remind me of a miniature version of NGC 55 in Sculptor, simply because the galaxy is not the classic edge on spiral shape, with the ends of the object seeming to be a touch ragged, and the central portion showing signs of varying brightness. In the l8inch at 227x mag this was a pleasant galaxy to observe with its soft diffuse glow and nice long wispy streak-like form. Well worth a visit.

I decided to go to bed at around 3.30am after a pretty interesting session. After all, this was my first observing session from the Warrumbungles. Mick soldiered on for a while longer taking in the sights just in case the rest of the days were cloudy.

Wednesday was yet again another warm but beautifully clear day that did not even look like clouding up. So, in the afternoon, it was a run back into Coona to pick up some supplies. On the way back I took dad to visit the AAT at siding spring. We had been here before some 10 years ago, during torrential rain and floods and while the observatory was shrouded in mist and fog, so it was the first time we had seen the place in all its glory.

We popped into the visitor's centre at the park on the way back to pay the modest $20.00 park use fee which is a bargain considering the facilities available, and then headed back to the campsite for a relaxing afternoon.

And what a wonderfu1 afternoon it was, just sitting, drinking and watching the dopey kangaroos. The silly looking goanna was back again, this time with an offsider, and they patrolled about looking for any handouts. Wednesday afternoon was very pleasant and it led into another clear and dark night. The early evening was spent sleeping and I was up again at about 11.00pm arousing Mick from his slumber. Soon the observing was underway again and this time we were in Antlia. One of the main attractions in Antlia is the majestic 'eight burst' planetary nebula. This object is a wonderful oval shaped ring, in the 18inch at 227x mag. What you see is a well-defined ring structure that ever so slightly dips in the middle and just hints of a sort of peanut shape appearance. The central region is a soft haze with a bright pinpoint star smack in the centre, which makes a defining feature of the object. The bright ring suitably fascinated me, as it is a soft glowing feature, but, in turn it does not overwhelm the overall view of this exceptional planetary nebula. NGC 3132 would be around 3x3 arc mins in size and I would rate it as among one of the best you can observe. After having a nice long look at the eight burst while doing the sketch, it was time to partake of a coffee.

As I walked over to the campsite, Skippy was helping himself to some bread, whilst his partners in crime were looking from afar, staring from the darkness in anticipation of some food becoming available. Unfortunately, poor old Skip got hunted out, and his mates were chased away. Too many kangaroos were surrounding the campsite and I was certainly not ready yet to sign the articles of surrender. After a quick coffee it: was back to the eyepiece. Mick had decided to concentrate on the many galaxies in Antlia and the surrounding region, so I let him steer the scope while I sat back and relaxed, and just got up when some galaxy or object was located. I did not last too long past 3.30am, but Mick stayed at the scope for a while longer and visited some very interesting galaxy groups, judging by his observing notes when I read them during the day.

Thursday brought with it more clear sunny weather and some time was spent wandering around looking at some better sites for the telescopes for next time we do a trip out here. There was an access road that led further away from the main camping area which had some good spots, but nobody likes leaving their scopes too far from sight, so this area was not ideal. There was, however, a good campsite on the high side of the grounds that gave a good all-round view of the sky and this looked promising, as the lights from the amenities block were out of view. The only real fault was the dry and dusty ground that was in desperate need of some grass on it. None the less we kept it in mind for future reference.

The day passed fairly quickly. The lovely afternoons were a feature of the visit. And it was great spending the day sitting back and enjoying the scenery, as the sun slowly but surely set. The intrepid goanna made its regular afternoon visit and partook of a couple of chook eggs; its belly was beginning to look decidedly fat. Most of the resident animals had woken to the fact that there is free food to be had, and the site was becoming decidedly popular.

After a shower then tea it was time to have a siesta again, I dozed on and off until about 11.00pm when most of the other campers were well and truly in bed. The sky was yet again perfectly clear and another nights' observing was in the offing. Arousing Mick was the next duty, and after shaking the tent and hearing the customary Errrrrnrrrrh, I knew it would not be long before he was up and observing. This night's observing consisted of some more planetary nebulae. One in particular - Koh 2-15 turned out to be a bigger challenge than first expected. Mick had the scope centred right on the exact field, and despite this we could not detect even the faintest hint of any nebulosity. The nebula had a magnitude of 13 and reading its details there was nothing there to say that it should not be visible in some shape or form. We tried all the eyepiece combinations we could think of, including the O III and even the H-BETA filter. All to no avail, this planetary remains a mystery. However, since then, I have downloaded a picture of this object, and it shows some faint nebulosity around a group of stars. It actually looks like a miniature version of the Pleiades, which could explain why we could not see this object.

