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Report: 26th Annual South Pacific Star Party

Report: 26th Annual South Pacific Star Party

This was an event to remember! Preparations began well in advance and, after having some 60 on-site registrations in 2016, it was decided to impose a numbers limit and require advance registrations from 2017. At the 25th Annual SPSP in 2017, the final count was 301 participants.

In 2018, the 300 online bookings limit was reached just six weeks after registrations opened in mid-February. Between the end of March and the end of April, there were very few cancellations and the tally at the end of April was up to 334 participants (with the sponsors, neighbours and guest speakers). With time running out before preparation of badges and lists (to be finalised before 9th May), the waiting list was closed. Surprisingly, another 16 cancellations trickled in during the first week of May. Nevertheless, it was shaping up to be a packed event, although the weather forecast was for:

"Partly cloudy. Medium (60%) chance of showers. Snow possible above 900 metres. Winds westerly 25 to 35 km/h increasing to 25 to 40 km/h during the evening. Overnight temperatures falling to between zero and 6 with daytime temperatures reaching between 7 and 13."

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon (9th May) to start getting organised, unload boxes of badges, lists and volunteer instructions, as well as refreshing my campsite. I arrived in time to see the installation of the floor for the pavilion. This strategy was trialled following on from experiences in previous years when the interior accumulated a LOT of condensation and we ended up with "rain" on the tables every morning. This year's weather had many tricks up the sleeve, however, and condensation was minimal. The set-up of the Pavilion, Check-In Tent and Image Processing Pit (new for 2018) was completed by around 5.30pm in basking sunshine. It wasn't until the team from JD Events was getting ready to leave that we realised that a small generator had been forgotten. This was promptly brought in the next morning. The evening was clear and the earlybird astroimagers managed to get a bit of a head-start. That night was cold, but only about regular Wiruna cold for that time of year. 

Thursday morning (10th May) started out fine and sunny for the set-up of the power, tables, desks, signs and the 101 other little jobs that were needed to prepare the site.  It was late Thursday afternoon that the cloud moved in and the temperature really started to dive. Sunset Thursday had a sky half-cloudy, but I did manage to see Venus. I'm not sure how the keen observers and astroimagers fared that night. I don't recall the sky being brilliant. I think it came and went. All I know is that it was cold enough to tuck the sleeping bag inside the rest of the bedding for extra warmth when I retired that night.

Something happened on Friday morning (11th May) that I had never experienced before - gently falling snow. At first, there were just a few large icy flakes that smashed when they landed. But then, as I was eating breakfast outside my tent, the snow became more regular, occasionally wafting around on bursts of wind, and sometimes just falling quietly. Not knowing how long it would last, I hastily snapped some photos. But, later, after walking up to the amenities, I also managed to capture the scene on video. I was pretty excited and felt like a kid, just watching in awe. The wind built up during the day and the SkyWatcher gazebo was beginning to look like a really bad idea. The SkyWatcher display was moved into the corner of the Pavilion as the Scouts were beginning to serve lunches. 

Some participants struggled to put up tents in the wind and decided to leave. By this time, it was also clear that a number who'd booked would probably not bother coming. The volunteers on the gate took shelter in their vehicles as it became more unpleasant out in the open.

On Friday afternoon, in the shelter of the Meeting Hall where the fires were providing some warmth, we heard a very interesting talk by Trent McDougall. Trent had been recognised in the Astronomy Innovations/Telescope Makers' Competition some ten years earlier. He has gone on to develop hardware/software solutions for operating all sorts of equipment and his systems are now used on telescopes all around the world. He cited the Global Jet Watch project among his credits (a collection of Oxford University telescope in schools on four continents, including the telescope at Tara Anglican School for Girls at North Parramatta), for which he designed the system to remotely open the flaps of the Ritchey–Chrétien telescopes.

As a substitute for observing on Friday evening, which was now dampened by occasional showers and persistent wind, I presented a talk about my experience at Mauna Kea in 2006. Although I knew that many members and some other participants may have already seen it, it seemed particularly relevant in the context of the snowy morning that we'd had at Wiruna. Later in the evening, the DVD player saw some use as well. After watching part of the movie and listening to the increasingly steady rain, I made my way back to my camp in Bon Glen. The night was a challenge. Luckily, I stayed dry, though sleep was delayed somewhat by drips and concerns about equipment outside getting wet. I think I was one of the lucky ones. Someone got up to dry sheets by the fire in the Meeting Hall. Someone else ended up sleeping on the front seats of a camper van when the mattress became wet. Fair dinkum, it rained!  

All was not lost. On Saturday morning (12th May), by the time I surfaced, the rain had stopped and the site appeared to be in pretty good shape. The recently-installed gravel around the Meeting Hall/Pavilion area was doing its job and there were no puddles to avoid. Now, all we needed, was some wind to blow away the clouds! What's that saying? "Be careful what you wish for." During the morning, the wind forecast was upgraded to "damaging westerly winds". Thankfully, I don't think we had any 90 kph gusts. Husband, who was working at Scone Racetrack, reported fierce winds there, where it was much more exposed. I think that Wiruna was partly protected by the large tract of bushland to our west. Some of us went back to camp to pack away bits and pieces into vehicles so as not to have flying card tables blowing about the site. Things settled down after lunch, in time for everyone to enjoy the afternoon's presentations. Paul Hatchman, Don Whiteman and I mucked in for the Opening Address. Next was a delightful presentation by Melissa Hulbert, who shared her total solar eclipse experiences. The presentations for the Astronomy Innovations Showcase (two entries) and the Astroimaging Competition proceeded in the usual fashion. The Lucky Prize Draw took on a new format with improved displays of the prizes on offer. Every winner came forward without delay and there was no need for the 30-second countdown. It is wonderful to have our sponsors, Bintel, SkyWatcher, Celestron, Televue, Quasar Publishing, and Australian Sky & Telescope, continuing to support our event every year. We also had generous donations of prizes from a couple of ASNSW members.

Dinner on Saturday evening was ready early! I congratulated the chefs on "the best ever roast dinner at a star party". But the quandary remained - would the cloud, which had persisted all day, clear in time for sky tours? I delayed the decision, thinking that if we were to offer a trivia quiz, this would probably not begin till 7pm after dinner was cleared. The twilight sky tour was scheduled for 6-7pm. At 6pm, it was still looking ambiguous. However, at 6.20pm, the skies opened up and the announcement was made. I headed down to the observing field and managed to point out Jupiter, the Southern Cross and Pointers, Sirius, and the entire ancient ship, Argo Navis. I explained how to find south and discussed the Ecliptic. Some of the participants spotted satellites, though I don't think we were anywhere near the record! A few recalcitrant clouds bothered various corners, mainly to the north and west. However, by the end of the twilight tour, it was full-on clear and dark.  After a quite break, I joined in the telescope tour, and participants soaked up photons into the night. 

The Sunday pack-up (13th May) was made easier for me with Husband, now finished at Scone, arriving to pull down our tent. I had time to reflect on the weekend, the fact that almost nothing broke and hardly anyone noticed the things that did, the weather that insisted on making itself the most prominent aspect of the weekend, the invincible spirit of the volunteers who make it all happen, and the perfect Saturday night that rewarded the stayers. I had an awesome time and am looking forward to next year's event!

The final participant count, to the best of my ability to determine, was 255 on site for at least some part of the weekend. 

By Lesa Moore, 15th May 2018.





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