What is Stellafane? It is a convention of amateur astronomers
held every year near Springfield, Vermont, and is the oldest and largest
star party in the country. Stellafane was started in 1926 by Russell
Porter and his friends, precision machinists from Springfield and amateur
telescope makers, who were largely responsible for making close-up views
of the heavens available to everyone, thereby founding modern amateur
astronomy. The main event that Stellafane is centered around is the display
and judging of home-made telescopes, continuing Porter's proud tradition
into this, the 65th year that Stellafane has been held.
Stellafane 2000 started for me early Friday morning at theTree Farm campground, outside of Springfield, where I had pitched a tent at the edge of a grassy field after a 12-hour drive from Virginia (my car was the slowest one on the road). I went for a four-mile run through the countryside, and then broke camp and headed for Springfield. After picking up the traditional cup of coffee at McDonald's, I headed up Breezy Hill and arrived at the entrance by 8:30, where a line of about 20 cars was already waiting for the 9 AM opening. Everyone was vying for the choicest camping spots on the few areas of level ground on Breezy Hill, where hundreds of people would pitch tents and over 2000 would ultimately gather. After registering I got a good spot deep under the pines at "Fern Grotto" , where few ferns have survived the annual onslaught. A few feet away fellow NOVAC member Kevin Jones was erecting his tent, but, curiously, I hardly saw him or his parents (including past-president Brenda "Clem" Jones), again that weekend.
The day started muggy and cloudy, but by noon the clouds were breaking
up, and I headed up to the open field just below McGregor Observatory,
which houses the Schupmann Telescope, with its unusual, 13-inch f/16 unobstructed-optics
design. The horseshoe-pitching contest was going on, but I instead
headed for the solar setup of John Vogt. He had an AstroPhysics 6"
f/7 Starfire with a Daystar hydrogen-alpha filter, powered by a new, sleek-looking
astronomical battery. The telescope was focused on one quadrant of
the sun, where several prominences arced off the limb like miniature thunderheads,
and more prominences away from the limb stretched out towards the observer.
The chromosphere was also clearly visible as a thin translucent layer of
flame just above the opaque photosphere--the last time I had seen it was
the last split-second of totality during the 1998 solar eclipse on Aruba.
With all this visual display, the sunspots were hardly noticeable.
I set up near John's scope my tripod-mounted Miyauchi 20x100 binoculars with solar filters , which provided a nice wide-field view of the spotted sun and a counterpoint to the h-alpha view. Two people said it was the best view of the sun they'd ever had. A Stellafane regular from New York brought out his Miyauchis, as he does every year, and then we were joined by two other owners, making probably the largest gathering in the United States of people who possess this rare instrument. A few feet away, Al Nagler was demonstrating his latest combo of fast-focus refractor, binocular viewer, and namesake eyepieces. Before I left, the New York friend generously gave me his old heavy-duty Bogen tripod quick-release mechanism, which will make my setup much easier in the future.
In late afternoon I bought dinner at the mess tent and joined John Stewart
and his wife Bobby and friend Cathy for dinner at their tent, along with
Gerry Wolczanski. After the best adult conversation I have had in
a long time, I had to tear myself away and prepare for a talk at the Friday
Night tent talks, held under the huge striped party tent nearby.
Although the weekend forecast had never been particularly optimistic, the
skies were starting to look pretty promising.
The tent had held mirror-making demonstrations all afternoon, which I did not attend, but the Friday night talks were the first major event of the weekend, and the tent was packed as usual. In a perhaps unique tradition, anyone can give a presentation at this gathering as long as they give MC "Big Bob" Morse advance notice and stay within the strict 10-minute time limit. The audience includes some of the most knowledgeable amateur astronomers in the northeastern U.S., and usually a Sky and Telescope editor or two. I had spoken here in previous years on Project Orion and counting Perseid meteors; this year I had a talk with viewgraphs on NOVAC's new light-pollution mapping project.
The Friday night talks seem to improve every year. There was one on video astronomy for handicapped observers, a homemade observatory, some stunning wide-field astrophotos of constellations and aurorae, first-light pictures from some new big telescope, and an IDA update by Bob Gent. My talk went fine, although I came dangerously close to the shepherd's crook, running right up to Big Bob's time limit.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the presentation on lightweight
mirrors by NASA's Peter Chen, who has given talks on his research twice
at NOVAC meetings. After a rocky start where he acclimated to the
decidedly un-auditorium like setting, Peter got the measure of the crowd
and found his speaker's stride. He convinced us of the profound impact
these mirrors would someday have on astronomy, while lacing his talk with
subtle touches of humor. A photo of two young girls easily holding
up a 24-inch mirror was most compelling. The audience of amateur
telescope makers loved it, and gave him a rousing cheer at the end of his
talk. NOVAC'ers take note: not far away in Maryland, Peter Chen is
riding the crest of a new wave in ATM, and we should position the club
to surf right along with him!
