Last Updated 01.07.2016
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History has repeated itself.  Plans to attend the 2007 Black Forest Star Party (BFSP) in Pennsylvania fell through once again.  This year I monitored weather forecasts for two other star parties just in case the weather for BFSP was unfavorable.  These include the Great Lakes Star Gaze (held near Gladwin, Michigan) and the Illinois Dark Skies Star Party (IDSSP).  Ultimately my drive-mates (Jean DeMott and Rich Mather) and I decided the forecast was best for IDSSP.

The Illinois Dark Skies Star Party is hosted by the Sangamon Astronomical Society (from Springfield, IL) and the St. Louis Astronomical Society.  It’s held at the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish & Wildlife Area (JEPC), which is located 25 miles northwest of Springfield in eastern Cass County.  According to the IDSSP web site, this area boasts some of Illinois’ darkest skies.  The limiting magnitude at the zenith is estimated to be 5 or 6 and I can attest to the accuracy of that statement.  The sky quality is definitely better than the Kalamazoo Nature Center (my usual observing spot) but it can’t compare to Cherry Springs State Park (host of BFSP) - more on that later.

This year’s IDSSP was held from Thursday, September 13th - Sunday, September 16th.  Jean, Rich, and I traveled about 6 hours in Rich’s Honda Odyssey mini-van and arrived at JEPC at about 3:00 pm CDT.  We actually got a little lost when we reached the town of Petersburg, so we got directions at the local tourist information center.    The typical Rand McNally road atlas doesn’t show enough detail of the region to be useful, so I suggest you use MapQuest or Google Maps to create a high resolution map of the area if you ever attend IDSSP.

It seems funny we had difficulty finding JEPC, because it’s pretty large.  The total acreage is 16,550, but the area we stayed at (referred to as Site M) is about 26 square miles in area.  JEPC is a mixture of agricultural land, grassland, mature forests, and rare hill prairie.  Wildlife is also abundant and this was evident one night when we had a couple of raccoons sneak onto our campsite and steal some popcorn!  Not sure how that ended up on the ground anyway.  We also heard a pack of coyotes howling off in the distance one night, but we’re used to that.

Checking in was a snap for me, since I registered online the day before.  Jean and Rich had to register on site, because they missed the online registration deadline.  It really didn’t matter, since they don’t charge a late fee (which is a lame thing to do).  However, they didn’t get their own custom printed name tag!  We setup my Kendrick Observatory Tent along a northern line of trees behind the east pavilion (where the meals were held).  Rich and Jean set up a bit further to the east, so they’d have some shade in the morning.

Dinner time for IDSSP was at 5:00 pm, but we missed the deadline to order meals online.  Apparently, we could have bought into the meals on site, but the web site made no mention of this.  Instead, we brought our own meals for the long weekend.  There were no other food vendors at IDSSP, so purchasing late night snacks was out of the question.  Fortunately, we prepared for this contingency as well.  I was also hoping to buy a few minor accessories for my telescope, but there are no astronomical vendors at IDSSP.  This was the first star party I’ve ever attended that didn’t have vendors.  Seems like a lost opportunity for profit.

Night finally came and, as usual, my first task was to polar-align my Meade 10” LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.  I started with a rough alignment, since I wanted to start with some wide-field shots of the Milky Way.  Unfortunately, the light pollution visible from JEPC spoiled my images of the southern Milky Way.  Before attending IDSSP, I read that a light dome was visible in the southeast from Springfield.  However, there’s also a significant light dome from nearby Jacksonville.  This interference comes from the same location that the central bulge of the Milky Way is visible from this time of year.  It was still possible to see M8 naked eye, but any picturesque images of the central bulge of our galaxy were impossible.  Plus, there was WAY TOO MUCH airplane traffic!  The Summer Triangle, visible overhead shortly after sunset, was splendid though and I took a very nice picture of the Cygnus Star Cloud with my Canon 300D.

