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Norman Sperling
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Rip Van Winkle Meets 2012 Observers

© Norman Sperling, August 21, 2012

For the first time in many years, I attended a major, many-night-long star party. Hundreds of amateur skywatchers set up their telescopes and auxiliaries for nights of dark-sky observing at the Oregon Star Party, east of Prineville.

Their standard array is far more advanced than I remember from 30 or 40 years ago.

It starts on a ground-cloth: a tarp or a sheet or a tablecloth. Some are thin carpeting. Light-colored carpeting would make it easier to find things in the dark. Decades ago we set up in grass, and wasted a lot of time hunting important little things we dropped.

The telescope and several auxiliaries now consume so much electricity that observers lug out a battery, such as a small car would use. Wires from the battery to the equipment are sometimes neatly tied, sometimes run hazardously wild. Sometimes the battery tucks under the scope, inside a tripod leg. Decades ago very few observers had separate batteries, some tapped their car batteries, and most didn't use any electricity.

Tote boxes and padded equipment safes often sport custom-cutouts for specific eyepieces, et al. Most sites had 2 or 3 boxes and some had more. Decades ago observers had a lot fewer eyepieces, and all of those were much smaller than today's huge, massive marvels. So one simple container was all anyone needed.

Almost every site has a folding table or 2. Portable tables have been reinvented, with many patterns and sizes available from discount stores and outdoor outfitters. Some have roll-up table tops. Since the tables carry little more than laptop computers, atlases, and notebooks, light-duty hardware is OK, verging on flimsy. Decades ago the few who brought tables used card tables. We spread atlases out on car hoods and trunks, which were more horizontal then.

Everyone uses folding chairs. These, too, have been reinvented in profuse variety. Decades ago the only types had a flip-down seat as can still be found in schools and churches, and plastic-webbed aluminum-tube lawn chairs.

Tall Dobsonians became popular in the 1970s, and used the teetery ladders of those times. Now far more common, they use newer ladders with safer, wide-splayed feet.

I saw a few "anti-gravity" chairs for binocular use and meteor watching. Decades ago we had plastic-webbed, aluminum-tube chaise lounges.

Everything is carefully folded or furled to fit their vehicle ... or, the vehicle is chosen because it can hold the owner's full set. I remember marveling at how much more a squarish van held than a conventional station wagon. Now, vehicles come in so many configurations that everyone can carry everything they want. A lot of RVs at the star party showed red-light and sealed-window customizations, so many people are very serious about this.

The 2012-era scope site sports a great deal more stuff than its predecessor. The scopes themselves cost a lot more, and so does all the other stuff, and their vehicles. But the expense and the bulk deliver images far surpassing those of olden times, and computer-processed electronic imaging vastly exceeds old film astrophotography. They get what they pay for.

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