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NSP 3 (1996)

Merritt Reservoir Observing Area

Tent campground on the lake

'Valley of the Dobs' at the upper observing field

This sandhill is where Dave Knisely, Dave Scherping, Dave Hamilton, and I (and a few non-Daves) set up most nights.

My two scopes along with binocs and food, are set up on the sandhill.

Down the Niobrara

The Niobrara River, about 30 miles north of the observing site, is a popular river for canoeing and tubing trips. The canoe trip I took this year started about 5 miles east of the town of Valentine, NE.

On the river

Large sandy bluffs further downstream

Island with wildflowers

Take-out point about 20 miles east of Valentine, NE.

Smith Falls, just west of the take-out point, is the tallest waterfall in Nebraska.

And my original summary, back from the Usenet days:


Last year, I attended one of the most exciting groups of amateur observers I have ever encountered, with the possible exception of the group I joined to see a total solar eclipse in November, 1994. As one might guess from the title, this was the attendees of the second Nebraska Star Party in July, 1995. It was only my second major star party -- Astrofest 1994 being my first -- and proved to be an amazing experience in more ways than one. Based on my previous experience, I did not hesitate to sign up for the third NSP, held from August 10 through August 17 at Merritt Reservoir in northern Nebraska. I had also encouraged a new friend of mine, Mary Hrovat, to join me in Nebraska for the star party and a week of talking with like-minded people.

A little background for those not fortunate enough to know the countryside: northern Nebraska, despite what one might guess from traveling I-80 along the Platte River valley, is a unique area of the country. Its most notable natural feature is the Sand Hills, a region of grass-stabilized sand dunes originally produced just after the last ice age. Unlike their desert and beach cousins, the Sand Hill dunes stay put (a fortunate thing, if you want to put a big Dobsonian on top of one) and dominate the landscape. For a variety of reasons, including generally harsh and frequently dry weather and the porosity of the soil (nearly pure sand!), the area is not amenable to farming, unlike eastern Nebraska. Even cattle ranching, the dominant form of agriculture there, requires large acreage to raise a reasonable number of cattle. Accordingly, the Sand Hills region has never held a major human population.

In 1994, when looking for good "dark sky" sites for club use and later a star party, the Prairie Astronomy Club (PAC) of Lincoln, Nebraska selected this region by noticing it as a prominent dark spot in the famous "North America At Night" satellite poster. Thus the NSP was born, and the subsequent two NSPs have been nationally advertised. Dave Hamilton, one of the PAC members, estimated that 263 people attended the NSP as of the dinner banquet on the next-to-last day. This is up from the approximately 200 seen last year, and well up from the 75 or so attending the first NSP.

Among the prime attractions -- certainly the one that brought *me* back -- was the exceptionally dark skies offered by the sparsely populated area. Merritt Reservoir is located in the center of Cherry County, which despite being the size of Connecticut has fewer than 7000 people. Nearly half of these live in the town of Valentine, over 25 miles from the site. Light pollution is virtually nonexistent. Taking advantage of this, I brought two scopes well suited for deep sky observation: BURT, my Big Ugly Red Thing (a Coulter 10" Dobsonian) and ERNI (Edmund's Rich-Field Newtonian Instrument, better known as the Astroscan).

On one clear night, I was able to make some quantitative measurements of the sky transparency; despite skies suffering from some haze and somewhat higher humidity thannormal, I was able to see stars as faint as magnitude +7.4 without optical aid. On the first night of the star party, before I arrived, veteran PAC club member David Knisely and fellow observers reported breaking the 8th magnitude barrier, as had been done at NSP the previous year. Not surprisingly, the telescopic views of deep-sky objects were impressive. The Veil Nebula and the North American Nebula shone like neon signs in ERNI when I used an OIII filter; even without the filter their ghostly shapes were easy targets in almost any telescope. In BURT, the Veil was a tangled, elaborate mass of filaments rivalling the photographs, and M17 showed a gigantic bell shaped nebula of which the traditional Swan was just an edge. At least a dozen Messier objects could be seen with the naked eye; globular and dense open clusters like M11 leapt to life with seemingly uncountable suns, even at low power in small 'scopes. Mary put ERNI through his paces, easily finding spectacular objects such as M31, the Double Cluster, and several beautiful open clusters in Cassiopeia.

