Dark Sky Pilgrimage

Friday October 1st I drove across Kansas to the 38th Annual Okie-Tex Star Party. It has been two years since I made this trip, one I usually do every year. But 2020 wasn’t a normal year with everything everywhere being disrupted. I had gotten out to some dark skies in 2020, notably comet NeoWise. But this trip was different; out to a place more remote than most. Where the night sky is ablaze with countless stars, a place where there are no visible light domes in any direction, a place where those of us that treasure the night sky go.

Every Okie-Tex star party is different. Despite being held in the same location for 22 years each event has its own weather pattern, different blend of people that attend and unique night sky conditions. When the star party is scheduled depends on the moon, when it will be closest to new. This year that meant the start of October and for the first time the official starting day was a Friday.

My drive out that Friday was cloudy, something I like as it keeps the sun off me. It took a little under eight hours to travel out this year, just one refueling stop. Coming over the last hill to see camp Billy Joe full of people was a pleasing sight. Yet for the first time in many years I was arriving after most had already setup. For the longest time I had setup in the same spot on the field, as many other regulars do as well. But this year I moved a bit and setup differently. Not far from my old spot being close to several groups I know. This year would be a bit different though: new spot, new neighbor, and new things to try. Starting with power.

Okie-Tex provides AC power on the observing fields. There are power cords laid along the field and I have helped put them out in the past. Like everyone else I use the power to run astro equipment such as a telescope and computer. This year was going to be different, I would run off grid. For the last nine months I had researched and built a Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) power source that could run my telescope and associated equipment for days. A big battery. All so I could go anywhere and not need outside power. My calculations suggested I could run everything for at least three nights, maybe more. Okie-Tex was the ideal place to find out since I could always recharge or simply use AC power there.

Everything worked flawlessly and exceeded my expectations. I never ran out of battery power and I never had to charge it. Having better than 250 Ah of runtime in 70 pounds is truly astonishing. I powered my imaging notebook, telescope, astro camera, guider, dew heater and a USB hub off the box all week. Saturday night I had to run dew heaters but that was the only night I used them. I’m not sure how much that would reduce my runtime if used every night. The fact is I ran five straight nights for over six hours on just battery and that is just fantastic. When I returned home it took 6 ½ hours to recharge the battery at 30Ah so I estimate I used about 80% of my available stored power at Okie-Tex.

What also turned out to be fantastic was the weather. A week prior to the star party the extended forecasts looked rather poor; rainy to start and cloudy for several days. That wasn’t going to stop me from coming because I’ve been here before. Twenty times I have been out to the Oklahoma panhandle and I’ve learned one cannot trust extended forecasts in this region. I’ve seen years where the extended forecast was supposed to be clear and great for days turn into clouds most of the time. In any case I’ve learned to set my hopes for just a few good nights out of the week. This year didn’t disappoint!

On the first night, Friday, it was mostly cloudy with some short peaks at the stars. This didn’t bother me. After driving for eight hours one isn’t usually feeling like busting butt to setup camp and equipment then stay up all night. I did get mostly setup and my telescope polar aligned. I was ready for the stars.

Saturday 10.2 Cloudy day broke up before dark and the night sky was clear. Very humid from Friday moisture, heavy dew. Night temperature in the mid 40s. First night seeing the pristine night sky here in two years.
Sunday 10.3Clear night, good transparency. Gegenschein barely visible at 01:00. Overnight temps in the 50s.
Monday 10.4Clear night, good transparency. Gegenschein barely visible at 01:00.Overnight temps in the low 40s.
Tuesday 10.5Clear night, good transparency, some wind, coolest night as temps dropped into the mid 30s by morning. Gegenschein barely visible at 01:00.
Wednesday 10.6Some clouds early in night that creates a interesting scene where the Milky Way is shining brightly behind dark shapes in the sky. Something one can only experience at a truly dark site. It was windy, first time I really needed my skybox and it worked great. Clouds cleared and wind died down after midnight. Not as transparent a sky as past few days. Temperature dropped into the 50s so a bit warmer than past nights.
Thursday 10.7Partly cloudy day and not sure it would clear off. I would lose that bet, clear by 22:00. Sky transparency seemed to improve every hour but couldn’t make out the diffuse gegenschein at 01:00 so not that great in reality. Temperatures dropped into the mid 40s overnight.
Friday 10.8Forecast suggested it would cloud up, pattern was different than days before with high level moisture streaming over area. Decided to leave in the afternoon.
 

Overall we had a very good week with many clear nights. I don’t think we ever had a truly spectacular night because the region never was under extremely dry air based on satellite water vapor images. Something that confirms that in my mind is the Gegenschein was rather dim and weak, I’ve seen it better here. I’m sure there was some smoke particulates high in the atmosphere from the California fires that hurt transparancy. That was unavoidable this year.

One surprising new thing happened to me this year that caught me off guard. I was sitting under my canopy Wednesday afternoon immersed in reading a book when a small dust devil came through the camp and directly hit me. I didn’t know what was going on at first when the wind suddenly came up but quickly realized the situation as I watched dust and paperwork swirl around me. After collecting my stuff I saw Vance’s setup west of me had been hit as well, blowing his computer table over. You never know what you’re going to encounter out in no man’s land.