Great Moments in Astronomy by Walt Reil

As many astronomers can tell you, holding star parties and heading into unknown territory to perform your stargazing can sometimes throw you a curve ball and present rather interesting and challenging situations. Aurora asked that I relate any events that might make for interesting reading for CCAS readers, so here are several items that immediately come to mind.

I am 58 years old and have been involved in amateur astronomy for approximately 10 years, ever since attending a CCAS Santa Margarita Lake KOA star party and seeing Saturn for the first time though Kent Wallace’s monster 20″ Dobsonian telescope. Listening to Kent describe the objects in the night sky is an experience that is so enjoyable, he exudes his excitement, fascination and wonder of it all. Like so many astronomers, I was immediately hooked, mesmerized by realizing that Saturn was actually there and looked like the pictures, but far grander and more energizing in person. Wow! Look at the rings! Unbelievable! So, I slowly became outfitted with a telescope and immediately became CCAS president for about 6 years. It was a thrill helping guide KOA star parties and share it all with the public, especially children.

A number of years ago, when Mars was to be at its closest-ever to Earth, CCAS astronomers were eagerly looking forward to the Saturday star party occurring at that time. We all wanted to see Mars up close and personal in our telescopes. As some of you probably already know, the KOA star party hill is not very big and can get crowded quickly. Well, on the Friday before the star party, I was leisurely reading the Telegram Tribune newspaper and stumbled upon a large photo of a telescope and story about Mars being at its closest and that a CCAS star party would occur Saturday night at the KOA, which the public was welcome to attend. When I saw that article, the hair stood up on my neck, my heart began racing, I think I stopped breathing, and my brain began spinning as I quickly realized what this could mean. Sure enough, my worst, yet exciting, fears did come to pass.

I was normally scheduled to direct traffic Saturday night before it got dark. What happened was unbelievable, for the CCAS and the KOA. Literally hundreds of cars began arriving, filled with people of all ages and dogs. They were coming from Santa Maria to Fresno to see MONSTER MARS! I directed traffic for 3 to 4 hours solid, putting cars all over every empty square inch in the KOA campground area, and up and down the main road for hundreds of yards!

Star hill was absolutely JAMMED with hundreds of people, lined up about 50 deep at our collection of ten telescopes. It was truly a spectacular situation, showing the sky to so many people (and their dogs). I think the last person left close to midnight, then our small group of CCAS astronomers got a breather and spent another couple hours observing Mars and other objects. It was a gorgeously warm evening, so it was absolutely perfect. Lesson learned … be careful what you advertise!

On another occasion, a couple years ago I obtained a new Orion SkyQuest 10″ diameter Dobsonian telescope and was anxious to experience “first light” with it. So, I decided to go to the highest point in SLO County, on top of the Caliente Mountain ridge way out in California Valley near Soda Lake. It was a spectacular day with crystal clear weather as I made the two-hour drive out Hwy 58 from Atascadero. 5,000 feet is a nice elevation. And, I was planning to spend the night.

I arrived and got all set up for the night. The sun was about to set, so I had dinner and took a walk around the hill top. I could not have asked for more perfect weather. Not a breath of wind, warm and you could see a hundred miles in all directions. As I was preparing to begin observing, I sat down for a few minutes to absorb it all, taking in the breathtaking beauty. I was stunned and my heart began racing as I was looking to the southwest just after the sun had set, to see the gorgeous arc of a Delta II rocket launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base, then hearing the rumble of the exhaust blast. What an incredible experience! I was all set for a long night of observing. Or so I thought.

As it was getting dark and I was studying my star charts and beginning to view objects, I felt a breath of a breeze. Pretty nice, being on the slight cool side. I was in Seventh Heaven. But it quickly ended, as the wind began to increase. After about 45 minutes things were starting to fall over and blow off my tables. I realized that I might be in trouble. Sure enough, I quickly closed up everything and stuffed it under and in my truck. Then I retreated inside the bed of the truck (under a hard-top canopy) to sleep for the night. I did not get much sleep that night because the wind rapidly turned into very strong gale force, buffeting the truck and sage brush hitting the truck every now and then. For most of the night it felt like a freight train was blasting by. Ah …. what an enjoyable night! Not!

The next morning was super calm, not a breath of wind. Bright sun and crystal clear blue sky. I enjoyed the morning for a couple hours, again taking a long walk and studying the many valleys below through my binoculars. Then made the picturesque drive back home. The country really is spectacular from Caliente Ridge, seeing the while Soda Lake far below and mountain ridges all around. I loved every minute of that solo trip. But did not care much for the lousy stargazing evening. Lesson learned be prepared for anything.

My last very short story is this. Please be very careful when walking around the KOA star hill, as you may encounter some rather interesting animals, which I have experienced so far without any problems. First, watch out for skunks. Leave them alone and make some noise to scare them back to their home. Second, watch very carefully on the ground during daylight to be sure you do not step on a Tarantula, as you might sometimes see several of them as you walk around the KOA’s dirt roads. They will not hurt you. Just help guide them off the roadway to help protect them. They are precious and fascinating creatures.

So, have a great time as you venture into our beautiful country to be involved in astronomy. Share it with family and friends, having them look into the heaven’s to marvel at the magnificent universe in which we are so very fortunate to live. Above all, when possible, show the night sky to children and have them look through telescopes, encouraging them to “Reach for the Stars”!

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