Miracle of miracles: amidst the cloudiest New England summer in recent memory, it was clear Friday night. After the talks I went up again to the hillside below the observatory, which was now crowded with telescopes of every shape and size. (I never set up my own telescope at night at Stellafane). Like the central massive object in a cluster of galaxies, John Vogt's 32-inch Dobsonian rose above the surrounding group of telescopes, which included several in the 20 to 25-inch range. I meandered from scope to scope like a rogue star, taking in views of the major Messier objects like I never usually see them, and occasionally more obscure objects like the Cat's Eye Nebula, a glowing green planetary with a gem-like central star. Early Perseid meteors streaked across the Milky Way, rewarding those standing in line at the big scopes and not yet at the eyepiece. The Schupmann telescope, unfortunately, had started to dew up by the time I got to it, and that was the beginning of the end: clouds slowly moved in from the south, and closed down the sky by 1:30. But it was enough: a taste of Stellafane at its finest. I walked back to my tent in the dark.
The next day would begin soon enough: the famous Stellafane swap meet, scheduled every year to start at 7 AM, but in fact a bustling bazaar in the light of a New England dawn at 5 AM. I set up my own table in the designated area to sell a few things: my wife's mint-condition Bell & Howell cube-style slide projector (yours for $175!), a Bolex Super-8 movie camera ($50), and a couple of ailing SLR cameras ($5??). I also handed out fliers on the light-pollution mapping project, following up on my talk of the night before. Other tables had every imaginable astronomical item, from lenses to metal fixtures to motors to finished telescopes, books and magazines. Four hours later, at 9 AM, I had sold the projector for $100, declared victory, taken down the table, and spent $50 on a Chinon camera to replace my old dead Pentax. At the food tent I took sinful pleasure in eating two eggs over easy with hash browns, and washed them down with black coffee. The day had begun.
The spiritual core of Stellafane resides not where most of the events
and hustle and bustle of the crowd occurs, at "Stellafane East", but a
short walk away on the other knob of Breezy Hill, around the fabled pink
clubhouse and Porter Turret Telescope. For many years before its
expansion, all of the events of Stellafane were held here, on land now
declared a National Historic Landmark for its role in developing modern
astronomy. Now this rocky hillside is reserved solely for the display
of homemade telescopes, and Saturday is when they are judged and awards
given. By mid-morning I was over there, camera in hand, wandering among
the scopes and marveling at their beauty and innovative designs.
This year the split-ring design was popular, resulting in miniature
variations on the 200-inch Hale on Mt. Palomar. Homemade versions
of a Schiefspiegler telescope, a spectroscope, and a brass orrery were
also among the entries. Peter Chen and a grad student had a 24-inch dob
on display with one of his unfinished lightweight mirrors, which drew a
steady crowd. Over on a rocky ledge at one end of the field, John
Avellone represented NOVAC with his incomparable Astrocan Newtonian telescope,
as well as a homemade refractor and the only radio-astronomy entry this
year, an antenna designed to pick up emissions from Jupiter.
I hustled back to Stellafane East to catch a couple of the afternoon talks under the tent, including Bob Gent's inspiring talk on the progress we are making in reducing light pollution. He was followed by Maurizio di Sciullo, one of the great planetary imagers from Florida and a Don Parker protege, who showed us step-by-step how to take high-resolution CCD images of the planets, illustrated with some jaw-dropping examples of his technique. Two technical ATM talks were to follow, but I opted for another pleasure denied at home: the afternoon nap.
Late Saturday afternoon brings another Stellafane tradition, the chicken
dinner. Capturing photons late at night burns a lot of calories,
and there is no better antidote than a paper plate sagging under the weight
of barbecued chicken, roasted corn on the cob, baked beans, and strawberry
shortcake. Gerry and I again joined the Stewarts in their tent, and
we watched the clouds thicken overhead in advance of the Saturday evening
program. A gentle rain started to fall, guaranteeing that for the
first time in my many-year attendance, the program would not be held in
the natural outdoor ampitheater, but under the same tent I had already
spent so much time in. I went over early to get a good seat, not
only for a good view of the speakers but easy access to the stage--with
an unprecedented 12 tickets purchased this year, I was sure to win one
of the raffle prizes, which include thousands of dollars' worth of books
and Nagler eyepieces.
As it always does, the Saturday evening program started with prizes for the youngest and oldest attendees, the farthest traveled and, this year, the people with the longest RV. Then the telescope-making awards (what, nothing for the Astrocan??), followed by the raffle (since you had to ask, no), and finally, the traditional "Shadowgram". This talk was originally intended to bridge the time between dusk and dark, when viewing began, and for many years was given by the late Walter Scott Houston. Now it is followed by a keynote talk by some semi- famous figure in astronomy, but certainly has not lost its luster, since the Shadowgram speaker is now David Levy. I saw Levy's first presentation of this talk two years ago, and the solar eclipse kept him away last year (I was absent as well for other reasons). Under the tent, now drumming loudly from the downpour outside, Levy warmed to his audience and took on the fervor of an old time preacher, extolling the sublime beauty of amateur astronomy, the uniqueness of Stellafane, and the joys and virtues of bringing the night sky to others--particularly those less fortunate. His was a moving performance, and I was grateful for my ringside seat. The following talk, on the evolution of the design of the Hale telescope by Porter and others and given by the director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, was potentially interesting but ultimately overlong and anticlimactic. After over an hour of this seemingly never-ending talk, I left in the rain and made my way to my own, thankfully still dry tent. A miserable sob from a nearby tent told me that someone else was not so lucky, and probably would be staying in a motel next year. There would be no viewing this second night, nor optical testing of entered telescopes--nothing but sufficient sleep for driving home the next day. Stellafane 2000 was over, but there would be other, clearer years ahead.
(All photos for this article are by the author.)