Die-hard observers took on the "NSP Deep Sky Challenge", which consisted of numerous normally difficult objects (Stephan's Quintet was perhaps the *easiest* of the bunch, at least for me), and CCD imagers had a field day. Additionally, thanks to the timing of the New Moon and the party itself, during the first few nights the Perseid meteor shower provided a show everyone could enjoy. From my vantage point just above and south of the reservoir, I could easily relax, take in half the sky, and thus avoid -- at least to an extent -- the bane of meteor watchers everywhere, namely the one that everyone but you sees and goes "Wow! Look at that meteor!" Finally, on the night of the 16th I saw my first aurora borealis. It was a relatively sedate one, lolling about just underneath Ursa Major and Bootes and occasionally throwing up a lazy ray towards Polaris, but it was fascinating to watch the dim light ebb and flow in the northern sky for a while.

As was the case last year, NSP offered a lot during the daytime, as well as to the non-observers in the group. Despite initially ominous weather, the annual canoe and tubing trip down the Niobrara went off without a hitch. I got an opportunity to canoe 15 miles down what seems to be out-of-place scenery for the high plains: mile after mile of steep sandy bluffs covered with pine trees and laced with little streams falling through the hills in small falls. Even the wildflowers were well represented, despite its being late in the summer with plenty of hot weather in previous months. Weather was just about ideal for paddling -- clouds blocked the direct sun and kept the temperature in the 70s, as opposed to the relentless blast furnace we had last year. As in previous years, we stopped at Smith Falls, Nebraska's highest, for a bit to eat and an opportunity to shower at no cost. Other popular activities included two "star-b-ques" at the Merritt Resort, boating and fishing trips on the lake, and general loafing around with no particular objective save relaxation.

Friday, August 16, brought a series of interesting talks, starting with a discussion on meteorites and their origins, and progressing through a wide variety of topics of interest to amateurs, ranging from a modest star party and tour held on the Bolivian altiplano to the composition of stellar atmospheres -- presented in a manner that both children and adults alike could enjoy and understand. Dave Knisely gave two talks -- one on observing the Sun in hydrogen alpha (a way amateurs can see chromospheric details like prominences without waiting for a total eclipse), and the "Name That Object" contest, which elicited many puzzled looks and groans of consternation as bizarre galaxy after bizarre galaxy popped up on the screen.

There were a handful of problems, mostly related to weather that was much wetter than usual for the time of year. Out of 6 nights I attended (August 11-16), only 3 were clear most of the time, and 1 of those was very hazy. Naturally, one of those two good nights was the night after I finished my drive from visiting family in Utah, so I was hardly interested in much besides lying on the car and watching Perseids with Mary. To make things worse, the mosquitoes were out in force, especially compared to last year -- even when Mary or I wrapped up in the back of the car and covered up fully with blankets, the little devils would sneak in and home in on anything that smelled remotely like humans.

Even on the two best nights transparency was lower than it was during NSP 2. Good, yes -- the gegenschein was nicely visible each of those nights -- but not quite up to the best this site has to offer. I estimate things were about one-half to one magnitude worse on these nights than they were on the best nights of NSP 2. On the three cloudy nights the clouds had the aggravating habit of pulling away an hour or two before sunset only to show up in full force during twilight. The Veil and Dumbbell Nebulas were replaced by the Valentine Nebula, an ugly blotch on the horizon that shows up when clouds and haze collect to the north of the site. On one night frustration reached a peak and observers were reduced to "Photon Torpedo" wars and other general silliness. Dave Scherping, main organizer of the NSP, went around reporting that I had seen to magnitude +1.1, a nod to my limiting magnitude estimates for both NSP 2 and NSP 3; other folks were content to shoot each other silly with Mag Lights and flash bulbs. Eventually, I gave up, packed away ERNI and BURT lest they become Newtonian rain gauges, and yielded to the silliness. If nothing else, it sure beat griping about the clouds. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to hone a perverse sense of humor, including a run of just about every pun on "Hale-Bopp" that I could think of.

Despite the weather, most people had a great time. Knisely remarked, towards the end of the party, that although the weather was worse this year than last, the party was more fun. I give NSP my highest recommendation, unless you are deathly afraid of mosquitos or pitch-black skies. I'll be there for NSP 4 if I can.

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