The next planetary was some thing Mick found and, after I looked in the eyepiece, I had no idea what he was looking at, and could not pick the object he was endeavouring to point out. I was subsequently sacked from observing any more planetaries. Later on, into the early morning we looked at a few obscure galaxies and I visited the novel Boks Valentine, a nice little dark nebula that was a pleasant surprise. I was off to bed around 3.30am pleased with the good observing runs we'd had since arriving. The trip was turning out to be a really good time away.

Friday morning I took Mick into town for a run to get some more ice and supplies. On the way we called into the Anglo Australian Telescope for a visit. Naturally a walk up to the main telescope is the highlight, and the panoramic view of the Warrumbungle Ranges is very spectacular. It is quite easy to just spend some time taking in the scenery. This was the second time I had been here in three days so I decided to try out the coffee shop while Mick had a look inside the display.

It is about a 35-minute trip into Coonabarabran so making sure you have enough food for at least a couple of days is essential, unless you like driving around a lot. Personally I like lounging about, especially in such a lovely area as Camp Blackman.

Late that Friday afternoon, fellow scumbags Les Sara and Don Whiteman arrived, and the campsite was soon a busy hive of activity. Don and Les had brought plenty of food as well so we were well stocked and not likely to die of hunger.

The weather so far had been excellent and Friday night was shaping up to be another top night's observing. The telescopes had aroused some local curiosity and some fellow campers were shown the basics by Don and invited back later in the evening to have a look at some objects.

As the sun finally set over the ranges, and the sky became dark enough to begin observing it was evident by my first look through Mick's 18-inch with a 9mm Nagler that all was not what it seemed. The 'seeing' was the worst I have ever experienced. Even in the 22mm Panoptic the stars did not come to anywhere near sharp focus. So, when Don, Mick and Les got up from their evening nap they were aghast at the appalling conditions. None the less if the sky is at least clear you can usually salvage something, so the time was spent showing the local campers about the sky. It was a good night to just sit back and take in the sky. A spectacular meteor pierced the southern sky as it sailed majestically across the top of the ranges leaving a momentary luminous trail across the sky. Though we stayed up till late the conditions for doing any sort of reasonable observing we pretty depressing and I was not motivated enough to consider even doing a wide field observing session. With the sky the way it was it was not hard to find an excuse to go to bed. And that was what most of us did.

Saturday was another promising day with the sky quite blue and not too many clouds about. Les and Don wanted to go into town so we all piled into Don's car and off we went. Saturdays in Coonabarabran are quite sedate. There are hardly any shops open past midday, apart from the local supermarket. We all decided that lunch at the pub would be the go, so it was in for a meal and a couple of cold drinks.

After lunch it was time to head back. Don and Les wanted to see the AAT so naturally we had to call in there. Three times in the space of three days was enough for me, so I decided to have a lay down under one of the trees in the car park lawn area while they all went up for a look. By the time we got back to camp it was fairly late in the afternoon so it was just a matter of having a nice quite afternoon watching the sun set.

Some American college students had arrived and they had set up camp for an overnight stay. Don paid them a visit to see if they would like to come over that evening for a look through the telescopes. By some strange quirk of fate most of the students were young ladies so Don was very certain that they needed a look around the great southern sky before they had to return home.

As evening fell the clouds had rolled in. Though the sky was not totally clouded out it was far from ideal. Don had his 10-inch scope out showing the American ladies a few odds and ends through breaks in the cloud. They were suitably impressed and most of them were unaware of how wonderful the southern sky is. As the night progressed the Americans wandered off and we were left to just play around with whatever object came to mind. 'The cloud cover was persistently annoying, and the seeing, although better than Friday night was by no means perfect. I decided to call it quits by midnight, as there did not seem much chance of improvement, so it was off to bed for me. Les, Don and Mick stayed up and ran into some local yobbo trash chucking doughnuts up at the amenities block. A couple of the clowns climbed onto the roof but before they could do too much damage they were swiftly given the message to go somewhere else.

The Sunday morning soon arrived and Les and Don had left at about 5.30am as they had to be back in Sydney by midday. I did not rise until 9.00am and actually found Mick up and about already which is not the usual thing that happens. After some breakfast it was the dreaded pack up time. This is the stage of proceedings most campers dread, but the sun had not yet risen over the trees so we were able to pack in the shade. All the gear actually packed away quite quickly and we were all ready to go by 10.30am. Actually, I think the three of us could have stayed for another week as this had been a most enjoyable observing trip and one which will definitely be on the cards for another day, perhaps next time in winter. Sadly, though, it was time to leave and head back to Wiruna. By the time we arrived at Ilford it was about 3.00pm and the thought crossed my mind to stay the night. But as we loaded all Mick's gear into his car I thought well, it's been a pretty good run and there is no point in delaying the agony, sooner or later, one HAS to go HOME!!!!

Clear Skies