After drift-aligning my telescope we viewed a few popular deep sky targets.  I then mounted my Tele Vue Pronto on the 10” LX200 and embarked on a long exposure of NGC 7000, the North American Nebula.  I took 18 five minute exposures (not including dark frames) for an equivalent 90 minute exposure.  The end result was far better than my previous effort from the Nature Center.  Thin clouds started to roll in shortly after my exposures ended, so I decided to call it a night at about 5:00 am.

After breakfast, we drove over to the shower house, located at the neighboring RV Park.  The building is brand new and very clean.   Thankfully, the showers are free to use, so there’s no need to bring a pocketful of change.  The Odyssey needed some gas and we were told the closest station was in Chandlerville.  On the way, we drove past a hillside on fire!  We turned around and pulled into the nearest driveway and told the resident they should call the fire department.  They actually passed us on the way back and we got delayed while they put out the fire.  As a result, we missed the only lecture of the day.  It was given by John Martin, a professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, and was about Eta Carinae.

Friday night was again clear, but the temperature was much colder.  Temperatures on Thursday night were in the mid-50’s, while Friday’s lows were in the mid-30’s!  These were record low temperatures according to the weather radio.  Jean wanted to avoid low temperatures like this, so it was one of the reasons she voted against going to BFSP or GLSG.  So much for that!  I spent most of the night imaging through the 10” SCT, but got cut short due to some trouble with my deep cycle marine battery.  My telescope seemed fine, but my camera wasn’t getting any power.  I was too tired to try and solve the mystery, so I decided to call it a night at about 3:00 am.  I did wake up briefly after sunrise and saw lots of frost on the ground.

I attended the IDSSP Astronomy Bowl on Saturday morning and won a free pass to next year’s star party (FYI:  I answered a question on Kepler’s Third Law).  I then sold one of two items at the Swap Meet, which was sparsely attended.  Rich and I missed half of the first lecture of the day.  It was given by Jim Hopkins, Professor of Astronomy at Joliet College.  He called his presentation “What’s New on Mars” and focused on current and future robotic exploration.  What I saw was very well done, but it was very difficult to see his slides from the back of the west pavilion.  Plus, the star party has an attendance of about 200 and there was no where near enough room for that many people inside the pavilion.  The organizers of IDSSP should consider a large tent (like at Starfest) for their presentations.  The lighting would be better and more of the attendees could go to the presentations.  We skipped the final lecture entirely.  It was about the Deep Impact Mission and we had already heard presentations about that subject at two other star parties.

After dinner, the winners of the astrophotography contest were announced and the door prizes were handed out.  Needless to say, with no vendors, the prizes were fairly small.  I believe the biggest prize was a $200 copy of the “Starry Night” desktop planetarium software.

Looking southwest on Saturday night before the clouds rolled in.

Saturday night started out mostly clear, but a cloud front slowly rolled in.  Astrophotography was out of the question, so the three of us did some observing through my telescope until the clouds took over.  There were some minor rain showers throughout the night, which was not even in the forecast when we left on Thursday morning.

Skies were mostly sunny on Sunday morning.  After packing up our gear, we headed into Springfield and visited the Lincoln Tomb and Lincoln Home Historic Sites. This was something I always wanted to do and was one of the reasons why I voted to attend IDSSP.  One interesting bit of Lincoln trivia I learned is that Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of Abraham and Mary Todd, was an avid amateur astronomer!  His telescope, a 6-inch Warner & Swasey refractor, has been preserved and is still in use today.

Ultimately, I wish we would have bit the bullet and attended BFSP.  I was really looking forward to visiting central Pennsylvania again and from what I heard the weather wasn’t all that bad.  Maybe we would have attended this year’s BFSP if it wasn’t for the perfect weather Jean and I had for the 2005 event.  That’s a tough act to follow.  I wouldn’t hesitate to attend IDSSP again if I only lived a few hours away.  However, if I’m going to travel for 6+ hours, I’d prefer skies that are totally free of light pollution.

Article & Images by Richard Bell
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