I had the distinct honor and pleasure of being the main speaker for this years Nebraska Star Party. Held annually at the Merritt Reservoir near Valentine Nebraska, this years party boasted nearly 300 attendees spread over a spacious set of fields near the lake. One day of talks was held on Wednesday at the Valentine High School. I did a presentation to the kids program about astrophotography and it was a blast. The kids were very enthusiastic and inquisitive, with many of them being better versed in astronomy and photography than their parents!
The adult program was also on astrophotography, but aimed at a more general audience I focused on my own journey and what it was like to have the “imaging bug”. I tried to make the program as light toned as possible, and aimed at making uninvolved spouses understand their husband or wives late night obsession with the camera and the night sky. I received a lot of positive feedback afterwards so I think I had the mix just about right.
Of course in the middle of all this was the news about Pluto. The audience in the auditorium watched the NASA new briefs and we skyped with science writer Carolyn Collins Petersen, who along with her husband Mark are friends of mine. They were attending the news briefings and reporting on the events more or less live.
Every star party I attend is different. There were no vendors (surprising for an event this size), although I hear the late Jeff Goldstein from Astrogizmos was a regular in past years. One meal a day was provided in a common tent area, and had to be paid for in advance during registration. The meals were good, typical cook out faire, and the comradery was great too and I’ve made some new friends I think.
There were many campers spread over the very spacious area, RVs, tents, and just little places where someone setup their equipment and would drive in and out. A short walk “down the way” you could park your car with the headlights pointing away from the field for a nighttime get a way. Along the lake itself were campers not associated with the star party, people fishing or enjoying the weekend on the lake with their boats. It wasn’t often, but vehicles with headlights could and did come by occasionally. There is no point in being super crazy here about white lights, but everyone associated with the star party was red light equipped and it was manageable. Also, to be beginner friendly (as it was explained to me), green lasers are not banned. For imagers, you can just stack with some sort of rejection algorithm and it’ll eliminate any stray green beams cutting through your image. For nightscape photography, it requires a little patience and willingness to share the sky from time to time.
Speaking of skies, they were quite nice. I opted to stay the entire week in the hopes of hitting at least one good weather opening. It was beautiful for skycape imaging and the naked eye Milky Way is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I was told by some of the regulars that the sky was really not at its best that week. I can only imagine what it must be like on a “good night”. There were some clouds always on the horizon it seemed the two nights I had some windows to shoot through. There was of course rain, and some stormy weather, but I did not see any of the apocalyptic plain ravaging storms I’ve heard tell about.
In addition to nightscape photography, I did for the first time ever fly out a complete imaging system with me. A Paramount MYT with an 80mm Sky Watcher Esprit refractor along with a Starlight Xpress CCD camera. I never got a full nights imaging in, but over two nights I collected enough data on the Western Veil Nebula to make a decent show of my efforts. I shot this also on my new experimental Raspberry Pi based imaging system I’ve been working on at Software Bisque. All control of the imaging system was done via an iPad. Ah, and there is no power on the field, so be ready to run everything on battery!
The organizers generously put me and my wife up for the week in the Merritt Trading Post cabins. These were very comfortable and fully furnished and equipped for a week away from home. You should know that these cabins are not a reasonable walking distance from the observing field, so if you do the cabin thing, plan to drive back and forth and be sure and park your car with the lights away from the field. Also, there is no Wifi (a blessing in disguise), but AT&T signal was surprisingly available… sometimes; not from the cabins, but from the observing field. Finally, when the literature says bring bug spray, they are NOT KIDDING. During the day it was not so bad, but once night fell, the mosquitoes were abundant and relentless.
Valentine is about a 20 to 25 minute drive from the cabin area, which is about 10 minutes from the observing field. For the especially picky, there are hotels in Valentine and a few restaurants, some of which are quite good. The only chain food I recall seeing was a McDonalds (in a gas station), and a Pizza Hut. There are also two grocery stores for stocking up. The drive to Valentine is tedious after a couple of days back and forth, and I recommend the cabins near the trading post. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay there.
There are also a few sights to see nearby for day trips. Aside from the fact that you are staying already at a fishing and boating resort, the nearby Merritt Wildlife Preserve boasts a Prairie Dog Village, Bison, Elk, and all manner of plant life. You can also raft down the Niobrara river. Not to be missed either are some short hiking trails at nearby state parks with some nice water falls.
It was a bit of a trip for me, and more driving time than flying (flew into Omaha from Orlando). I don’t think I can make this star party one of my annual regulars, but I do hope I can return from time to time. It is a nice haven away from Florida in the summer time when there is no imaging weather to be found in the hot humid rainy season here. The people there were also exceptionally friendly and welcoming. It was a great week and I even did a little visual observing through some of the big Dobsonian scopes in the “Valley of the Dobs”.
Highly recommended… just don’t forget the bug spray 😉