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NSP 2 (1995)

I attended NSP 2 in 1995 and got to verify the quality of the skies at Merritt first hand. On particularly interesting project I did was to obtain some measurements of naked eye limiting magnitudes while I was there; for one field, the faintest star I saw had a magnitude of +8.2. That's right, +8.2. The sky there really is that good.

My other impressions, which I wrote up for the ol' Usenet news groups back then:


As many amateurs know, summer is star party season. A relatively new addition to this seasonal activity is the Nebraska Star Party, which is only in its second year. A week-long observing session in the rural Sand Hills of north central Nebraska, the NSP drew nearly two hundred visitors from throughout the central United States. Like many other attendees, I stayed for most of the week, from July 24 to July 30, in a Nebraska state park well suited to amateur observing. I brought along a 10" reflecting telescope and a pair of 70mm binoculars; organizers for the NSP expected a number of large telescopes, up to 30", to be present.

I'm not normally one to predict things like star parties' futures after only one attendance, but for the NSP I have to make an exception. This event is going to be big. *Really* big. If it doesn't become the next mecca for hardcore dark sky enthusiasts after Texas, I'll be *extremely* surprised. A little history first: just under two years ago, the astronomy club in Lincoln, Nebraska decided to explore some sites darker than the current club site about twenty miles out of town. A casual glance at maps of Nebraska, as well as the now-famous "US At Night" satellite mosaic, showed central Nebraska as one of the emptiest, least light-polluted regions in the entire United States. Preliminary scouting trips turned up a state park, Merrit Reservoir State Park, which had sufficient resource and space to handle not just the Lincoln club but also a full-fledged star party along the lines of major national events like Astrofest and TSP. A moderate-sized star party -- the first NSP -- arose from this information, and drew some seventy visitors, principally from Nebraska and immediate surroundings. The response was favorable and nationwide advertising followed in the winter of 1995 for the second NSP.

The chief attraction of the NSP is its location in amazingly dark, clear skies. North-central Nebraska is in a part of the country at moderately high elevation (1 km/3100 ft.) and characterized by warm, extremely dry summer weather, with long periods of clear to partly cloudy skies. Even more significantly, the light pollution is as close to negligible as one can get in the United States. The star party itself was held on a campground on the Merritt Reservoir, in the
Nebraska Sand Hills. The Sand Hills are a unique geological feature in the United States -- produced by wind near the time of the last Ice Age, they consist of large sand dunes stabilized by a thick grass cover. The hilly terrain combined with generally dry weather is not suitable for farming, as eastern Nebraska is; the only major agriculture practiced here is cattle ranching. Accordingly, the population is extremely low in the Sand Hills. At NSP, the nearest town of *any* size, Valentine, is nearly thirty miles away and has only 2800 people. Even when low clouds crept up, Valentine's lights were not generally recognizable. The next nearest town, Mullen, is 45
miles away and has only 500 people.

The combination of low population and clean, dry air made for some of the finest skies I've seen -- and when you grow up in the western US in a city nearly a mile high, you see your fair share of such skies. People with extensive star party experience found that only the Texas Star Party was really comparable -- and the Nebraska party has the advantage of a more central location.

Just how good are the skies at Merritt Reservoir? It's a little hard to describe, so I'll just give some examples of what people were able to do. I encountered people who found M33 without any optical aid only a short while after it had risen. The zodiacal light went almost all the way around the ecliptic, being blocked only by the Milky Way in Scorpius and Sagittarius. The Milky Way was bright enough to cast shadows. An in-joke at the party was the need for "Milky Way filter glasses" to remove this offensively bright band of light from the field of view of discerning deep-sky observers. My own tests of the sky transparency were even more unsettling. As I customarily do at dark sites, especially ones where I will be doing much observing, I took a region of sky near the zenith, sketched in all the stars I could see, and only after deciding that a reasonable number had been plotted, comparing to a star chart for identification and magnitude values. My test region on the morning of July 27 was the head of Draco; visible in and around it were many faint stars, including one of magnitude 7.5, one of 7.8, and one of 8.0. Similar tests at other
times during the star party were a bit less dramatic than on that one night, but naked eye magnitudes in the 7.5 range appear to be typical.

Not surprisingly, a crop of deep-sky objects were the preferred targets for NSP observers. I spent many an hour observing large nebulas such as the Veil and the outer region of M17, in a manner that can only happen under such dark skies. With a oxygen-III filter in place, the tendrils in the Veil could be followed in much the same manner as in good photographs of the nebula. The Dumbbell Nebula was an oval, rather than the characteristic hourglass, even in unfiltered telescopes. Another fantastic thing to do was to "surf" the Milky Way in a filtered telescope or even big binoculars, and spend time simply looking over the dozens of open clusters and small pieces of nebulosity present throughout the galactic region. Owners of larger telescopes used the opportunity to search for some challenging
objetcs; the most challenging I recall was an attempt on Einstein's cross, a gravitationally lensed image, in the 30" scope. Deep sky challenge enthusiasts participated in the second annual "Great NSP Deep Sky Challenge", which included a list of ten difficult objects observers had to find, as well as a set that had to be identified by description alone, without resorting to handbooks. (This is how many
of us learned to *hate* the Palomar globulars and the P-K planetary nebula catalogue. :-)

Unlike the Texas Star Party, the Nebraska Star Party offers a lot to the non-astronomers in the group. One one day, I and about sixty other party attendees went on a float trip down the Niobrara River near the Nebraska - South Dakota border. The Niobrara is notable for passing through country unlike what many Americans think of as the "Great Plains" -- the trip took us through fifteen miles of varying terrain, ranging from scrubby forests to steep, sandy cliffs, and also one major waterfall, Smith Falls, on a tributary of the Niobrara (in addition to being scenic, Smith Falls served as the day's shower for most of the participants). Merritt Reservoir is a major fishing lake, and thus appealed to the anglers in the group. Other activities people indulged in freely were swimming and boating on the lake, walking and exploring the lakeshore, visiting shops and galleries in Valentine, and visting the casino in the Rosebud Indian
reservation in neighboring South Dakota.

Non-observational astronomy activities were also abundant. The next-to-last day of the party was set aside for presentations and a dinner banquet; the presentations covered topics ranging from observing difficult globular clusters to the discovery and analysis of a suspected meteorite impact crater in central Nebraska, not far from
the observing sites. Early in the week, a telescope cleaning and collimation demo was held by Dave Kriege of Obsession Telescopes (now we're getting *serious* here, folks).

To sum up quickly: the second NSP was indeed a success. I would suggest giving it a look if you're seriously interested in pristine skies, but don't feel like driving (or flying!) all the way to Texas. If you like your parties *small*, you'd better get going soon, because I expect word
of mouth to spread this one far and wide over the next few years.

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