Mount Kobau Star Party: Observing the Observers

I just got home from attending a star party!
“What’s that,” you say? “A star party?”
Yes! but of the Astronomical kind, not the Hollywood kind!

The heart of Hercules Globular Cluster; Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA

Hosted by the Mount Kobau Astronomical Society, the 31st annual Mount Kobau Star Party was held at the top of Mount Kobau, a BC Parks protected grasslands site near Osoyoos, BC.


This is desert country. Endless rolling hills of sage. And wildflowers.  And cows.

04-08-2014 3-12-38 PM

Lots of cows.


The cattle are not lowing, they are bellowing back and forth to each other across the  sage hills. Samson is under strict orders to “leave it” when it comes to the cows. On our first day he chases five before turning tail and running as fast as he can to the safety of the camper.


Wait!!!  Let’s take a look at that again, shall we?

04-08-2014 3-19-33 PMOver 80 people attend this year’s party. Campers and travel trailers are parked, tents assembled, telescopes set up and friendships renewed.


Thunderstorms fill the late afternoon sky on our first day there, and we eat our supper to the raging winds and thunder of several active CB buildups. The winds are strong and continue into the night. The astronomers make a valiant attempt but eventually admit defeat against the 40+ knot winds.

camper 2There is a slow start the next morning and the camp is quiet until early afternoon. Kelly, like many others, sits at a table in the shade cast by the camper; his iPad, sky charts, books and planisphere spread out around him as he plans his evening viewing. The society provides a list of objects that the astronomers are challenged to find. He looks them up and records their coordinates. Tonight he’ll check them off one by one as he locates them and perhaps write a few notes on the sky conditions.

Mr. C brought a solar scope, a 12″ reflector, a 4″ refractor and a couple of sets of binoculars. Was that enough?

Later, the participants will gather in small groups and talk shop: discussing scopes, the merits of different eye pieces, mounts and tracking systems, the latest issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, and by the way did you hear about that guy in Quebec who makes beautiful telescopes with hand made wooden mounts? All are hoping that tonight the wind will stay down and they’ll see some good stuff. What’s good stuff? Everyone has their own passions, but good stuff generally includes the spiral arms of galaxies, nebulae, globular clusters and those elusive “faint fuzzies.”

Victor Barbu shows off his 14" Dobsonian, which he made by hand. He even hand ground the mirror. Quilters can relate to this!
Victor Barbu shows off his 14″ Dobsonian telescope, which he built by hand.
Obviously the woman who owns this telescope is also a seamstress! I asked her and she said she wanted to inject a little more femininity into her "other" hobby. :)
Obviously the woman who owns this telescope is also a seamstress! I asked her about her home-sewn shroud, and she said she wanted to inject a little more femininity into her “other” hobby. I love it!
I saw M13 through Phil's 20" Dobsonian. Spectacular!
I saw M13 through Phil’s hand made 20″ Dobsonian. Spectacular!


The setting was stunningly beautiful.


All that one could ask for.


I am not an astronomer, so what did I do with myself during the day?

I did some of this:

observing the sun through the solar scope

And some of this:


Okay, maybe I’m not an astronomy buff, but I do like to learn new things, and I picked up some new terminology to share with you:

1. Transparency. When an astronomer talks about transparency, he is talking about how well you can see through the air itself. For example, smoke from a distant forest fire, pollution from a city, dust or water vapour in the upper atmosphere obscures how well you see through the air.

2. Extinction. When she talks about how much a star is dimmed by the atmosphere, she is talking about extinction. That means that if the star she is looking at is not as bright as it should be, it is because it has been dimmed by crap in the atmosphere. Extinction is a measure of the dimming of starlight, caused by transparency or the lack of transparency. Zero extinction = perfect transparency.

3. Clear. Clear is a meteorological term denoting zero cloud cover.

4. Seeing. Seeing refers to air turbulence. Poor seeing means the stars are twinkling.  Sometimes an astronomer will say the sky was “boiling.” If it seems that you are looking at the stars through running water, that means the seeing is bad. Good seeing, on the other hand, means that the stars are rock steady in the eyepiece and there is no twinkling.


And since I am so obviously a Very Good Astronomy Enabler, here are some books that you should have if you’d like to learn more:

  • Night Watch by Terence Dickinson (if you only get one book, this is the one to get if you’re a beginner)
  • Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Alan Dyer and Terence Dickinson
  • Deep Sky Wonders by Sue French
  • Celestial Sampler by Sue French

Astronomers love to show you what’s in their eyepieces. So check out The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada to find a star party near you!


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