Richmond Astronomical Society

My New Favorite Star Party

Oct 13th, 2013 | By | Category: Blog

I recently attended, along with several other members of the Richmond Astronomical Society, the Staunton River Star Party hosted jointly by the Chapel Hill Astronomy Club (CHAOS) and the Staunton River State Park. Before I was able to find the time to attend, I had heard the party was a good one, but had not yet seen the site for myself.

The observing field

 Well, my fellow astronomers, I was very much impressed with this star party and I had a marvelous time.

scopes

As per usual, I was not able to leave until quite a bit later than I originally planned. Life just gets in the way of things like this sometimes. The drive was easy from Richmond – about two hours. When I arrived, I was immediately impressed with the Park. It was clean, easy to navigate and appeared to be well cared for. I wondered how difficult it would be to find the observing field. No problem at all – the observing field was in plain view, adjacent to the visitor center.

Welcome

I drove up to the registration tent where the CHAOS club members were well organized and had all my information and lanyard badge ready to go and they were very friendly and accommodating besides despite the late afternoon hour. The layout of the field was simple – in rows extending away from the visitor center. The Park staff had deployed AC cables for us through part of the observing field.  RV’s, tents and trailers were all welcome on the observing field.

Dobsonian row in front of the visitor center

As far as other accommodations, I’m not sure I could expect any better. The adjacent visitor center had restrooms, a classroom and a gift shop where they seemed to know exactly what visitors might want, which included small red flashlights for sale. Additional bathrooms and clean shower facilities were also available a few minutes walk from the observing area.  The Park also had cabins, a pool, campsites, access to the Staunton River, hiking, biking and horse trails.

The visitor center had WiFi and our hosts from CHAOS also supplied a longer range WiFi in the field which I presume was from a repeater using the visitor center WiFi as its source. I was at the far end of the observing field and I elected to use my long range WiFi dish antenna.  This is a remarkably simple device using a USB WiFi dongle placed at the focal point of a parabolic dish reflector and connected to the laptop I use in the field with my telescope. Although a very simple device, it greatly improves WiFi reception and increases the useful range to a surprising degree. I was able to aim the antenna at the visitor center and get a signal like I was inside the building. Here is an image of the back of my WiFi antenna deployed next to my screen tent and aimed at the visitor center.

Long range WiFi antenna aimed at the visitor center

 JB station

I feel it absolutely necessary to make a few comments about the Park staff. You are probably thinking as you read this – here it comes – a string of complaints. Nope. The Park staff, including every single staff person I encountered, was very cordial and helpful. I was consistently left with the feeling that they were glad to have us there. There was a small snack bar not too far from the visitor center. The Park staff altered their normal hours to accommodate the astronomers keeping it open and fully operating from 6:00 AM in the morning until 4:00 AM each night, 22 hours per day. I was told that the staff individually volunteered for the late night duty. They temporarily renamed the snack bar the “Deep Space Diner,” developed a special menu including space-themed sandwiches and other dishes and kept a continuous flow of coffee for the visitors.

Deep Space Diner Banner

They developed a continuous loop video showing pictures of last year’s star party which played in the Deep Space Diner and they sold a bottomless commemorative mug for the event. They even went to lots of trouble to deploy night-vision-safe (and attractive) lighting. Someone, either the Park staff or the CHAOS folks, set up solar red lighting along the entrance way to the area around the visitor center and along the walkways. These lights were very helpful to nighttime navigation and much appreciated by yours truly who sometimes lacks coordination in the dark.

Deep Space Diner with night-safe lighting

A previous year’s star party (they have two per year) I’m told was a bit wet. The observing field was mushy from a significant amount of rain that arrived before and at the outset of the party. The Park staff had a mesh material placed in the field to reduce the potential “mushiness” and increase vehicle traction in the travel paths. I don’t know how much this cost, but it had to amount to a considerable expenditure and was another of many accommodations by the staff.

A short video of this October’s star party appears below:

If you don’t yet have the impression that I think this is one fine star party, then let me make that clear: I think the CHAOS group and the Staunton River State Park staff did an absolutely outstanding job. The preparations, logistics, management and customer service were exceptional. They have an outstanding facility and they are making good use of it. By all means, tell your astronomer friends. It’s a great star party.

Regards,

Jim Browder
Richmond Astronomical Society

 

 

 

 

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